An Introduction to Metafiction

Metafictional works frequently examine the conventions of the genre

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Novels and stories that examine, experiment with, or poke fun at the conventions of fiction itself can all be classified as metafiction. 

The term metafiction literally means beyond fiction" or over fiction, indicating that the author or narrator stands beyond or over the fictional text and judges it or observes it in a highly self-conscious way. 

It's important to note that unlike literary criticism or analysis, metafiction is itself fictional. Simply commenting on a work of fiction doesn't make that work metafiction.

Confused? Here's a good example to better understand the distinction.

Jean Rhys and the Madwoman in the Attic

The 1847 novel "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte is widely considered a classic of Western literature, which was quite radical in its day. The novel's titular woman struggles through extreme hardships and finally finds true love with her boss, Edward Rochester. On the day of their wedding, she discovers he's already married, to a mentally unstable woman he keeps locked in the attic of the house where he and Jane live.

Many critics have written about Bronte's "madwoman in the attic" device, including examining whether it fits into feminist literature and what the woman may or may not represent.

But the 1966 novel "Wide Sargasso Sea" retells the story from the point of view of the madwoman. How did she get in that attic? What happened between her and Rochester? Was she always mentally ill? Even though the story itself is fiction, "Wide Sargasso Sea" is a commentary on "Jane Eyre" and the fictional characters in that novel (and to some extent, on Bronte herself). 

"Wide Sargasso Sea," then, is an example of metafiction, while the non-fictional literary criticisms of "Jane Eyre" are not. 

Additional Examples of Metafiction

Metafiction is not restricted to modern literature. Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," written in the 15th century, and "Don Quixote," by Miguel de Cervantes, written a century later, are both considered classics of the genre. Chaucer's work tells the story of a group of pilgrims headed to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket who are telling their own stories as part of a contest to win a free meal. And "Don Quixote" is the tale of the man of La Mancha who tilts at windmills in order to reestablish the traditions of knighthood. 

And even older works such as Homer's "The Odyssey" and the medieval English epic "Beowulf" contain reflections on storytelling, characterization, and inspiration. 

Metafiction and Satire

Another prominent type of metafiction is literary parody or satire. Though such works don't always involve self-conscious narration, they are still classified as metafiction because they call attention to popular writing techniques and genres.

Among the most widely-read examples of this kind of metafiction are Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey," which holds the Gothic novel up to lighthearted mockery; and James Joyce's "Ulysses," which reconstructs and lampoons writing styles from throughout the history of the English language. The classic of the genre is Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," which parodies contemporary politicians (though remarkably many of Swift's references are so well-disguised that their true meanings are lost to history).

Varieties of Metafiction 

In the postmodern era, whimsical retellings of earlier fictional stories have also become extremely popular. A few of the most prominent of these are John Barth's "Chimera," John Gardner's "Grendel" and Donald Barthelme's "Snow White."

In addition, some of the best-known metafictions combine an extreme consciousness of fictional technique with experiments in other forms of writing. James Joyce's "Ulysses," for example, is formatted partially as a closet drama, while Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Pale Fire" is partially a confessional narrative, partially a long poem and partially a series of scholarly footnotes.

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Kennedy, Patrick. "An Introduction to Metafiction." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kennedy, Patrick. (2023, April 5). An Introduction to Metafiction. Retrieved from Kennedy, Patrick. "An Introduction to Metafiction." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).