In the article, Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes towards a Historical Poetics, Bakhtin addresses the idea of the ‘chronotope’ as an “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (15). Essentially, Bakhtin views the novel writer’s use of space and time as the building blocks to the novel as a whole. He says, “Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot, and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope” (15). In a novel, space and time become just another tool that the writer can freely manipulate to emphasize certain scenes or sections of a novel. Narratives do not adhere to our experience of time, instead, time can expand, diminish, or completely disappear. This narrative feature is more easily recognized in film, where scenes will slow, speed up or completely freeze. Below is an example from the 2009 film adaptation of the famous comic book Watchmen, by Alan Moore. This clip manipulates time in two different ways. It reduces the pace of time in the moment, we see muzzle fire slowly expel from the tip of a tommy-gun. It also condenses the pace of time, in three minutes, we move from the year 1940 to Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. In this clip, we can see how space and time can be manipulated to serve a narrative function.
Bakhtin highlights several different chronotopes that an author might utilize in a novel but this article will focus on the chronotope of the road, the castle, and the salon. I will use Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day, to highlight the chronotopes of the road, and salon. For the chronotope of the castle, I will use Evelyn Waughs extraordinary novel, Brideshead Revisited.
The road offers the writer an environment with many narrative opportunities. Bakhtin says, “On the road, the spatial and temporal paths of the most varied people—representatives of all social classes, estates, religions, nationalities, ages—intersect at a spatial and temporal point. People who are normally kept separate by social and spatial distance can accidentally meet…” (17). In The Remains of the Day, a butler named Stevens takes a road trip at the request of his employer, Lord Darlington. During his trip, his car begins to emit a strange smell. He pulls into a small English village and finds some help from a local. The local is described as “in his shirt sleeves,” and, “wearing no tie.” Stevens is dressed in formal wear, and is considered to be an elite butler, someone who serves a much higher socioeconomic class than the local. The local man says this of Stevens, “I couldn’t make you out for a while, but now I got it. You’re one of them top-notch butlers. From one of them big posh houses.” Were it not for the road trip, the two would not have met at all, their spatial and temporal points would never have aligned. Bakhtin says the road “is appropriate for portraying events governed by chance” (17). We see this narrative tool used time and time again. It is featured in the adventures of Sal Paradise in On the Road, by Arthur Dent in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Kathy H. in Never Let Me Go, and on and on. It is a genre in itself.
The Remains of the Day also portrays the salon chronotope later on in the narrative. This chronotope serves the same function of the road, it offers an “intersection of temporal and spatial sequences” (20). Bakhtin says of parlors, “From a narrative and compositional point of view, this is the place where encounters occur…In salons and parlors the web of intrigue are spun, denouncements occur and finally—this is where dialogues happen” (19). Stevens crashes at an inn called ‘The Coach and Horses’, outside a town called Taunton. At the start of his stay, he stays up in his room, going so far as having dinner delivered up to his room. After some time, he decides to go downstairs to the pub to have some cider. “There were five or six customers all gathered in a group around the bar—one guessed from their appearance they were agricultural people of one sort or another—but otherwise the room was empty…I seated myself at a table a little way away, intending to relax a little and collect my thoughts concerning the day. It soon became clear, however, that these local people were perturbed by my presence…” Eventually, Steven’s warms up to the crowd and the crowd warms up to him. They joke back and forth but eventually their disparate backgrounds begin to take shape. A misunderstood joke here and there until Steven’s decides to keep his mouth. Had it not been for the salon, this chance encounter of characters would never have occurred. Without this moment, Stevens would not have been given the opportunity to reflect on himself, using his new experience to better understand his past.
Bakhtin also speaks of the chronotope of the castle. He says, “The historicity of castle time has permitted it to play a rather important role in the development of the historical novel. The castle had its origins in the distant past; its orientation is toward the past: (19). In this way, the castle has come to represent the past even when situated in the present. This dual position of the castle in relation to space and time is used to great effect in the novel Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. The story starts with the narrator, Charles Ryder, coming across Brideshead Castle, during WWII. He has history with the castle and the majority of the book is spent in a flashback detailing his relationship with the castle and the family who once lived there. By binding the history of the narrator to the history of the castle, Evelyn Waugh successfully interweaves the past and present. By the end, Charles Ryder’s growth as a character is directly tied to his relationship to the castle, or in other terms, tied to his relationship to the past.
Chronotopes are significant in that “They are organizing centers for the fundamental events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied. It can be said without qualification that to them belongs the meaning that shapes narrative” (22). I look at chronotopes as the framework of a novel. They are what guides narratives and what writers attach their scenes to. It is up to the writer to manipulate space and time, to choose the space a narrative will play out in, and to tie temporal significance to the location of a scene. The successful implementation of chronotope can bond together a narratives abstract elements and empower the novel as a whole.