You are on page 1of 18


Chronology, time, tense and experientiality in narrative

Monika Fludernik, University of Freiburg, Germany


Tense in narrative and non-narrative texts performs a variety of functions, not all of
which are properly temporal or aspectual. In particular, tense relates to the passing of
time (duration), sequentiality, chronology and the expression of subjectivity (frequently
linked with aspect). In addition, tense is here argued to fulfil textual functions of
foregrounding and backgrounding over and above plot-related foregrounding. The
peculiarities of the use of tense in literary narrative can be illustrated by reference to
texts in which the tenses chosen do not seem to obey any of the familiar rules of aspect
or tense usage but seem to acquire a properly literary function. As one of many possible
examples of such a literary use of tense, Ondaatje’s The English Patient is then
analysed in detail. It will be argued that linguistic analysis of such a peculiar use of
tense can help to explain why such texts are odd but that the purpose of the
idiosyncrasy must be sought in literary effect and the artificial shaping of language as
deliberate literary strategy.1

Keywords: aspect; The English Patient; narrative; Ondaatje, Michael; tense

1 Theoretical groundings

The analysis of temporal relationships in the text of novels has been one of the
most popular research areas in stylistics and especially in narrative theory. Indeed,
one could conceivably argue that narratology, my own discipline, took off from
the study of the French imparfait in the context of free indirect discourse, with
Charles Bally and before him Adolph Tobler and Theodor Kalepky focusing on
the famous ‘shift in tense’ that accompanies this technique in a preterite
environment (Bally, 1914a, 1914b; Tobler, 1887, 1900; Kalepky, 1899, 1913).2
German narratology, specifically, developed in the wake of Günther Müller’s
seminal distinction between Erzählzeit (narrating time or text time) and erzählte
Zeit (narrated time or story time) (Müller, 1968). Classic narratological works in
the German tradition, like the work of Hamburger (1994 [1957]) and Stanzel’s
early writing in response to Hamburger (1959), all centre on the issue of temporal
distinctions and their narrative meanings.
Bally’s and Müller’s foundational approaches to the study of tense/time in the
novel also represent two major levels of analysis on which temporality and its
linguistic signification are being treated in narrative study. On the one hand, the
focus on the tenses used in individual texts correlates with close reading strategies
as practised in mainstream literary studies; on the other hand, the distinction
between two levels of temporality ties in with the axiomatic narratological
dichotomy between story and discourse (Chatman, 1978), earlier noted in a

Language and Literature Copyright © 2003 SAGE Publications

(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi), Vol 12(2): 117–134
[0963–9470 (200305) 12:2; 117–134; 032295]

variety of similar binary oppositions (story versus plot – Forster, 1974 [1927];
fabula versus sjuzhet – Shklovsky, 1965; histoire versus discours – Benveniste,
1971). This binary opposition of story versus discourse moreover determines the
way in which the concept of chronology shows up within narratological
typologies. It is assumed in narratological study that the story level of a narrative,
i.e. the sequence of events reconstructed from the surface level of the linguistic
medium, can be viewed as a chronological order, whereas on the discourse level
(the sequence of words on the page that constitute the text) several reshufflings
take place to produce a number of anachronies, as Genette calls them (flashbacks,
flashforwards). The study of these two temporal orders enshrined in story and
discourse inevitably leads to the analysis of chronological distortions on the
surface level of the narrative text, and therefore comes to connect the study of
temporal levels with the surface-structure analysis of tense in narrative. This
connection is particularly strong because anachronies are frequently signalled by
means of tense shifts.
Genette, in his seminal study of 1966 (in English 1980), Narrative Discourse,
added a third level to the analysis of narrative texts, the level of narration, or of
the production of the discourse and its communicative strategies. In his model the
discourse is therefore further split into narration (the telling or writing process)
and the text as linguistic product of this process of narration. Müller’s Erzählzeit
(narrating time) then refers to the level of narration rather than to the textual
surface structure. It has even been argued that the proper interpretation of
Müller’s concept of Erzählzeit should in fact be reading time (Rimmon-Kenan,
1983: 44, 51–2) rather than the number of pages in relation to the represented
temporal duration on the story level. (This would involve the addition of the
reception level as a fourth temporal plane.) Genette’s detailed analyses of
temporal relationships, which cover three chapters in Narrative Discourse, are
concerned with the concepts of order (chronological reshuffling), speed (duration)
and frequency as major subcategories of what Genette calls tense (in the triad of
tense, voice and mood). With respect to speed, Genette tackles the problem of
selection and emphasis. He notes four types of speed: ellipsis (non-narration of
story elements), summary (abbreviated representation of story events spanning
long segments of time), scene (the seemingly one-to-one relation of event time
and discourse time, as in the pseudo-tape recording of characters’ dialogue) and
pause (descriptive dwelling on a point in time in which action does not move
forward). Frequency, on the other hand, concerns temporal iteration and
condensation in relation to the singularity and identity of events. Characters can
knock on a door once or several times, and this can be represented once or n
times. Thus, a single knock can recur with symbolic frequency in the textual
version, just as a series of knocks may be condensed into a single representative
instance in the narrative discourse. (The best-known examples of these two
cases are [a] the centipede in Robbe-Grillet’s novel La Jalousie, whose
crushing, as most critics believe, occurred only once although the scene is
described several times in the text; and [b] Proust’s extended scenic

