Time

There are two aspects of time that deserve particular attention in the analysis of narrative prose: the use of tense and the arrangement and presentation of time sequences in a narrative.

Tense

To start with tense: Probably most narratives are told in the past tense, the so-called narrative past as in this example:

Sir Walter Elliot [...] was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; [...] (Austen, Persuasion, ch. 1)

The tense of a narrative is determined by the tense of the full verbs (in this example: took, found).

Some narratives are written in the narrative present:

The magazine is open on Barbara's knee, but she does not look at it. She sits with her mouth open, her fur coat kept on, her face staring through the window. The train slides slowly down the platform at Watermouth. When it stops, she picks up her luggage and gets out. (Bradbury, History Man, ch. 12)

The verbs that determine narrative tense here are: look, sit, slide, stop, pick up, get out. Very often, the use of the narrative present gives the reader an impression of immediacy, whereas the use of the narrative past has a more distancing effect. This becomes especially noticeable when there is a tense switch, from narrative past to narrative present or back. (See the example under So What).

A tense switch can indicate a change in perspective or time level, as in the following example:

She came out of the arbour almost as if to throw herself in my arms. I hasten to add that I escaped this ordeal and that she didn't even shake hands with me. (James, Aspern Papers, ch. 5).

Here the narrative of events in the narrative past is interrupted by a remark made by the narrator at the time of narration in the narrative present ("I hasten to add [...]").

Even though most narratives are told in the narrative past, they are frequently interspersed by statements of general application in the present tense. This use of the present tense is called gnomic present. This gnomic present is grammatically speaking no different from the narrative present, but it does not represent a tense switch in the same sense. In narrative present the action of the narrative is given. By contrast, in gnomic present, generic statements are made that claim general validity (Chatman 1978: 82; Stanzel 1984: 108):

When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to truth; and if such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition? [...] Sir Walter made no objection, and Elizabeth did nothing worse than look cold and unconcerned (Austen, Persuasion, ch. 24)

Notice the change of tense from the general observation ("When any two young people take it into their heads [...]") to narrative past in the specific case of the story ("Sir Walter made no objection [...]").



Key-Terms:


narrative past
narrative present
tense switch
gnomic present