Mise-en-Abyme

20 Oct

The term “mise-en-abyme” is a phrase whose meaning encapsulates the endless cycle of comprehending and interpreting meta-fictional reference. In its most literal sense, the French term translates to “to put in the abyss” (Hollahan 3). For narrative – and other kinds of art as well, such as painting – the phrase has to come to mean a moment or site of self-reflection, or a sense of self-consciousness that heightens the reader’s awareness of the artistic medium (Oxford English Dictionary). This can range from a literal, physical reflection in a work to an abstract, conceptual self-awareness. An example of the former would be the double mirror effect, which is present in paintings like Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” but also frequently appears in the novel and in film: when two mirrors face each other at a certain angle, they show a seemingly endless repetition of the mirrored image, each within a subsequent mirror. French novelist Andre Gide coined the term (for what it means in art) in 1891 (Hollahan 358). In a personal journal entry, Gide used examples of heraldic images to describe his insight. Old shields and coats of arms would mimic the double mirror effect – a smaller shield would appear in the larger shield, sometimes more than once in the image (Hollahan 358).

An example of conceptual self-awareness would be employing a novel within a novel, or perhaps the more common example of a play-within-a-play. For instance, in Hamlet, the title character stages a play to “hold, as ‘twere, the mirror/up to nature” (3.2.20). It is not only a play-within-a-play – the inscribed performance includes details from the broader plot (and it even describes its mirror-like quality). In Gide’s own novel The Counterfeiters, the character Edouard, who happens to be a novelist, invokes an equally intense example:

“What I want is to represent reality on the one hand, and on the other to stylize it into art…I invent the character of a novelist, whom I make my central figure; and the subject of the book…is just that very struggle between what reality offers him and what he desires to make of it.” (Gide 173)

Besides heightening one’s awareness of a text, the use of mise-en-abyme raises questions about the act of experiencing, understanding, and interpreting a work. It can alter the fundamental narrative structures that the reader depends on. It can put the narrative into an “abyss” of infinite reflection and cause anxiety or “a sense of vertigo” (Cohn 108). After all, what is the author saying about us, the readers, when fiction is made to reflect reality – are we supposed to feel fictional as well?

Works Cited

Cohn, Dorrit. “Metalepsis and Mise en Abyme.” Narrative Vol. 20: 105-114.

Hollahan, Eugene. “Reviews: The Mirror in the Text.” Studies in the Novel Vol. 22: 357-362.

Gide, André. The Counterfeiters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1951, c 1927.

“Mise en abyme.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1968.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1987.

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