Narrative Time in Literature

Telling a story almost always involves some sense of unfolding time. While many authors have worked to communicate a realistic sense of the passage of time through seamless descriptions that take place in normal and logical time sequences(Tony Hillerman's mysteries set in the American Southwest are one example), many others have experimented ways in which the past, present, and future intermingle.

One common device is the use of a narrator who, situated in the "present" tense, relates experiences from his past. In Herman Melville's classic story Moby Dick, the narrator (remember "Call me Ishmael," the opening line of the book?) is a witness to the obsessive pursuit of a gigantic white whale by Captain Ahab. In the Illiad, the action is narrated from the perspective of Homer, a blind and illiterate poet. Homer recounts in verse the epic tale of a very long war conducted against Troy by the Greeks.

Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is a well known example of a protagonist--Ebenezor Scrooge--who "time travels" to his boyhood past, the present as seen in the family of Bob Cratchit, and the future as seen in the dark vision of the death of Tiny Tim.

Still other authors track human moral and psychological development in broad sweeping multi-volume works. Joseph Conrad said that three of his stories--"Youth," "Heart of Darkness," and "The End of the Tether"--could be considered a trilogy of the three ages of man. James Joyce arranged his short stories in the Dubliners in four groups: stories of childhood, adolescence, maturity, adn public life (1).

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