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Kate Carsella

ENG 715: Narrative Craft & Theory

Professor Liam Callanan
Frame Narrative: Retelling & Foretelling
Frame narrative serves as the multidirectional, temporospatial travel vehicle within a
novel. Its capabilities include: spying through the skylight of a characters being, allowing
conversations between characters which, in linear time and space, could not occur; supplying
cause for reactions and decisionsmoving the characters across the board, so to speak. In a twist
on frame narrative, Justin Cronin deploys the elements retelling and foretelling in his novel in
stories, Mary and ONeil. These methods interact with and elucidate the narrative in a variety of
ways. Independent of each others absence, characters can forge mutual bonds in their
perspectives and feelings when foretelling and retelling intersect. Alternatively, erroneous
retellings and foretelling highlight discrepancies: between character and character, character and
reality, character and self. Otherwise undiscovered channels of communication and
understanding for the characters is allowed, as there is now access to the hidden texts of ones
life. This drives the narrative by advancement of communion with others, through reconciliation,
wistfulness, justification, and catharsis. This is the result within the plot, forging interlocking
unity between stories and novel.
Cronin is also providing himself opportunity for play with the reader, and subversion of
expectation. What happens when premonitions are uncannily true? What results when a
recounting of past events is flatly wrong? The reader is inspired to reflect on their own, personal
record of life events: what lies has one told about where they came from, and do they have

suspicion of where they are headed? How does one respond? In posing these questions via
narrative device, Cronin thus creates a psychical bond with the reader. What is the nature of our
experience with the known and the unknown, and where does it lead?
The novels structure is itself a frame, inscribed with variations of presage and echo. The
opening bracket is Arthurs dream, steeped in foretelling, and through language, elevates the
stakes to a higher, epically mystical realm. The closing bracket is ONeils reading an excerpt of
The Odyssey, the final narrative Trojan Horse, injecting the novel with a literary retelling of
ONeils grief, and a depiction on the transparency of the veils between the real and numinous,
particularly for ONeil. Though he finds resonance in the character of Odysseus, as a facilitator
of action in the book, ONeil functions more as Tiresias. In his ulterior, yet doubtless bond with
Mary, his treatment of Kay and sons in crisis, and his highly attuned sensitivity (at times
unbeknownst to himself), ONeil is an oracular conduit for emotional exchange and consequent
The patriarch of the Burke Family unit, Arthur, opens the novel with recollection of a
dream, unlike any other hes had before. (Cronin 6) His experience is wholly liminal: the time is
daybreak, the season is shifting, he awaits the dream to fade, and his reaction to the events of
said dream is of surprising comfort. (Cronin 1) As Arthur attempts to piece back together the
series of thoughts and images the running water was never real, flight over a cliff, Miriams
hand in his everything loosed from the earth; a feeling like accomplishment, shapes fitting
together with mathematical precision, all the equations of the heavens ringing, Cronin has him
reflecting on his future. (Cronin 1) Arthur is trying to recall his own fate. He further questions
the impressions leftover How is it possible he knows he is going to die? And that the thought
does not grieve him? (Cronin 1) The language of the author here cements the validity of

Arthurs dream. He does not merely believe in his glimpse of death based on the evoked feelings,
he, in fact, divines with astonishing accuracy. The mathematical precision of the dreams
meaning asserts that all roads lead to this future. (Cronin 1) Arthur is now imbued with a sense of
time that others are not, and may move through the novel-space on that basis.
His mind, at first, is on nothing (Cronin 2), but is quickly shifted to a personal
conference with God over the percolations of the coffee-maker. Arthur is thankful, slightly
humorous, the supplicant to God in the changing of seasons in an attempt to mitigate his
oncoming future. I like the winter fine, but it would be nice if it wasnt a bad one. (Cronin 3)
Despite his happiness (Cronin 1) immediately following his dream, Arthur puts in a near
obligatory request to the creator to stay his execution. This ties winter to his dream, cluing the
reader in as to a timeline for the omen to crystallize.
What of Arthurs relationships? As he takes a seat, coffee in hand, Arthur jumps forward
in time to later in the day. He reminisces over the words of his son, ONeil; he speculates as to
the pleasurable feel of his own body after the drive, the other parents, the collegiate atmosphere;
philosophizing on the question Why not be in love? (Cronin 3). Much of what Arthur
contemplates here are things he does not actually know, nor has he witnessed. He intersects
retelling (ONeils account of the [cemented] erotic bargain he has with a girl whose name
Arthur cannot recall), with a short-term foretelling. The reader is primed as to how Arthurs mind
is working, ultimately, looking back on the bloom of youth. Pale light [gathers] outside,
deepening his view bringing Arthur Burkes being into highlight, from the liminal into action.
(Cronin 3)
The first actual exchange he has is the clipped one with Miriam: the coffee quarrel
(Cronin 4). It is made clear one of the ingredients between them is Arthurs full great, sad

