The Past Shaping the Present in Literature

The persistence of memory is a theme often explored in literature. Personal history, these works would suggest, has an undeniable impact on an individual’s present state of being. This is true whether or not a person actively recalls the past or if she is trying to escape it. Either way, a relationship to the past always seems to shape the present. This may have been part of what William Faulkner meant when he famously said, “The past isn’t gone. It isn’t even past.”

Many renowned works of literature take up themes addressing the persistence of memory and the power of personal history over the present. The Great Gatsby, As I Lay Dying, The Sun Also Rises, Fences, The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Death of a Salesman and, perhaps most famously, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past each explore ways in which the past continues to affect the present.

Ambitions, fixations, and internal pressures are translated straight from the past into the present, borne into the lives of characters in ways that are often troubling because these elements of personal history affix the individual with a stamp that cannot be removed when, for many characters, that is the one thing they truly desire. Some characters, like Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, want to change the past as a means of taking control of the present. But changing the past is no easy task. Still, characters undertake the task because they understand that although we have little power over the past, the past has great power over us

Does this theme seem too obvious to be interesting? Of course, we all understand that our experiences shape our identity and that personal history is probably the single most identifying thing in anyone’s life. We are, in a manner of speaking, defined by personal history. We are almost literally made of it.

But aren’t we also capable of choosing freely in the moment to act or not to act in a certain way? Aren’t we defined as individuals, existing right now and only right now, at this very moment, almost outside of time? Doesn’t free will entail a definition of the human being as an entity that is only partly defined by personal history because we are also defined by an extemporaneous ability to choose, to think, to forget the past and act in the moment?

For many of us, there is truth in both ideas. We are “made” of our personal history but we are also somehow separate (and therefore free) from it. We believe in both the determinant nature of the past and the reality of free will at the same time, although there is a fundamental conflict that remains unresolved in this dual belief.

Questions that beg to be answered stand in between these two self-evident yet contradictory truths. Where does the influence of the past end and the independent agency of free will begin? Can we truly say that free will exists if our will is shaped by episodes, experiences, moments and memories – the joys and pains of our past?

These are philosophical questions that have been with us for millennia so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to find our great works of literature taking them up as themes. The complex interplay between the formative nature of the past and the active nature of individual free will is well-suited to narrative literature, where the struggle to change and to be truly self-determined can be dramatized. 

There are many ways that such a drama can play out. Herman Melville gave us a character in Captain Ahab who was obsessed with a single episode in his past. This original monomaniac lost a leg to a great white whale, Moby Dick, and is bent on the idea of avenging himself against this giant sea creature. Ahab’s life becomes consumed by the need to rectify the past, to get payment for what was taken from him. In simple terms we can categorically say that Ahab’s future was determined by his past from the moment the white whale stole his leg.

In other instances, the conflict between the persistence of the past and the need to escape or overcome that past can become an exploration of fate or can take the form of a nuanced study of human psychology. Often, these ideas go hand in hand. This is the case in Fences, where August Wilson presents us with Troy Maxson, a character who is doomed to repeat a cycle of disastrous father-son relationships with his own son because he cannot defeat the influence his own father had upon him. This is also the case with Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s A Light in August. Christmas is plagued by a sense of his fate and struggles mightily against it, which pushes him to extremes of self-doubt and then to violence, which in the end leads him to fulfill the exact fate he tried so hard to escape.

A single decision in a character’s past can eventually become a morally definitive moment, one that must be reckoned with if that character is to achieve self-fulfillment or completion. The past, once again, is not gone. It keeps catching up and asserting itself in the present.

At least since Oedipus Rex in the ancient Greek theater, the theme of past-shaping-present has been dramatically articulated in literature. The philosophical questions surrounding the nature of free will and its existential relationship to personal history have been explored in many stories and in many characters. In analyzing how this thematic concept functions in a given text, we do not necessarily have to grapple with the profundity of existential philosophy. We don’t have to answer the big questions or find ways to explain how the narrative has attempted to answer them.

Most of the time, the better path is to more simply try to find out what questions the text seems to be asking with its characters and its story. How does the past play an active part in the “present” of the narrative? And what happens as a result?

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