Reverse Chronology in Fiction (Or Maybe This Headline Should Be at the End of This Post)

The start comes before the finish, right? That’s what I hear, but some literary works don’t follow that timeline.

Back in 2013 (which reportedly preceded 2015), I wrote a Huffington Post piece about how some fiction is chronological while other fiction jumps around via flashbacks and such. Today, I’m going to take that a step further by discussing literature in which you know the fate of the protagonist from the start.

That removes much of the suspense and story development, doesn’t it? Well, in a way. But things can still be interesting — sometimes even more interesting — when the conclusion comes first. We’re more alert to foreshadowing as we continue to read, and we’re curious how the protagonist gets to the “place” we’ve already witnessed. Plus we want to know why things ended up the way they did.

I thought about that last week while reading Camille — the novel by the Alexandre Dumas who was the son of the more famous Alexandre Dumas. Camille (originally titled The Lady of the Camellias) features the “courtesan” Marguerite Gautier, who is dead at the start of the book. Then the emotionally powerful story unfolds about how she lived her short life.

Camille was adapted for the stage and screen — two places where Betrayal also found its home. Harold Pinter’s play begins at the end of an affair and then backtracks to the start of that liaison — a stunningly effective device that adds to the reading or watching experience.

There’s also Susan Vreeland’s novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which traces a painting — and the painting’s profound effect on various people’s lives — from the 20th century to the 17th century. The scrolling back in time adds to the mystery and poignancy.

Or how about Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome? It’s not strictly “reverse chronological,” but we soon know that the title character has become physically damaged and very unhappy. The rest of the riveting novel goes back in time to explain how that came about.

There are also introductory sections set years or even centuries after the events in the novel unfold. For instance, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House” essay that precedes his iconic The Scarlet Letter tells about finding — in the 19th century — a faded “A” that Hester Prynne wore in the 1600s. Also, Old Mortality first focuses on an 18th-century man re-engraving the tombstones of Covenanter martyrs before Sir Walter Scott starts telling the compelling 17th-century story of those deceased people who wanted to re-establish Presbyterianism in Scotland.

Many other novels, such as Margaret Atwood’s excellent Cat’s Eye and The Blind Assassin, show middle-aged or old protagonists in the book’s present time and then flash back to those characters’ much younger years.

While this is not strictly on-topic, I also think of Graham Greene’s (very) short shocker of a story “Proof Positive.” Is Philip Weaver dead at the start of the tale? At the end of the tale? Or both? You can read it here.

What are your favorite works that start at the end? What are the pros and cons of literature with that kind of chronology?

Given that there might not be many examples of the above, you’re also welcome to name your favorite works that don’t necessarily begin with a concluding event but are non-linear (jumping back and forth through time via flashbacks or other narrative devices). Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five would be among countless examples.

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For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.