Turning Back the Clock: How Flashbacks Are Used in Literature (Part 1)

Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr
Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

Time. Time is something that affects us all. We can feel it aging us, passing us by – we know we are living right in the midst of it. However, despite our intimate experience with it, the vast wealth of human ingenuity and knowledge has yet to afford us with a way to travel back through time. It is only in our minds that we can revisit the events of our past; the events that, whether we like it or not, have shaped us into the people we are in the present.

Over the years, novelists and playwrights alike have tried to utilize time to expose the histories, and therefore the motivations, of their characters to their audiences. At least in the case of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman and Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods, it is clear that sporadically jumping back in time is a device that works much better in the novelistic form than on the stage.

Death of a Salesman is, undeniably, a wonderful and in-depth drama, detailing the havoc a dream wreaks on one normal American family. In spite of this, there are still elements of the play that are imperfect. Miller’s use of time travel, that is, his insertion of scenes that have occurred in the past into the present flow of the narrative, while necessary to understand the flaws of the family as a whole, are not executed well. In fact, they detract and distract from the action of the plot.


Take for example the first ‘flashback’ scene of the play in Act I. The audience is placed into the Loman household of old, when the two boys are still in high school. Near the end of this scene, Willy takes us into another flashback, thus creating a flashback within a flashback. The audience is left confused in this double past. Who is this woman? Is it Linda, extra young? Is it even real? Is it just a day-dream that Willy’s having? What is its significance to the plot? It is bewildering to have two flashbacks layered on each other in this way, especially in the text of a play. You have no narrator to let you in on Willy’s thoughts. What reminded him of this woman? What feelings does he have towards her and the memory? We have a flashback, but still no answers (Miller 37).

Besides utilizing these double flashbacks, Miller also has a habit of starting a scene in one location and then, without warning, taking the audience into the past at a completely different place. Near the beginning of Act II, Willy goes to see his boss Howard. He is fired, suddenly, and is obviously distraught. Willy begins to talk aloud to his deceased brother Ben, as he has done before in the show. And then, without any textual clues, Willy is back in the house, with Ben, alive next to him. Not the house now, however, the house in the past. The audience gets so caught up trying to figure out exactly what transition has just been made, they have not paid attention to the important information being given to them by the characters. Without the benefit of having the script sitting in front of them, there is no way for the audience to recapture these lost clues (Miller 84).

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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