This essay examines situations where a single trope is implicated in two traditionally opposed rhetorical structures: mise en abyme, in which an internal text provides a miniature model of the framing text, and allegory, a figure in which the text at hand is only the key to some single and essentially external reading. Where mise en abyme is typically associated with the self-enclosed autonomy of the artwork, allegory tends in the opposite direction by treating the text as a disposable means to a proper meaning. Through readings of the chess motifs in Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and statuary tropes in an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet, the essay argues that the two tropes are better thought of as versions of each other, not least because allegories signal their presence precisely through interpolated texts that resist paraphrase.
Our difficulty in reconciling them relates to our inevitable temptation to reduce undecidable figures to mechanically decodable signs and involves a complex of related binaries: figure and sign, symbol and allegory, inside and outside. The essay traces these binaries from the German Romantics into more contemporary theory in an effort to make their dynamic a productive one — first by treating the interaction of mise en abyme and allegory as analogous to the relation of part to whole in the hermeneutic circle, and then by relating texts as metaphors of production processes to texts as metonymically resulting from those same production processes. Approached in this way, mise en abyme generates a model by which we can conceptualize the artwork in relation to the larger work of economic production in which it participates and of which it is a miniature model.