The Transfer of Narratological Concepts:The Russian Adaptation of mise en abyme

Larissa E. Mouravieva (Saint Petersburg)

The Transfer of Narratological Concepts:  The Russian Adaptation of mise en abyme

Abstract: Mise en abyme, one of the well-known devices in classical and postclassical narratology, has remained largely unexplored by Russian literary theory. The phenomenon designated by this term was long covered by the principle of text within the text studied by the semioticians of the Moscow-Tartu School. Nevertheless, a growing interest in mise en abyme by Russian literary criticism can be observed in recent years. However, the transfer of this notion has shown a shift of definitions in the new context. This article examines the passage of the concept of mise en abyme from one scientific context to another and offers a few thoughts on the problem of intercultural transfer of narratological terminology. 

Keywords: transfer, mise en abyme, text within the text

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While present-day narratology has often felt the need to come closer to other disciplines, it has also shown its ability to lend its instruments and concepts to other fields. Studies devoted to narrative have bequeathed a number of notions worked out in classical and postclassical narratology such as narration, focalization, metalepsis and storytelling to neighboring disciplines. However, the circulation of these terms in new contexts remains a question that requires particular attention. One of the least studied phenomena in narratology is the transfer of its notions to other types of scientific discourse, including in different national traditions.

The passage of notions from one field to another often takes place in opposing ways. On the one hand, the borrowing can concern a notion that exists in two scientific contexts but is designated by different terms. For example, there has long existed in the French, German and Russian traditions the terms récit, Erzählung and povestvovanije, each provided with meanings peculiar to it. For a variety of reasons, however, a borrowed term can replace a word that exists traditionally in a given scientific usage. Thus, in the wake of the internationalization of narratology, the French substantive narratif has become synonymous with récit, much as the English word narrative has come to supplant the Russian word povestvovanije.

The other type of borrowing occurs when the scientific term passes into another context where the phenomenon designated by this term is lacking in definition, either because it has not been examined or because it does not exist. Taken over by the new system, this term is assimilated and acquires new meanings. It is only here that transfer in the strict sense can be spoken of. Such is the case of mise en abyme that has entered Russian scientific discourse.[1]

Definition of transfer

The principle of transfer is understood as the passage of a cultural object from one context to another. However, transfer never takes place without some sort of transformation: the passage of an artefact into a new context nearly always changes its meaning to one degree or another. As stressed by Michel Espagne, “to transfer is not to transport but rather to metamorphose” (Espagne 2013). When a transfer of concepts occurs in a scientific field, it is necessary to take into consideration that this entails a transformation of the concept itself. Studying the transfer of concepts thus leads not only to re-examining the meaning of a concept but also to calling into question the transparency of scientific discourse. One of the narratological concepts that best illustrates this process and that reveals the national particularities of the term transferred is mise en abyme.

Mise en abyme, a narrative technique first studied by French literary criticism, is well-known in English-language, German and Spanish scholarship but has remained neglected in Russian until rather recently. Unlike the term metalepsis, which translates easily into other languages, the absence of any precise translation of mise en abyme into other languages (Hutcheon [1984 (1980): 53] observes that there is no precise English equivalent for it) is no doubt one important reason why the concept has undergone substantial transformations in the process of transfer. During the second half of the twentieth century, mise en abyme continued to fascinate creators and scholars, each using it in his or her own way. As a result, the device has become difficult to describe. The reasons for which Russian criticism has bypassed the phenomenon are more complicated.

Mise en abyme: shifting definitions

By mise en abyme is generally understood a device for inner reduplication in a work. Lucien Dällenbach, the best-versed theoretician on the subject, defined it as “any enclave maintaining a relation of similarity with the work that contains it” (Dällenbach 1977: 18). However, this definition, sufficiently loose to authorize a large number of interpretations, emerged only during the second half of the twentieth century. Initially considered to be a metaphor for describing the literary style of André Gide, mise en abyme was to become one of the best-known narrative devices which, even though it seems to have lost some of its vitality over the past two decades, continues to attract interest even today. We shall thus take a brief look at the history of the concept.

