Prolepsis in Literature: Definition & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

In literature, prolepsis is a literary tool with two uses regarding the concept of the future. Explore the definition and uses of this literary device using examples found in classic plays and novels. Updated: 10/17/2021


The term prolepsis, as defined by Merriam-Webster, means 'the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.' The term is from the Greek, meaning 'the process of taking in front of' or 'anticipating.' In literature, there are two ways in which prolepsis is used:

1. By referring to a future event as if it is already completed, as in the sentence, 'I am going to tell you about the events that led to my death,' instead of 'I tell you, these events will lead to my death'.

2. As a literary device, often called a 'flash forward.' Here the narrative is taken forward in time to show events that are expected to occur, or have already occurred in the future, even though the main part of the narrative is further back in the past. It's often used to reveal some parts of a plot, which will be filled in later. This device is used in literature, television and film.

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Let's look at some examples. The play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, references two characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, who, unfortunately for them, die in the end. It is based on these characters, and the title lets you know that, while they are both alive and well when the curtain opens, they will be dead by the end of the play.

In our next example, the phrase Dead Man Walking refers to someone slated for death, like a death row inmate. In fact, Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun, used this phrase for a work of non-fiction about death row prisoners. The book was later made into a film.

Most of us are familiar with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the haunting example of flash-forward that it depicts. Given his final warning to change his miserly ways, Ebenezer Scrooge is taken into the future by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Here, he finds himself without mourners and his possessions being picked over by others following his death.

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