Turning Back the Clock: How Flashbacks Are Used in Literature (Part 2)

Photo by Vincet_AF via Flickr
Photo by Vincet_AF via Flickr

Tim O’Brien also uses time travel in his critically acclaimed novel, In the Lake of the Woods. What makes these journeys to the past so much easier to identify and pay attention to in O’Brien’s novel versus Miller’s play? The answer: format and point of view. In In the Lake of the Woods, scattered throughout the work, are chapters whose titles begin with, “The Nature of…” Chapter Three is the first example of this, being titled “The Nature of Loss”.

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In this chapter, the reader goes back to the time of John’s father’s death when John was only 14 years old. The time change is made clear by, at first, merely providing an entirely separate chapter. Later, when the audience begins to recognize a pattern, seeing the title “The Nature of” prepares them to examine the things that have already happened. Every one of the chapter’s whose titles start with “The Nature of”, talk about things in John’s past. This clue helps the reader prepare themselves to look for certain aspects or events that have taken place that relate to what they know is currently occurring in the storyline.

In the novel form, there is much more freedom to choose varying points of view through which to unfold the story: first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, even the rare second person. This provides the audience with a guide, someone to lead them through the events. In the case of In the Lake of the Woods, the readers are given a third person omniscient point of view, allowing the audience to travel into the character’s inner thoughts whenever the narrator cares to furnish them. This is extremely useful in the context of ‘flashbacks’. Not only does the audience get the chance to see the events that have taken place to a certain character in the past, they are permitted to learn exactly how these events impacted them at the time. In Chapter Three, the audience is actually allowed to go inside John’s head, seeing his internal, mental reaction to the death of his father, which, if they had just seen his father die and him cry, would not have given them the vital information necessary to understand the neuroses of this particular character (O’Brien14).

Point of view can make a big difference. (Photo by youngdoo via Flickr)
Point of view can make a big difference. (Photo by youngdoo via Flickr)

The key to time travel in the novel world is that everything a reader needs to recognize is right in front of them. It is impossible for them to somehow miss certain written cues, such as chapter titles or misunderstand phrases like “when he was fourteen” (O’Brien 14). On the other hand, on the stage, most of the cues rely on the skill of the actors. The text communicates only so much of the story, and, in fact, is often confusing without being played on stage. Some might argue that in Miller’s play, Willy’s flashbacks are often preceded by light flute music or a change in lighting, and that these cues are meant to be used by the audience. However, these changes do not occur in every instance, most especially in the very first ‘flashback’ referenced earlier (Miller 28). Even with these stage cues of lighting or music, one runs the risk of the audience missing these crucial signals or not understanding their significance.

Photo by clickykbd via Flickr
Photo by clickykbd via Flickr

In the fictional world, time is nothing more than a device. And yet, the effective or ineffective use of this device may be the only means the audience has of understanding the complexity and motivations of fictional characters. If these motivations are misunderstood, or not conveyed at all, the audience loses all empathy with the character, missing whatever subsequent message the character was supposed to deliver. In the words of Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, a novelist and playwright, “Time is a cruel thief to rob us of our former selves. We lose as much to life as we do to death” (Moncur). When used ineffectively in literature, time can rob a work of its deepest meaning.

Works Cited

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books, 1949.

Moncur, Michael. “Quotation Search.” The Quotations Page. 2007. The Quotations Page. 15 May 2008 .

O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

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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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