Into the abyss : a study of the mise en abyme

Snow, Marcus (2016) Into the abyss : a study of the mise en abyme. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


As no single English study of the mise en abyme with its examples in our late-modern world has been undertaken, this thesis concerns the mise en abyme in English literature. In approximately the last third of the twentieth century, the concept has increasingly been associated with ‘postmodernism’ and the essential groundlessness of all claims to general or universal truth. In this thesis, I argue that the mise en abyme has become such a broad staple of character and narrative study that its meaning is diffuse in the extreme. First celebrated in the 1980s and 1990s, by several literary thinkers as a figure capturing the spirit of postmodernism, the eventual symptomatic dissipation of the mise en abyme in literary studies resulted from critical suggestions that the mise en abyme was after all, perhaps, bogus. It subsequently became associated with aesthetic phenomena far beyond its initial characterisation by André Gide in 1893. I argue that it has now become a trope of things wider than Gide’s initial allusion and has become a metaphor for abyssal - and abysmal - things. This thesis seeks to consider the history of the mise en abyme and to offer a contemporary account of what it might mean: it does this by uncovering the latent rhetorical figures which preceded the name ‘mise en abyme’. Formal readings of the play within the play in Hamlet and the gothic story read in The Fall of the House of Usher are both starting points to relink Gide’s idea to its, more common, metaphorical applications. Thus, metaphors of the abyss, the dark, the occulted, the uncanny and, most precisely, the ‘sinister’ are examined in this dissertation. The thesis first evaluates the theoretical inheritance of Gide’s work and then, in the second part, applies, through close reading, the meaning of Gide’s idea to recent, and representative literary examples. The thrust of the argument is that the reason many definitions, and applications, of the mise en abyme are such a source of problems, is because the mise en abyme, as an English literary phenomenon supporting the broad thesis of postmodern Gothic aesthetics, is concerned with representing abyssal metaphors. A clear delimitation of the mise en abyme is difficult whenever connotations of the abyss, the dark, the occult and the sinister are overlooked. So, this dissertation gives a circumspect view of what is designated as mise en abyme, and argues that, in late-modernity, its meaning is closest to the rhetorical figures named ekphrasis, metalepsis, and epanalepsis. This study concludes that, realistically, there is probably no such thing as the mise en abyme and instead, there are only rhetorical figures and metaphors of the sinister and of the abyss.

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