In Medias Res Definition
In Medias Res means narrating a story from the middle after supposing that the audiences are aware of past events. The etymology of this literary device goes back to the Roman lyric poet, Horace, who used it in his poem Ars Poetica as “Semper ad eventum festinat et in medias res….” It is a Latin phrase which literally denotes “in the midst of things.” Hence, the author employs this expression as a common strategy to initiate their stories.
In medias res demands beginning a narrative in the very middle of its action from some vital point when most of the action has occurred. The author then freely moves backward and forward at his leisure, connecting the dots of the story. All the explanations regarding the significance of setting, plot, characters and the minutiae of the story are gradually revealed in the form of a character’s dialogues or thoughts, or flashbacks. The setting and environment also contribute to add to the details of the action introduced at the beginning of the story.
Examples from Literature
Iliad by Homer
“Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.”
(Iliad by Homer, Book-1, Translation by Samuel Butler)
The practice of in medias res can be traced in Iliad as given in the first few lines. Homer has started his narrative directly with a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon during the events of the Trojan War instead of beginning chronologically from the birth of Achilles to onward.
Odyssey by Homer
“Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.”
(Odyssey by Homer, Book-1, Translation by Samuel Butler)
Another example is Odyssey again by Homer. The point of action does not start with the fall of Troy. Instead, it begins spontaneously with the details of Odysseus being held captive on the island of Ogygiya by the nymph Calypso where he was for the past seven years.
“In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.”
(Canto-1, “Inferno” by Dante Alighieri, Translation by H. F. Cary)
Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, also employs this technique, as Dante begins his narrative right in the center of the action. Even, the first line of part of the poem titled, “Inferno” begins, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,” which means “In the midway of this our mortal journey.”
Dostoyevsky’s novel The Gambler can also be cited as an example of in medias res. The novel starts forth as “At length, I returned from two weeks leave of absence to find that my patrons had arrived three days ago in Roulettenberg. I received from them a welcome quite different to that which I had expected. The General eyed me coldly, greeted me in rather haughty fashion, and dismissed me to pay my respects to his sister. It was clear that from SOMEWHERE money had been acquired. I thought I could even detect a certain shamefacedness in the General’s glance.”
(The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Chapter 1, Page 1)
A more contemporary example of this literary technique can be observed in the series Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. The author begins each of the novels in her saga by recounting a scene which happens towards the end of the book in the very start. “I’d never given much thought as to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”
(Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, Prologue, Page 1)
In Medias Res Meaning and Function
The purpose of starting in the middle of the action induces such an effect on the readers that they are forced to put questions to the authors. That is why it leads to the creation of suspense and tension. In fact, the readers have a strong desire to know the preceding as well as the succeeding events from the very beginning. Hence, the readers begin to focus on the events occurring throughout the story, and the author is spared from providing tedious details of the past. It also forces the readers to question every aspect of the events that are connected to the characters and their journey.