“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” -William Faulkner
The past, not unlike many other topics in the world, is subjective and can be perceived and expressed in different ways depending on the author and the reader. Not only that, but the past can also be as a different tool in different stories: for symbolism, narration etc. The past can seem infinite in some stories whereas in others the past can act as a journey towards finding oneself. In some cases, the past can also enlighten the present, and vice versa (Kingston, 1998). The past can take different forms and different formats. In this paper, we will explore a few ways in which authors have used the technique of introducing the past in a particular story and the reasons behind them doing so. We will be looking at two authors in this paper: Katherine Mansfield and Salman Rushdie, both distinct authors from the 20th Century.
Katherine Mansfield’s “The daughters of the late Colonel” is a modernist story that mentions the past in the title itself by the use of the word “late”. The story is based on the events that take place in the life of two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, a week after their father’s death (Mansfield, 1920). The entire short story revolves around the idea of death and the changes death can bring in one’s life, with constant mentions to the past in several ways. The story does not have a proper plot and is mainly based on the sisters’ memories and recollections (Interesting Literature, 2018). In the story, the sisters continue to live in the past and wonder what could have been different if the past was different. This is seen when Josephine wonders “If mother had lived, might they have married?” (Mansfield, 1920) These visits to the past and memories offer insight into the minds of the two sisters and their thoughts in their present.
When one reads the short story carefully, it is understood that the past is visited in the story using the technique of small discussions or thoughts throughout the story. The story explores the personal past for two main reasons: The first reason is to show how death can trigger reminiscing and second is to witness how past incidents can affect the present thinking and behaviour of a person. When the sisters face the death of their ill father, they are constantly seen remembering incidents that happened in the past and remaining unhappy because of them. The sisters have a hard time facing the present and thus are often seen talking or thinking about incidents that happened in the past. This shows that the concept of death can be relatively difficult for a person to accept and can often trigger old memories related to the recently deceased (Mayo Clinic, 2018). Not only that, but it is also very common for a person to compare the situations before and after a certain person’s death. This is witnessed in one scene when the daughters decide that they do not need the housemaid anymore as “there is no father to cook for” (Mansfield, 1920). Along with that, memories from the past also affect the behaviour of the sisters. This can be noticed in the various conversations the sisters have with their relatives and other such people. One place where this is seen is when the sisters are irritated with the nurse’s overeating but at the same time are reminded that she had taken good care of their father when he was sick.
The ultimate conclusion that the short story provides is that when one continues to live in the past, they forget about living in the present and thus have a hard time accepting it. The mind gets too consumed with the past thoughts and incidents and thus cannot keep in pace with the current life events and thoughts (Mayo Clinic, 2018). Such circumstances make it difficult to cope with tragedies, thus making it difficult to accept the reality and think about the future. This is evident from the last statement in the story when the sisters are seen saying “I’ve forgotten what I was going to say” when they were about to talk about their future’s uncertainty (Mansfield, 1920). From this, it is evident that the future does not exist where the past resides, and the only way one can focus on the future is by letting go of the past tragedies and miseries.
On the other hand, the short story “The Prophet’s hair” by Salman Rushdie is a satirical tragedy that is set in Kashmir that shows that nostalgia can be dangerous (Norton, 2020). The short story, though has a proper plot, is written in a slightly different narrative. The story begins with a particular event, then goes into a flashback to relate the incidents that happened in the past that led to the particular event, and then finally moves ahead with the story and leads to a conclusion. According to Additional English (2015), flashbacks are stories within a story and they tell about a character’s memory of something that happened in the past. The author uses this technique of flashbacks to bring a change to the narrative style of the story and twist it.
The narrative, seen from the daughter Huma’s point of view when the story begins, goes into the past narrative when explaining to the thief what object she wants stolen from the house and why. She goes back six days and starts the narration of events from then. It is here that the author has used the technique of flashback and starts the narration of the plot from the beginning. In all conscience, this method is very simple and yet very elegant when modifying the narrative technique. However, it is important to note that this is almost no effects on the amount of information or insights given to the readers.
When Huma starts the narration into the past, she relives all the horrors that she had faced in the past six days after her father stole the container with the Prophet’s hair. By narrating this story, Huma can convince the thief to commit the robbery and at the same time, the author can tell his readers the exact events that led to that point in the narrative.
Unlike the plot of “The daughters of the late Colonel” which depended heavily on the set of flashbacks and memories to understand the characters and the plot, “the Prophet’s hair” has little to do with the mention of the past. The latter uses the technique of past only as a narrative choice where, instead of narrating the story in a straight line the author chooses to narrate half of the story as a flashback and then continues the plot from there. Indeed it is an impressive practice but is not very insightful per se. This means that narrating the story by visiting the past adds a dramatic value to the story but does not add any extra information about the characters.
There is another point where Rushdie briefly visits the past in the plot of “The Prophet’s hair”. Shortly after the main character Hashim gets a hold of the stolen Prophet’s hair, his behaviour gets unnatural and highly orthodox. There’s one point where he starts to come clean about all the lies he’s told his family in the past: about his mistress, about visiting women who charge money and about what he thinks about his children and wife and eventually goes to sleep. According to me, this small incident was inserted here by the author to show that the past never really goes away and your good or bad actions will always come back to haunt you. It is a very small incident in the entire plot and still stands out in my opinion due to the connection in between Hashim’s current sin, i.e. stealing the Prophet’s hair and all the sins he has committed in the past. This insight into Hashim’s past also gives the readers more insight into the kind of person he was and has been, thus making it very valuable along with a peek into the character’s personal history. It is only when the readers get a ticket to Hashim’s past they can form his character sketch based on his actions and opinions.
Through this paper, it is clear that the past can be visited in a story in multiple ways for multiple reasons. However, even if the reasons differ, it is clear that visiting the past or bringing the past events to life can greatly add value and insight into the character and the plot. Like in real life, each character’s past is important and helps understand the character and the character’s choices better. Introducing hindsight or memories in a plot can also help build the storyline and make the story more engaging. However, it is very important that the technique of the past is used correctly and efficiently, and is not overdone or made too confusing.
Additional English. “The Prophet's Hair - Salman Rushdie.” Additional English, 2015, cuaddeng.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html.
Interesting Literature. “A Short Analysis of Katherine Mansfield's 'The Daughters of the Late Colonel'.” Interesting Literature, 20 Sept. 2018, interestingliterature.com/2018/05/a-short-analysis-of-katherine-mansfields-the-daughters-of-the-late-colonel/.
Kingston, Maxine Hong, et al. Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston. University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
Mansfield, Katherine. The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield. A.A. Knopf, 1970.
Mayo Clinic. “Grief: Coping with Reminders after a Loss.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 17 Nov. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/end-of-life/in-depth/grief/art-20045340.
Norton, W.W. “Against Nostalgia: Rushdie's ‘The Prophet's Hair.’” Course Sessions, 2020, wwnorton.com/nrl/english/nael72/Period3Twentieth/CourseSessions3/PostModernRushdie.html.
Rushdie, Salman. East, West: Stories. Pantheon Books, 1995.
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