Time in Novels

Time in Novels

Time in novels is based on a fundamental duality. Günther Müller, a German literature theorist, was the first who reflected thoroughly on this duality. In 1948 he introduced the opposition between erzahlte Zeit (story time) and Erzahlzeit (narrative time), a literary terminology that has gained inter­national acceptance. Story time designates the chronology of the events told—that is, the time of the story—whereas narrative time means the time of the narrative presentation of the story; in other words, the time of the plot. The temporal com­plexities that result from the relation between story time and narrative time were studied in detail by Gerard Genette, a French literary theorist who is primarily associated with the structuralist move­ment. In his canonical work, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1972), Genette proposes that time in novels may be classified in terms of order, duration, and frequency. We shall follow Genette’s terminology, because it fills the need for a system­atic theory of time in narrative texts.

The first main category discussed by Genette is the category of order. It designates the discrepan­cies between, on the one hand, the temporal order of a series of real or fictitious events connected by a certain chronology and, on the other hand, the temporal arrangement of these events in the nar­rative discourse. Genette pays attention to the fact that events occur in one order but are narrated in another. This discordance between the temporal succession of events in the story and their arrange­ment in the plot is called anachrony. Anachronical relations between story and plot are realized mostly by means of analepses and prolepses. Analepses are narrative episodes that take place earlier than the temporal point of departure of the narrative into which they are inserted. They are narrative retrospections or backflashes. The framing narra­tive is the first narrative, containing the analeptic sequence as the second narrative. Prolepses are temporal anticipations, narrative episodes that take place later than the temporal point of depar­ture of the narrative, into which they are inserted. The framing narrative that contains the proleptic sequence is the first narrative, whereas the framed episode is the second narrative. Yet a careful analysis of the temporal order of narrative texts is not finished with the mere identification of ana- lepses and prolepses, which must be further speci­fied in respect to reach and extent. Reach designates the temporal distance of events told in the analep­tic (proleptic) sequence from the moment in the story when the narrative was interrupted to make room for the anachrony. To determine the reach of analepses (prolepses) the reader must ask, “How long is the temporal distance between first and second narrative?” Extent is used to describe the duration of the story that is covered by the analep­tic (proleptic) sequence. In this case the reader’s question is, “How long is the period of time told in the second narrative?” In addition, analepses (prolepses) may contain further anachronies. These narrative sequences already framed by an anachronic episode are analepses (prolepses) of second degree.

Duration is the second main category discussed in Genette’s Narrative Discourse. The duality of story time and narrative time allows novelists to control precisely the speed of their narratives. Duration is defined by the relation between the length of the story (measured in seconds, minutes, days, etc.) and the length of the text used to describe it (measured in lines, pages, chapters, etc.). The discrepancies between the length of the story and the length of the text are anisochronies (variations in speed). Genette determines four types of speed variations: summary, scene, pause, and ellipses.

  • Summary means that the period of time told in a story is much longer than the narrative sequence used to describe it. Summaric episodes may cover 50 years in three or four sentences. Usually they are used for the transition between two scenes; they form the background against which scenic presentations stand out.
  • Scene designates the correspondence between the period of time told in the story and the length of the narrative that describes it. Most often scenic episodes are characterized by dialogues, they present important conversations between the protagonists as well as dramatic events in their real length.
  • Pause means that the speed of a narrative text is remarkably slowed down. Descriptive pauses are realized by epic ecphrasis or digression. The length of the narrative discourse of a pause may cover eight or nine pages, though it tells nothing about the further development of the story. Descriptive pauses stop the temporal progression of the story while the narrative discourse moves on constantly.
  • Ellipses are gaps in the temporal continuity of the story. The period of time left out may cover hours, days, years, and more. For a precise knowledge of ellipses, readers have to consider the elided story time. Thus, their first question is to know whether the temporal elision is explicitly announced by quick summaries of the type “some time later” (explicit ellipses) or left out without any comment (implicit ellipses). Their second question is to know whether the duration of these time gaps is indicated (definite ellipses) or not (indefinite ellipses).