love for her. (Cronin 5) His psychic view into her mind is instant. He foresaw his own pleasure
in the day, and the hardship she will endureArthur understands it is the girl she dreads. She
tries to like the girls he likes. (Cronin 5) Perhaps this is an example of a longstanding couple
knowing each other like the back of their hands. But, it is also an opportunity to infuse some
conflict into the mix. The couples opening tones are discrepant, and there may be familial
discord where there should be happy reunion. Miriam and Arthur are shown opposed in their
engagement with the concept of love, by way of their son, and in the way they deal with it. The
short exchange on page 5 of Mary and ONeil demonstrates this perfectly:
We have to be nice, you know.
Miriam stops rinsing the pot. Quit reading my mind.

Arthur sets the precedent of intuition within the Burke family, to be exponentially
personified by ONeil later. Within the marriage, Arthur is open to the fluidity of knowledge and
conversation, whereas Miriam is a closed, resistant. Miriams regular misfires of prediction and
sadness in reminiscence throughout the novel portray this neatly. For now, Miriam describes her
feelings as stupid, and her character as someone in a play, you know, the mother? That old
bitch, cant let go, nobodys good enough for her boy. (Cronin 5) Further frames within the
frame. In her own frame of mind, Miriam is character she despises, whose future is already
written. Unlike Arthur, who has a freedom from foretelling, Miriam paints her self stuck,
doomed to enact her insurmountable prejudice. Later, Miriam is decidedly not stuck, in her
communion with Sandra. There is a disconnect Miriam experiences, unlike her husband and son.
Her judgments are often wrong, and reality repeatedly surprises her in panning out unlike she

Despite the dissonance of judgments in real time, Miriam and Arthur are revealed on
page 6 to have occupied the same, strangest dream. Their bond is in the murky, psychic realm.
Arthur returns to his foretelling, trying to explain it to her, and in the process, recalling or
embellishing his feelings and what occurred. But this newly formed adaptation of his fateful
dream is the evolution of his mind. How he recalls dictates what he will do. The old metronome
of marriage, is an image summoned, a long hallwayblackness, a yawning chasm as vast as a
stadium, follow. The memory of it makes him feel strangely happy, though some of it was
bad. (Cronin 6) It is repeated, the happy impression of the dream state on Arthur. However, the
details fade, and what is imparted to his wife is that she saved [him], again. There is a kiss
between them, and Arthur goes on to recall Miriams place in their shared past. As he
imaginatively stands in the past, eavesdropping on his wife and children at bedtime, she says,
See? This is real, solidifying herself in the novel as a beacon of reality, concerned with the
tangible details of the familys existence.
Arthurs trajectory continues toward his wife, and away from his secret, Dora Auclaire.
The reminiscence of their quasi-affair, and his succinct farewell signify the end of his
meandering. His focus has sharpened significantly with his dreams impressions. Though, this is
not the last of the letter. It returns to his children, as if he sent a bottled message via times
waters. It is a part of his legacy, a hidden text in their lives, for Kay and ONeil to puzzle over,
and attempt to situate their values and feelings over the man they thought their father was,
afterward, who he seemed to be, and what that makes them. In his last solitary spotlight in Mary
and ONeil, Arthur sees his own shadow, roused by the memory of his fathers death. Here is
where, again, foretelling and retelling intersect. In this case, the impression is a dark chill
[twisting] through him, and Arthur is quick to shake off this fearful premonition, discounting it

as nothing, just a trick of the light, of the time of day and his own need to hurry. (Cronin 22)
He may be happy at the thought of his death with Miriam, but the bitter cold, as he requested
earlier, is what he seeks to avoid. In Cronins world, one may know of their death, but cannot
control the way it occurs.
This is a lot of time spent on Arthurs dream, with good reason. Through him, intuition is
inextricably linked to the Burkes to guide their behavior, and commune with each other. The
ramifications of his dream, his letter, his choices are the roots from which the novel may
develop, and ultimately evolve through his son. While Arthur does not physically inhabit the
entirety of the material, he is an absolute shade for ONeil and Kaya touchstone to go back in
reflection of their family and childhoods, a model with which to adhere or deviate.
Miriam Burke, ne Braverman, is the flip side. Her foretelling is off-kilter and/or nil, and
her memories, i.e. Kay, are off target. Miriams role in the narrative is the embodiment of
incongruity. Her choices are repeated discrepancy and misunderstanding. She spontaneously
decides to stay at the fateful hotel so near to the scene of her and Arthurs deaths. Her illness
with cancer sets the stage for genetic history that Kay must later battle. Her view of Kay as a
child, and the resulting relationship is erroneous. The reader discovers this in later stories
spending time with Kay - her perceived coldness does not originate from Kay at all, it originates
from the difference between Actual Kay, and the Kay That Miriam Imagined. This is a different,
equally effective manner with which Cronin perpetuates the stories and novel.
The focus on Miriam begins with obituarial language, a boiled down blurb of her past.
The end of it is a question, is she dying? (Cronin 22) Although this suspicion is caused by a
recent discovery of a lump in her left breasta dark presence met her and then took shape, it
is not the perpetrator. (Cronin 23) In the wake of this knowledge, she doesnt negotiate with