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


representation in one typical scene of numerous gatherings chez les

Guermantes.) What we therefore have is a complex network of time, chronology
and tense which in turn correspond with the duration, sequentiality and linguistic
marking (textual form) of temporality as manifested in narrative texts.
To summarize this initial survey of approaches to temporality in narrative.
Time, tense and chronology have early on become major research foci in the
study of narrative texts. The analyses mostly concentrate on two levels of
narrative. For one, they concern the reconstructed story level which is figured as a
chronological sequence of events and has definite duration measurable in
temporal units (hours, years). For the other, narratological analyses have focused
on the medium in which the story is communicated to the reader and which
consists of both factually present words on the page (countable as so many pages
or reading time) and the reconstructed act of narration by a narrator (a plane on
which minutes and hours of speaking or writing time can be postulated but are
usually not determinable from the text). Since, traditionally, narratology was
primarily looking at fictional texts, the temporal orders analysed predominantly
relate to fictional time, so that any account of the relation between time and tense
needs to be wary of identifying fictional time with what I would like to call
empirical time, i.e. time as we know it in the real world both scientifically and
experientially. Despite the constitutive importance of time in the analysis of
narrative, temporality, in its complex combination of sequentiality, duration and
frequency, has little direct impact on the linguistic choice of tense markers
deployed in the narrative discourse. In fact, these three aspects of temporality are
most commonly expressed not by means of grammatical tense but by aspectual
distinctions. In a later section of this article I will discuss more fully how
narrative tense is, or is not, a specifier of truly temporal relationships, especially
of story temporality. After some theoretical discussion of time in narrative and
tense in relation to the concept of chronology, sequentiality and foregrounding, I
will provide an analysis of the use of tenses in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The
English Patient. This novel is typical of a seemingly eccentric use of tense and
foregrounds the literary functions to which unexpected tense choices can be put in
narrative texts. The article closes with theoretical conclusions drawn from the
preceding literary analysis.
To return to the question of time, whether fictional or not, in narrative. As we
have seen, the text-type narrative conjoins a number of what I would like to call
temporal orders. We are all tempted to see time as an objective, measurable and
unambiguous category that can be pictured as a dotted line progressing from past
to future.3 However, narrative temporality makes apparent the complex
interrelationship of different types, or orders, of temporality. Thus, on the story
level temporality is conceptualized in the common-sense ‘objective’ manner that
we all take for granted. On the discourse level, with the reading and viewing of
narrative discourse, however, a cognitive order of temporality is instituted which
is based, not on sequentiality or chronology, but on holistic structures of narrative
comprehension. Adams (1996), in the wake of earlier work by Culler (1978) and

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


Chase (1978) as well as Sturgess (1989, 1990, 1992), has detailed this dynamic
interrelation of the process of narration versus that of narrative comprehension.
Narrative comprehension cardinally correlates with teleology, with the story
producing (and being produced by) the stringencies of teleological design.
Oedipus, these critics argue, needs to kill his father and marry his mother in order
for the omen to become true; when delving into his past he does not recover any
previous truths but the story design determines what he finds in the past. It is a
foregone conclusion that, once he has heard about the omen, he will discover that
he is guilty.
In these proposals, as also in Ricoeur’s magisterial three volumes of Time and
Narrative (1948, 1985, 1988), the understanding of temporality becomes
increasingly divorced from objective or scientific notions of time and moves
towards more psychological, subjective and contextually malleable conceptions of
temporality. Instead of a continuous uniform band of time stretching from one
point to another, a spatial coordinate that extends into infinity, time – like post-
Einsteinian space – becomes warped, discontinuous, three-dimensional. Reading
time embraces not only the number of hours spent turning the pages of a book; it
additionally comprises the expectations and interpretative moves of the reader, the
suspense moment, the computing of alternative outcomes or developments, and
the emotional consummation of narrative closure. These aspects of narrative
reception straddle the merely temporal quality of the reading process in the same
way that the experience of time in memory, or even in everyday perceptions of
lived temporality, is entangled with the emotional impact on the individual
psyche. The cognitive order of the reading process is therefore closer to the
experience of time than to the notion of clock-time extending from the past into
an infinite future.
These observations take me to my own narratological proposals as presented in
Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology (1996). In this study I had replaced the
definition of narrativity as event sequence (traditionally based on the plot) with a
conception of narrative that relies on representation of, and by means of,
consciousness. In my model I defined narrativity as based on experientiality. This
redefinition of narrative as rendering not necessarily a plot but a character’s or
narrator’s experiential reality was influenced by insights from conversational
narratives in which the point of the story is not merely ‘what happened’ but,
especially, what the experience meant to the narrator and what was the purpose of
telling the story to the interlocutor. In the present context the question needs to be
put how my model, and the concept of experientiality in particular, relates to the
notions of time or temporality.
The passing of time is of course a current thematic aspect of the fictional text:
experientiality includes a cognitive awareness both of the passing of time and of
those aspects of human subjection to temporality that feed into the first basic level
of cognitive schemata in Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology which relate to the
parameters of real-life experience.4 This basic level of experientiality also
includes the temporal re-interpretation of narrative, earlier identified as the

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


cognitive order of temporality. In addition, this cognitive order of temporality

becomes operative on my fourth and top level of narrativization, where readers
impose narrative frames on textual material that may be recalcitrant to an
automatically ‘narrative’ apperception. Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology, one
could therefore argue, concentrates on the cognitive parameters of narrative
processing and, due to its marginalization of plot, backgrounds the chronological
factor. On a different level, however, Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology is very
much concerned with issues of temporality, in so far as they relate to
experientiality. Moreover, one of the most important topics of the study consists
in the analysis of tense. Tense needs to be located among the linguistic
phenomena on the textual surface structure, on the level of narrative discourse. It
is to this level and this issue that I shall now turn.

