Editing Internet Texts/The Concept of Time in Literature

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The hourglass is one of the symbol of the time flow

The concept of time is one of the most debated in the history of humanity, since the beginning it has awake a sense of mistery and doubt, and so many civilizations had started to questioning about what the time really is. In this page i want to illustrate and explain how the concept of time was treated through different writers in different phases of literature, from such a variety of men all burdened of his inexorability. This is going to be like a kind of walk in the literature of the past to understand and be conscious how a single concept can affect society and culture. We will start from the latins writers, ending with the 19th and 20th century authors.

Classical authors[edit]


The whole Greek lyric face this argument, expecially from Mimnermus, in a Hedonistic and pessimistic way, that leads him to prefer a young death instead to suffer the old age, so empty of pleasures and entertainment. This conception is similar at the Alcaeus one, with his quote "In vino veritas" he want to explain how life is short, and what really matter, is drinking to have fun and do not think about the problems of life. Same way of thought is Horace, with "Carpe diem" he mean we have to seize the day, so we should enjoy every day of ours lifes because each of those could be the last, due to the uncertainty and precariousness of the future.


The fugacity of time recur to be treated from the epigrammatists of the Greek anthology, both from the Hellenistic period, with Leonidas of Tarentum and Asclepiades of Samos, and from the Byzantine period, with Palladas, in his works there is all the weight of the consciousness that roman world is slowly replacing the greek one. His vision is pessimistic and gloomy, almost frantic.The generation of men breed and fed for the death live only for a short period and as it come from it disappear. This is a theory bounded to Stoicism, they said that the passed time belong to the death and no more to the person.


Bust of Seneca

A different tesys is supported by Seneca in his De brevitate vitae, he split the life in three different moments:past, present and future. The present is short; the future is unsure; the past is sure.

So here the past is no more considered in the hands of the death, and this became the only temporal human ownership, sacrosant and inviolable, "perpetua eius et intrepida possessio est"[1] However, it is not for everyone so, because only the wise man, who has always used his time well in search of virtue, Can recall, with pride, the past, reconsidering moments spent "at their command and pleasure," while the other men, too busy in thousand activities, do not willingly turn to their past, for fear and shame of time who have inevitably lost, “iniucunda est paenitendae rei recordatio…”[2]. Seneca defines these men "busy", that is, affectionate, because they live at the mercy of countless commitments that take away their time to think for themselves. So their life is an obsessive expectation of an unsure future, uncertain, loaded with new occupations, long-term plans, and the present is very short and elusive as it is always in the race, it flows, it collapse, “ in cursu enim sempre est, fluitet praecipitatur…”[3], like a river. The Senecan work is to refute the thousand-year-old belief, date back to Aristotle, that human life is too short, when it's so because men do not know how to use it. For the first time it face time not by quantity, but by quality. In this regard, Seneca makes a distinction between "busy", most of humanity, victims of time, and the "sapiens", his tamer, giving rise to one antithesis between time and wisdom, which appears throughout all the De brevitate vitae. The busy ones, distracted by their thousand "negotia", riches, public office, do not realize the inevitable passage of time, if not when it is too late, and while they are careful money savers, avoiding to squander it, they are not equal with time, squandering every day. For this reason, Seneca makes the example of a man who, if he made the record of his past, He would find himself with many years less because he was stolen in large numbers by creditors, women, clients, quarrels, which prevented him from fully realizing or taking care of his own person.

Modern and contemporary authors[edit]

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare[edit]

