The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Catherine Gallagher

Paul Ricoeur tells us that a novel is a chronologically organized discourse ultimately referring (whatever its ostensible themes or subjects) to the passage of time. He also reminds us, though, just how complex and fractured that reference is, and especially in the case of fictional narratives, how far removed from our normal experience of time as comprising past, present, and future. Indeed, even as the novel takes place in time—as a linear sequence of signs in the consciousnesses of its readers—it nevertheless seems to suspend and displace the temporality of our daily existence, superimposing intricate, multilayered, and anachronistic time schemes of its own. This entry on the topic of time and the novel will survey various techniques for distinguishing, ordering, layering, interrupting, destabilizing, and suspending such temporal components of the form as story, plot, narrative, narrating, and reading. It will also discuss the historical facets of novels and their suspended time in textuality.

The Components of Novelistic Time

Narrated and Narrative Times

Critics and theorists have made a number of crucial distinctions in the process of describing how novels organize time, but unfortunately there has been no general agreement about their terms. As Gérard Genette remarks in the introduction to Narrative Discourse Reconsidered, the most basic distinction is between the time of the narration (what he calls the récit) and the time of the events narrated (the histoire). A variety of other terms have been used to describe roughly the same division: the Russian formalists (see FORMALISM) distinguish between fabula (raw order of events) and siuzhet (order in which they are told); Émile Benveniste uses énoncé (the enunciated or said) and énonciation (the act of enunciating or saying, including discours, which consists of various linguistic markers placing the enunciator in time); Günther Müller differentiates between Erzählte Zeit (narrated time) and Erzählzeit (narrating time); Mieke Bal separates the fabula from the “text” by the intervening category of “story” (the order of events as told); while Ricoeur tends to use the hybrid pair of énoncé and discours. These pairs are by no means perfectly equivalent, but they might all be used to explain the difference between, e.g., (1) the time supposedly taken to write Lockwood's diary in Emily Brontë's 1847 Wuthering Heights, and (2) the time of the story of the inmates of Wuthering Heights, which includes the introductory events of the diary and is largely told in the voice of the interpolated narrator, Nelly Dean (see FRAME). The narrative (or récit, siuzhet, énonciation, Erzählzeit, text, or discours) of the diary begins in 1801 and ends a year later in 1802, whereas the story (histoire, fabula, énoncé, Erzählte Zeit) of Heathcliff and the Earnshaws spans the period 1757—1802. The fabula of Wuthering Heights is constructed by the reader on the basis of over six hundred temporal allusions in the text, and it presupposes the existence of an “objective” and regularly proceeding calendar time as an external condition of the novel's temporality.

A double temporal order of the novel thus emerges in these two separate time-tracks, the short track of the narrative span and the long track of the narrated matter, and each of these tracks can be said to enclose and be enclosed by the other. The dates 1801—1802 in Lockwood's diary contain the whole of the story Nelly Dean tells, but inversely the events of 1801—1802 can be chronologically situated toward the end of her narrative. Furthermore, Wuthering Heights, like many novels following the epic model, takes full advantage of this doubleness by beginning in medias res; we first read Lockwood's diary entries describing his encounters with the mysterious world of Wuthering Heights, one of which contains a recollected portion of the dead character Catherine Earnshaw's diary, and only then, after Lockwood returns to his rented country house at Thrushcross Grange and seeks an explanation from the housekeeper, is the more linear, sequential story narrated. Thus, most of the novel consists of an extended analepsis (a flashback or time-shift backward) recounting previous events in more or less calendric sequence in order to answer the suspended question of how things came to be the way they are in 1801.

