Time in Literature

Fiction is only sometimes an attempt to present a straightforward presentation of a story from beginning to end, which is what we would be led to believe by Aristotle’s dictum that stories have beginnings, middles and ends. To the contrary, writers tell their stories by wandering around between what is presumably past, current and future, each with their own way of doing this, and that in part is what makes their storytelling into an art, something controlled by the artist, So a story may have a beginning, middle and an end, but the telling of it is in the hands of the storyteller. Let us consider some of the ways authors do this.

Homer is a master of bending his narrative as he sees fit. The story of the Odyssey which begins, if one were providing a straightforward chronology, with Odysseus leaving Troy, having his adventures, and then reaching Ithaca, in fact has layers and layers of overlap of plot that are remarkably concise, each with a purpose, even while Homer is getting on with his narrative. The starting point of the epic is when the gods get together and, Poseidon being out of town, decide to release Ullyses from his thralldom to Circe. But before getting on with that, Homer takes up many matters, past, coterminous and future. He refers in some detail to the matter of the House of Atreus, where Agistes kills Agamemnon, and Orestes kills Clytemnestra, which shows how badly things can go when the return of a warrior goes sour, and we are about to hear the story of how the return of Ulysses fares. We also learn a good deal about the blinding of the Cyclops, which set Poseidon against Ulysses, long before that story is itself elaborated, and so suggesting, in something of a preview, the basic conflict which led to Ulysses's troubles. And we learn of the message to Telemachus about his father’s return, which tells us that the climax of the story will be about that. The story has not been set from start to finish, in a linear matter, but in an allusive one, so that all of these events are held in the mind simultaneously, as if the reader were a kind of god himself. In bestowing this role on the reader, or in presuming it, this kind of storytellimng that wanders about in time becomes a way to read and find meaning. So jumping about in time as a feature of writing becomes jumping about as a feature of reading.

Not all great literature jumps about in time, even if the human mind does. Shakespeare is remarkable for telling his stories front to back, starting at the point he wants to jump into the story, and then telling it straightforwardly until its conclusion. “Hamlet” starts off with the Prince recently returned to Denmark and then takes it through various incidents until the plot, all played out, just has to be ended, as it is with a duel that no one really needed but which the frustration of the characters with one another demanded. “Macbeth” starts with clues to his ambition, and carries that out until he is cut down, which also comes sooner or later to such folk. Shakespeare is the master of the history, where time might seem one of the few things that can connect diverse events together, in “Henry VI” those including Joan of Arc and Jack Cade. Shakespeare makes up for fidelity to the way time works in a linear way by allowing characters to endlessly explain their own or one another’s motivations and through poetry that transcends the story and by the ironic juxtaposition of the characters. Shakespeare is thus to be compared, as he often is, to Racine, who abides by the Aristotelian unities by making references to actions that take place offstage or are remembered from the past, while Shakespeare is considered lax because he has as many scenes as he wants to tell his story, when in fact he is just abiding by a different discipline, which is to tell stories front to back.

Many of the books of the Old Testament, like “Genesis”, “Exodus” and “Samuel I and II”, also tell their stories from front to back, Noah hearing the voice of God, Moses left in the bulrushes, David as shepherd, war hero, soother of the king, and then guerilla and, later than that, king in his own right. Sometimes that means the stories will be very short and not so sweet because they are records of events, the motives left to inference. Abraham hears from God that he should sacrifice Isaac, takes him to the altar, and then is released from his obligation. The mystery of what has happened in the very briefly told story is debated for millennia and gives rise to the deepest of religious feelings.

A master of jumbling up time, on the other hand, is Jane Austen. She begins the earliest of her completed novels, “Sense and Sensibility”, with a question of property, which is the opening for other of her novels including her last, “Persuasion”, to which she also brings her ruminations on the relationship between property, wealth, and courtship. In “Sense and Sensibility”, the Dashwoods have been kicked out of their elegant house because Mr. Dashwood had not found a way to leave any money to his second family and had relied on a deathbed promise by his son to make things comfortable for them. Then in a bit of comic dialogue stellar for its conciseness, the son’s wife talks him easily enough out of carrying out any commitments he has made, first by insisting they need far less and then nothing at all, a guilty conscience always finding excuses for what it is about to do.