2 From the epic preterite to the narrative present tense

The commonsensical view that narratives are naturally written in the past tense or
preterite form because the events they relate to are all anterior to the telling of
them has been thoroughly undermined by narratological research.5 No natural
relationship between the choice of grammatical tense in narratives and
underlying temporal relations obtains. On the contrary, the deployment of
tense options in narrative texts is a fairly complex matter which depends not
merely on real-life precedent but also on literary peculiarities and generic
Whereas empirical time is conceived of as a continuum with each point of
reference yielding a view both back into the past and forward into the future, what
complicates matters in fictional narrative is the determining of that focal point of
reference. In conversation, the deictic reference point of I speaking now
determines that my past will be past in relation to the point of speaking. The
major difference in relation to fiction is that in fiction the speaker of the text is
taken to be the narrator whose ‘I’ (if there is an I) does not necessarily belong to
the here-and-now of the historical author or the here-and-now of the
contemporary reader. The deictic properties involved in the act of narration,
therefore, do not coincide with the deixis appertaining to the situation of writing
or reading conceived as a present communicative scenario. Since there is no face-
to-face communication in fiction, the temporal deixis involved in literary
narrative depends on Bühler’s Deixis am Phantasma (1934), on a deictic
anchoring point divorced from that of the real reader and frequently of the real
author as well. (I will come back to conversational narrative below.)
As a consequence, the pastness of the traditional past-tense narrative signifies a
kind of unspecified past whose relation to the present moment of reading is one of
distancing rather than of precise location.6 A dating of fictional events is fairly
rare, and in epics and fairy tales the past acquires an almost mythic quality that is
quite distinct from the prosaic deictic past in historiographic texts. In the wake of

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


Hamburger (1994 [1957]), it has become common to use the term ‘epic preterite’
for the past tense in fictional narrative. In this usage, the terms epic and preterite
are conceived of as dichotomous: fictional narrative employs a non-deictic, therefore
epic, preterite whose function is that of foregrounding the fictionality of the text,
not its precise temporal location in relation to the here and now of the author/reader.
The term epic preterite (das epische Präteritum) was coined by the German
scholar Käte Hamburger in her seminal Die Logik der Dichtung (1994 [1957]) –
translated as The Logic of Literature (1993 [1973]). In contrast to the now current
usage, Hamburger defined the epic preterite in a much more precise manner,
namely as that property of third-person fictional texts collocating preterites with
proximate deictics (Tomorrow was Christmas Eve) which allows them to transfer
their deictic origo, or deictic centre, into the consciousness of a fictional character
which then functions as a transposed deictic centre. For Hamburger the epic
preterite signalled contemporaneity with the now of a fictional character from
whose deictic centre (or Bühlerian origo) fictional events are experienced as now
rather than then. The epic preterite, manifested by a past-tense verb in collocation
with a deictic like now, therefore signalled a presentifying and fictionalizing
meaning of the preterite in contrast to the morphological ‘past-tense’ meaning of
deictic pastness or anteriority. Hamburger excluded first-person narratives (even
fictional first-person narratives) from the fictionality of the epic preterite.
Stanzel (1959), in his revisions of Hamburger, developed these insights on the
epic preterite to establish that Hamburger’s theses were appropriate for a context
of consonant thought representation, especially free indirect discourse, in which
the (epic) preterite could collocate with character deixis (here, now expressive
markers). As a consequence, the quality of the past tense as a deictic past was
lost. Stanzel’s major insight, therefore, concerns the further specification that
Hamburger’s epic preterite correlates with the representation of figural
consciousness. In contrast to Hamburger, Stanzel also claims that the past tense in
third-person novels is a deictic past, but is deictic in relation to the present of the
discourse of the authorial narrator rather than to the empirical author. Only in
figural contexts does the deictic centre shift to a protagonist’s psyche. In such a
context the fictional protagonist becomes a ‘reflector’ whose point of view (or
deictic centre) determines the fictional representation.
In my own analyses of tense relations in narrative, I have since posited a few
more factors that need to be observed.
For one, the whole discussion of the epic preterite, from a linguistic
perspective, looks like a mystification of simple linguistic factors. After all, the
past tense in sentences of free indirect discourse (Tomorrow was Christmas Eve)
could be read, linguistically, as a shifted past tense form (cf. the that clauses of
indirect speech), as the result of consecutio temporum. It would therefore not be a
deictic tense at all, except in relation to textual deixis.
From a narratological perspective, a few further points should be noted. The
most elemental of these concerns the notion of real deixis in fictional texts. First-
person narratives, deictically speaking, do have a deictic past tense in relation to

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


the moment of utterance/writing of the teller figure, the first-person narrator.

Hamburger was therefore correct in distinguishing between first- and third-person
narratives. However, not all first-person novels or short stories nowadays have a
determinable teller figure or indeed a determinable moment of speaking. A great
number of 20th-century texts in the first-person format are written in the reflector
mode, as Stanzel calls it; they concentrate on the I’s experiences without
evaluating them from the perspective of a teller who retrospectively views his or
her former life and ensures narrative closure. As examples one can mention J. M.
Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the short fiction of Ernest Gaines, Margaret
Atwood’s Surfacing or Eva Figes’s Ghosts.
As a consequence, the basic dichotomy for me is not that between first- and
third-person texts but between teller narratives and reflector-mode narratives.
Texts that have a prominent teller figure employ the preterite as a deictic
signalling of pastness in relation to the time of the teller figure’s writing or
speaking. Narratives in the reflector mode do not have a teller figure and therefore
the past tense has no deictic anchoring in relation to an extradiegetic present. It is
anchored in the consciousness of the reflector character, and in relation to this
diectic centre it signals simultaneity. In reflector mode texts the preterite therefore
has no deictic meaning of pastness.
The epic preterite proper (as defined by Hamburger and Stanzel), i.e. the
simultaneity of here-and-now deixis and the preterite tense, can occur in either
first- or third-person contexts, but the phenomenon is confined to those passages
that have incipient reflector-mode properties, whose deictic centre has moved
from the teller figure to the experiencing self or character who begins to function
as a reflector character and therefore establishes a deictic centre. The epic
preterite proper is to be distinguished from what I would like to call the narrative
past tense for the past tense as the regular tense in narrative clauses which
therefore becomes a marker of fictionality. The narrative past tense may refer to a
real past in historical novels, but usually signifies an unspecified past and can
even be used for future events in utopias and science fiction texts located in the
deictic future of the contemporary author and reader.
The label narrative past tense to signal fictionality was chosen advisedly in
parallel to what I have called the narrative present tense (Fludernik, 1996: ch. 6).
The term narrative present tense refers to the use of the present tense (in lieu of
the traditional past tense) for long units of a fictional text, frequently an entire
novel or short story (where the technique is especially popular). When all
narrative clauses are kept in the present tense, but the events do not occur in the
here-and-now of the narrator’s discourse, the present tense loses its natural deictic
quality. Like the narrative past, the narrative present can be argued to signify
fictionality. Another way of describing this phenomenon of ‘fictionality’ would be
to talk about tense metaphor, a term invented by Weinrich (1970).7 The narrative
present, as a clearly irregular use of the present tense for narrative events that do
not occur in the deictic here-and-now, in these terms provides a metaphor for
fictional distancing.

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


3 Tense alternation in texts: deixis and subjectivity

In order to illustrate the complexity of tense usage in fictional texts I would now
like to turn to the present tense in narrative. In the previous section I considered
tense in narrative clauses, i.e. clauses referring to plot-line narrative
developments, and in clauses of free indirect discourse, i.e. clauses of speech and
thought representation. In what follows I will concentrate on the narrative present
Three types of present tense usage have to be distinguished in narrative texts:
(a) the deictic use of the present tense to refer to the narrator’s and/or reader’s
(b) the intermittent use of the present tense in a past tense context; and
(c) the consistent use of the present tense (either in the entire text, or in long
passages of text).
Type (a) covers the narrator’s communications with the reader/narratee and
comprises authorial commentary, gnomic and proverbial statements and addresses
to the narratee. The second case – intermittent use – is traditionally referred to as
the so-called historical present tense. This consists in brief shifts from the past
tense into the present tense to performatively highlight major junctures of the tale
in conversational narrative (Wolfson, 1982; Schiffrin, 1987) and to mark episode
beginnings or climaxes in written texts (Fludernik, 1992):
But before this half Year was expir’d, his younger brother [. . .] falls to work
with me [. . .] and, in short, proposes fairly and Honourably to Marry me, and
that before he made any other Offer to me at all.
I was now confounded [. . .] (Defoe, 1989 [1722]: 68–9)
In recent years a great number of texts, however, have started to employ
alternating tense patterns which can no longer be explained in terms of the
traditional historical present tense (Fludernik, 1996: 262–6). The third type,
present-tense narratives for which the labels epic present tense8 and the narrative
present have been used in the criticism, is the one I have discussed above. In a
closer analysis of literary texts, it can be shown to display a variety of different
functions, too. In what follows, I want to concentrate on tense alternation and the
narrative present in late 20th-century novels. As I will attempt to demonstrate in
relation to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1993 [1992]), many recent
texts employ the present tense in very odd correlation and alternation with the
past tense. In Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology I had already analysed a puzzling
case of present tense usage in Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover. As we shall see,
The English Patient provides another example of an odd use of tense.
Whereas the historical present tense clearly has a relieving function in relation
to the surrounding past-tense context – whatever the precise function in the
specific context may be – present-tense narratives are usually taken to foreground
the time of the narrated experience; indeed, a majority of late 20th-century

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


present-tense texts, particularly short stories, are composed in the reflector mode
and therefore concentrate on the psychology of the protagonist. A second
common type of present-tense narrative is that of the dramatic monologue novel
(for example, John Hawkes’s Travesty, or Eva Figes’s Waking), or of the self-
reflexive text of the surfictionists (e.g. the work of the early John Barth) in which
the plot of the novel or short story consists in the writing of this text and is
therefore simultaneous with the act of narration. Whereas the present tense in the
reflector mode is an ‘epic’ tense, i.e. a non-deictic or fictional tense, in the
dramatic monologue texts and in self-reflexive fiction the present tense operates
deictically in reference to the fictional moment of speaking. Not all present-tense
novels contain therefore, properly speaking, a narrative present.
Linguistics can help to profile types of present tense use in relation to types of
deixis; for the literary scholar, especially the narratologist, however, more
specifically literary and narratological frames become significant.
For instance, the shift from present to past tense, in and by itself, cannot be
said to correlate with one single function and meaning. In a teller-mode text,
whether a heterodiegetic novel (the ‘omnisicient’ Tom Jones kind) or a retrospective
homodiegetic text (e.g. David Copperfield), the shift from present to past tense
will frequently signal the move from the narrator’s comments to the story level. In
a reflector mode narrative, by contrast, such a shift may involve a parallel turn
from the character’s experiential present to his or her memories of previous
events. (In heterodiegetic past-tense narrative, these would have to be presented in
the past perfect tense.) It is the shift in tense which serves as a marker of
significant change, but what precisely the change in tense signifies in terms of
narrative functions can be guessed at only in a specific narrative context. Besides
such recurrent types as the historical present and the narrative present, much tense
usage and especially shifting is local and open to interpretative speculation. As a
consequence, narratives that creatively deploy tense alternation pose serious
problems to the theoretician since they require analysis over and above the usual
explanatory models.9 In what follows I will discuss a few example passages from
Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient to illustrate the hazards of
theorizing. The discussion will corroborate that tense has little to do with time, or
even with temporal categories per se, but serves as a textual and relational device.

3.1 Ut pictura poesis: memory and stasis in Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’
At the beginning of Ondaatje’s novel, it at first appears as if this were a present-
tense novel in which only the memories of Almásy, the English patient, are
rendered in the past tense. These memories refer to events that are (deictically)
past in relation to his present situation as patient hospitalized in the Villa San
Girolamo near Florence. Later such shifts from present to past (actual present to
remembered events) no longer occur automatically. At some points, the move into
memory is signalled only contextually, the mental presentness of the memory is

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


(1) The voice stops. The burned man looks straight ahead in his morphine focus.
The plane is now in his eye. The slow voice carries it with effort above the
earth, the engine missing turns as if losing a stitch, her shroud unfurling in
the noisy air of the cockpit, noise terrible after his days of walking in silence.
He looks down and sees oil pouring onto his knees. A branch breaks free of
her shirt. Acacia and bone. How high is he above the land? How low is he in
the sky?
(Ondaatje, 1993 [1992]: 174–5; my emphasis)
As in a still on screen, the English patient’s concentrated look signals a move into
his mind – we shift into a passage of internal focalization. The now of the first
sentence of the following paragraph cleverly sews together the now of the
moment of remembering and the now of presentified memory.
At other points in the narrative, despite the introduction in the meantime of
past-tense passages for the hospital scenes, the present tense re-emerges in
situations of ‘pauses’, of moments of stasis. Thus, in the following passage, a
‘freeze’ occurs when Caravaggio nearly blows up the house and Kip just about
catches the fuze box in mid-air:
(2) In the library the fuze box is in midair, nudged off the counter by Caravaggio
when he turned to Hana’s gleeful yell in the hall. Before it reaches the floor
Kip’s body slides underneath it, and he catches it in his hand.
Caravaggio glances down to see the young man’s face blowing out all the air
quickly through his cheeks.
He thinks suddenly he owes him a life.
Kip begins to laugh, losing his shyness in front of the older man, holding up
the box of wires.
Caravaggio will remember the slide. (208)
Such passages of description, of freeze, are commonly identified as the pictorial
or tabular present tense (Casparis, 1975). We are offered a slow-motion view of
every tiny second of his visual impressions, as Caravaggio comes to realize that
his life has been in danger. The detail creates a pause or slow-up. Time stands still
for Caravaggio.
Both passages (1) and (2) convey the sense of a camera still – the close-up of
Almásy in the cockpit focusing on oil and shirt; the fuze suspended in mid-air.
Both stills are psychologically charged. In (1) the scene correlates with Almásy’s
dawning realization that his plane will catch fire, and it finally explains to the
reader under what circumstances Almásy acquired his near-lethal burn injuries.
The moment described in (2) is also one of fear, but of fear allayed as soon as it
has been conceived. Caravaggio has had his life saved a second time.
Other passages of present-tense narration in the novel concern habitual actions,
for instance the movements of the nurse, Hana, in the house. It is only
retrospectively that one can distinguish these presents from tabular presents or
stills since the use of the present blurs a distinction possible in past-tense

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


narrative, the distinction between the simple past tense and the used to
construction. Compare.
(3) She would sit and read, the book under the waver of light. She would glance
now and then down the hall of the villa that had been a war hospital, where
she had lived with the other nurses before they had all transferred out
gradually, the war moving north, the war almost over.
This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out
of her cell. They became half her world. (6–7)
(4) She stands over the sink, gripping it, looking at the stucco wall. She has
removed all mirrors and stacked them away in an empty room. She grips the
sink and moves her head from side to side, releasing a movement of shadow.
She wets her hands and combs water into her hair till it is completely wet.
This cools her and she likes it when she goes outside and the breezes hit her,
erasing the thunder. (23)
In the first passage we are told explicitly (would sit) that this is a habitual action,
in the second passage it is only at the last sentence that one recognizes the
scenario as a recurrent one. In (3) one may initially surmise that the scene of her
reading refers to a time before the here-and-now of the main plotline; yet further
on when the text continues with her looking down the hall towards the English
patient, one can no longer be certain. A rereading of the full segment suggests,
instead, that the entire passage refers to the present, but does so from the
summarizing perspective of a narratorial or extradiegetic source (although no
narrator figure ever emerges on the scene).10 The passage provides a picture of the
situation of Hana, not of a particular moment on the plot line of the hospital
The use of now in The English Patient does not necessarily disambiguate
between the punctual and habitual either. In (5), now refers to a period of time
extending beyond the particular moments of event sequences (compare Now is the
moment or Now they are in the basement):
(5) And now, on this continent, the war having travelled elsewhere, the
nunneries and churches that were turned briefly into hospitals are solitary,
cut off in the hills of Tuscany and Umbria. They hold the remnants of war
societies, small moraines left by a vast glacier. All around them now is the
holy forest.
She tucks her feet under her thin frock and rests her arms along her thighs.
Everything is still. She hears the familiar hollow churn, restless in the pipe
that is buried in the central column of the fountain. Then silence. Then
suddenly there is a crash as the water arrives bursting around her. (92; my
Now in this passage seems to serve more as a signal of internal focalization than
as a temporal marker. Note the them in ‘All around them now is the holy forest’,
which grammatically seems to refer to the nunneries and churches but more

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


probably relates to Hana and her fellow stragglers in the house. (All around us is
the holy forest, she might be thinking.) In the following extract, Kip’s situation –
referring to an extended period of time – is presented in all its poignancy by a
move into free indirect discourse, in the shifted past tense, and on into his
memory of when he last saw Hana, with a past perfect marker:
(6) Now, hours later, Kip sits once again in the window alcove. If he could walk
the seven yards across the Englishman’s room and touch her he would be
sane. There was so little light in the room, just the candle at the table where
she sat, not reading tonight; he thought perhaps she was slightly drunk.
He had returned from the source of the mine explosion to find Caravaggio
asleep on the library sofa with the dog in his arms. (112–13; my emphasis)
Unlike a historical present tense proper which requires a punctual verb, the
initial sentence uses sits, a durative verb, to signal a focus on Kim’s feelings and
situation. It is instructive to speculate about the alternative form is sitting; would
this have implied a very specific point on the plot line and given rise to the
expectation of plot developments?11 Now, as we could see in (5) and (6), easily
correlates with stasis. It is therefore not used to signal a punctual reading at the
simple present in opposition to a habitual reading, and additionally seems to stand
in for the progressive form in (6). In fact, now does not appear to have anything to
do with tenses or aspects and Aktionsarten at all; if anything, perhaps, it might be
argued to signal an important shift in the narrative to another moment, whether
present or past. As the use of tense becomes more variegated, now may signal the
next static scenario, as the simple present by itself used to do in (4). In any case, it
underlines, rather than overcomes, the consistent ambivalence of the simple
narrative present tense with respect to its habituality or singularity.
Moreover, The English Patient does not employ narrative tenses in the usual
manner of alternating between, say, plot levels or focalizers. The tenses in their
distribution are meant to confound any chronological patterns: the time level of
Almásy’s love affair and his later hospital life are depicted in passages of both
present-tense narrative and past-tense narration. At the same time, tense usage
does not correlate with protagonist alternation: neither Hana’s experiences nor
those of the English patient are rendered in a consistent tense. This is true both of
their present and of their memories. Like Almásy’s present, Hana’s comes both in
the present and in the past tense, and so do her memories. As we have also seen,
both the present and past tenses are used to refer to habitual action sequences and
to static situations. The present tense can therefore be aligned neither with the
singularity of events or actions nor with internal focalization, subject reference or
plot level. And this ambiguity is underlined, rather than dispersed, by the
deployment of the adverbial now.
It therefore comes as no surprise that in present-tense contexts the past perfect
tense (rather than the preterite) starts to signal anteriority since the past tense has
become useless for the job.12 Even more interestingly, the standard distribution of
the progressive form is disrupted in the text. One of the very few uses of a

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


progressive tense is the sentence She was standing in front of the piano (62). In
most other passages now correlates with a durative verb in the simple form, where
one would expect a progressive tense in English.13
(7) In the morning by the fountain they talk tentatively. (32)
(8) Caravaggio sits there in silence. (116)
(9) Now, hours later, Kip sits once again in the window alcove. (112; = [6]
(10) Now, months later in the Villa San Girolamo, in the hill town north of
Florence, in the arbour room that is his bedroom, he reposes like the
sculpture of the dead knight in Ravenna. (96)
The narrative therefore disrupts the event sequences regularly signalled by a
succession of past tenses. Unlike a more common use of the narrative present, it
does not replace sequences of preterites with a series of narrative presents, but
alternates between presents and preterites for no obvious purpose. Moreover, the
text, while clearly marking its moves into the past of memory, does not
consistently use one type of tense shift but uses a number of different strategies.
At the same time, the narrative evokes a kind of filmic stasis by making fuzzy the
distinction between habituality and singularity.
Tense and time do not bear any formal correspondence with one another.
Tenses, if at all, operate on the basis of their differentiality. This familiar linguistic
insight is usually applied to the language system, metaphorically transferring
Saussurian semiotics to the tense system. Saussure’s insights are, of course,
eminently usable in many contexts, and with regard to the tense system the
differential requirements are already met by English texts of a very traditional
type. After all, as Weinrich (1970, 1973) has so persuasively argued, tense
systems institutionalize regular morphemic differentiations between, among other
aspects, anteriority, simultaneity and posteriority. What The English Patient does
is, however, to struggle free from the regular use of tense in narrative texts and to
treat all narrative tenses as differential, using different kinds of morphemic
difference for the same functions. Only the past perfect tense and the future tense
in Ondaatje’s novel retain their regular functions of shift into the past (memory)
and shift into the future. The present and past tenses of the text constitute both
deictic and adeictic instances of tense usage. The patterning provided by this
technique gives the novel a very static, pictorial atmosphere. It also foregrounds
the experientiality of the narrative, allowing the reader easy access to the
characters’ psyches. As a consequence, much of the text appears to be a dream
sequence rather than a narrative controlled by the shaping will of a narratorial
consciousness.14 Perhaps this also explains why The English Patient became such
a success in its film version. The text, not least on account of its use of tenses,
superbly lends itself to filming. The stasis evoked by the verbal fiction translates
beautifully into slow-motion camera angles.
Although the narrative therefore preserves a distinction between present events
and memories of the past, it makes the reconstruction of the events leading up to

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


the present extremely arduous for the reader and disrupts the sequentiality of the
various plot strands. In fact, the film was much clearer on the central events of
Almásy’s love story since it started with a sequence on the air accident, a plot
detail that is very difficult to notice in a first reading of the novel. The loss of
sequentiality does not, however, elide history from the text; the novel is in fact
glutted with history, and this is equally true of the film, despite its more
chronological design. In my view, therefore, the novel thematizes the hazards of
historical reconstruction, especially in the memory of participants. Its nostalgia
for the past, by the blurring of consistent temporality, emphasizes the irreality of
past and present in view of the nightmare of the war.

4 The temporal parameters of fiction

We have seen above that in the field of fiction – and we are here specifically
looking at fictional narrative – the concept of time as we deal with it in science or
history plays a curiously marginal role. Fictional narrative clearly privileges
relative chronology over precise dating, and though sequentiality plays an
important role in the establishment of plot, fiction tends to focus on relevancy or
significant choice rather than exhaustive, orderly and balanced reporting. As
Ricoeur correctly noted, narrative lives from configuration – what matters is the
shape of events and their emotional meaning to the protagonists and the teller. Or,
in the frame of my own theses, it is experientiality that counts. Experientiality
relies on a basic-level understanding of time but privileges significant time or
time made to signify over physical notions of temporality.
In novels or other narrative fiction, therefore, (physical) time is always implied
but backgrounded in relation to experiential parameters. And this is true not only
of the story but also of the reading process. Although time passes minute by
minute as we read narratives, the temporality of the reading experience partakes
of the configurational shape of the tale. That is why counting the pages of text per
month of narrated story fails to yield an adequate picture of our reading
experience, which is much closer to the temporal quality of protagonists’
represented time than to the clockwork of machine processing.
In contrast to physical time and chronology, sequentiality is a prime temporal
aspect in narrative texts, and again this applies to both the story and discourse
level. We are of course reading word after word on the page sequentially, just as
on the plot level we concern ourselves with events in succession. However, just as
we are constructing causes and effects, possible motivations and expected
outcomes while reading word after word on the page, in the construction of plot
mere sequentiality gives way to charged configurations, teleological design,
action and reaction or cause and effect patterns. Sequentiality can therefore be
seen as a material basis, the medium on which configurations are superimposed.
These fundaments, then, provide for narrative as a process-oriented and
schema-driven discourse. The flux and configurational quality of narrative