Frequency is the last main category discussed by Genette to describe the complex relations between story time and narrative time. It desig­nates the relation of repetition between the events told in the story and their presentation in the nar­rative discourse. The frequency of a narrative text determines its temporal rhythm. Genette works out four types of frequency: narrating once what happened once, narrating n times what happened n times, narrating n times what happened once, and narrating once what happened n times. The first two types are singular narratives. In singular narratives the number of events in the story cor­responds exactly to the number of statements about these events in the narrative text: If some­thing happens once in the story, it is mentioned once in the narrative discourse; if something hap­pens twice in the story, it is mentioned twice in the narrative discourse, and so on. The third type of frequency is the repeating narrative. Repeating narratives are characterized by a discrepancy between the number of events told in the story and the number of statements about these events in the narrative. For example, something hap­pened only once, yet it is mentioned two times or more in the narrative discourse. The last type of frequency is the iterative narrative. In iterative narratives regular events are reduced to one single utterance of the type “Every Monday he caught the train at 11 p.m.”

Genette’s Narrative Discourse exclusively ana­lyzes the literary presentation of time with regard to the form of narratives. Yet time can also be the thematic center of a novel. When we study time as the theme of a narrative, we no longer refer to its form but to its content. In this respect a funda­mental distinction of time is the one between objective and subjective time. Objective time des­ignates the regular succession of minutes, hours, and days that is measurable with a watch or a calendar. It is a consistent kind of time without deviations. Subjective time is based on the percep­tion of characters in a novel. It depends on their individual experience, capricious imagination, or rambling memory. Subjective time changes con­stantly; hours are stretched into months, years compressed into days.

A careful textual analysis of the duality between story time and narrative time has to consider the specific characteristics of both kinds of time, especially in their relation to form and content. In the following section (Time as Form) we shall focus on some of the most famous novels of world literature in which the literary presentation of time decisively determines the narrative form. The final section, Time as Content, discusses renowned novels in which time is a thematic cen­ter. Although the presentation of time in novels has to be considered separately in respect to form and content, the two aspects are not to be isolated from each other. It is exactly their correspon­dence, or their significant contrast, that consti­tutes the temporal complexity of a narrative piece of writing.

Time as Form

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) is one of the most prominent novels in which the pre­sentation of time in the story is mirrored in the form of the narrative. The protagonist’s subjective experience of, and his reflection on, time is formally expressed by variations in speed. Hans Castorp, an ordinary young man, takes a short break between his final examinations in engineering and his first job. He plans a 3-week visit to his cousin Joachim, who stays at a sanatorium in the Swiss mountains because he suffers from pulmonary tuberculosis. Though Hans’s visit begins as a holiday trip, it turns into a stay of 7 years that is abruptly ended by the outbreak of World War I.

The spatial distance between the mountains and the so-called flatland turns the sanatorium into a hermetic place. The rhythm of time on the mountain is completely different from the rhythm of time in the plain where the young protagonist comes from. At first, Hans views life on the moun­tain from the perspective of the flatland. He accuses Joachim of wasting his time in the sanato­rium and does not understand why for him and the other patients the smallest temporal unit is a month. Yet life in the sanatorium rapidly benumbs Hans’s sense of time. Soon he has experienced all the details of clinical routine and knows by heart its daily, weekly, and even monthly rhythms. The protagonist begins to live in a perpetual present, lacking even the temporal clues of nature, because in the mountains all kinds of weather appear in disorder throughout the year. Paradoxically, the extratemporal present on the mountain inspires Hans Castorp to reflect about the essence of time and to question temporal categories he has previ­ously taken for granted. The new patient learns by experience that time in the flatland (objective time) is completely different from the psychologi­cal experience of time on the mountain (subjective time). The protagonist’s complete absorption in atemporality ends with the outbreak of the First World War: He has to do military service and dies, presumably in a battle.