Time is an interesting concept to consider in Shakespeare's (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) Sonnets. Normally, it’s presented in a manner that indicates it as the enemy of both the speaker and the people that he addresses his sonnets to. Time is indeed pictured as some kind of monster or beast that "devours" those around and which takes away their life and energy through the passing of the years. What both the speaker and his beloved are forced to acknowledge for, is that’s no matter how beautiful the beloved is today, tomorrow, he or she will be old thanks to time's sovereignty over the human form, just like as showed in the final couplet of sonnet 12, “and nothing against the time saith can make defense”, a period where Shakespeare express the inability of the man toward the inescapeability of time. The sonnets, however, through their act of immortalizing the beloved, clearly work to counteract the decaying impact of time and to triumph over its mastery. Even through the use of personification, Shakespeare confronts the natural changes which creates and destroys life. He is sensitive to the frailty of the peak of life, even thanks to his experience of dramatist that made him much acknowledged in complexity of human being and feelings, and he knows how time hastily takes it as soon as it is displayed. He strives through the Sonnets to capture the youth so quickly lost during time. Subverting the conventions of Petrarchan poetry, Shakespeare concerns his subject as an imperfect one, submitted by the conditions around it and by the pasting of the time, and even the metrical structure provides on this: usually the first three quatrains analyzes the qualities of his subject, while the last untrimmed couplet leaves to the reader the impression of something that isn’t static,that isn’t ever durable, but frail, short and mortal, even expressed in sonnet 73, trough the use of metaphors.

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire[edit]

Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821 – August 31, 1867) is one of the major innovators in French literature. The poetry "The Enemy" contained in the "Flowers of Evil" describes the devastating effects of time on human life. Baudelaire expresses the passage of time as something cruel and who devours us inexorably, offering a strong perception of the void of existence without knowing its meaning. Life is like a garden whose fruits, once lush, are dried, leaving room for desolation. The past time has sucked and devastated Baudelaire's soul waiting for new flowers to regain the joy of living and writing in order to create a new beauty. But the final exclamation is a desperate cry of a conscious man who will always be settled by an enemy consuming vital momentum: boredom.

The Enemy

My youth has been nothing but a tenebrous storm,
Pierced now and then by rays of brilliant sunshine;
Thunder and rain have wrought so much havoc
That very few ripe fruits remain in my garden.
I have already reached the autumn of the mind,
And I must set to work with the spade and the rake
To gather back the inundated soil
In which the rain digs holes as big as graves.
And who knows whether the new flowers I dream of
Will find in this earth washed bare like the strand,
The mystic aliment that would give them vigor?
Alas! Alas! Time eats away our lives,
And the hidden Enemy who gnaws at our hearts
Grows by drawing strength from the blood we lose![4]

Poetry reveals the anguish of the poet when he finds the signs of time on his body. It is shaped by an existential discomfort through art that is a way of exorcising; Writing is the only cure for the insults of time and self-disgust that inspires the poet to his progressive degradation: art allows to oppose the resistance of intelligence to the corrosive force of nature. The poet then survived for his word.

"The Clock" is the last poem of the "Spleen et ideal" section; The time, classic theme of romantic poetry and "The Flowers of Evil" is for Baudelaire, a weird weight when the poet is bored, a torture. Here is represented with the object of measurement, marking the victory of melancholy on the ideal through the image of an omnipotent and destructive time that plunges man towards death.

The Clock
Impassive clock! Terrifying, sinister god,
Whose finger threatens us and says: "Remember!
The quivering Sorrows will soon be shot
Into your fearful heart, as into a target;
Nebulous pleasure will flee toward the horizon
Like an actress who disappears into the wings;
Every instant devours a piece of the pleasure
Granted to every man for his entire season.
Three thousand six hundred times an hour, Second
Whispers: Remember! — Immediately
With his insect voice, Now says: I am the Past
And I have sucked out your life with my filthy trunk!
Remember! Souviens-toi, spendthrift! Esto memor!
(My metal throat can speak all languages.)
Minutes, blithesome mortal, are bits of ore
That you must not release without extracting the gold!
Remember, Time is a greedy player
Who wins without cheating, every round! It's the law.
The daylight wanes; the night deepens; remember!
The abyss thirsts always; the water-clock runs low.
Soon will sound the hour when divine Chance,
When august Virtue, your still virgin wife,
When even Repentance (the very last of inns!),
When all will say: Die, old coward! it is too late!"
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Acad[5]

In this poetry Baudelaire resumes the traditional theme of time by innovating and presenting a particularly dramatic and distressing vision that highlights the tragic nature of the human condition. There is time in its units with the adjectives that translate the effect of time on man with physical sensations. Here the Parisian poet takes notice of human submission at the time and that the characteristic of man is transience.

