A Frame More Beautiful than the Picture: How the Frame Story Dominates the Narrative in “Habent Sua Fata Libelli.”

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Publication Date

Winter 4-23-2018


A frame story is a popular literary technique used by modernist authors such as Joseph Conrad and P.G. Wodehouse. Despite this, there as been relatively little scholarly attention given to the function of the frame story on the narrative. Telling a story within a frame can completely change the emotion and themes of a story, and as such should be considered an any analysis of these stories. An example of a story where the frame completely changes the story is “Habent Sua Fata Libelli,” told by a man who claims to have been wrongfully accused of forging a Greek vase, and then finds the remnants of the Library of Alexandria on an expedition to Africa. However, because his credibility has been ruined by the incident with the vase the scholarly community dismisses him as a fraud, and in frustration he burns the remnants that he did find to the ground with his expedition party. It is told within a frame where the unnamed narrator is telling his story to another unnamed man (who for sake of clarity I will refer to as the frame narrator) in an army camp. At the beginning of the story, the narrator tells the frame narrator that he won’t believe his story, but at the end he gives the frame narrator two translations from the Library, hoping that he will believe him, and it becomes a story that hinges on whether or not we believe the narrator. Because of this, any clues as to whether the narrator is truthful or deceitful become incredibly important. There are several reasons in the text to distrust the author, and because of the way the frame is structured, an entirely different story is told than what is written. “Habent Sua Fata Libelli” is not a story about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The real story is the frame story, with the vast majority of the text meant to contribute to the frame.

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