A flashback is a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the progression of events is interrupted. The reader is taken back to another scene in another place or time. There, something is revealed about the characters, events, or entire storyline that somehow influences it. These pieces of information will range in their importance to the storyline.
Sometimes flashbacks can reveal something absolutely critical to understanding a character’s development. For example, a cruel and hateful man or woman might gain a reader’s empathy, or at least sympathy, if a writer reveals that they went through a trauma in their youth.
There are some examples of flashbacks in stories or movies in which the entire narrative plays out through the retelling of events. One character might sit down to tell another story or the story of men or women they knew. This creates what is known as a frame narrative or frames tory. One example of this kind of flashback can be found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this novel, Victor tells the story of his life, his choice to engage in the pursuit of ending death, and the various deaths and disasters that resulted because of his creation and his cruelty. The flashback eventually catches up to the present and the story concludes.
Examples of Flashbacks in Literature
Example #1 Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights is an ideal example of how a series of flashbacks, within a frame narrative, can create a story. This book begins with the arrival of Lockwood, a man who comes to stay at Thrushcross Grange. The house neighbors Wuthering Heights where a distinctly unpleasant man by the name of Heathcliff resides.
With a few strange scenes, an uncomfortable encounter, and many questions, Lockwood becomes interested in the story of the houses and their inhabitants. Through a long conversation with Nelly Dean, he learns about Earnshaw’s, the arrival of Heathcliff, and the romance between him and Cathy. Though this long flashback the entire story plays out.
Example #2 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The first chapter, as well as other sections from The Great Gatsby, contain flashbacks. The main character, Nick Carraway refers back to his youth and what brought him to his new home near Gatsby. One of the first line of the novel reads as follows:
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
There, Nick is remembering some advice his father gave him. The reference to “privilege” in these line is an allusion to the rest of the story that deals with wealth as one of its major themes.
Example #3 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee crafts the novel through along series of flashbacks. These all come from Scout, the main character’s perspective. This allows the reader to understand the story through the perceptive of someone who experienced it as a child.
Example #4 Birches by Robert Frost
‘Birches’ is one of Frost’s best-known poems. In it, his speaker looks to the past and remembers through flashbacks what happened to him. The theme of growing up, which is central to this poem, comes through to the reader through these flashbacks. Here are some lines in which Frost’s speaker spends time thinking on the past:
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
The speaker feels nostalgic about his past and how he used to feel when he was a child. He also describes through the verse how he has changed since that time.