higher powers like Arthur, she exclaims Not this! Not this!... what happened to them, those one
in nine? It was more than panic she felt; it was death, making its way to her door. (Cronin 23)
While Miriam is correct in her fear of impending death, it is not the cancer that will deliver the
final stroke. She clearly does not know what shall become of her, she only knows the acorn
that she feels in her breast, and its electric current zapping her to attention. (Cronin 23) A
fatalistic calm [fills] her, and her life takes on an orderliness it did not previously possess.
She becomes unaccountably ravenous, and does not reveal her news to Arthur choices and
motives of which she cannot make sense. (Cronin 24) Miriam is at home engaging in omission.
The notion of the secret that Arthur introduced comes home to roost with his wife. In the two
weeks prior to the current action, Miriam tells small lies about her activities in an act of love,
hoping to shield her husband from her illness. Additionally, it is an act of self-preservation, the
longer she remains alone with the knowledge of what is happening to her, the longer she herself
is saved. (Cronin 24) Her illness is not even named as cancer. Substitutes such as the affected
breast, palpable mass, married patient are the terms of her, somethingsomewhere
else. (Cronin 25) Telling of any kind is not in her purview.
Behind smoked glass (Cronin 25) she recalls Kays wedding, revealing herself as a
living ghost. Miriam remembers dancing with ONeil, and the fulfilling happiness he provides
her. This is counteracted by [missing] him when he [is] standing right there, which she also
does not understand. By contrast, when Miriam attends the party with Sandra and ONeil, a
retelling of the prior wedding dance, it is presence (of the lump) that knocks her for a loop. Her
mind adrift in the past, a tiny ball of fire ignites within her. (Cronin 56) The physical world of
presence and absence is her domain, and words do not move her. Yet, she finds the most joy in
her oracular son, ONeil, and her life partner is Arthur. There is a clear magnetism and affinity

for each other, despite difference. Miriam is integral to the family, so much so that more than
once, her ghost enters ONeils life over the phone, and is construed as one of the shades in his
lesson on The Odyssey. Perhaps, ONeil is haunted by the exchanges his mother missed, or could
not even conceive. And/or, that she could not be more like him, or his father, and how painful he
perceives such blindness to be. He mourns her lack, and takes it into himself till the conclusion.
Miriams import does not end there. Justin Cronin subverts the logic of her character by
giving her another accurate suspicion: her take on Jack, whom she couldnt quite bring herself
to like much as shed tried. (Cronin 27). She regards him as rigid and fusty, and most
importantly unlike ONeil. (Cronin 27) Moreover, Miriam believes it is her fault that Kay had
chosen to fill the gap with Jack, the gap being the certain unnameable tensions between
mother and daughter. (Cronin 27) Cronin never admits or denies if Miriam is correct in her
speculation RE Jack, he only bestows upon her a fraction of truth in the same way he described
her knowledge of her imminent death. Her foretelling may be off somewhat, but as a parent, and
a character inscribed with presences and absences (the physical) she is emblematic of what the
future holds for her children.
Kay has the unfortunate position of playing out, retelling, a version of what could have
happened to her mother had she undergone the trials of cancer. Family members are, in essence,
versions of the same person via genetics, mannerisms, and possibly background. Debts left
unpaid in past generations recur for receipt in future. When Kay and ONeil settle accounts of
their parents home, they fall into the habits of their parents, a replay of Arthur and Miriam
their hours meeting in the living room in the events for a cup of tea, leading to ONeils
dream of being married to Kay. (Cronin 85) And in his support of Kay in the final recurrence of
cancer, ONeil gets to be a man at the end of her life, as he wished to be when his parents passed.