But in the same section of this composition we find the poem "The taste of nothingness" where in the final part there is a direct reference to the devouring time to which the poet finds solution in the pre-established attitude in the title:

 ...Adorable spring has lost its fragrance!
And Time engulfs me minute by minute,
As the immense snow a stiffening corpse;
I survey from above the roundness of the globe
And I no longer seek there the shelter of a hut.
Avalanche, will you sweep me along in your fall? [6]

Baudelaire's folding on the sentiment of time leads to shores on which the waves of the impossible can stand, supports melancholy under low, heavy, rainy skies and gathers the turmoil of feelings under the domination of an atrocious and tyrannical anguish.

Italo Svevo

Italo Svevo[edit]

Aron Ettore Schmitz (19 December 1861 – 13 September 1928), better known by the pseudonym Italo Svevo, was an Italian writer, businessman, novelist, playwright, and short story writer. In his work Zeno's Conscience, aroused great interest especially because he treat the concept of time through the novel, in a new way. The novel's time is that of consciousness, a time not subject to the objective laws of orderly succession, and this affects the choice of events to be represented and, consequently, also the narrative structure, which in this case is not constituted by a chronological sequence of events but is subdivided into five narrative nuclei, each of which represents a fundamental moment in Zeno's life. For this reason, the novel can be considered a work in progress, subject to numerous additions or deletions of parts. He almost relives to his conscience pieces of his past, canceling the temporal distance and immersing the past events in an eternal present. Time, being a spiral, does not presuppose any conclusion of the novel: it remains unfinished, because accomplishment would be madness or absurdity in a world without center and coordinated or because the very substance of reality is non-sense. For him time is not irreversible, the past returns, hangs on present. Time for me is not that unthinkable thing that never stops.

James Joyce

James Joyce[edit]

James Joyce's (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) new novel and the 20th century novel in general, distinguish from the 19th century novel because of the loss of a common view of things which shows itself in relativism. Modernism is the new literary movement which started at the beginning of the 20th century and modernist writers try to explore the chaotic and fragmentary contemporary reality. The construction of the plot is based on private interpretations of reality: now the novelist presents a world which does not depend on a single criterion of significance at all, so an event or a character becomes important or trivial in base of the importance which the author gives to it. Objectivity lets its place to subjectivity and the novel’s structure is influenced by a new concept of time, taken also from Henri Bergson's theory of durée of time as a “flow and duration” according to which time is not a series of moments moving forward in progress, so there is not a hero who moves through a sequence of circumstances in chronological order. In consciousness and subconsciousness past experiences are retained and determine the whole of a character’s personality. All this pushed Joyce- like Proust in “In Search of Lost Time” and Svevo in “Zeno's Conscience”- to write a discontinuous, unforeseeable plot, thanks to narrative techniques such as the stream of consciousness. This technique attempts to reproduce and record the thoughts of the characters: the writer presents directly the uninterrupted flow of character's impressions and feelings without the conventional devices of dialogue and description.

This is a very interesting rows about the concept of time in Joyce :

Just four years into the new century, there was a general sense that political, social, and economic stability would be achieved and that individuals would be able to benefit directly from such wider scale accomplishments (Rickard 92). The social zeitgeist, Rickard remarked, was that which is typical of any turn of the century moment: a spirit of possibility, of hope, and of change, signifying a break with the difficulties and failings of the past. For the main characters in Ulysses, however, the frequent episodes of self-reflection, such as the one with Stephen gazing at himself in the shaving mirror, suggest that the spirit of possibility is not experienced pervasively by all members of a society. In many other moments of self-reflection, especially those experienced by Stephen and Leopold, the daily rituals associated with time only sharpen their feeling that they are somehow outside of that sphere of possibility. While other characters, such as the schoolmaster Mr. Deasy, can thrive and prosper, both economically and socially, Stephen and Leopold are representatives of that group of people who are suspended in limbo between an idealized past, an inadequate present, and an imagined future.

