What Is Metalepsis? Examples In Literature

Metalepsis is both interesting and complex literary technique. It challenges the common rules of the narrative. Writers employ this technique to inspect the way a story is told. It creates a engaging and provocative experience for the readers.

Definition of Metalepsis

Metalepsis refers to a narrative in which one level of a narrative invades or merges with another. It is normally the blend of different narrative levels, which is the world of the author and the world described in the plot with the characters.

Metalepsis was defined by Gérard Genette, a literary theorist, as “extradiegetic narrator or narratee incursion into the diegetic universe or parts of it, or conversely”.

In other words, metalepsis is characterized by a transgression of the borders between the various narrative levels which induces a rich and confusing experience. Metalepsis can be viewed as a more blatant form of breaking the fourth wall, where the characters or the narrator speak to the audience or refer to the very process of narrating the story.

However, metalepsis does not stop at acknowledgement, as it were, a reciprocal or even antipodal connection between the narrative levels.

This may tend to give the readers a sense of distance from the material, making them more conscious of the artificiality of the picture being painted, which in its turn can foster a more critical appreciation of the text.

Functions of Metalepsis

These are the functions of metalepsis.

Challenging Narrative Boundaries

Metalepsis question the conventional boundaries of the piece of work. It invites the readers to probe the stability and coherence of the story. The writers by mixing the different story levels, form a sense of perplexity that focuses the complications of human experience.

Creating Self-Reflective Narratives

It leads to a story that indicates itself and how it is told. This makes the readers able to think deeply about the fiction, the role of the author, and how the stories relate to reality. Metalepsis also reflects the creative and illustrative efforts that go into reading and writing.

Enhancing Thematic Exploration

Metalepsis is a powerful technique to explore the intrigue themes and the ideas. This device is useful in works that deal with themes of memory, consciousness and the reality. Metalepsis also emphasizes the association of different stories and enriches the thematic and structural complexity of the narrative.

Metalepsis Examples in Literature


“Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes

“Idle reader: you may believe me when I say that I should have liked this book, as the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most gallant, and the most intelligent that could be imagined. But I could not contravene the order of nature, by which like begets like… What you are about to read, is a narrative composed by an ingenious gentleman who wrote the first part of the adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha, and who has now continued the history.”

Cervantes speaks to the “idle reader” and defines himself as the writer, calling the book as the child of my understanding.”

This breaks the wall between the author and narrative, which makes the text a self-reflective work of fiction. Cervantes encourages the readers to think about the story and the relationship between the writer and the reader.

Having established that ‘Don Quixote’ is not a fictional book but a reality to the reader, he brings into question the difference between a reader, the world of the characters and the author (diegetic and extradiegetic level).

Using the narrative strategies of complication and concealment, this text encourages the creation of the play of doubles and blurs the dichotomy of the real/fake.

The use of ‘you’ in the context of the passage and the author’s commentary provides readers with an ability to be more involved in reading, as well as makes the text itself less formal.

See also: Examples of Montage In Literature


“If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, ‘No, I don’t want to watch TV!’ Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—’I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!’ Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: ‘I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!’ Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”

The passage is a reference to Metalepsis. The reader has been directly involved in the story as an active participant instead of being only a passive reader. The line “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel…” breaks the common limits between the reader and the narrative.

Calvino creates a contemplative narrative by discussing the act of reading within the text. It indicates the book as a constructed object and the conjoint role of the reader.

The phrases like “expel every other idea”, “eradicate all else from your mind” and “lose sense of everything going on around you” allow the reader to enter the novel and thus, gain deeper immersion.

Metalepsis provide an attention to grasp and engage the reader into the text, according to Calvino. By including the reader into the picture he not only simply addresses him as an audience, but also makes the reader an active participant of the story, which is not typical for most fiction today.

See also: Mnemonic Examples in Literature


“Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov

“Yes, reader, despite the thrill of such surprises as this, we must not lose the thread of our main investigation. You will find the notes to Line 1 as helpful as the lines themselves in understanding what really happened. ‘I was the shadow of the waxwing slain,’ are the first words of the poem, and immediately we are plunged into a retrospective description of a wooded slope in the western part of our country.”

Metalepsis in this passage involves the transgression of different levels of the story telling and points out the relationship between different layers of the text.

The protagonist directly speaks to the reader (“Yes, reader”) bringing the reader’s world (extradiegetic level) into focus, and identifying it with the story’s world (intradiegetic level), which makes the reader an integral part of the textual construction.

Both the Kinbote’s commentary and Shade’s poem overlap in such a manner that structure forms a recursive and self-referential system. The aspect of construction and the process of reading highlighted in his commentary prove that the ancient form of telling a story is an endeavor that entwines the reader, commentator, and the poet.

By insisting the “main investigation,” and referencing to “our country,” Kinbote ultimately deconstructs the clear distinction between the real and the fictional pulling the reader to challenge ourselves as to the real identity of the author, narrator or characters adding to the layers of this story.

See also: Examples of Metonymy in Literature


“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

“That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.”

There is a clear illustration of metalepsis in the words, “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book. Here, Vonnegut steps in from the outside to give the reader his own ideas, breaking down the separation between the real author and the fictional world.

He also collapses the difference between the ‘actual reality’ of the world, and the reality of the characters in the fictional world (diegetic level). This self-referential moment helps to encourage the reader into the critical position that addresses the author/reader/narrative constructively.

See also: Literary Devices That Start With M

To conclude, metalepsis is an extremely useful and productive rhetorical device that creates self-reflective and dynamic stories. More specifically, metalepsis can play multiple roles, such as transcending narrative frames, enacting meta-level storytelling, contributing to the development of themes and motifs, offering engagement and surprises to readers, and pointing to the author.

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