Time shift is an important narrative method, that deals with the ways in which a story is told, starting at the beginning then continuing until the end is reached. It is also a shift in time that changes the reader’s interpretation of an event that occurs later on in the story. David Lodge discusses the significance of time shift in his book The Art of Fiction. He states that: “Through time shift, narrative avoids presenting life as just one damn thing after another, and allows us to make connections of causality and irony between widely separated events” (Lodge 74-75).
The chapter time shift can be applied to the work of many prose fiction writers including Mark Twain. An example of its significance can be seen in “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper.” In the beginning of the short story, a naughty little boy had spent his childhood causing trouble but was never accounted for his bad actions. This can be seen in the main character, Jim’s series of events. For example, he once stole the teacher’s pen knife but poor George, also known as the moral boy, was accounted for it when Jim slipped it into his cap, “and when the knife dropped from the cap..the grieved teacher charged the theft upon him”(Twain 12). After repetitive instances of doing wrong, time then shifted in an expected turn. Instead of living a life where he was accounted for his wrong doings, Jim went from being a troubled boy to growing up, getting married, and raising a large and wealthy family resulting in a charmed life, “so you see there never was a bad James in the Sunday-school books that had such a streak of luck as this sinful Jim with the charmed life(Twain, pg.13). Also in this short story, the time frame is not present, as all the instances of mischief are never given a defined time. This also affects the readers because they don’t get to see Jim transition from a child to an adult. The readers just get the sense that he was naughty as a child and then all of a sudden became an adult who was respected.
In “The Story of The Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper,” the use of implied time shift was present. Throughout the main character Jacob’s whole life he was trying to navigate an individual who complied with the morals and actions present to those in the Sunday school books, “he believed in the good little boys they put in Sunday-school books; he had every confidence in them. He longed to come across one of them alive, once; but he never did (Twain, pg 30).” In this story duration, rather than time shift, helps the reader understand how Jacob tried his hardest to avoid all bad but only resulted in a constant cycle of bad luck. Jacob believed in the good little boys in the Sunday school books and practiced goodness but doing that only resulted in him losing his life as he was mistaken for the bad little boys that tied up fifteen dogs when in reality he’s the one that tried to save them.
In the short story “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It,” during that time period whites had ignorant emotions towards black. The reason for this mentality was because they were no longer enslaved, and everyone thought they would be treated as equals. The time shift between being a slave and no longer being enslaved is represented through Aunt Rachel as she recalls her difficult life as a slave but after she was no longer enslaved, she never lived a sad day. It is evident in her transition from being enslaved to no longer being held against her will post Civil War.
Time shift played a great role in the short story, “Extracts From Adam’s Diary.” Time shift was present throughout Adam’s diaries, which were the different days of the week. As each day progresses his ideas and thoughts on the world around him seem to progress too. “Saturday- I escaped last Tuesday night, and traveled two days, and built me another shelter, in a secluded place, and my tracks as well as I could (Twain, pg 122).”The time shift is shown throughout each day, he also mentions what occurs in the previous days while still talking about what had happened later in the story while going in order of the events. Also the use of time shift is also evident in the fact that they’re in heaven together but then get kicked out. When they were in heaven together they didn’t have a strong bond but then once they were placed on earth he started to slowly appreciate Eve and the characteristics that he once thought were odd about her.
Lodge, David. The art of fiction. Vintage, 2011.
Twain, Mark. The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain. Modern Library, 2004.