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What are Anachronisms? Meaning, Types and Examples

It's not so rare to see odd time placements — anachronism — in creative fiction, and these misplacements can serve an artistic purpose. Some anachronisms are errors due to lack of research; others are added intentionally to add humor or make a statement on a specific period in history. In this article, we explore the meaning and importance of anachronisms in literature, with notable examples.

What is an Anachronism?

Anachronism comes from the Greek "anachronous," which means “against time.” It refers to an error of chronology or timeline in a literary work. When an element of a fictional piece doesn't fit the overall timeline, that's an anachronism. Like, a fifteen-century character brandishing a shotgun or wearing a pair of Yeezy's.

An anachronism could be intentional, included in your writing to create specific effects. Or, it could be the product of a lack of research on the writer's part. For an anachronism to be effective, it has to be intentional, else it could ruin the suspension of disbelief for your readers.

Types of Anachronism

There are three different anachronism types, each with unique features and purposes.

Parachronism: This refers to anything that appears in a time where it is not typically found. Here, an object, expression, technology or custom, so closely restricted to a particular period gets placed in another era that seems out of place. If a rich twentieth-century man owns a fleet of chariots, that's a parachronism.

Prochronism: This refers to a futuristic object or idea that occurs before its time. This can be an object, technology, expression or philosophy that comes to existence at a future date than the one it appears in. When one of the knights of King Arthur is wearing a Rolex, that's a prochronism.

Behavioural or cultural anachronism: This is a willful use of archaic or outdated cultural artefacts in writing with a more modern setting. It can be considered anachronistic for a twenty-first-century man to wear a knight's armor, ride a horse, or converse with words like "thou" and "ye". 

Functions of Anachronism in Literature

To aid readers' understanding. It helps inform the audience more promptly about a narrative set in the past. The language style used during past eras may be difficult or impossible for a modern audience to understand. A dialogue between thirteen-century characters with the "ye" and "thou" may not be readily grasped by a twenty-first-century reader. Here, we can willingly accept characters speaking an updated language, with modern slang and figures of speech.

To create humor. You can use anachronism as a humorous element in a narrative. The 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite takes place in 2004, but the characters wore clothing from the eighties. They owned cordless phones and VCRs and danced to tunes from the eighties. These anachronic elements add humor to the story, increasing the protagonist's feeling of displacement and social anxiety.

To make a statement. It can depict an idea or custom as being more obsolete than it actually is or intentionally confuse the disparities between past and present to make a statement. The Russian artist Vasily Vereshchagin painted the Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English to portray the British soldiers conducting the executions in late 19th-century uniforms. Here, he demonstrates that the British may reenact the 1857 execution of Indian mutineers if another rebellion broke out in India.

Examples of Anachronism in Fiction

Though it's unclear if he used them intentionally or otherwise, Shakespeare is a culprit in using anachronisms. And here are some examples in his plays.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (1599). "The clock hath stricken three." During Julius Caesar’s time, mechanical clocks were not in existence.

William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (1607). "Let it alone; let's to billiards: come, Charmian." The game of billiards didn't exist before or during the age of Cleopatra.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606)"...Till he disbursed at Saint Colme’s Inch ten thousand dollars to our general use." The time setting of Macbeth doesn't include the use of dollar currency.


Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen