4.8. Time of the narrating


Up to now we have been discussing the temporality of the story, which is a set of structural relationships between the action and its representation in a text.  But a text is something which is produced, enunciated, at some moment in time.  An ordinary speaker always speaks in a specific space and time, and these can leave a trace in the discourse.      Spatial reference leaves its traces in the adverbs and deictics of the narrative‹in general, in its way of constructing and naming location, space, distance.  It would merit separate study, but here we will concentrate on discursive time.   In a previous section we have defined narrative tense  as the study of the relationships of order and duration between the succession of events in the action and the succesion of signs which represent them in the discourse.  Now we turn our attention to a different manifestation of time in narrative: the time of the narrative act, its duration and its order with respect to the events in the action. 

            Verbal narrative is once again a special case.  In dramatic or filmic narrative, there is not an inscribed moment of enunciation which organizes the representation of the story.  The story simply unfolds in front of the audience, unmediated by a narrator's activity.  Verbal narrative is mediated, and therefore the narrator's enunciation is a crucial reference point for the audience.  Putting it otherwise: filmic or dramatic narrative is seen as an unfolding present; verbal narrative is in principle presented as an unfolding of past events, past as seen from the narrator's vantage point.  This is the basic model of narrative representation.  Fictional literature, however, may either exploit or deconstruct this basic situation. 

            Before we classify the temporal situation of the narrator and the action, we should determine whether such a relationship exists.[1]  Everything may seem to exist in time, so the existence of a temporal relationship between the action and the narration would seem to be a necessary one.  But as a matter of fact there is a whole realm which escapes this condition: fiction.  Fiction exists in time, but in its own time, in quite another time and place whose relationship with our real world cannot be measured by the clock.  Literature, narrative literature, is not all fictional, but it is mostly so.  It is in fiction that literature finds the ideal conditions for its expansion and proliferation, since a fictional world is par excellence a self-contained entity which requires attention for its own sake‹just as in literature the text requires attention for its intrinsic interest. 


            In fictional narrative not only may the events be invented: the narrating of those events may be a fiction, too.  This is fine for the study of the time of the narrating.  The problems begin when the narrating is not a fiction: how should we measure then the time between fiction and nonfiction?  It is clear that there is an operation previous to the classification of narrative temporality: it is the determination of narrative status,  that is, of the ontological relationship between the narrative and the action.  The distinction between homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narratives does not really cover this question of status, since it refers only to the narrator's involvement in the action.  An heterodiegetic narrator need not always tell a fictive tale, and an homodiegetic narrator may perfectly well invent his own adventures.[2]


            There are three main relationships in this respect: fictionality, nonfictionality, and indeterminacy.  The status of the narrative must be distinguished from the status of the work itself (fiction or nonfiction).  A nonfictional work may use narratives of fictional status, and vice versa. 


            Temporal relationships proper only exist in a nonfictional narrative (caution: not in a nonfictional work).   There we may rely on Genette's scheme.  Nonfictional narratives are (paradoxically) those in which the narrator is clearly fictional.  The narrative may then be motivated through some textual-producing device: a diary, a report, letter-writing, etc.


            Indeterminate and fictional narratives may make use of the same modes and strategies, but they assume here a different role; they become a mere tool, a constructive principle whose referential structure to the narrated world may be far more complex.  Usually, however, they make use of the simplest of temporal devices: verbs in the past tense.  Since the indication of time is inscribed in the form of language itself, since the narrative cannot avoid using tenses, it uses a petrified form which is the most neutral one from a narrative point of view; narrative is a recreation of the past, and fictional narrative uses this general form as a convenient vehicle, a ready-made structure whose meaning is not really temporal.[3]


            We can distinguish at least two temporal dimensions: situation and duration.  These may remind us of the temporal distortions we have mentioned before when speaking of story time, order and duration.  But there is an important difference: order and duration in story time were measured with respect to a now-point determined by the immediate context of the narrative.  The temporal dimensions of the narration are measured with respect to another reference point: the moment of enunciation. 


            All this refers to the self-representation of the act of narration.  There is of course a further temporal dimension which is far more significant from a critical point of view: the situation in time, in the interpretive tradition, of the author, the text and the reader.  We disregard this dimension here because it is not a specifically narrative one: this does not mean that a critical analysis of a narrative text should ignore it.  Situation


Situation refers in Genette's theory to the relative position in time of the narrator and his act of narration vis-à-vis the events of the action.  Genette distinguishes four possible types: prior narrating, simultaneous narrating, subsequent narrating, and a mixed type, interpolated narrating. 