The device of mise en abyme spread rapidly in French narratology after the appearance of Dällenbach’s well-known book, Le récit spéculaire : essai sur la mise en abyme, published in 1977. The term was already well-known in the 1950s thanks to the initiative of specialists of André Gide such as C.-E. Magny (1952), P. Lafille (1954) and others, rapidly gaining in popularity among critics and literary scholars. As stressed by B. Morissette in 1971, the proliferation of the term was spectacular:

I hope you will excuse me for a brief reference to my own role in this restricted area of recent novel criticism. Some ten years ago I gave a paper on the Nouveau roman at the Congress of the International Association of French Studies at the Collège de France in which I pointed out the presence (rather obvious, I think) in a number of novels belonging to this “school” of reduced “models” or mises en abyme of the very subject of the novel such as myths or legends, portraits, paintings, plays-within-plays, novels read by one or more characters, etc. And needless to say, I quoted the key passage by Gide […]. Since then, I have found my examples and observations just about everywhere, and I note with interest that the subject is gaining in weight and scope. (Morissette 1971: 126)

Dällenbach’s aim was to put order into this subject that was “gaining in weight and scope” and to provide a strict definition for a term that had become too vague over the previous two decades. The fluctuation of meanings of mise en abyme was nearly exceptional: each critic using the term sought to give it his or her own operating definition. Mise en abyme thus quickly came to acquire polyvalent or even contradictory meanings. For Magny, for example, “this is one of the fundamental techniques for building a super-novel [sur-roman]” (Magny 1952: 269); for Ph. Hamon, it is “self-quotation” (autocitation), “a textual tautology,” the process by which the work closes in on itself (Hamon 1976: 165). Jean Ricardou was among the first to notice the “postmodernist” potential of mise en abyme. He thus declared that by this reflexive device “narrative contests itself, it thereby poses itself, it avoids a certain obscurantism” (Ricardou 1967: 182). If we take over Morissette’s formula, mise en abyme has become a “pet theme” (tarte à la crème) in criticism, a notion with several definitions whose common point is the idea of inner reduplication. The multitude of definitions attributed to the term makes it both complex and imprecise. It is not by chance that mise en abyme is a difficult phenomenon to describe, as this problem goes back to the creator of the metaphor himself. André Gide was unable to clearly explain what he meant by his preferred narrative technique, and it is for this reason that he compared it with “the device of the coat of arms [blason] which consists of putting a first [coat of arms] in a second ‘en abyme’” (Gide 1996 [1939]: 171). Gide used this metaphor only once in his life, and this was in his Journal in 1893 (cf. Escobar 2002).

The divergent views on mise en abyme concern not only literary critics, but can also be found among generations authors who have employed the device since its introduction by Gide.

During the twentieth century, mise en abyme changed continuously. For Gide, mise en abyme was a creative source of the text, the device by which the author can symbolize his retroaction in relation to his work (1996 [1939]: 170–71). It was different for the Nouveaux romanciers, who deliberately broke off from Gide’s heritage. In the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon and Michel Butor, mise en abyme is reduced to inner reduplication at the hypodiegetic level.

The American postmodernists went even farther by adding an element of infinite reduplication through an increase in the number of series of homogeneous fragments on a more reduced scale. During the 1980s and 90s, specialists of the French Nouvelle critique drew attention to the use of mise en abyme in the novels of John Barth, William Burroughs, John Fowles, Doris Lessing, etc. Here, mise en abyme is understood as infinite regression, “a device aimed at giving birth to a narrative that tells nothing other than its own engendering” (Gontard 1998: 41).

As a result of these conceptual mutations, mise en abyme has become an ambivalent notion that is both a mark of the postmodern narrative and an old or even traditional device. On the one hand, it is the sign of the “new poetics,” according to M. Gontard, and on the other a “technique as old as” the art of narrative, according to R. Zaiser (2006). For some, it is an internal mirror of the work that reflects its entire structure from the inside; for others, it is the act of creation represented within the work itself. Finally, it is a mere narrative technique, but it is also the symbolic process which, according to C. Angelet, becomes “the place of fiction, the point at which the text symbolically unveils its status as literature as such, cut off from reality” (Angelet 1980: 9).

How has this phenomenon with contours so difficult to define been taken over by Russian literary theory?

Mise en abyme in the Russian context

For a long time, mise en abyme remained marginal in Russian literary studies, going no farther than occasional mentions in the essays of a number of critics. The first obstacle to transferring the concept is the untranslatability of the term. In the Russian language (as in English or Spanish), there is no precise equivalent for this expression. Even worse is the fact that Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, giving the French original in Latin characters an exotic appearance. However, translation difficulties are not the most serious cause for mise en abyme being unrecognized in Russia.

Mise en abyme seems to lie on the margin of Russian literary studies due to the complexity of a device that covers special literary techniques which are not widely employed in Russian literature. While the proliferation of inner reduplications was current in French baroque literature, and then later in the literature of the twentieth century, this is not the case in Russian literature, where recourse to this practice has been less frequent.

Actually, the transfer of mise en abyme into the Russian context has come up against a variety of obstacles.

