What is the effect of the framing device used by Coleridge in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?
A frame story is a story set within a story. That sounds similar to a flashback, but it is different. In a nutshell, if the main events of the story take place in the past, then the narrative is using a frame story. If the main events happen in the present, the story within the story is a flashback. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the story begins with the Mariner stopping a wedding guest in order to tell him the events that occurred while onboard the ship. This is the bulk of the poem, and the narration returns to the mariner and the wedding guest at the end of the poem.
I think Coleridge's framing in this poem is one of the reasons that I like this poem so much. The narrator of most of the poem is a real character. He has a name, a face, and a body. He's talking to another person. This creates a sense of eavesdropping for the reader. The reader is not the person that is being told the story by some faceless narrator. Instead, the reader is privy to a private conversation between the wedding guest and the Mariner. This creates a great sense of mystery and mystique to his tale. It feels like we get to listen to something that we shouldn't be listening to, and that is technically correct because the Mariner admits that he feels a great urge to tell his story to a specific person, and we are not that person:
"Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach."
The Frame Story used by Coleridge in this poem is that of a wedding and a guest at the wedding being detained by the supernatural force of the Mariner who must tell his story. Throughout the poem, the wedding guest expresses his fear of the Mariner and the effect the Mariner has on him, but the wedding guest is told not to fear, only to listen. At the end of the Mariner's tale, the wedding guest is allowed to leave, having missed the entire wedding, but leaving a wiser man than the Mariner was when he made his first mistakes of disregarding nature and the Higher Power who created "all things great and small".
The effect is to create a more ancient feel, a mysterious mood and atmosphere, giving some truth to the tale. The supernatural way the Mariner holds his "prey," forcing him to listen to the tale and to learn from the Mariner's own mistakes. Giving the reader and the wedding guest a little taste of the magical events to come later in the story...the deaths of all the sailors, the albatross falling from his neck the minute he blesses the sea snakes, the craps game between the two ladies--death and life in death--the faster than normal "flight" of the boat back to his hometown. Without the frame story and this magical hold the Mariner has on the wedding guest, the rest is more unbelieveable than ever. Altogether, the spelling of "rime", the archaic language, the sing-songy hypnotic rhythm of the piece, and the magical events make the story ring true in the age of the story and the ancient quality of the Mariner himself.