In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in 1603, the young prince persuades the visiting theater company to perform a play he has written. The plot of the play is about a widowed queen who marries her brother-in-law, making her new husband king and usurping her son’s throne. The story is, of course, the mirror circumstances of Hamlet’s own story, and Hamlet thinks that “the play’s the thing” that will “catch the conscience of the king.”
The idea of a story within a story is not a new one, and the plot device has been used many times in novels since Shakespeare. But using a book as a plot device to tell a story within a story has produced some brilliant, riveting tales. Boccaccio’s Decameron is actually ten stories a day told by ten characters over ten days during the 1348 plague quarantine. Boccaccio composed it sometime between 1344 and 1350. The stories within Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales were written between 1387 and 1400, and are told by a band of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. Marguerite de Navarre’s five characters are inspired by the Decameron to tell their own tales when they are trapped by floods in an abbey. She wrote the Heptameron in 1558.
Modern versions of the book within a book trope have been produced by some of our best-known writers: Neal Stephenson, Margaret Atwood, A. S. Byatt, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Each has brought their unique sensibility to the idea, using the discovered book to construct elaborate mysteries, love stories, or to uncover ancient conspiracies. Here are some of our favorites.
A. S. Byatt; Introduction by Philip Hensher
English academics who are having an affair in the early 1980s. While they are researching a famous writer from the nineteenth century, two English academics who are having an affair in the early 1980s find documents and letters that reveal that the writer was having an affair of his own with another famous writer – a fact of which no one was previously aware. Byatt has written a love story within a love story, as Maud and Roland’s passionate relationship is mirrored in the documents they find. To add to the intrigue of the secret relationship, the scholars discover details that lead the two of them on a chase across Britain.
Gwendolyn Womack’s The Fortune Teller takes the reader the furthest back in history in this list. Her protagonist, Semele Cavnow, works for an exclusive auction house as an appraiser. She is asked to study a document that dates from the time of Cleopatra and the famous library at Alexandria. As she discovers, the document alludes to a tarot deck, and it also contains prophecies of events that its seer foretold from her time, and which Semele knows are historically accurate. Of course, in the wrong hands, having an accurate prophecy of the future can bring disaster. It soon becomes obvious that Semele is not the only one who knows what she has found.
In the late fifteenth century, all Jews in Portugal were given the same choice they had been given in Spain: Convert to Christianity or leave the country. Those who stayed and refused to convert were killed. In April 1506, mobs slaughtered those who were suspected of being “secret Jews.” One of these killed is Abraham Zarco, a brilliant manuscript illuminator and kabbalist.
The Kabbalah is a means of mystical Torah study and school of thought popular during the time of the Expulsion. Abraham’s nephew, Berekiah, seeks out his uncle’s murderers and Zimler weaves the mystical documents that Abraham and Berekiah had been working with into the story of Berekiah’s search for revenge. All of this takes place against the backdrop of a city that is at war with itself.
For those who find they enjoy The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Zimler has written sequels that pick up on similar themes, but has located them in various other times throughout European history when Jews were persecuted in Christian society.
The Arno, the river over which Florentine engineers built a series of exquisite bridges during the Renaissance, flooded its banks in 1966. The flood proved to be catastrophic to the historic treasures of Florence, drenching the city’s famous landmarks, but it’s the flooding of the Archivio di Stato with tons of mud and sludge that cause the most consternation. Without the city’s archives, all of its historical records would be lost.
An army of scholarly volunteers came to the city in an effort to help archivists save what could be saved. In Hellenga’s book, a young American woman, Margot Harrington, makes a remarkable discovery. She finds a book that was presumed lost to history, a collection of erotic drawings and prose. Hellenga’s debut novel combines sensual detail and fascinating history to reveal the secret roots of Florence.
Nathaniel Hawthorne; Foreword by Tom Perrotta; Introduction by Robert Milder; Notes by Thomas E. Connolly
While many read this book in high school, it’s in the lengthy prologue that the book’s narrator reveals that the story of Hester Prynne has been recovered from an historical account that has been hidden away.
For fans of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the story of the punishment handed down to Prynne for having a child out of wedlock is an echo of Offred’s fate. Prynne is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her clothing at all times so that everyone she encounters will know she’s a sexual outlaw. The father of her child, whose identity she protects, is not held accountable for his role in her pregnancy. Hawthorne’s commentary on life in Puritan New England, which he wrote in 1850, offers a view of cultural misogyny that feels eerily relevant in 2017 America.
