Prolepsis: The evocation in a narrative of scenes or events that take place at a later point in the story. One of the three major types of anachrony, prolepsis is sometimes equated with flashforward, but some reader-response critics have argued that it is in fact a more general term (much as its opposite, analepsis, is a broader term than flashback). For instance, prolepsis may involve an image that suggests something to occur in the future. More commonly, it involves a figure of speech in which an anticipated event or action is treated as if it has already occurred or is presently occurring, even though this is temporally impossible. Occasionally, a proleptic thought or dream disrupts the chronological flow of material being related, often manifesting itself in the conscious or subconscious thoughts of a narrator or protagonist whose mental processes are recounted by the narrative.
As a rhetorical device in an argument or debate, prolepsis involves anticipating an opponent’s arguments or rebuttals.
EXAMPLES: The following lines from John Keats’s poem “Isabella” (1820) contain a classic example of prolepsis, with the word “murder’d” evoking the man’s ultimate fate:
So the two brothers and their murder’d man
Rode past fair Florence… .
The first paragraph of Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) proleptically anticipates the ending of the novel: “There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed. The participants of this tragedy were: two officers, a soldier, two women, and a horse.” In the movie The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Luke Skywalker says, “I’m not afraid,” to which Jedi master Yoda knowingly responds, “You will be.”
Twenty-first-century novelists continue to use prolepsis extensively. Edward P. Jones repeatedly used prolepsis in The Known World (2003), as in the assertion “The man Loretta would eventually marry would want to know why she didn’t take his last name, why she wanted no last name at all.” In Ian Caldwell’s The Fifth Gospel (2015), the reader is told, “Only later would things come into focus. The refrigerator was empty because she had stopped going to the grocery store.” The narrator of Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall (2016) says of a wife whose husband is about to be indicted for money laundering: “Later she would realize that he was already afraid — afraid that everything he had, everything he was, was on the verge of eclipse.”