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


moreover displays itself on the textual surface structure, where tense shifts tie in
with configurational patterns of foregrounding and backgrounding rather than
with automatic sequential rules. Tense patterns, in their variability and
complexity, require interpretative effort, and they again link with configurational
rather than properly temporal parameters.
What I have attempted to show in this article can be summarized as follows.
Literary narratives are much freer in their use of tense than non-fictional and non-
literary narratives. This is especially true of the development of the present tense,
especially since the narrative present has become equally acceptable as the
narrative past tense. The rise of the narrative present retrospectively corroborates
one aspect of Hamburger’s theses on the epic preterite, its (adeictic) atemporality
and its quality of signifying fictionality. This fictionalizing quality is much more
apparent in a present tense applied to fictional events than in the regular past-
tense novels in which the preterite retains some ‘long-ago pastness’ simply on
account of the underlying previousness of events to their telling. The narrative
present – in explicitly deviating from these notions – produces a more fictional
After the narrative present became an acceptable alternative to the narrative
past, some authors went several steps further in experimenting with narrative
tense in fiction. In this article I have looked at one example among several recent
novels that play with the alternation of narrative tense by combining (or
confounding, if you will) the distinction made above between tense alternation on
the pattern of the historical present tense (in which only one or a few sentences
shift into the present whereas the bulk of narrative clauses are in the narrative
past) and the use of the narrative present (in which the entire narrative, or a
substantial section of it, uses the present as its standard narrative tense. The texts
from the 1990s that undermine this distinction use both the narrative present and
the narrative past as their narrative tense and alternate between them. Some texts
do this on a rotational basis by alternating between chapters in the past tense.
Dickens’ Bleak House is the earliest instance of this technique, and Fay Weldon’s
Female Friends can be named as a recent example of the technique which also
combines tense alternation with a concomitant change of person. Some novels
re-functionalize the present by brief one-to-three-sentence shifts that resemble the
historical present but have an entirely different function. This is the case in Susan
Sontag’s The Volcano Lover already mentioned above. Others set off longer
passages of memories or fantasies in the present tense, thereby also highlighting
characters’ subjectivity, as does Christa Wolf. Most disconcerting of all, however,
are those texts that change narrative tense from one paragraph to the next without
conceivable motive. This is the category to which Ondaatje’s novel belongs.
The question, then, is what such a text signifies on a theoretical level. Is it
merely an oddity without rhyme or reason, or does it tell us something more
specific about the use of tense in literary narrative? My answer to this question is:
both and. On the one hand, texts like Ondaatje’s The English Patient patently
deviate from still valid reader expectations. On the other hand, one can also argue

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


that they expand the potential of narrative tense, rescuing it from its mimetic
groundings and allowing it to institute the use of tense as free play. On that
argument, The English Patient could be treated as a narrative that helps to
foreground the arbitrariness of tense marking, particularly in literary narrative. It
also helps to underline the fact that linguistic analysis may be able to specify – as
I have done above – in what way reader expectations are being flouted, but that,
due to the rules of tense usage, no linguistic explanation of the function of such a
tense alternation can be provided.
Even literary and narratological analyses cannot propose satisfactory solutions.
One can metaphorize the tense alternations of course – arguing that the ambiguity
of temporal groundings is one of the meanings of the text – but the conundrum
has not really been solved by such a strategy. In fact, it will only become possible
to evaluate the status of such texts, linguistically and narratologically, when
another decade has passed. Then one will be able to determine whether Ondaatje
and others were using the dissolution of the concept of narrative tense in order to
produce very text-specific meanings for their individual novels, or whether this
has become part of a trend towards a random use of narrative tense. The later
development, no doubt, would be the more interesting one since it would have
far-reaching implications for the English language. It would open a pocket in
literary texts in which English might operate like languages without
morphological tense markings. However, as yet such a scenario remains sheer


1 This article is a development from a paper read at the 1998 PALA conference in Berne. I would
like to thank an anonymous reviewer for his or her extremely helpful comments on an earlier
2 On the history of free indirect discourse see Fludernik (1993).
3 Since this article is concerned with tenses in English narrative, different conceptions of time in
non-European cultures are here discounted.
4 Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology proposes four levels of cognitive parameters deployed in the
production and reception of narrative. The first level concerns the parameters of real-life
experience (including the cognitive order of temporality). Level II concerns schemas and scripts
that access story material. (Examples are the schemas of TELLING, REFLECTING, VIEWING,
EXPERIENCING, ACTING.) Level III comprises storytelling situations and generic schemata. Level
IV, the level of narrativization, circumscribes the cognitive strategies taking effect during the
reading process. By utilizing cognitive parameters from Levels I to III, readers transform the text
into a narrative. With texts that are obviously narrative, Level IV is automatic and
unproblematic. Only with texts that resist recuperation as narratives (e.g. novels in the form of a
dictionary) does Level IV become important.
5 The assumption that the past tense is the regular narrative tense shows through most strikingly in
accounts of the indirect discourse that assume a third-person past-tense context for the device.
Recent narrative theory has documented the prevalence of the fictional narratives in the present
tense and the existence of some further experiments with the future tense or the conditional. For
a brief survey, see Fleischman’s entry s.v. tense in Encyclopedia of the Novel (1998).
6 In real life, the phrase a few years ago refers to a determinable period of the narrator’s life and
could in principle be specified from external sources. In fiction, no precise date will be
forthcoming unless the text provides a definite date at a later point in the discourse.

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


7 On Weinrich, see Fludernik (1993: 51–2). Since Weinrich’s system is extremely complex, I
desist from further explication.
8 The term epic present (Stanzel, 1981) puns on the epic preterite, insinuating that the narrative
present is used to mark fictionality. Cohn appropriately calls the phenomenon the fictional
present (1999: 106).
9 See, for instance, the highly interesting recent paper by Bertinetto (2001).
10 It is unclear in the passage whether the reference to earlier times is a memory of Hana or an
authorial comment.
11 Compare also the passage at the top of page 32.
12 See the example in (6) earlier (‘He had returned’ in a present-tense context), as well as ‘They
had handcuffed him’ (58). In fact, once could argue, it signals memory rather than anteriority.
13 My emphasis throughout.
14 An anonymous reader of this article has suggested ingeniously that the fuzziness of the temporal
markings correlates with the taking of morphine by Almásy and Caravaggio. Although I find this
an extremely shrewd reading of the text, for me this is a novel about memory, and I see the
characters’ memories not as morphine-induced fantasies but as elegiac recuperations of lives
untouched by the ravages of war.


