3.5. Aspect





Inherent duration





We shall use the term aspect,  inspired on the verbal category, to refer to a temporal perspective grounded on the nature of the action sequence itself and of its causal connection to other elements of the action.

            Grammarians have introduced several aspectual distinctions when studying the verbal system of languages, and we can use some of them by analogy.[1] Frequency (singulative / repetitive / iterative aspects) is one dimension of narrative aspect.[2] We might add the dimensions of unfolding (inchoative / progressive / terminative / perfective aspects) and inherent duration (punctual / durative / permanent aspects).




"Frequency" is the relationship between the repetitions in the action and those in the story.[3]  As we noted in our first section, the notion of repetition depends on identity, and this is an operative concept.  Repeated elements are being considered insofar as they are alike; this does not mean that there are no differences between them.[4]  There are four main types of frequency: singulative,  which involves a one-to one relationship between action events and their rendering in the story; repetitive,  when the same event in the action is narrated a number of times (for instance, from a variety of perspectives), and iterative,  when the story gathers into a common mention a number of similar occurrences in the action‹the narrative of Flaubert and that of Proust, for instance, are dominated by iterativity; this movement is associated with memory and habit, and is especially common in modern autobiographies, being a way to underline the common occurrences which gave a particular character to a given time or which contributed to the setting up of character traits and personal associations.[5]  The fourth movement, which we shall call frequentative,  is half-way between the singulative and the iterative, and occurs when the story narrates a limited number of times an event which is itself indefinitely repetitive in the action.[6]  The frequentative is often used to create mood or symbolic values, or to underline character traits; it emphasizes the repetition of events in a way the iterative does not, and that to a varying degree which depends on the writer's will. 






This is an aspectual category which requires an referential point from which the degree of unfolding is measured.  The moment of enunciation is a central point of deictic orientation in narrative texts.  There are, however, other possible "now"-points which can act as a reference, such as the spatial/temporal position of the focalizer, and that of the characters as well.  Both are logically subordinated to the enunciative now-point.  Their use as reference points is therefore not a necessity but a rhetorical figure.  An action which is finished from the point of view of the narrator can be presented in the course of its development if we adopt the perspective of the focalizer.  An event may be perfective for the focalizer, progressive for a character.     

         Genette's study of snares and false snares (1980: 77), based as it is on the standardized nature of action materials and of the causal sequence between them, could easily fall under the heading of aspectual unfolding.  Also, stress may fall either on the inception or on the conclusion of action sequences, or of the action itself.  If a narrative shows a marked preference for the suggestiveness of sequential inceptions, we may call its aspect inchoative; if it prefers to begin in medias res  and place stress on endings, its aspect will be terminative. 



Inherent Duration


As a category of verbal aspect, duration is implicit in the verb itself.  Or maybe we should say it is a form of predication.  We can use the classifications of forms of predication at sentence level as a reference point for the study of the inherent duration of narrative events.[7]





Properties                                  Situations



                  States                        Occurrences / actions



                  Processes / activities                       events / performances



                  Developments / Accomplishments            Punctual ocurrences /Achievements



            Each predication in the story refers to a state of affairs in the action.  A specific segment of the story will refer to a state of affairs which will be more or less durative or transitory‹a character trait, a mood, a sudden event.  The representation of punctual occurrences is closest to the mimetic illusion of coincidence between action and discourse, while more durative action traits will require a variety of techniques if their permanence or rhythm is to be given a role in the narrative.  The aspectuality of action events is potential and manifold, and the story may favour certain aspects, certain types of development, which will constitute the actualized aspectuality of the story. 

         Any of the aspects we have analyzed can be used in a deviant way.  That is, an aspectual construction may be imposed on an activity or event whose inherent aspectuality, or the aspectuality it is most commonly associated with are at odds with the new construction.  For instance, an event which is so individually characterized as to be recognized as unique may be presented in an iterative construction, yielding a pseudo-iterative.[8] A punctual action may be presented atemporally, yielding a pseudo-property or a pseudo-state; an inchoative action may be presented as a durative one, etc.  


[1]          On verbal aspect, see Jespersen (1968: 286ff) and Lozano et al. (1982: 138ff).

[2]          The study of frequency is dealt with by Genette as a category of narrative time. Genette notes the grammatical relationship (1980: 113) but disregards aspectual distinctions other than those of frequency. That Genette tends to reduce all questions of narrative aspect under the perspective of the aspectual polarity singulative / iterative becomes evident when he describes a sentence such as "water boils at one-hundred degrees" as "iterative narrative" (1980,  212 n.).

[3]          Genette 1983.

[4]          Cf. Genette 1983: 145f.

[5]          Cf. Genette 1972; 1983: 26; Lejeune 1975.

[6]          The first three movements are identified by Genette, the fourth by Bal (1977: 129f).

[7]          We modify a classification in Mourelatos 1981. Inherent duration, an aspectual category, should not be confused with the temporal duration of scenes, summaries, etc.

[8]          See the examples from Proust in Genette 1972.