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Flashbacks and Flash Forwards: Some Questions about Temporalities, Timelines, and Character

As I’m starting to develop my spatial map of The Age of InnocenceI’ve been thinking not only about ambiguous spatial and temporal data but about a few narrative conventions and how they might be visualized. First, flashbacks: at the end of the novel, 25 years after the main action, Newland Archer briefly surveys the past two decades, reflecting on the birth of his children, the death of his wife, and his enduring passion for Ellen Olenska. I’m wondering how the flashback, this signal technique of film and literary narrative, can be visualized, if the word “timeline” implies a linear medium. Secondly, flash forwards: Newland spends much of his time imagining the future, whether gloomily pondering his years of impending marriage or eagerly anticipating the arrival of Ellen Olenska from the train (here’s a clip from the Scorsese adapation [1993]). Finally, much of Newland’s musings are spatial in nature–when visiting May at the Spanish Mission in St. Augustine he thinks of Grenada and the Alhambra, at his in-laws’ house, he imagines Ellen’s home on W 23rd Street, and realizing that Ellen is present in Newport without his knowledge, he flashes suddenly to

a story he had read, of some peasant children in Tuscany lighting a bunch of straw in a wayside cavern, and revealing old silent images in their painted tomb …

This beautiful, proto-filmic image, tells us much about Archer’s imagination. To go deeply inside a character’s interior life, as Wharton’s rich narrative allows us to do, will necessarily challenge linearity. As Archer roams between past and present, between home and world, between reality and imagination, I’m curious about how the map I’m starting to create will be able represent his own internal geography.



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