First of all, this absence can be explained by the complicated reception of French literary theory in the Soviet context. Soviet literary theory was always skeptical about structuralism, which gave rise to narratology during the 1960s. Narratology did not have the same impact in the USSR as it did in the West. It wasn’t until the final decade of the last century that the first translations of narratological works into Russian began to appear. Only in 1989 was Roland Barthes’ 1966 essay “Introduction à l’analyse structurale des récits” published in Russian, at the time of the first collection of Barthes’ work in Russian translation: Izbrannye raboty. Semiotika. Poehtika [Selected works: semiotics, poetics]. No less important is the fact that mise en abyme was related to the personality of André Gide, who had a poor reputation in Russia after the publication of his Retour de l’URSS (1936).

Second, the idea of mise en abyme was not borrowed due to the fact that probably it would have been assimilated into the notion, much more influential in the Russian academic context, of text within the text, coming from the semiotic studies of the Moscow-Tartu School. With this concept, semioticians (Lotman, Uspenskij, etc.) sought to describe the functioning of texts in the semiosphere, the universe of signs which are always heterogeneous. In certain cases, according to them, this heterogeneity itself becomes a creative source of the work. As conceived by Lotman, text within the text is

a special rhetorical construction in relation to which the difference in codification of the different parts of the text starts to reveal the author’s construction and the reader’s perception of the text. The transfer from one system of semiotic realisation of the text into another across some kind of internal structural boundary becomes, in this instance, the starting point for the generation of meaning. (Lotman 2009 [1992]: 69)

To put it another way, text within the text stresses the heterogeneity of semiotic structures which are deliberately raised to the rank of primordial function in textual composition.

While these two concepts – mise en abyme and text within the text – have a number of things in common, it is nonetheless important to emphasize that they also designate constructions of a different order. Whereas mise en abyme refers to semantic “similarity” (Dällenbach) reproduced on different scales of the work, text within text, a broader notion, focuses on the embedding and proximity of different semiotic structures (cf. Mouravieva 2016).

Third, as already mentioned, the marginality of studies devoted to mise en abyme in Russia has been dictated by the absence of an adequate translation of this term. Entry of the notion into Russian theoretical discourse can be observed only starting in the 1990s. Thus, in M. Yampolskij’s Pamyat Tiresiya: intertekstualnost i kinematograf [The memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and film] (1993), mise en abyme is translated as “heraldic construction” (geraldicheskaya konstrukciya), an expression that fails to capture the mechanism of the device in question. Another use of the term, by adopting the French expression, obstructs the process of transfer: it is rare to employ a term written in Latin characters in a language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet.

The last point to bear in mind is that the term mise en abyme became known in Russian theoretical discourse only during the 1990s. This resulted in the fact that the concept was introduced in Russia laden with meanings that had been added to it by American criticism, thus distancing it from its initial French definitions. Mise en abyme no longer related to a symbolic practice of creation, as stressed by Gide, but rather triggered destruction of the work by itself, as is the case of the postmodernist authors.

More recently, Russian scholarship has shown a growing interest in mise en abyme. It is appearing more and more frequently in literary studies, going from a “foreign” and “exotic” practice to a figure present in a large number of literary works. One of the first studies attempting to explore mise en abyme in Russian literature is an article by Carla Solivetti (2011). In this study, the Italian researcher undertakes an analysis of rumors as a form of reduplication in Nikolaï Gogol’s poem, Dead Souls. On examining Russian literature, one will find that the use of mise en abyme is widespread, both among the classics such as Alexandre Pushkin, Nikolaï Gogol, Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Nabokov and by contemporary authors such as Ludmila Oulitskaya, Eugene Vodolazkine, etc. As already indicated, however, this device has yet to become a subject of systematic study in Russian literary theory.


Mise en abyme can now be seen as entering the Russian context, even though its conceptualization remains somewhat restricted. The modifications undergone by this phenomenon in the process of transfer can encourage narratologists to engage in dialogue on basic issues. Examination of mise en abyme in Russian literature and literary theory is opening up lines of thought as to the pertinence of the phenomenon in a domain removed from its original field of application. Analyzing the transfer of this concept can thus contribute, at different levels – terminological, conceptual, comparative – to deeper and more meaningful exchanges between national traditions in scientific discourse and will further reveal, through the meeting of different literatures, the traits peculiar to mise en abyme in the multitude of its narrative investments.

Translated from the French by John Pier


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Larissa E. Mouravieva

Candidate of Philological Sciences (Moscow City University, 2017). Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the State University of Saint Petersburg since September 2018. Previously Lecturer at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Nijni Novgorod, where she taught French literature, semiotics of cinema, semiotics of culture and other subjects. Fellow at the Moscow Center for French and Russian Studies (2016). Laureate of the program for postdoctoral mobility (FMSH, Paris) in 2017 and 2018. Her research bears on literary and narrative theory and on theoretical approaches to film.

[1] For a series of articles devoted to the problems of translating narratological terminology from English into French, Japanese and Turkish, see Pier, ed. (2012/2014), section V. “Translating Narrative Theory.”