Containers and Vessels

There is a literary usage of “container” but it is a) quite obscure and technical and b) there seems to be some disagreement about whether it means a narrative structure or framing device or refers to the publication format: an anthology of poetry, a collection of short stories, The Beano Bumper Book of Fun, or whatever.

So let’s not risk that literary quagmire and look at a particular sort of narrative container, Chinese boxes. Chinese boxes are sets of boxes that fit inside each other, as do Russian dolls (matryoshka).

In literature the term Chinese box refers to stories within stories. Most often it is a narrative effect when a first person narrator says: “I met so and so, who said to me, ‘I met whatshisname, who said to me, ‘I just ran into thingummy…’ and so on.

A notable example of this (possibly the first) is in Plato’s Symposium.  The story of Agathon’s famous symposium (a drinking and talking party) is recounted to a friend by Apollodorus, who was not present but who has heard the story from Aristodemus.  Attendees discourse on Love until Socrates takes his turn and tells the party what the oracle Diotima taught him. All speak in the first person so you have Diotima’s words recounted by Socrates, whose story is being told by Aristodemus, whose account is being relayed by Apollodorus.

A slightly different usage is that in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein where there are also several first person narratives nested.  Walton writes a letter to his sister and in it he recounts Victor Frankenstein’s story (in the first person) within which is the monster’s account of his life (also told in the first person) as the monster’s story includes the words of Mr De Lacey you could argue that the narrative goes four boxes deep.

I am currently reading William Langland’s Piers Ploughman (c 1370-90).  I don’t recommend it unless you have a taste for tediously repetitive and pious allegory.  But I am persisting because the long narrative (it is about 250 pages) is studded with very occasional interesting facts.  The next time someone tells you that the expression “dead as a doornail” was coined by Shakespeare* you can reply, no it wasn’t because it appears in Piers over 100 years earlier.  Which is obviously very important. It also contains the first known written reference to Robin Hood.

And it is a Chinese box of a peculiar kind; a dream within a dream. The narrator “Long Will” has a tendency to fall asleep and recount his dreams.  But in Passus 11 (the chapters are called passuses, which apparently means, “steps,”) he falls asleep and dreams, when he is already asleep and dreaming.

My guess is that Langland got so bored with his own story that he forgot that Will was already asleep and dreaming.  I also wonder if Plato and Shelley nested their narration through so many voices by accident rather than intent. I know, sacrilege to two, or possibly three different sets of people with perhaps a bit of ven diagram overlap.  And you will find no end of literary criticism online expounding on why they used such sophisticated narrative techniques. But… Plato was a philosopher rather than a virtuoso storyteller and Mary Shelley was a teenager writing her first substantial work and hanging about with poets rather than novelists.

And it doesn’t really matter anyway.  What makes Frankenstein great is its imaginative power rather than a narrative complexity that I am willing to bet few of its readers even notice – and what makes The Symposium great is Socrates talking about how the oracle Diotima taught him about love (and Aristophanes’ account of how we were originally two headed, eight limbed creatures who were cut into two by Zeus and doomed to spend our lives searching for our “split aparts.”)

The Chinese boxes are really incidental. They don’t make Socrates more clever or Frankenstein any more terrifying, and the dream within a dream entirely fails to make pious old Piers Ploughman any more fun.


Prompt: Lots of scope here. You could write about a real container, a box of old letters, perhaps, or a treasure chest, even a vessel as a ship. Or you might prefer to think about an idea within an idea, a dream within a dream like Piers Ploughman, or tell a story that someone told you in the first person.

*Shakespeare was, of course, no stranger to Chinese boxes – take the play within a play performed by the rude mechanicals in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

2 thoughts on “Containers and Vessels

  1. My Covid Container

    You were a Poundland impulse purchase
    Made by my sister-in-law many moons ago on a visit from Oz
    For many seasons, you sat on a shelf lost amongst a sea of flasks
    Found again during a Covid lockdown kitchen clear out
    You have now become my cup of choice
    Containing the fortifying cup of tea of requirement
    You provide me with warmth, strength and sustenance through these uncertain times
    You have sat beside me, on my desk, by my bedside, out for walks, on trips to the beach
    Solid and steadfast and loyal through the seasons of my Covid work, rest and play
    You keep me hydrated through the seemingly endless cycle of ZOOM meetings
    Once I considered you not worth keeping
    Now I can’t imagine life without you

    Rebecca Mahony

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Containers and vessels

    Many years ago we were given
    Some items from a house clearance
    Two good pieces of furniture
    And a large jug
    It was one of those jugs that were used
    With a pottery bowl on wash stands
    Before indoor plumbing
    They were used to carry water
    For washing yourself

    This pottery was white and
    Decorated with blues and reds and greens
    The shape was ornate
    I had always hankered after such a jug

    We have not used it for carrying water for washing
    As it makes a very good vase
    When I received a large bouquet of birthday flowers
    It was a very good vase for standing on the floor.

    When empty it makes a nice ornament
    I stand one of my smaller canvas paintings
    On top of it in the rim


    Liked by 1 person

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