Adams, J.-K. (1996) Narrative Explanation: A Pragmatic Theory of Discourse. Frankfurt/Berlin:

Bally, C. (1914a) ‘Figures de pensée et formes linguistiques’ I, Germanisch-Romanische
Monatsschrift 6: 405–22.
Bally, C. (1914b) ‘Figures de pensée et formes linguistiques’ II, Germanisch-Romanische
Monatsschrift 6: 456–70.
Benveniste, E. (1971) Problems in General Linguistics. Miami Linguistics Series 8. Coral Gables:
University of Miami Press.
Bertinetto, P.M. (2001) ‘Propulsive’ Tenses in Modern Italian Fictional Prose’, in G. Cinque and G.
Salvi (eds) Current Studies in Italian Syntax: Essays Offered to Lorenzo Renzi, pp. 97–115.
Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Bühler, K. (1934) Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktionen der Sprache. Jena: Gustav Fischer.
Casparis, C.P. (1975) Tense Without Time: The Present Tense in Narration. Schweizer Anglistische
Arbeiten 84. Berne: Francke.
Chase, C. (1978) ‘The Decomposition of the Elephants: Double-reading Daniel Deronda’, PMLA 93:
Chatman, S. (1978) Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell
University Press.
Coetzee, J.M. (1980) Waiting for the Barbarians. London: Secker and Warburg.
Cohn, D. (1999) The Distinction of Fiction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Culler, J. (1978) ‘On Trope and Persuasion’, New Literary History 9: 607–18.
Defoe, D. (1989 [1722]) Moll Flanders. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Figes, E. (1981) Waking. London: Hamilton.
Figes, E. (1988) Ghosts. London: Hamilton.
Fleischman, S. (1998) ‘Tense in Narrative’, in P. Schellinger (ed.) Encyclopedia of the Novel, pp.
1320–1. Chicago, IL/London: Fitzroy Dearborn.
Fludernik, M. (1992) ‘The Historical Present Tense in English Literature: An Oral Pattern and its
Literary Adaptation’, Language and Literature (University of Texas) 17: 77–107.
Fludernik, M. (1993) The Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction: The Linguistic
Representation of Speech and Consciousness. London/New York: Routledge.
Fludernik, M. (1996) Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London/New York: Routledge.
Forster, E.M. (1974 [1927]) Aspects of the Novel. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Gaines, F.J. (1971) The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Dia Press.
Gaines, F.J. (1976) Bloodline. New York: Norton.
Genette, G. (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method [Discours du récit, 1966]. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press.

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)


Hamburger, K. (1993 [1973]) The Logic of Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hamburger, K. (1994 [1957]) Die Logik der Dichtung. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.
Hownes, J. (1976) Travesty. New York: New Directions.
Kalepky, T. (1899) ‘Zur französischen Syntax’, Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie 23: 491–513.
Kalepky, T. (1913) ‘Zum “style indirect libre” (“verschleierte Rede”)’, Germanisch-Romanische
Monatsschrift 5: 608–19.
Müller, G. (1968) Morphologische Poetik: Gesammelte Aufsätze, ed. E. Müller. Darmstadt:
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
Ondaatje, Michael (1993 [1992]) The English Patient. London: Bloomsbury.
Ricoeur, P. (1984) Time and Narrative. Vol. I [Temps et Récit I, 1983]. Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press.
Ricoeur, P. (1985) Time and Narrative. Vol. II [Temps et Récit II, 1984]. Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press.
Ricoeur, P. (1988) Time and Narrative. Vol. II [Temps et Récit III, 1985]. Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press.
Rimmon-Kenan, S. (1983) Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen.
Schiffrin, D. (1987) Discourse Markers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shklovsky, V. (1965) ‘Art as Technique’, in L.T. Lemon and M.J. Reis (eds) Russian Formalist
Criticism: Four Essays, pp. 3–24. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Sontag, S. (1992) The Volcano Lover. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Stanzel, F.K. (1959) ‘Episches Praeteritum, erlebte Rede, historisches Praesens’, Deutsche
Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 33: 1–12.
Stanzel, F.K. (1981) ‘Wandlungen des narrativen Diskurses in der Moderne’, in R. Kloepfer and G.
Janetzke-Diller (eds) Erzählen und Erzählforschung im 20. Jahrhundert, pp. 371–83. Stuttgart:
Sturgess, P.J.M. (1989) ‘A Logic of Narrativity’, New Literary History 20(3): 763–83.
Sturgess, P.J.M. (1990) ‘Narrativity and Double Logics’, Neophilologus 74: 161–77.
Sturgess, P.J.M. (1992) Narrativity: Theory and Practice. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Tobler, A. (1887) ‘Vermischte Beiträge zur französischen Grammatik’, Zeitschrift für Romanische
Philologie 11: 433–61.
Tobler, A. (1900) ‘Mischung indirekter und direkter Rede in der Frage’, Zeitschrift für Romanische
Philologie 24: 130–2.
Weinrich, H. (1970) ‘Tense and Time’, Archivum Linguisticum n.s. 1: 31–41.
Weinrich, H. (1973) Le temps: le récit et le commentaire [Tempus: besprochene und erzählte Welt,
1964]. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
Wolf, C. (1976) Kindheitsmuster. Berlin: Aufbau Verlag.
Wolfson, N. (1982) CHP: The Conversational Historical Present in American English Narrative.
Topics in Socio-Linguistics 1. Dordrecht: Foris.


Monika Fludernik, Englisches Seminar, Albert-Ludwiges Universität, Freiburg-im-Bresgau, D-7905,

Germany. [email:]

Language and Literature 2003 12(2)