Austen also overlaps story lines. There is the romance of Marianne Dashwood with first John Willoughby and then with Colonel Brandon. There is also the romance of Elinor Dashwood with Edward Ferrars. The two stories are set off against one another in that Willoughby is exposed to be a cad while Edward Ferrars had never acted in an unethical way. All this rearrangement of plot is very different from meaning, which is what the plot points to, and in the case of “Sense and Sensibility”, that has to do with the Romantic consciousness, which is something that Jane Austen deplores, however much she is committed to the idea that, as in Shakespeare, a happy ending means that all the couples are matched up with the ones they are supposed to love. Marianne prefers Romantic poetry and the cottage that the Dashwoods are forced to move to is described as “romantic”, but the truth is, as Maryann finally comes to understand, true romance lives in deeds rather than in sentiments, in sense rather than in sensibility, and that matches the basically conservative or modest way in which Elinor conducted herself, keeping her feelings and pain to herself, while Marianne had made a spectacle of herself and acted as if she were the only girl in the world who had given her heart to someone and not have her affection returned. Such is life.

By the time Jane Austen reaches her third novel, “Pride and Prejudice”, she has rearranged to pieces on her chessboard to make the main plot line more clear. Darcy is initially disqualified from being a suitor by his arrogance just as Colonel Brandon had been disqualified by his age. And Darcy does come to the rescue, getting Wickham to marry Lydia, just as Colonel Brandon comes to Marianne’s rescue: defending her honor, finding her in a storm. The two sisters, in “Pride and Prejudice”, Elizabeth and Jane, also both find their soul mates. But other elements of “Pride and Prejudice” have been sorted out. The Willoughby character has been replaced by Wickham who goes after a different sister who is younger and more naive than Elizabeth while the possibility of an inferior marriage has been elicited through the view of Charlotte and Mr. Collins, clearly subsidiary characters. These having been isolated out, Austen can deal with how such complex outliers as Elizabeth and Darcy can overcome convention and reinvent their feelings despite the heavy weight of customary usages and prejudices that they both share. The couple are partly Beatrice and Benedict and partly Antony and Cleopatra, this time not representing two different empires but someone from the nation of men and someone from the nation of woman trying to understand one another. “Sense and Sensibility is not that complex. Its main outcome is that for circumstantial reasons on the part of Elinor, and more gradually by Marianne, they do find good matches for themselves, good because the lovers can understand one another, regardless of economic pressures. For Jane Austen, at that point, that is the freedom people have: to acknowledge a soulmate.

The key to Austen’s plot are often the revelation through a letter or a conversation concerning something that happened before the novel started. This may seem a simple device whereby to resolve her plots but in fact gives away something very central to the meaning of her novels: that what seems to be a set of events is in fact a revelation of something that had always existed even if it had been clouded or unknown. Austen is doing Ibsen before his time. A suggestion that this is the case is the novel that seems to be contrary to this pattern: “Mansfield Park”, where late in the novel Fanny Price does not act as she is supposed to, which is to be decisive so as to save the family that has taken her in and treated her as one of their own. Her failure to act is a revelation: this is what she has always been. What had seemed like the gangly demands of a young person trying to fit in, as when she demands a horse of her own, turns out to be her true character: stubborn, selfish, passive aggressive. So what the story has told us is nothing but what was always the case but it took the novel to get that across, to make us read it backwards in the light of what happened last. This is Chekov or Ibsenism before its time. The true action of the drama is what it reveals rather than what happens within it. The audience moves forward even if the story doesn’t very much do so.

Charles Dickens, the great successor to Jane Austen, is radically different from her. He is a front to back story teller who may introduce side characters marvelous for their quirkiness and also include subplots galore, but generally Dickens follows a life as the protagonist gets older, allowing for pauses and for stages of life that are jumped over. But, I think, his crowning achievement is “Great Expectations”, where he works contrary to what the genre of romantic fiction would impose on him: a foreshadowing, in early life, just as in the opening of the Odyssey, of what will happen later. The traumatic event and the consequences of having met Magwitch in the cemetery is treated by Pipas not being that, nor is the reader expected to catch on that Magwitch is his real benefactor. Rather, Pip thinks it is Mrs. Havisham, perhaps because her social class is so much more lofty than his own, and that therefore Estella, her ward, is the one destined to be his. That may be a pleasing illusion but it is destructive to think that a life has been laid out that will goo according to a plan known to the gods and to the reader clued in as to what will happen. “Great Expectations” is radical because it lays bare the use of reminiscence as a motive. It is anti-Romantic l in that nothing matters but the present. Pip has become a middle level bureaucrat thanks to John Wemmick, and so he shall remain, romantic dreams of Estella irrelevant to real life.

That analysis reminds us that it is correct to think of Freud as the last Romantic. Freud says there is always an underlying story which underlies the present story and which arises, outside of the time when it occurred, to haunt and shape the lives of people in their present. Time has no meaning in the world of psychological meanings. The past is a constant source of revelation which, when rediscovered, sheds light on and can change life from what it has seemed to be about in the interim since the traumatic event which never goes away. Freud and Dickens cannot coexist.