I've been reading Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad, which is rife with what I would call non-standard narrative structures.

There are obvious narrative peculiarities in the book that have been discussed at length already, such as the changes from omnipresent narration, to third-person narration, to even a written letter included at the end.

However, what I noticed, and personally found quite frustrating, was the author's tendency to start a portion of his story at the very end of that story, and then go back later to fill in how the characters got there.

For example, the beginning episode of the book, the affair of the Patna, is not told until the trial of Jim is underway. The tale of his adventures on Patusan are not told until we are first shown the status he attained as "Lord Jim". And the tale of Jim's romance begins with a meditation on his love's gravestone.

Is there an explicit term for this narrative structure? I was thinking of the concept of "in media res", but this is not beginning in the middle, it's beginning at the very end! And is there any reason an author would employ this method?

  • 1
    "What is this technique called?" and "Why is this technique used?" are two separate questions. I'd suggest splitting them into two different posts, so that answers can focus on a narrower query.
    – bobble
    Oct 9, 2021 at 19:55

2 Answers 2


A narrative that begins at the end and moves to the beginning of the events it describes would exhibit reverse chronology (see also Joe Bunting, Chazda Hill and LiteraryTerms.net).

However, what we have in Lord Jim is not reverse chronology but a nonlinear narrative. This type of narrative became more common in modernist literature. As Terry Eagleton wrote in How to Read Literature (page 110; emphasis mine),

Neither history nor narrative seems to get you anywhere any more. Joyce's Leopold Bloom gets up, potters rather pointlessly around Dublin and returns home. Linear notions of history give way to cyclical ones. Stories are forever trying to net down truths that prove elusive. (...) George Eliot and Thomas Hardy are convinced that the truth is essentially narratable, whereas Conrad and Woolf have no such faith.

Nonlinear narration is one way in which this rejection of conventional notions of truth is expressed.

Eagleton discusses Heart of Darkness as an example of modernist narrative that does not tell a story straight; in fact Marlow is literally telling his story in the dark. Lord Jim and Nostromo are other examples where Conrad avoids telling a story straight. Eagleton (page 111):

Instead, their accounts loop back on themselves, start off halfway through, run several storylines at the same time, exchange one narrator for another or recount the same events from different standpoints.

(Something similar happened to characters in novels: whereas characters in realist novels tended to be "reasonably stable and unified" (Eagleton, page 65), modernist literature questioned this notion of "character".)



A story which begins at the end and then skips to the beginning is a nonlinear narrative. Sometimes, the act of jumping back to a previous point in the story is called a flashback. If the story presents a key story as a sub-level of the narrative world - perhaps backstory - that has been called a “frame narrative”. For example, in Forrest Gump, the lead character sits on a bench in middle age, then recounts his entire life up to that moment; then the story resumes from that point at the end. This may be relevant to the idea of “a story which begins at the end”, if the prehistory is a story within that story: someone in the story world should be telling it.

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