Timelines, Trauma, Temporality

Photo of two characters from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale


Hala Herbly

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I'm teaching Banned Books and Novel Ideas this year, and most of the books I've chosen focus on the experience of trauma, whether on the level of the individual or the mass. One of the ways that I explain the concept of trauma to my class is by referring to Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he explains the concept of the repetition compulsion as a response to traumatic experiences. The repetition compulsion manifests as a constant reliving of the trauma, often taking the form of dreams or nightmares, daydreams, or even subconscious actions. These symptoms, Freud reasoned, were ways for the subconscious mind to rid itself of the psychic pain of trauma. By constantly reliving the intial trauma, perhaps the mind can figure a way to escape or resolve the traumatic incident. 

Most of the texts we're reading focus on incidents of trauma and their aftereffects, and thus tend to present temporality as anything but linear. This is where timeline appications come in. 

In my class we read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Beloved by Toni Morrison. Both these novels are pretty creative when it comes to temporality. During our discussions, students would often admit that they were confused by what had happened in that day's reading--which was completely understandable. Instead of relating the events of the novel point by point ("then this happened...then this...") I have my students log into their computers and congregate on a timeline-creating web application. I chose to use Dipity, which allows everyone to log in and edit the same timeline. For The Handmaid's Tale, this excercise allowed them to visualize the monotony of everyday life in the Republic of Gilead, the distance between Offred's present and her much-treasured memories, and finally, the shocking gap between her writing and the discovery of her recorded diary far in the future. This visualization led to a discussion of the mundane experience of everyday time, and the less accessible monolith of 'history."

Like The Handmaid's Tale, Beloved is structured by the intimate thoughts of three characters, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. Because these womens' experiences tend to strain against the coherence of formal narrative, it was essential for my class to have a forum where they could discuss what happened when. Once they understood who Beloved was, and how she came to be, they were able to recognize why Beloved would seek to relive her early, traumatic experiences. Once again, the timeline enabled them to visualize this. Additionally, they were able to augment the novel's timeline with historical events--the end of the Civil War, for example. 

I think these timeline excercises really helped my students, not only to "figure out" these novels' complex plots, but also to understand the cyclical nature of trauma, and to really inhabit the subtleties of narrative. 

N.B.: Dipity sometimes moves excruciatingly slowly--the website, for some reason, takes forever to load, and any addition to the timeline we create often doesn't show up until long after it's been published. The site seems to be working a bit better these days, but I would still test it out if you plan on using it in class. A quick google search reveals other timeline-making web applications as well.


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