Hans’s subjective experience of time and his isolation in an eternal present find their formal expression in a significant acceleration of speed. The length of the text that describes the first 3 weeks on the mountain is about seven times longer than the summary of the following 3 weeks. Apart from Hans’s discussion with the Italian humanist Lodovico Settembrini and his opponent Leo Naphta, the remaining time of the protagonist’s stay in the sanatorium (altogether 7 years) is summarized even more briefly. Another outstanding event in respect to time is Hans Castorp’s dreamlike vision of life and death in a blizzard during a solitary skiing expedition. For the presentation of this event, the narrative speed slows down again, just to accelerate even faster afterward. These variations of speed illustrate clearly that Mann tried to find a formal equivalent for the temporal experience of the protagonist.

James Joyce pursued a similar idea when he wrote Ulysses (1922), whose composition of time depends primarily on the author’s new approach to characterization. Instead of describing the charac­ters from outside, Joyce puts himself in their place and depicts them from inside. This radical internal­ization is called “stream of consciousness.” It tries to present the thoughts and feelings of literary fig­ures exactly as they pass through the characters’ minds. Joyce was the first writer to use a stream- of-consciousness presentation continuously in his narratives. This new approach to characterization significantly influences the presentation of time in Ulysses. In respect to the story, internal character­ization leads to an emphasis on subjective time. Objective time provides merely an external frame­work for the temporal structure of Joyce’s novel. The major action takes place in the temporal expe­rience of the main characters (Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and Stephen DaeDalíus). The intertex- tual references to Homer’s Odyssey enrich the presentation of time in Ulysses on a symbolic level. Each episode of Joyce’s novel has its parallel in the Odyssey. Yet the Irish author summarizes Odysseus’s wanderings, which lasted around 10 years, in just 1 day: The action of Ulysses takes place exclusively on June 16th, 1904.

Because the story of Homer’s epic poem is implicitly integrated into Ulysses, time in Joyce’s narrative assumes a mythological quality. In respect to the form of Ulysses, the consequent use of the stream-of-consciousness technique provokes a deceleration of speed in the narrative discourse: Whereas the story time covers just one day, the narrative time is significantly longer. It is impossible to read Joyce’s novel in precisely 24 hours, even if readers want to. The literary presentation of the character’s thoughts and feelings consumes much more time than their actual succession in reality. Thus it is precisely the technique of the stream of consciousness that shapes the conception of time in Ulysses in respect to both form and content.

In contrast to the 1-day summary of Ulysses, the events in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 700 BCE) cover a temporal period of approximately 10 years. Yet the passage of time is not reported continuously. The Odyssey is full of anachronic sequences that switch back to the protagonist’s past or implicitly hint at his future. The anachronic presentation of time allows Homer to portray the wanderings of Odysseus exclusively in their final and decisive phase, which lasts about 40 days. All events that precede this starting point of the first narrative (from the fall of Troy until the protagonist’s ship­wrecking on Ogygia) are told in analeptic sequences by Odysseus himself or in the songs of a minstrel. A similar temporal order applies also to Homer’s earlier work, the Iliad (c. 750 BCE), that centers around a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. Having evoked the conflict between the characters that the narrator proclaims to be the starting point of his story, he switches back about 10 days to reveal the cause of the quarrel. The first analeptic sequence is thus inserted in the very beginning of Homer’s epic poem. It reveals the cause of the con­flict in about 140 retrospective lines. A closer look at Homer’s epics makes clear, therefore, that the temporal structures of the Iliad and the Odyssey are based fundamentally on anachronies.

Returning to 20th-century literature, the most complex literary presentation of time can be found in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (also known as Remembrance of Things Past, 1913-1927). The reflection on time in the Search is exceptional in respect to form and content. As in Mann’s Magic Mountain and Joyce’s Ulysses, subjective time determines the story of Proust’s narrative. In the Search, time assumes the form of involuntary memory (memoire involontaire). The narrator-protagonist, Marcel, tries to remember his life. He learns that only the involuntary mem­ory is able to bring back the complete image of the past immediately. The voluntary memory (memoire volontaire) is under rational control and thus remains superficial. A canonical example of the workings of the involuntary memory is the so-called madeleine passage in the opening of the Search. A discrete similarity between present and past (in this case the unexpected flavor of a piece of madeleine cake that Marcel dips into a cup of tea) transports Marcel immediately back to his childhood at Combray. The involuntary memory evokes an overpowering recollection and grants Marcel a glimpse into the essence of the past.

