In Psycho, Robert Bloch effective uses time overlaps and flashbacks to tell his story. If he moved time forward only in a linear fashion, we’d miss out on much of the suspense that’s created when we have the limited viewpoint of one character.
Throughout the story, the point-of-view changes only at chapter breaks. Though we may have the same point-of-view character for several chapters running, Block never switches viewpoint in the middle of a chapter. This effectively keeps us in these characters’ worlds to the point that the reader gets emotionally involved with them.
Chapter one starts with Norman Bates showing background on his life and relationship with his mother. He hears a car driving up.
At the beginning of the second chapter, time rewinds to show us Mary lost on a dark road. The story moves into a flashback of Mary’s life the day she stole the money from her employer. Mr. Lowery. Inside of that flashback is another flashback telling about her youth with its missed opportunities to go to college or marry, and how she met Sam Loomis on a cruise. It wasn’t the “wild, surging thing” it had been when she met her former lover, but Sam offered her a possible future. He did have considerable debts, though. The story then returns to the Mary being lost on a dark road pulling up to the Bates Motel with Norman opening her car door.
The third chapter stays in Mary’s point-of-view as she meets Norman, checks in, goes up to the house for dinner with Norman. Their conversation reveals more about their respective personalities. Mary goes back to her room and decides to take a shower, but her peaceful night is cut short when she sees a figure standing on the other side of the shower curtain with a knife. At that point Bloch violates viewpoint when he says, “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.” Presumably, she would have been dead at that point and wouldn’t have known that her head was being cut off.
In chapter four, we switch to Norman’s viewpoint. The timeframe again rewinds. He’s outside of his office trembling. Norman has a few drinks and looks through his peephole into Mary’s room as she’s preparing to take a shower. Norman semi-passes out and seems to see his mother standing over him. She leaves, he sleeps then startles awake, realizing that the shower is still going. He goes into Mary’s room, rips back the shower curtain and realizes that his mother has used her keys.
Norman is to some extent an unreliable narrator. He has actually killed Mary; he blacked out when he took on the personality of his mother and performed the despicable deed himself.
At the beginning of chapter five, we are back in Norman’s point-of-view. He’s walking back to the house, a bloody mess, even thou he has supposedly only looked at Mary’s dead body on the bathroom floor. After finding his mother gone, gets rid of the body.
In chapter six, time has jumped forward one week. Sam Loomis is in the back room of his hardware store listening to opera and wondering what he actually knows about Mary, when he hears a knock at the door. At first he thinks the woman standing there is Mary, but he soon realizes that it’s her sister, Lila.
Form here, time moves forward at a regular rate, until chapter fifteen. At the end of chapter fourteen, Sheriff Chambers has revived Sam after he’s been clobbered by Norman, and they both hear a scream from the old house. At the beginning of chapter fifteen, time rewinds and we see Lila going up the steps to the old house looking for clues to her sister’s death. At the end of the chapter, Lila stumbles upon Norman’s mother’s mummified body and screams.
At the beginning of chapter sixteen, time jumps forward to give us the resolution of how all of the cars and bodies were found. We also get a psychological evaluation of Norman.
The last chapter is the only one we see from Norman’s mother’s point of view, once he has melded all his personalities into one, that of his mother.
I wonder if Bloch consciously set out to manipulate time in Psycho or if he set out to tell the story in a way that came naturally to him. I think the latter is true.
Bloch, Robert. Psycho. New York: Tor Horror, 1959. Print