Two related episodes that convey Stephen’s acute sense of his inability to seize the fin-de-siecle moment and better himself occur just a few hours after his shaving mirror epiphany of self-loathing. Stephen, a teacher, arrives at school, where between even the briefest pauses between the history questions he asks and the responses the students offer, Stephen reflects upon what he refers to as “the daughters of memory" (Joyce 20). Stephen describes time as “one livid final flame," and asks himself rhetorically, “What’s left us then?" The dismal reverie is broken when a student responds to a question about where a battle occurred by answering not with the place, but with the year. This fact is significant because it underscores how much people use time to mark their place in the world and to understand their relationships to other people. In the classroom, as in the narrative, and as in life, there is little that makes sense, there is little that cohesive, but the concreteness of time helps, at the very least, to create some context. The history lesson he is trying to deliver to his students, somewhat ineptly, becomes a meditation for Stephen on the opportunities and ravages of time. “Time has branded [and fettered] them," Stephen thinks, “[and] they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted" (Joyce 21). Although he does not use a personal pronoun, Stephen himself clearly feels branded and fettered by time, unable to access the possibilities purported to be available, though the reader still does not know at this juncture what possibilities may even be of interest to Stephen.The emphasis on time and related concepts continues before the class comes to a conclusion. When the students ask Stephen to tell them a story, he indulges their request by responding with a riddle: “The cock crew,/The sky was blue:/The bells in heaven/Were striking eleven./’Tis time for this poor soul/To go to heaven" (22). The students say they do not hear the riddle and ask for Stephen to repeat the riddle, which he does. They do not attempt to solve the riddle, though “[t]heir eyes grew bigger as the lines were repeated" (22). One student, Cochrane, asks, “after a silence," “What is it, sir? We give…up" (22). Stephen’s answer—“The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush"—is even more cryptic than the riddle itself, and the students spill out of the classroom as they hear a rap on the door and the invitation to go outside and play hockey. Although the narrator does not indulge in any further meditation on the significance of the riddle, Stephen’s ponderings about time and its effect on him are not yet over. The school day provides still another opportunity for the theme to be repeated and explored from yet another angle.

After teaching his class, Stephen is approached by one of his students, Cyril Sargent, who stays behind to discuss a math problem that has stymied him while the other students eagerly leave to play hockey. Stephen observes to himself that Cyril Sargent is “ugly and futile," with a “lean neck and thick hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed" (Joyce 23). The repulsion Stephen feels as he looks at Cyril, who is portrayed as a shy and fragile young boy, is palpable, and yet, Stephen begins to recognize that “someone had loved [Cyril], borne him in her arms and in her heart…. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own" (23). The realization gives Stephen pause, leading him to ask himself, “Was that [a mother’s love] then real? The only true thing in life?" (23). It is only after he asks himself these questions that Stephen admits he identifies with Cyril Sargent, though he does not demonstrate a total ability to empathize with the boy. “Like him was I," Stephen thinks, with “sloping shoulders, this gracelessness…. Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both of our hearts" (Joyce 24).

The role time plays in this exchange between Stephen and his student is subtle, but it is vital to the development of the narrative and the psychological themes Joyce is exploring inUlysses. There is the suggested, but unarticulated, gulf of time that separates young Cyril from the older Stephen, who himself is separated by age from other figures in his life, such as the paternalistic and patronizing Mr. Deasy and even Leopold Bloom. There is also, however, the notion that Stephen has no time to reflect at length upon the rhetorical questions he asked himself as he looked upon Cyril. As soon as Stephen thinks about the similar secrets that their hearts harbor, the sum is declared done—much as the riddle was articulated and then abandoned– and Stephen quickly dismisses Cyril, saying “You had better get your [hockey] stick and go out to the others" (Joyce 24). From a psychoanalytic perspective, Stephen can not allow Cyril to remain at his side any longer, for to permit the student to do so would compel Stephen to ponder at length about his own ugliness, his secrets, his dissatisfaction, and his fears. The rapid dismissal of Cyril, along with Stephen’s condescending phrase, “It is very simple," wards off uncomfortable thoughts, but permits the reader to intuit the thoughts and their importance to the overall development of the theme of Ulysses.