A Novel of Love and War
World War I had an enormous impact on my grandmother’s family. Her father died in October, 1917, when my grandmother was a babe in arms. He served with the Lancashire Fusiliers, the same regiment that J.R.R. Tolkien served in. Birdsong is a novel that I felt gave me a lot of insight into my great-grandfather’s experience, as it recounts life in the trenches during World War I.
Elizabeth finds her grandfather’s journals in 1978, which he kept of his experiences fighting outside Amiens in 1915. Through his careful notes, she is able to understand what happened to him in the trenches. Her grandfather was also involved in a passionate love affair with a French woman. Faulks’s novel is full of passionate details that make it both a tremendous war novel and a sensual love story.
Kate’s friend Elizabeth has died in a plane crash. The women had only known each other for five years, but in a surprise twist, Elizabeth had left a note on her will asking that, if she died, Kate go through a trunk full of Elizabeth’s journals that Elizabeth had kept since childhood.
Bernier poses interesting questions about how well we think we know our friends. By the time we meet some of them, they have lived twenty, thirty, forty years without having known us, and finding out who that person was during those years is to come to the realization that all of us become different people as we grow older. When Kate discovers secrets in Elizabeth’s journals, she is faced with decisions about what to disclose to Kate’s family, and what to hide away forever.
A young woman is looking through her grandfather’s library one night when she stumbles across an ancient manuscript and a series of letters. The letters promise historical information about one of the most feared figures from European history: Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was also known by his sobriquet: Dracul, and many believe that Vlad was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The daughter wonders if these letters also hold some clues about what happened to her parents, whose fates are revealed over the course of the book. As she follows the trail left by the information in the letters, the daughter travels across Europe and through libraries, seeking information about the source of evil that has cast a shadow across her family, and which now seeks to stop her from discovering the truth.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Barcelona was one of the centers of resistance against the government of Fascist general Francisco Franco, and the Spanish Civil War left scars in its streets. In The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel, a young boy, falls in love with a book that he finds in a Barcelona bookshop in 1945. He loves the book so much that he decides he wants to read other books by the same author, but his search of other bookshops reveals something frightening: someone is systematically destroying all of the works of the author. In fact, the copy of the book that Daniel has in his possession may be the only existing copy of any of the works left, which puts Daniel at risk. What is so dangerous about the books? And what secret is someone trying to hide? Reading The Shadow of the Wind will make you want to travel to Barcelona to see for yourself the places described in the book. In certain editions, the publisher has provided a walking map of the city so that you can do just that.
Margaret Atwood’s vision of a possible world has dominated cultural headlines this spring and summer thanks to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But her range as a writer extends beyond dystopian views of the future. In her other works, she has offered modern interpretations of fairy tales and Greek myths, explored the complexities of female friendship, and written historical fiction about one of Canada’s most famous murder trials.
In The Blind Assassin, Atwood weaves together Iris Chase’s narrative of her sister Laura’s life, and intersperses those with chapters from the salacious, scandalous novel Laura wrote. The book is the tale of two lovers on a distant planet and the stories they tell each other about a “blind assassin.” Atwood has taken the story within a story one step further: Her book is about a person relating the details about a book about the writing of another book; thus, it’s a book within a book within a book.
Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
Neal Stephenson is renowned for his brilliant, complex science fiction plots, although it would be a mistake to box him in as a science fiction writer. Over the course of his career, he’s become known as a novelist of ideas, and he has explored science, magic, and technology through multiple centuries and cultures. In The Diamond Age, his protagonist is Nell, a four-year-old member of a future form of the working class. She comes into possession of a book, the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Part of the plot of the book revolves around Nell’s education derived from her reading of the book. The second part of the plot is about the fate of the designer of the primer, a character named John Percival Hackworth.
Critics noted a similarity between Stephenson’s characters and those who populate Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Stephenson’s most recent book, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., co-written by Nicole Galland, also revolves around the discovery of documents.
It’s hard to believe that there may be people who have never seen the Rob Reiner-directed film based on William Goldman’s book, but for those who haven’t, the book begins with Grandfather showing up to read a book to Grandson, who is too sick to go to school. Over Grandson’s objections, Grandfather begins to read the story of Buttercup, Westley, Fezzik, Inigo Montoya, Vizzini and the other characters. When Grandfather offers to stop, Grandson begs him to continue.
But if the only version of The Princess Bride with which a person is familiar is the film version, they may not realize that the adventures of Westley and Buttercup are only a fraction of the story. Goldman’s story, which he always claimed was based on the writings of “S. Morgenstern” and he had just transcribed, contains multitudes.