Writing

What Is An Anachronism? Learn About the Different Types of Anachronism in Literature and Film With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Apr 26, 2019 • 2 min read

Imagine reading a story about a caveman who microwaves his dinner, or watching a film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel in which the characters text each other instead of writing letters. These out of place circumstances are examples of anachronisms. Anachronisms are an error of chronology—the kind that makes audiences raise their eyebrows or do a double-take. Sometimes anachronisms are true blunders; other times, they’re used intentionally to add humor or to comment on a specific time period in history.

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What Is An Anachronism?

An anachronism is a literary device that places someone or something associated with a particular time in history in the wrong time period. Anachronism comes from the Greek words “chronos,” meaning “time” and the prefix “ana-” meaning “back” or “again.”

There are two literary terms that are closely related to anachronism:

  1. Juxtaposition. Similar to anachronism, juxtaposition means placing two things side by side for comparison.
  2. Archaism. The use of outmoded language for a stylistic effect. For example, replacing “you” with “thou.”

3 Different Types of Anachronism

There are three different types of anachronisms; each serves a different purpose.

  1. Parachronism. Anything that appears in the wrong time period. This could be an object, a colloquial expression, or a social custom associated with a specific time period appearing in the wrong era or outside of its general use. For example, a modern-day person using a washboard to clean clothes instead of a washing machine.
  2. Prochronism. Considered an impossible anachronism, this relates to something—an object or concept—used in a literary work or movie long before its invention (like a microwave in the Stone Age).
  3. Behavioral or cultural anachronism. Bringing archaic objects or ideas into the modern-day as an aesthetic choice. For example, a person carrying a conversation in Latin in the twenty-first century.

3 Different Uses for Anachronism

Anachronisms appear in literature, film, and everyday life. Here are three popular uses for anachronism.

  • Make a statement. For example, a Russian commemorative coin depicting the 1945 meeting of Soviet and American troops at Torgau, in Germany, depicts a 50-star U.S. flag. However, at the time, the real U.S. flag only had 48 stars.
  • Add humor. The 2004 movie Napoleon Dynamite took place in 2004, but the characters were dressed in clothing from the eighties. They had VCRs, cordless phones, and danced to eighties music—which all added to the protagonist’s social anxiety and sense of displacement.
  • Break the fourth wall. In the Western satire film Blazing Saddles, set in the year 1874, director Mel Brooks has the characters break through a wall—both real and metaphysical—to reveal a Hollywood production set.

What Is the Difference Between Intentional and Unintentional Anachronisms?

Writers or filmmakers can place intentional anachronisms in a story to add humor or juxtapose a work with another time period. Unintentional anachronisms, however, are the result of an error. These inaccuracies can ruin the suspension of disbelief for a reader or viewer.

A great example of an intentional anachronism is the 2006 film Marie Antoinette, written and directed by Sofia Coppola. The historical drama is set in the 1700s and chronicles the life of Marie Antoinette. However, Coppola wanted to draw attention to her protagonist’s youth and naivete so she placed a pair of Converse High Tops in the background of one scene set in Antoinette’s bedroom.

By contrast, take the 1989 film Glory, which was set during the American Civil War and features an unintentional anachronism: a soldier wearing a digital wristwatch. Another famous example of an unintentional anachronism is in the 1995 film Braveheart, which takes place during the thirteenth century. In the film, actor Mel Gibson wears a Scottish kilt; however, the iconic piece of clothing was not invented until the sixteenth century.