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  • Temporal Registers in the Realist Novel
  • Ilya Bernstein


There are two ways of thinking about time: in terms of sequences of events, and in terms of time-scales. In the first case, each event is conceived of as having a "before" and an "after": it is categorized as part of a sequence and distinguished from other events by its position in that sequence. In the second case, there is no "before" and "after": events are conceived of as occupying different time-scales and distinguished from one another by being associated with durations of greater or lesser magnitude.1 Thus, the same situation may be categorized alternatively as an unfolding succession of events (event 1, event 2, event 3 ...) or as a progression of overlapping events on expanding time-scales (the second-event, the minute-event, the hour-event ...). In what follows, I will argue that this distinction can shed light on narrative structure—as well as musical form—and that it has particularly interesting implications for literary realism.

It may be claimed that this distinction between two ways of approaching time has been an explicit theme in the arts over the course of their history. Different musical forms, for instance, may be seen as being oriented toward one paradigm or the other. Thus, melody aesthetically suggests a sequential conception of time. Melodic forms are supposed to take listeners on a journey from point A to point B, by way of a succession of points in between. By contrast, a form such as the fugue addresses itself to discovering different degrees of density and intensity within the [End Page 173] same event, as it were. It adds layer upon layer, aesthetically dilating the event without moving away from it. The ideology of melody, we might say, thus leans toward a conception of time as a sequence, while the ideology of the fugue suggests a scaling notion of time.

Echoes of the distinction between these two aesthetic alternatives may also be found in literature, as embodied in different approaches to narrative. Narrative, conceived of as a succession of episodes, suggests a sequential conception of time, oriented around a "before" and an "after." Yet within these parameters, a spectrum of tendencies may be identified. In some literary forms, the succession of episodes is organized to suggest the idea of a passage from one event to the next (Shakespearean drama, the realist novel), as the notions of "before" and "after" are projected onto ideas of past and future. In others, the succession of episodes represents the layer-by-layer assembly of some larger imaginative or conceptual construct (as is true, in different ways, of such texts as Plato's dialogues, the Divine Comedy, and any number of religious, philosophical, or allegorical narratives): "before" and "after" are interpreted not so much in terms of a past and a future, as in terms of premises and conclusions.

Within this spectrum, the novel—and perhaps the realist novel in particular—would appear to be the literary form par excellence that embodies a sequential conception of time. It thematizes and dramatizes time's passage—the unknowability of the future and the irretrievability of the past—more exhaustively than any other narrative genre. Yet as I hope to show below, while the explicit themes of literary realism treat fictional events as a sequence (event 1, event 2, event 3 ...), its implicit organization is grounded in time-scales and directs readers' attention to differentiations among events taking place at different temporal registers (the sentence-event, the chapter-event, the novel-event ...).


I would like to begin exploring the theoretical distinction laid out above by going back to music and focusing on an empirical observation that has been made about a variety of musical forms. It has been pointed out that when people listen to a piece of music, they retain in their memory, at greater or lesser degrees of awareness, a certain segment of what they have just heard; this memory serves as a background for their perception of incoming sounds and as a frame of reference for their experience of them. Consequently, musical forms may be characterized, [End Page 174] compared, and distinguished from one another based...


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