Story, Narrative, and Narrating Times

To be sure, a frame narrative such as Wuthering Heights makes the distinction between the times of the narrative and the narrated unusually apparent by representing and dating the act of narrating. Indeed, I've chosen to use Wuthering Heights as an example because its temporal complexity requires the use of the full range of temporal analytical tools. For example, the novel's explicit representation of the narrative time, which makes the narrative/story distinction easy to see, also presents a problem for the division of Wuthering Heights's time into merely two strands, for we might legitimately ask why the events surrounding the writing of the diary, which is every bit as fictional as the story of Heathcliff's life, should not themselves be included as part of the narrated matter, even though their temporality is distinct. The first narrated event we encounter in Wuthering Heights is Lockwood's initial short visit to Wuthering Heights, whereas the earliest chronological event is the arrival of Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights thirty-some years before. And thus, within the category of the narrated, another distinction emerges between the simple chronological line along which we might string all the events (the fabula) of the novel and the often quite different order in which the narration places them. Many critics use the term siuzhet to denote this ordering rather than to name any represented act of narrating. Other theorists, such as Ricoeur, have wanted to retain the pre-narratological term “plot” (rather than “narrative”) to name this dimension, and Mieke Bal uses “story” as opposed to both the bare fabula, on the one hand, and the narrative “text,” on the other. Genette also comes up with a third category to accommodate this complication; he uses histoire (story) for the mere chronology of the events, récit (narrative) for the temporal order in which they are arranged; and discours (narrating) for the act of telling as represented or implied in the fiction (e.g., the time in which Lockwood supposedly writes his diary). In English, Genette's terms have generally been rendered as story, narrative, and narrating, and many students of the novel acknowledge the usefulness of some such tripartite set of terms for separating out the layers of often simultaneous temporal patterning in a novel. For example, they allow us to see that the first analepsis of Wuthering Heights, in which Lockwood records (in chap. 3) Catherine's diary (supposedly written in 1777) is simultaneously proleptic; it shifts us backward in calendric or story time and might be said to interpolate an earlier narrating time, but in terms of the narrative order it also anticipates an incident that we will encounter three chapters later when Nelly's narrative reaches that same point in the story.

Represented and Reading Times

Even these three strands, however, have often not seemed adequate to the intricacy of novelistic temporality, and other dimensions of time have also been explored. Müller's concept of Erzählzeit (narrating time as opposed to narrated time), for example, refers less to the writing time of Lockwood's diary (which is a represented fictional entity) than to the time spent in reading the novel, as measured by its length. Since we do not confuse the time of our own reading with the represented time of Lockwood's diary writing, such a distinction would seem to be necessary. Müller implies, however, that in reading we unconsciously compare and contrast the two: in reading Wuthering Heights, for example, we register that the fictional time of Lockwood's writing is spread over a year, but the time that would normally elapse in reading the novel is merely a matter of hours. In such a complex novel, moreover, other such contrasts would be felt on every level: the thirteen-year span over which Catherine and Heathcliff grow into adults and are separated by Catherine's death may be measured against the five weeks of Lockwood's illness during which Nelly supposedly tells him the story intermittently, and that might in turn be measured against the time it takes us to read the chapters (perhaps an hour). Our experience of these different time values, according to Müller, constitutes the novel's temporal gestalt. Moreover, although narratologists have been reluctant to admit that they consider reading time in their analyses (because it seems too subjectively variable), even Genette acknowledges it under the guise of “duration” and requires it to describe the novel's complex and varying tempos.

Critics use these different temporal strands—we have so far identified four—not only to trace their organization in individual novels (as I have been doing with Wuthering Heights) but also to describe the techniques typical of various authors, nations, historical periods, aesthetic movements, and subgenres. Much of the scholarship on time and the novel, for example, has been devoted to the strong influence exerted on modernist narrative techniques by Henri Bergson's (1859—1941) philosophical writings on time (see MODERNIS). Within all of this great variety, though, we commonly find novelists handling the special temporal resources of their form in ways that at once reference our lived experience of time and create an experience apart from and even antithetical to lived time. A description of these effects will require us to look at some aspects of the novel (verb tenses and textuality, for example) that have not yet been mentioned.


For each of the main aspects of time—transience, sequence, and irreversibility—the novel's multiple temporalities, its tenses of fictionality, and its textual mode of being all supply counterweights. The novel, like music, is a diachronic art form, but it seems devoted to anachrony.