He gets that chance to see her through, without having to wonder at the mystery. Without having
to be haunted. Within the Burke Family Logic, Kay serves as the retelling, bound to ONeil with
more than blood, bound with his role as foreteller. Their trajectories through plot reflect their
family roles.
The star, or main focus of the novel, is ONeil Burke. His Tiresian qualities are given
pride of place. His every relationship is imprinted by this quality: father, mother, wife, sister,
nephews, children, students and colleagues. Early in the novel, Arthurs prophetic dream recurs
through ONeil, who retells the story of his parents death, or what he assumes they went
through. He, though it makes no sense to think it, sees them holding hands, which is a distinct
detail from the Arthur Dreamholding hands. ONeil will one day hold his daughters hand
when a nightmare has awakened her (Cronin 71) This is the figurative passing of the torch,
and the exemplification of the retelling and foretelling intersections of the novel. It is a
connection to his parents that ONeil continuously returns to, trying to make sense of their deaths
and his feelings. Kay and Miriam have similar experiences; Arthur and ONeil are of the same
ONeil is the living legacy of the nuclear Burke family unit. Psychically and physically,
he perpetuates the Burke name. Where Miriam had love for Arthur despite their different
mindsets, Mary loves ONeil due in part to their sharing the same wavelength. Without grand
gestures or proclamations of love and devotion, or the many obstacles that should have
disallowed them ever meeting, Mary and ONeil have a quiet, strong devotion to one another.
Ghosts are a major theme of their similarity. When they work in their house, the idea that the
house was haunted pleases them. (Cronin 169) Mary crafts it into beingnoticing the fans
turning the wrong way, hearing footsteps. When the ghost of the young woman finally appears,

Mary has no alarm; she had been anticipating this, or something like it. (170) This ghost, along
with the parental spectres ONeil encounters, are tangible intangibles: a visible symbol of an
echo of the past, a message transcending time and their originating space, into the future beyond
their deaths. But what facilitates their appearance? Are Mary and/or ONeil chosen? Is there
some radiating residue due to their openness to free movement through intuition? Yes. And it is
this undisclosed thread that holds their marriage with such certitude.
Through Marys third pregnancy, ONeil knows without being told, whats more,
understands why Mary doesnt tell him that she needs her secrets, and as such he turns his
belief into a secret as well. (Cronin 239) This he learned from his mother, also without having to
be told, as he experienced her secrecy after her death. This in contrast of their first try to
procreate, where they tell the story of what their baby would look like and be interested in before
they can conceive. (Cronin 172-173) They play and imagine, the reader fully knowing there is no
way to predict how ones child will behave, look, or who they will be. But she will be named
Nora, and the reader can see into Mary and ONeils preferences and hopes for the future.
The closing bracket of the novel, the final story, A Gathering of Shades is the catharsis
point for ONeil. For the length of the book, he has facilitated, been adored, procreated, and
supported. Once he returns to work, the final original Burke, ONeil is allowed to feel. He
teaches The Odyssey, one of the most well known epics and examples of frame narrative around.
It makes sense that in trying to imbue his students with the message of the selected passage,
ONeil must face what he [knew] was about to happen. (Cronin 242) Though he predicted
falsely the location and time, all along he had hoped it would happen when he was alone, or else
with Mary. (Cronin 242) Mary, his partner in intuitive understanding. Nevertheless, time
becomes suspended, ONeil puts the puzzle together of how hes about to arrive at his

emotional outpouring, recalling months of travel and long hours he endured assisting Kay, and
like his mother before him, he has to hold onto the physical world, the table, so he will not fall
from the force. (Cronin 242) He discusses the value of knowing the future with his students, and
a variety of answers, none ONeils are thrown out. This guides him to read aloud from The
Odyssey, a moment of deepest poignancy, opening the door to communicate with his own
grief, symbolized by the mother. As Odysseus sees the ghost of his mother, ONeil finds the
haunting within himself, the one shade, portent, with which he had thus far been unable to
converse. But he does engage. A student draws the shade over the small square window to
keep this relief private, and the group hold with ONeil until he is finished. (Cronin 243) While
he did not foresee that his students would know the source of his grief, the bond he shares with
them allows for understanding anyway. ONeil is not alone, and is reaching toward the next
generation continuously as a teacher. The legacy of his values, of his frame of mind shall
continue, as Cronin alludes to in detailing ONeils popularity and letters from former students.
He makes an impact.
In the New York Review of Books, February 2013, Oliver Sacks wrote Speak, Memory
and sums up quite well what this essay sought to display:
This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our
memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not
only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

Justin Cronin employs retelling and foretelling through intuition, absence, presence, and
physicality. He does so to create frame narrative, to create space where families may gather and
bond that linearly would not be permitted. In doing so, Cronin is able to embody an odd feature
of family uncanny knowledge. What one does or does not do in relation to how the ones who
came before thought and behaved. This is what every soul must decide so frequently. Correct,

dead wrong, repeated or fresh, all facets that move characters and people forward in the attempt
to comprehend.

Works Cited
Cronin, Justin. Mary and O'Neil. New York, NY: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2002. Print.
Sacks, Oliver. "Speak, Memory by Oliver Sacks." New York Review of
Books, 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 08 Oct. 2014.