The Grammar of the Frame: Weinrich's Concept of Tenses and the Short Story

Harald Weinrich, a contemporary German linguist, delineates two important distinctions in the theory of tenses in the Italian language in relation to the novella which help us to understand the complex inner workings of Boccaccio's narrative strategy. These two distinctions are: a) the opposition between the "discussed" world and the "narrated" world, and b) the opposition between foreground and background. This first opposition explains the relationship between the speaker (i.e. the narrator) and the subject of his speech (i.e. narrative). This relationship can be either intimate (the "discussed" world) or detached (the "narrated" world). In the first case, the narrator (and thereby also the reader) is involved directly in the events of the story, such as the tragic events in a character's life (great misfortune, death, and so on) or his/her happier, more successful endeavors (good luck, love, wealth). In these situations, the most common tenses of narration are the present and the future (Weinrich cites as examples lyric poetry, drama, dialogue in general, literary-critical essays and scientific or philosophical prose). In the second case, however, the narrator is more detached from the events narrated and tends to adopt past tenses (present perfect, past perfect, imperfect and past absolute) to a greater degree (e.g. in the novel, the short story and in every kind of story outside of the actual characters' dialogue). The second opposition, that of foreground to background, is derived from the first. The background, as in a painting, provides an environment against which the action of the foreground takes place and is contextualized. Among the past tenses, the imperfect is dedicated to the expression of the foreground and the past absolute to the elaboration of the background. In the novella of the Middle Ages, there is a clear contrast between the "discussed" world and the "narrated" world. An example is the narrative mechanism of the frame story. These tales are always told in such a way as to enable the reader or the listener to differentiate between these two worlds: the frame is the background of the "discussed" world, while the interpolated stories are the foreground and are related in a detached fashion. It is on the "discussed" level that Boccaccio inserts the commentary on the tales themselves.

(G. M. & M.P.) Adapted from H. Weinrich's Tempus. Le funzioni dei tempi nel testo. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1978.

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