To the transience of successive moments, especially as measured by the regular and unstoppable ticking of “objective” clock-time, the novel offers numerous techniques for slowing or suspending forward movement. I've been examining the compressions by which story time is reduced to narrating time, and narrating time to reading time, but the opposite effect is also in the novelistic repertoire. The reading time, the Erzählzeit, can be much longer than the moment narrated. As Henry Fielding's narrator declared in Tom Jones (1749), his story would “sometimes seems to stand still and sometimes to fly” (chap. 1). Recognizing that narrative rhythm is a relative matter and that the sensation of standing still is partly dependent on the opposite sensation of flying, we may nevertheless note that novelists since the seventeenth century have used descriptive pauses, discursive digressions, the represented reveries of characters, and other rhetorical ornaments to slow and stop the forward motion of narrative and to elongate or stretch reader's perception of time (see DESCRIPTION). With the invention of modernist narrative forms, other modes of time-suspension became available, such as James Joyce's “epiphanies” or Ford Madox Ford's purposeful longueur. The novelist's ability to slow the tempo by imposing a long reading time on a short incident, though, is not the form's only way of reacting against the transience of time. Another is the suspension brought about by the very use of the past tense in fiction. As numerous theorists have noted, the traditional use of the preterite in the novel is unmoored from its normal meaning because there is no present situation of communication in relation to which the verb's tense deictically indicates pastness. Rather, to borrow Harald Weinrich's formulation, the past tense in narrative often signals not pastness but an ontological distance from actuality that induces a certain kind of aesthetic receptivity, which he calls “withdrawal” from the actual world. We could think of it as analogous to the “Once upon a time” of the fairy tale. And paradoxically, as the critic A. A. Mendilow noted in 1952, the past tense signaling fictionality allows for the engrossment in which readers translate “all that happens ... into an imaginative present” unfolding as they read the novel (96—97). Other critics working on the phenomenon of free indirect discourse, such as Kate Hamburger and Ann Banfield, have similarly noted the distance between the uses of tense in fiction and the ordinary uses of tense, and they have especially stressed the anachronic layering of presentness and pastness. All of these methods of countering time's transience might be said to invoke our tacit knowledge that the various dimensions of fictional time only “happen” in actuality when someone reads the novel, which can also obviously be reread repeatedly, so that its transience is suspended in its textuality. The most uncanny temporal aspect of the novel may, indeed, be this always available replaying of events that we know never occurred.


To the regular sequence of past—present— future that marks “objective” time, the novel counterpoises numerous anachronic concatenations. We have already identified instances of analepsis and prolepsis, for example, and Wuthering Heights also gives us a prominent instance of paralepsis or ellipsis, which Genette defines as the omission at the narrative level of a link in the story chain, leading to a noticeable gap in the sequence. Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights in 1780 as a poor farm boy and returns to the neighborhood in 1783 as a rich man, but there is no account of how this change occurred. Simultaneity is another anti-sequential device used repeatedly in Wuthering Heights; e.g., Lockwood's reading of Catherine's diary creates our awareness of the simultaneity of their two calendar times (1801 and 1777) in our reading experience, a simultaneity that is also made thematic in Catherine's ghostly appearance at the window of Lockwood's bed later that night. Through all of the disruptions, reversals, gaps, and layers of temporal sequences, the novelist suggests that some states of being manage to escape the constraints of time altogether, stepping out into a dimension of permanent endurance. Indeed, Mikhail Bakhtin identifies this quality of existence outside of sequenced time as the “chronotope” of the gothic novel.


The ambition to retrieve past time, redeem it, recall it, and make it once again present, thwarting its unidirectional flow, is implicit in the trope of retrospection that so frequently motivates the narrating in novels, and temporal reversal operates also in many of the techniques we've already examined: backward ordering, time-shifting, layering, and rendering moments simultaneously. The repetition of plot elements might be seen as another method of reviving spent time. At Wuthering Heights, for example, we see Lockwood inhospitably left without the accommodation of a bed in chap. 2, then the newly arrived Heathcliff in chap. 4 (and thirty years earlier) wanders the same halls with nowhere to sleep, and then in chap. 13 (and thirteen years later), Isabella Heathcliff (née Linton) finds herself in the same situation. We see a single pattern of struggle and oppression form itself repeatedly as the denizens of the Heights ascend and descend the structure of power. And, most obviously, Heathcliff's attempted revenge consists in forcing the children of his enemies to relive the experience of his own degradation at the hands of their parents.

Wuthering Heights may be a novel particularly haunted by such recurrences, but novelistic plots in general, as Peter Brooks has argued, redeem time as a “medium of meaning” through the patterning activity of repetition. The first time an event occurs it may seem locked in its context, but its recurrence both brings the earlier incidences back to mind, thereby unbinding them from their initial placement, and also creates the resonances we perceive as the work's themes and meanings. Time's direction can also be reversed by highly coincidental plots, which give the impression of having been teleologically arranged in order to bring about particular endings and thus create the effect of backward causation. Moreover, recent experiments in reversing time's course have included narrative exploitations of backward time-travel paradoxes, tales of people born old and growing young, and, in the singular case of Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (1991), a narrator telling an entire novel in reverse order, as if he were describing a film playing backwards.

Novels and Historical Time

Perhaps because the novel has invented such strong models for rescuing the past, it has been a favorite form of historicist critics. When it promises to be entirely up to date and portray the world of the author's times, it thereby also pledges to preserve that world for future generations. In the atmosphere of nineteenth-century historicism, it added the ambition of retrieving the subjective experiences of bygone eras. History could give both a record and an analysis of public events, but the historical novel would portray the nitty-gritty lived sensations and mentalities of private lives, which were only then coming to be understood as historically shaped. For these reasons, we often read novels with an intense sense of their historicity; indeed, we often read them as a way of dwelling mentally in a past made present.

