According to a recent analysis (Isham & Savvidou, 2002), physical scientists regard time in one of two ways: either, adopting the realist approach, time is a neutral part of the universe, existing independent of material processes, as in Newtonian physics; or, alternatively, time is relational, an intellectual construct, having no independent material existence. The utter incompatibility of these two interpretations, declares that time is a poorly understood phenomenon. However, abandoning the heights of theoretical physics for the lowly certainties of language philosophy reveals one simple truth about time, and that truth is the existence of NOW. That there was time before NOW is a matter of experience, and it can be presumed from this experience that there is likely to be time after NOW. Therefore, what is really known of time is the present. But the present lacks duration; it cannot be extended in either direction because, once realised, it has been plunged into the past, and it eats away into the future whilst never achieving it.

In Physics, Aristotle defined the present as the boundary between past and future, and, accordingly, in his Confessions, St Augustine proposed that the present exists as a slim ‘knife edge’ of time. Subsequent philosophy has sought to relate the present to the duration of a moment of sensibility, although since a moment of sensibility lacks any temporal absolute, such proposals seem doomed to semantic conundrum. Equally, philosophy would reduce the future to moments never attained and the past to a phenomenon reliant for its very existence upon a patchwork of records and memories. So, where, one might ask, does that leave time? It leaves it balancing upon Augustine’s knife edge of NOW.

The logical consequence of the above argument is the philosophy of Presentism, which proposes that only the present exists and that the past and the future are constructs or fictions. However, such temporal nihilism does not facilitate language and language has definitely had to take a more positive, a more proactive, attitude towards temporal logic: time might well be balancing on a knife edge but language needs to communicate thoughts and ideas, and some of these ideas bear relevance to these ‘fictions’ of past and future. Therefore language has evolved and, as it has done so, a wealth of literature has emerged, narratives that transcend time, fictions and non-fictions, obedient to and challenging reality.

According to some authors, and indeed to good sense, there must exist some essential relationship between the structure of language and the nature of reality. Language function must, therefore, be determined by metaphysical aspects of man’s interface with the world. This interface presumably, for the non-nihilist, includes time. Indeed, Ermarth places the burden of time wholly upon language, suggesting that language is ‘the only site where temporality can be located and where consciousness can be said to exist’ (1). However, the last century has witnessed an unnerving decline in temporal confidence, with increasing doubts being expressed regarding the way in which language accommodates time, doubts which go so far as to threaten our understanding of reality.

Therefore, considering the above brief metaphysics of time, this work will investigate the way in which temporal phenomena have fashioned language structure, in particular its system of tenses, and how these phenomena are revealed in narrative texts. It will consider how the ordering of narrative events relates to causality and the further demands this has placed upon language obedient to perceived time. It will investigate the proposition that ‘different historical forms of the novel’ are distinguished ‘in terms of the concepts of time and causation that shape them’ (2) by comparing temporality within realist and non-realist texts, and will further judge the relevance of these externalised narratives, and indeed narrative structures in general, to internalised mental phenomena such as thought and memory. In conclusion it will return to the debate over the nature of time and consider whether rather than time influencing the structure of language, our language now challenges our understanding of time.


(1). Ermarth (1992) p140.

(2). Heise (1997) p13.


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