Chronotope is a term of literary theory that designates the spatiotemporal matrix of narrative texts. It was used for the first time by the Russian philologist and literary theoretician Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975). The definition as well as the application of the concept of chronotope is Bakhtin’s primary aim in his essay Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel (written 1937-1938). It is part of The Dialogic Imagination, a work that was not translated into English until 1981.
Bakhtin defines chronotope as the inseparable connection of spatial and temporal relations in literary texts. The word chronotope can literally be translated as “time-space” (from the Greek nouns chronos, time, and topos, place). “Time” is the first component of this neologism: this shall indicate that it is the dominating category in the chronotope.
Literary-artistic chronotopes share three basic features. First, they have generic significance, which means that a particular conception of spatiotemporal relations determines a literary genre. For Bakhtin, the history of literary-artistic chronotopes parallels the history of literary genres. Second, literary-artistic chronotopes determine to a large degree the image of individuals. The conception of characters in narrative texts is marked considerably by the spatiotemporal conditions surrounding them. The third basic feature of literary-artistic chronotopes is their representational significance. By locating narrative events and characters in a certain place at a certain time, the flow of time becomes visible. Thus, the novelist’s design of a literary-artistic chronotope makes time and space concrete.
Bakhtin points out the existence of six types of literary-artistic chronotopes that emerged during the course of literary history from the Greek romance to the Rabelaisian novel. The first type of these chronotopes is the “adventure novel or ordeal.” It is typical for the Greek romance (e.g., Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, Chariton’s Chareas and Callirhoe, and Xenophon’s Ephesiaca) and dominated by “adventuretime,” an immobile, reversible, mythological kind of time that is structured by extra-temporal gaps between moments in time. Adventure-time also determines the image of literary characters: as a nonbiographical time it turns them into unchanging, passive individuals, the irresolute objects of fate. The Greek romance is thus devoid of character development. On account of its mythological immobility, adventure-time leaves no trace in the characters.
The second type of literary-artistic chronotope is, according to Bakhtin, the “adventure novel of everyday life.” It is characterized by a mixture of adventure-time and “everyday-time.” To illustrate the significant features of this type of chronotope, Bakhtin refers to Petronius’s Satyricon and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, two Roman novels that were written in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The chronotope of these narratives resembles to some extent the chronotope of the Greek romance: in accordance with adventure-time, the works of both authors describe exceptional moments in a person’s life. They present no temporal progression in a strict sense. Yet, time in the adventure novel of everyday life differs to a significant degree from time as it is presented in the Greek romance. In contrast to the latter, it is not a reversible but an irreversible kind of time that leaves profound traces in the characters. The different conception of chronotope in the adventure novel of everyday life leads therefore to a different conception of character. In Apuleian and Petronian narratives the characters are no longer unchangeable objects of fate. Instead, their description is structured by the idea of metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is a method for portraying the whole of an individual’s life in its most important moments of crisis. It shows how persons become other than they were before (e.g., the protagonist of The Golden Ass, Lucius, is presented before his transformation into an ass, he is presented as an ass, and he is presented as a mysteriously rehumanized character). According to Bakhtin, the metamorphosis of charac- ters—that is, their development in time—is possible only because they are immediately confronted with everyday life. It is Lucius’s punishment to participate as an ass in everyday life for a certain period of time. Yet, being vis-a-vis everyday life is exactly what distinguishes the Apuleian and Petronian chronotope from the chronotope of the Greek romance.
The remaining types of the literary-artistic chronotope are explained exclusively with respect to their temporal structure. The “life course of one seeking true knowledge” is the third type of literary- artistic chronotope discussed by Bakhtin. It is typical for ancient biography and autobiography. Time in these literary genres has a biographical character; that is, it presents an individual’s temporal development. The fourth type of literary-artistic chronotope is the “miraculous world in adventure-time.” It occurs predominantly in the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages (e.g., in Wolfram’s parzival and Hartmann’s Erec). The chronotope of the miraculous world is characterized by a subjective playing with time: hours are compressed into moments, moments are stretched into days. The “Rabelaisian chronotope” is the fifth type of literary-artistic chronotope. It is marked significantly by an expansion of time and space, which means that the spatial and temporal dimensions are exaggerated as much as possible, creating an impression of grotesque unreality. The “idyllic chronotope” is the last type of literary-artistic chronotope described in Bakhtin’s essay. It is characterized primarily by a cyclic rhythm of time in which the life of a character is just a repetition of the life of the generations before.
The description of the different chronotopes makes clear that Bakhtin regards spatiotemporal relations in narrative texts as the fundamental coordinates that determine to a large degree the literary parameters of a narrative piece of writing.
See also Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich; Novels, Time in; Perception
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