            Subsequent narration is the most frequent one (though we should always study to what extent the temporality of the narrative past is really functional).  Just as the use of the past does not imply subsequent narrative, the use of the present tense should not be confused with simultaneous narrative.  The historical present used for the sake of immediacy is quite common in subsequent narrative.


            The use of the simple past as the basic narrative tense has often been noted to have no direct relationship with the narrative situation or a clear temporal value.[4]  In the simplest of narrative speech acts (factual oral narrative) what is narrated are past events, and this archetypal narrative form becomes automatized in more complex narrative situations, such as fictional written narrative, so that the past tense is a kind of a priori rule of the game of narrative ‹not that it cannot be changed if need be.  An heterodiegetic authorial narrator's use of the past tense is simply the most unobtrusive tool to carry along the story; in figural third-person narrative (e. g. Rabbit, Run)  the past tense becomes completely transparent, a kind of simultaneous narrative, as it filters without the intrusion of a narrator's consciousness the focal character's impressions and thoughts.[5] 

            In homodiegetic narrative, the relationship between action time and narrating time is different from the one in heterodiegetic narrative.  The story line connects to a greater or lesser extent the narrated time and the narrating time, they are both parts of the same extended action.[6]  This connexion is only a general structural principle, and can be exploited in a variety of ways; it may be emphasized or de-emphasized by a particular narrative.  And we should not forget that even in heterodiegetic narratives both action and narrating may be connected by the larger encompassing thread of history.  Enunciation in realistic fiction bears therefore a temporal relationship to the action which is different from the temporal structure of fantastic or science-fiction narrative.


            There are other significant relationships of situation, because the action events and the moment of narrating are not the only possible reference points.  Other possible reference points can be the moment of fictional reception, the date of reading (insofar as it is foreseen by the text), the date of writing.  A variety of temporal patterns are established as we measure narratives with these axes.  For instance, science fiction is usually set in the future of both writing and reading time, but it rarely uses anterior narration: the fictive enunciation is therefore either neutralized or set in a more or less concrete moment in a subsequent future.  Duration


Narrating takes some time, and the narrative discourse may thematize this duration.  As Genette notes, this does not happen very often.   The use a narrative makes of its duration is obviously related to a great extent to the artifice it uses for its motivation: a diary, a report suggest different kinds of durative distribution. 
 Reading Time



The act of reading a fictional literary narrative is the only "real" tangible temporal sequence involved in the narrative experience, and as such it becomes an important reference point for the construction of action time and story time. 

            There is also the duration of actual writing, too, but this is not an active part in the finished product.  A text might have been created simultaneously ex nihilo, for all we know as readers.  On the other hand, the reader's time is the ideal model for the narrative development of the text.  Narrative, in particular, is doubly sequential, as story and as text. 

            Each level of the textual structure has, as we have seen, its own proper temporality associated with it:

€ Writing: Date and duration of composition, drafts, revisions....

  Reading:  Duration of reading, sequentiality or fragmentation of reading act, etc.

  Textual author/reader: Historical study of the process of reading: problems of interpretation, topical allusions, classical or modern status of author, etc. 

  Narration: Location and duration of narrative act.

  Narratee: Location and duration of narratee's reception.

  Story time (anachronies, rhythm, etc.)

  Action time (location, duration, problems of sequentiality, causality, etc.).

We have concentrated on the last few points because they are the ones which are intrinsically narrative, exclusively associated with narrative texts.  The rest are present in narrative as in other modes of literary discourse, and belong therefore to the general theory of literature rather than specifically to narratology ‹ although, of course, they may present specific forms in this area.  For instance, the imaginative relationship of the writer to his characters may develop gradually during the process of composition, and have a bearing on the final form of a novel, an experience which is of course different from the composition of a sonnet or an essay which do not feature fictional characters. 



[1]          Genette's temporal analysis of the narrative act is suggestive, but it goes a bit too fast, as if a temporal relationship could be established in all narratives. 

[2]          Cf. the use of the term heterodiegetic in Genette, ND   50, where it clearly refers to causal connection in a line of action, not to ontological level.

[3]          See in this respect the theory put forward by Käte Hamburger in Die Logik der Dichtung.  

[4]          E. g. Hamburger 1977; Dolezel 1973: 26-27; Lintvelt 1981: 74.

[5]          We can find a parallel phenomenon in first-person narrative (Dorrit Cohn's "self-narrated monologue").


[6]          Genette 1972: 228ff.; Bal 1977: 29-30.