But what is the time of this past? Partly, we think of it as the past in which the author composed the novel. Obviously, this would not be the intradiegetic time of the narrating persona (e.g., Lockwood) but rather an extradiegetic time (e.g., the 1840s in which Emily Brontë wrote) that can be placed in relation to the reader's historical moment. Part of what we seek when we read Wuthering Heights historically is the sense of that invisible but nonetheless characterizable sensibility, its period inflections, and also its miraculous singularity in contrast to all the other Victorian novelists we read. The historical embodied life that produced that sensibility came and went, but we nonetheless believe we can approximate an encounter with it in the act of reading the novel.

Since the 1970s, however, “new” historicists have mounted a critique of this view of the novel's historical being. Literary works, as theoreticians such as Jerome McGann, Hans Robert Jauss, and Stephen Orgel (in their different ways) insist, are not fixed by their authors at particular points in history and then retrieved in that form by later readers; instead they exist as a multitude of various versions and moments of reception. Their historical being consists in a series of events (writings, publications, editings, readings, performances, and other consummations). There is no historical gap between the Victorian Wuthering Heights and our twenty-first-century readings of it but rather a continuous series of realizations in which readers appropriated and revised the meaning of the text. In these perspectives the text is either equated with the totality of the operations performed in realizing it or viewed as a kind of ghostly “potential” that might be actualized in myriad human actions, all of which can be situated historically as discrete events. We might say, therefore, that the historical time of the novel has been generously pluralized since the 1960s and is now an ever-renewing manifold of historical times.

This pluralizing, however, has by no means overcome the problems inherent in placing texts historically. As Jauss pointed out in 1970, they seem to lack the normal starting and ending dates we use for other kinds of historical phenomena. For example, we can ask (without speaking nonsense), “When was the French Revolution?” But we cannot ask, “When was A Tale of Two Cities? Or when is it? Or when will it be?” We need to specify further: When was it written, published, revised, made into a movie, or read by a particular person? The novel (or, for that matter, a history like Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution, 1837) comes into being as a text and then, our ordinary language indicates, just is, in a kind of being without necessarily happening that characterizes all textuality but is particularly acute in the novel, which refers only obliquely to actual historical events.

Novels, we might say, are uncannily at once historical and atemporal, giving readers the sense of being delivered into an intimately known past and yet making that delivery in a stretch of time that has no specifiable termination. This is the quality of time-in-abeyance that Georges Poulet describes when he claims that all books in their merely physical form seem to “wait for someone to come and deliver them from their materiality” (41); the text, he reminds us, can only be brought out of this dormancy by a reader, “whose own life it suspends” (47). The richness and complexity of the novel's anachronic techniques, the subtle indicators of its fictionality, heighten our awareness of this state of suspension.

SEE ALSO: Closure, Metafiction, Narrative Structure, Serialization, Space, Story/Discourse.


1. Bakhtin, M.M. (1982), Dialogic Imagination, trans. K. Brostrom and V.S. Liapunov, ed. M. Holquist and V.S. Liapunov.

2. Bal, M. (1985), Narratology.

3. Banfield, A. (1982), Unspeakable Sentences.

4. Benveniste, E. (1977), Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Marilynn Rose.

5. Brooks, P. (1984), Reading for the Plot.

6. Genette, G. (1980), Narrative Discourse, trans. J.E. Lewin.

7. Genette, G. (1988), Narrative Discourse Revisited, trans. J.E. Lewin.

8. Hamburger, K. (1973), Logic of Literature, trans. M.J. Rose.

9. Jauss, H.R. (1970), “ Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” New Literary History 2: 7—37.

10. Jauss, H.R. (1982), Toward an Aesthetic of Reception.

11. McGann, J. (1983), Critique of Modern Textual Criticism.

12. Mendilow, A.A. (1952), Time and the Novel.

13. Müller, G. (1968), Morphologische Poetik.

14. Orgel, S. (2002), Authentic Shakespeare.

15. Poulet, G. (1980), “Criticism and the Experience of Interiority,” trans. C. Macksey and R. Macksey, in Reader-Response Criticism, ed. J. P. Tompkins.

16. Ricoeur, P. (1985), Time and Narrative, vol. 2, trans. K. McLaughlin and D. Pellauer.

17. Weinrich, H. (1973), Temps, trans. M. Lacoste.