Stephen does not have to wait long, however, before he is confronted with another experience that compels him to reflect upon the passage of time and the dissatisfaction that he feels with his own life and its seemingly constricted possibilities. After dismissing Cyril, Stephen proceeds to the office of Mr. Deasy, the school’s administrator, who will dispense Stephen’s payment to him. In terms of actual time and the narrative function that the transition between his classroom and Mr. Deasy’s office performs, the scene in Mr. Deasy’s office marks mid-day. Stephen has finished with his teaching responsibilities for the day, and once he is paid, he will, the reader thinks, proceed to The Ship, a pub where he has agreed to meet Buck at “half twelve" (Joyce 19).

Stephen appears to be deeply uncomfortable in Mr. Deasy’s presence, particularly because Mr. Deasy controls the length of their meeting, its content, and the narrative itself. “First, our little financial settlement," Mr. Deasy says at the beginning of the meeting (Joyce 24), taking his time to gather Stephen’s wages from a mechanized savings box, an important symbol representing the technological and ideological advances of the modern age. Mr. Deasy seems to represent normative social and economic progress, and Stephen’s recognition of Mr. Deasy’s power and apparent self-satisfaction makes him feel uncomfortable. Stephen notes the setting: “The same room and hour" as previous encounters with Mr. Deasy, and, he adds, “I the same. Three times now…. [N]ooses round me here" (Joyce 25). Although Stephen thinks to himself that he could break the nooses “at will" (Joyce 25), he shows no signs of doing so. Stephen accepts his wages with “shy haste" and is eager to leave, but he is restrained from doing so by Mr. Deasy, who prevails upon Stephen to convey an editorial he has written to Stephen’s acquaintances at a local newspaper. As Mr. Deasy begins to type out the last portion of his editorial, Stephen looks at the framed pictures on the wall, noticing “images of vanished horses" and the date, 1866, stamped on the photographs. The way in which the narrator conveys Stephen’s impressions of the photographs suggests that the images that are depicted represent a past that is much more distant than just 42 years, and the subsequent exchange in which Mr. Deasy and Stephen engage similarly underscore just how temporally disoriented Stephen feels, both with his elders and his contemporaries. Mr. Deasy, who holds predictably antiquated views of money, religion, and history, is shocked by Stephen’s utterance, “History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" and his opinion that God is “a shout in the street" (Joyce 28). Mr. Deasy concludes that he is happier than Stephen, but what the reader concludes is something far more profound and relevant: the gap between Mr. Deasy and Stephen is not merely a chronological generation gap; it is an ideological, social, and psychological gap that Stephen and a certain group of his contemporaries felt just after the turn of century in Dublin.[7]

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf[edit]

Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) treats the concept of time in one of her masterpiece Mrs Dalloway. On the other hand, it is no accident that Woolf initially decided to name the book The Hours. Each character is identified according to its relation to time, naturally we are faced with two types of temporality, the external one, easily identifiable by both the information that makes us discover the date, the historical period, and the jumps of the Big Ben, but also, and perhaps above all, an interior temporality, directly linked to those "caves" that open within each character. How long can last a moment? Virginia Woolf has succeeded in an achievement that has incredible in literature, has succeeded not only in describing the moment, but in dissecting it, showing it slowing down to the reader, transforming it radically and extending its lifetime to infinity. In Mrs. Dalloway, the narrative focuses on various events affecting different people and various points in London, but all of them happen at the same time. Parallel planes meet and people touch and with that unconscious touch they create a continuous network of connections to build an inextricable plot that interweaves even with the different temporal planes. Yes, because in this extraordinary book the extension of the moment reaches what was past, but that here is continually linked to the present until all the transitional scans are canceled and a single time and place is established.

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett[edit]

Samuel Beckett (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989) treats in a very interesting way the concept of time in his masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Towards the beginning of the play, Vladimir and Estragon argued about whether or not they were waiting for Godot at the correct location and argued about what they had done yesterday. While Estragon insisted that they had waited in the same place the day before, he said that he didn’t recognize it. At first Vladimir disagreed with him, but even he later expressed some doubt when he said to Estragon, “But you said we were here yesterday.” (8-9) This situation presents a problem in logic, for why would they not remember what they did the day before and, if they did wait in the same place yesterday, why would they not recognize the landscape? The answer, beyond a simple explanation citing their faulty memories, is that for Vladimir and Estragon it did not really matter what they had done the day before or where they were on that day. Their lives would have been the same even if this day was somehow skipped, a fact that their deficient memories support.

