Stories Within Stories

Stories Within Stories

I recently re-watched The Phantom of the Opera (2004). The film was excellent in many dimensions, and may warrant a more in-depth analysis for itself down the road.

But what struck me from a literary angle was the Phantom’s utilization of a very old and very powerful technique: the story within the story.

In English literature, we see this featured prominently within Hamlet, where Prince Hamlet puts on a play in order to draw out his uncle. Going back a bit further, the Iliad contains a relatively long sub-story, told by Phoenix to Achilles about an ancient hero named Meleagros.

What we see in both examples of Hamlet and the Iliad is a case where the protagonist has been inactive, due to anxious indecision in the case of Hamlet and wrathful withdrawal for Achilles. The story-within-the-story seems to serve as a turning point, around which the protagonist is supposed to shift from inaction into action.

In the case of Hamlet, the hero himself is the one who puts on the play, which does indeed lead to such a shift. In the Iliad, an emissary from Lord Agamemnon (Phoenix) is the teller of the story-within-the-story, which is designed to propel Achilles into action. Achilles refuses this request-by-story, and the momentousness of his refusal is highlighted by its effects — the death of his best friend… an outcome which is itself foreshadowed in the very story which Phoenix told.

So what about The Phantom of the Opera? Does the Phantom’s opera — a version of Don Juan — serve in this role?

I believe that it does, though it does not do so as profoundly as is the case in Hamlet or the Iliad.

First, we might consider the lyrics of the defining song within the rendition of Don Juan within The Phantom of the Opera. This song is “The Point of No Return”:

[Phantom/Don Juan]:

You have come here
In pursuit of your deepest urge
In pursuit of that wish which till now has been silent

I have brought you
That our passions may fuse and merge
In your mind you’ve already succumbed to me
Dropped all defenses, completely succumbed to me
Now you are here with me
No second thoughts
You’ve decided

Past the point of no return
No backward glances
Our games of make believe are at an end
Past the point of if or when
No use resisting
Abandon thought and let the dream descend

What raging fire shall flood the soul?
What rich desire unlocks its door?
What sweet seduction lies before us?

Past the point of no return
The final threshold
What warm unspoken secrets will we learn?
Beyond the point of no return


You have brought me
To that moment when words run dry
To that moment when speech disappears into silence

I have come here
Hardly knowing the reason why
In my mind I’ve already imagined our bodies entwining
Defenseless and silent

Now I am here with you
No second thoughts
I’ve decided

Whether or not the opera Don Juan serves as turning-point towards action from inaction within the greater story of The Phantom of the Opera, the words within the song signal such a turning point. The repeated themes — aside from the more obvious sexual overtones — are “decision” and “silence.” These are the opposites of indecision and words which characterize inaction. Moreover, the song’s title and leading chorus lyrics — “past the point of no return” — themselves indicate some action that has already been taken, and which, therefore, foreshadows more action in a similar direction, the actors having burned their metaphorical bridges behind them.

So the story-within-the-story serves as a plot device, transitioning from building the setting and conflict into the action and ultimately the climax, and also foreshadowing what that climax might be. The use of poison in Hamlet’s play ironically foreshadows his own death in the final act, and Phoenix story of Meleagros ironically foreshadows the Achilles’ own return to the fighting — ironic because neither he nor Phoenix understands the true nature of the connection between the story of Meleagros and Achilles.

Similarly, the story of Don Juan — which usually culminates in the womanizer’s descent into hell — ironically foreshadows the Phantom’s own descent, revealed in the lyrics of the very next song, after his own opera was cut short:

Down once more to the dungeon of my black despair
Down we plunge to the prison of my mind
Down that path into darkness deep as hell!

But I think that the story-within-the-story is more than merely a plot device.

Speaking purely speculatively, I believe that there is an experiential element to the story-within-the-story; that is, it effects the audience directly.

When we watch a movie, or read a book, or see a play, we are conscious of the fictional nature of the media. We are aware that we are ingesting a story, not “reality,” and this awareness creates a barrier to immersion.

But when the story takes us into a sub-story, it is only “just a story” to the characters within the larger story. To the audience, the story-within-the-story is a part of the story, yet is experienced by the audience in the same way as it is by the characters of the story itself. Thus, when the sub-story concludes, and the characters of the story return to their “reality,” the audience may also experience a feeling of re-emergence from fiction into reality.

This feeling of re-emergence from a story leaves the larger story feeling “more real” than a mere story, reducing (though perhaps not completely destroying) the separation between the audience and the story caused by their conscious awareness of watching a story.

There are many other examples of this technique at work in great recent pieces of film and literature — for example, Alan Moore’s Watchmen (only the graphic novel, not the movie) features an excellent and effective case of an immersion-enhancing story-within-the-story.

There are, no doubt, exceptions to this general rule of stories-within-stories as turning points from inaction towards action, but I suspect that other supporting examples exist as well. Feel free to share examples or counter-examples in the comments.

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