Proust’s literary presentation of the involuntary memory was significantly inspired by the philoso­phy of Henri Bergson. His philosophical study Matter and Memory (1896) appeared when Proust was 25. In the second chapter of his work, Bergson distinguishes two kinds of memory: the memory of habit and the pure or spontaneous memory. He argues that the latter is independent of our will. Proust’s poetics can be called “Bergsonian” inso­far as he implicitly adopts the philosopher’s distinction between an intentional and an unin­tentional form of remembrance.

The involuntary memory also determines the narrative form of the Search. Although remem­brance is a temporal process, the basic structure of the novel seems to be static and lifts the action out of time. The impression of atemporality is primar­ily evoked by the iterative character of the narra­tive form of the Search: Marcel tells us once what happened every Sunday in Aunt Leonie’s house­hold; he tells us once about the daily walks with his family. Regular repetition has turned these ordinary actions into a ritual. It is the iterative narration of ritualized events that evokes the impression of immovability and makes Marcel’s remembrance of the past eternal.

The last important literary technique for the pre­sentation of time we shall discuss is digression. The complexity of time in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) results primarily from the exuberant use of rhetorical digression. Digressions are excurses from the primary line of a narrative. They slow down the narrative speed or even cause it to stagnate. Rhetorical digressions thus tradition­ally assume the function of pauses: In a digressive sequence, the time of the story is stopped while the narrative discourse moves on. In Tristram Shandy, however, the use of digression is driven to the extreme and undermines its classical function. Digression causes an inversion of the ordinary flow of time: Having set himself the task to omit nothing of his life that is relevant, the narrator-protagonist, Tristram, has to admit its impossibility. Up to the middle of the fourth volume of the novel, he has gotten no farther than the first day of his life. The more Tristram tells about his life, the more he will have to tell. He dwells upon long excurses while his own life is constantly proceeding but remains undocumented. Sterne’s exuberant use of digression turns it into progression: His novel is digressive and progressive at the same time. Sentences are inter­rupted abruptly and not finished until 30 pages farther on. Yet the time in between is stuffed with oddities and strange encounters that enrich the characters by adding new details of their past lives. By driving digression to the extreme, the author creates temporal paradoxes that completely sus­pend the linear flow of time.

Rhetorical digression also shapes the presenta­tion of time in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). Although Moby Dick is a work of fiction, Melville included chapters that are largely con­cerned with an almost scientific discussion of whales. These chapters are known as episodes of cetology (from the Greek nouns cetus “whale” and logos “knowledge”). They significantly slow down the narrative speed of the story that focuses on Captain Ahab’s furious obsession to kill Moby Dick, the white whale, who swallowed his leg. The cetology chapters form a story of second degree that parallels Captain Ahab’s obsession on a more abstract level: They present the narrator’s untiring effort to bring the mythic power of Moby Dick under rational control by scientific reflection. Yet, as Ahab drowns in a fight with Moby Dick, the intention of Ishmael, the narrator, remains unfulfilled, too. All the scientific approaches fail to give him an adequate account of the white whale’s ineffable mystery and strength. The conception of time in Moby Dick is thus determined to a signifi­cant degree by rhetorical digression. In contrast to Tristram Shandy, however, digression keeps its traditional function in Moby Dick: It does not generate the whole novel but remains a deviation from the primary line of the narrative.

Time as Content

This section discusses in chronological order cer­tain novels in which time is a central theme of the story and thus primarily relevant in respect to the narrative’s content.

The content of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (com­pleted in 8 CE) unites three kinds of time: primeval time, mythological time, and historical time. Ovid starts his epic poem with the story of Creation. He proceeds with a literary description of the mytho­logical history of the world and ends his narration in his own time under the rule of Augustus. The major theme of the Metamorphoses is, as the title already suggests, transformation or change. Divine and human beings are physically transformed into animals or plants. The story of each single transfor­mation is intended to give a reason for the existence of things. Metamorphosis thematically unites the loosely connected episodes. It is a process in time that demonstrates that continuous change is the fundamental principle of the mythological as well as the terrestrial world. Containing versions of many of the most famous myths of Greece and Rome, Ovid’s epic poem has become one of the corner­stones of Western culture.

Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1300) opposes two time schemes: the historical time of the terrestrial world on the one hand, and the time of salvation history on the other. In the middle of his life, Dante (the author, narrator, and protagonist) has lost the straightforward pathway to God. To be purified again, he has to cross the three empires of the beyond: hell, purgatory, and paradise. Dante enters the eternal sphere as an individual person, though his figure has a representative meaning, too: Dante’s voyage beyond the grave is also the voyage of humankind. By assuming both an individual and a representative meaning, the figure of the narrator­protagonist unites historical time and eternity. This double meaning applies also to the voyage that is not a mere movement through time and space but a spiritual journey. We can measure Dante’s travel in historical time: It lasts about 7 days. Yet, what is more important than the measurement of time in days is the traveler’s process of purification during his transition from hell to paradise. This process is spiritual and thus situated outside of time, in eter­nity. However, the narrative discourse shows no traces of reflecting this extratemporality. The narra­tive form of Dante’s epic poem can be described as a regular alternation between scene and summary. The Divine Comedy thus illustrates a strict division between the representation of time in respect to its content and the temporal conception of the narrative discourse.

Temporal paradoxes are thematically discussed in Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Following a white rabbit down a rabbit hole, Alice finds herself in a dreamlike world where the logic of reality is completely aban­doned. In Wonderland even time runs differently so that Alice joins, for instance, a never-ending tea party in which it is always six o’clock. The temporal absurdities the young girl is confronted with are discussed in the story. They find, however, no cor­responding expression in the narrative discourse that shows the classical alternation between scene and summary.

Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874) is about Anthony the Great, a recluse who lives isolated on a mountain top in the Egyptian desert. The novel describes one night in the life of Anthony during which he is besieged by carnal temptation and philosophical doubt. Asceticism and meditation completely suspend the protagonist’s sense of time and space. In this hallu­cinatory mood Anthony is confronted with the vision of a primordial earth. He witnesses the first signs of inanimate and animate nature as well as the birth of humankind. In addition, the saint is haunted by several allegorical figures (among them Lust and Death) who want to change his belief that isolation is the truest form of worship. In The Temptation of Saint Anthony Flaubert tried to summarize the history of the world in the visions of one night.

The discussion of time as memory is an impor­tant theme in Fyodor M. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Whereas the primary line of narrative centers around the story of a parricide, the topic of memory is discussed primarily in the most important side story of Dostoevsky’s novel. It focuses on a group of schoolboys throwing rocks at one of their peers, Ilyusha. In the course of the novel, however, Ilyusha dies. His funeral is discussed at length in the epilogue of The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers, makes a speech near the stone where Ilyusha’s par­ents wanted to bury their son. Alyosha asks the boys to keep Ilyusha as well as the day of his funeral in their memories forever. He proclaims that especially the memory of one’s childhood is the best kind of education. Memory shall unite Ilyusha, his friends, and Alyosha forever. With Alyosha’s memorial speech Dostoevsky emphasizes the impor­tance of living memory, that is, an active kind of commemoration that constantly tries to evoke the dead as companions of the living.

Time as history is the thematic center of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. A Narrative of the Time of Nero (1895) whose story takes place in antiq­uity. Quo Vadis is the most famous historical novel of the late 19th century. It tells of a love between Lygia, a young Christian woman, and Marcus Vicinius, a Roman patrician. The action is set around 64 CE in the city of Rome under the rule of Nero. Before writing Quo Vadis, Sienkiewicz thoroughly studied the history of the Roman empire. He filled his novel with historical conflicts and characters to evoke the time of Nero as authen­tically as possible. The tradition of the historical novel experienced a great revival with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), perhaps the most famous historical novel of the 20th century.