Another example of this faulty memory occurred when Vladimir mentioned the time that he and Estragon had spent in Macon country picking grapes. Estragon did not remember this period, and even Vladimir has trouble remembering details of their time there, such as the name of the man for whom they worked. (67-68) Both of these events seem illogical considering that they probably would have spent a great deal of time there because it was their place of employment. Again it seems as though Vladimir and Estragon’s lives would have changed little minus this extensive period.

The repetition of the play provides further evidence of the unimportance of time for Vladimir and Estragon. Both acts are identical excluding a few small deviations. With one day after another being basically the same during their wait, it is no wonder that Vladimir and Estragon had trouble telling one day from the next and that they had trouble remembering what happened during each day. Because of this lack of significant change, time had no meaning for them, and therein lies the larger theme that these scenes help to convey. If the day before was meaningless and if most of the periods before this were meaningless, time itself was meaningless for them as well. As Estragon said at the beginning of the second day in reference to that day, “For me it’s over and done with, no matter what happens,” (64) which suggested his own realization of the meaninglessness of that day and of time itself.

By extension this can be made to apply to all of humankind as well. Life is a lengthy period of waiting, during which the passage of time has little importance. Each day Vladimir and Estragon waited for Godot, and, if he didn’t come that day they would come back tomorrow. (9) The amount of time that they had already spent doing this and the amount of time that would do so in the future is unknown, but neither is important because time was meaningless for them. Each day they would continue to wait for the unknown Godot until he either came or time ended through their death.

If a literal interpretation of the text is employed, one might wonder why the pair did not do something to end their waiting, such as searching for Godot, but, if one takes a more metaphoric look at the play, Godot becomes something for which the pair may have to wait. Because it was never revealed conclusively who or what Godot was, this unknown force can be seen to metaphorically represent that for which the audience is waiting in their own lives. The audience relates to these protagonists because waiting is common for all. While the event for which each person is waiting may change, the waiting continues until each individual’s death. Two examples of something that waiting for Godot may represent are waiting for God or waiting for death. Indeed, several times throughout the play Vladimir and Estragon discuss hanging themselves, an action that would have ended their continual waiting, but they found themselves unable to do it. (12) No acceptable path existed for them to end their waiting and, therefore, they were forced to wait. Through this, the play showed that there are things for which one must wait and that no amount of initiative will end this waiting.

The play emphasized the common nature of waiting among all people, and, therefore, it suggested that the meaningless of time is universal. If one is always waiting for something to happen, the periods during that wait end up being meaningless, and, if the event finally does happen, the process repeats itself. If that something never occurs all time becomes a meaningless wait. In any case, one is always caught in a period in which time has no purpose and waiting is the only goal. This idea was demonstrated well in Waiting For Godot, for throughout the play the protagonists waited and nothing memorable seemed to happen. From this one can surmise that time has no meaning.

The overall theme of the meaninglessness of time presented itself many times throughout the play, often during what seemed to be silly arguments between Vladimir and Estragon. Only by looking at the deeper meaning of these often illogical conversations and by combining them with other supporting details of the play can one discover how these logic problems relate to the whole. In this case they are used to present the themes, one of which was the idea of arbitrary and meaningless time.


Write down an essay in which you have to talk about a main topic in relationship of this page. Some guidelines could be :

-How the concept of time has changed over the years. -Which is the common point on where the most of all of the writers according to? -Treat about the differents point of view between the writers. -


  1. De Brevitate Vitae,(Seneca). http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/seneca_younger/brev.html
  2. De Brevitate Vitae,(Seneca). http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/seneca_younger/brev.html
  3. De Brevitate Vitae (Seneca).http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/seneca_younger/brev.html
  4. William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
  5. — William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
  6. — William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
  7. http://www.articlemyriad.com/narrative-structure-concept-time-ulysses/ © 2017 Article Myriad. All Rights Reserved