In contrast to historical novels that deal with a distant past, science fiction novels discuss imagi­nary technological or scientific advances that may determine our life in the future. With The Time Machine (1895), H. G. Wells set the cornerstone for this literary genre. His narrative is concerned with the concept of time travel using a vehicle that brings the traveler into the past or the future. The physical constitution of time is discussed at length in the framework story of The Time Machine: The time traveler, a nameless amateur inventor living in London, explains to his evening guests that time is nothing but the fourth dimension of space. He is convinced of the fact that there must exist a suitable apparatus that can move back and forth in time.

Eventually the inventor constructs such a machine that takes him to the year 802701 CE, where he is faced with a society that has diverged into two branches: There are the peaceful, childlike, but unintelligent Eloi on the one hand, and the intelli­gent but bestial Morlocks on the other. Both species are of subhuman intelligence. Another adventure brings the time traveler to a future that is 30 million years from his own time. He sees the last traces of life on a dying Earth, where the only sign of life is a black creature with tentacles. From a last voyage in time, the inventor never returns.

The Time Machine also set the ground for the literary tradition of dystopia in the 20th century. Dystopian narratives present the picture of an imaginary society that is worse than our own that the majority of us would fear to live in. Dystopian images are for the most part visions of a future society. Wells’s narrative is both a science fiction novel and a dystopian novel that presents the author’s vision of a troubled future.

The basic conception of time in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) resembles to some degree the conception of time in Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It tells the story of an expedition to a hidden plateau in South America where dino­saurs and other extinct animals are still alive. Again it seems to be spatial isolation that pro­vokes a significant change of time and takes the explorers back into a prehistoric past. Conan Doyle’s narrative is among the first science fiction novels of the 20th century.

James Hilton’s utopian novel Lost Horizon (1933) is a further narrative that centers on the specific conception of time in a geographically isolated place. Hugh Conway, a member of the British diplomatic service, is among four kidnap victims who are brought to Shangri-La, a lama­sery in the mountains of Tibet. They receive a very friendly welcome by the monks, who firmly believe in an ethics of moderation. Like the sana­torium in The Magic Mountain, the valley of Shangri-La is a peaceful but isolated place that ignores the actions of the outer world. Conway and the other victims soon realize that the tempo­ral rhythm in Shangri-La differs to a large degree from the rhythm of time outside the valley. This dichotomy is a further aspect that resembles the conception of time in The Magic Mountain, though a closer look reveals that time in the Tibetan lamasery also differs significantly from time in the Swiss sanatorium: Whereas Hans Castorp experiences an extreme acceleration of time, the temporal rhythm of life in Shangri-La is remark­ably slowed down. This deceleration of time affects primarily the physical processes of the human body. By a combination of drugs, meditation, and a special diet, the metabolism itself is slowed. Thus the inhabitants of Shangri-La may arrive at an age of several hundred years. In contrast to the artistic masterpiece of Mann that reflects the pro­tagonist’s subjective experience of time in the form of the novel, the deceleration of time finds no corresponding expression in the narrative form of the Lost Horizon.

Verena Kammandel

See also Alighieri, Dante; Bradbury, Ray; Carroll, Lewis; Chronotopes; Clarke, Arthur C.; Dostoevsky, Fyodor M.; Flaubert, Gustave; Homer; Joyce, James; Mann, Thomas; Ovid; Proust, Marcel; Shangri-La, Myth of; Sterne, Laurence; Tolstoy, Leo Nikolaevich; Verne, Jules; Wells, H. G.; Woolf, Virginia

Further Readings

Bergin, T. G. (Ed.). (1967). From time to eternity. Essays on Dante’s Divine Comedy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fluchere, H. (1965). The mind and the clock. In H. Fluchere, Laurence Sterne: From Tristram to Yorick (pp. 90-129). London: Oxford University Press.

Genette, G. (1990). Narrative discourse. An essay in method. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1996). Time and sense: Proust and the experience of literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kumar, U. (1991). The Joycean labyrinth: Repetition, time, and tradition in Ulysses. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Nakin, P. J. (2001). Time machines: Time travel in physics, metaphysics, and science fiction. New York: AIP Press.

Westfahl, G. (Ed.). (2002). Worlds enough and time: Explorations of time in science fiction and fantasy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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