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The author of a current historical novel uses past tense in most of its 38 chapters, and present tense in five or six. The novel is a New York times bestseller: The Women in the Castle. Can someone explain the possible rationale?

  • What's the POV for either tense? Are the past–tenses told with omniscient or detached third–person, while the present–tenses told in second–person or in first–person? – can-ned_food Oct 7 '17 at 8:21
  • The POVs are always in third person. – Suttroper Oct 7 '17 at 15:01
  • what's the distribution? – JMP Oct 8 '17 at 8:30
  • Not sure what you mean by distribution, John. But if you mean where in the book the chapters appear, The ones in past tense comprise almost all the chapters up to 30. Most of the remaining ones are in present tense, and I've noticed that these are where a major character is talking about the past (in present tense). – Suttroper Oct 9 '17 at 22:04
  • One possibility: It's unintentional and the author just kept the present tense, because it better captured the mood of a scene. German writer Hans Fallada did this a lot. He wrote 500+ page-novels within a few weeks -- usually high on morphine or drunk -- and didn't think too much about his tenses. While the tense breaks are puzzling to the reader, they are nothing that destroy the books. I haven't found a system in Fallada's use of tenses either, but I'm pretty sure the exact tense is not important to his novels. – Filip Nov 16 '17 at 11:40
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I have done a cursory inspection through the book, and I discovered that these chapters were told in, as you say, present tense:
• 9, 26, 27, 28, and 29 in the first group;
• 34 ⸨but only first few sections thereof⸩, 35, 36, 37, and 38 in the second group.
The first group are those which occur entirely in the memories or thoughts of certain persons in the story. Not all details are recounted in present tense, but they are told as events immediate to the perspective of the narrator. One advantage to the different narration is a layer of distinction from other sections of the text.
The second group are in the conclusions to the stories and take place in 1991. There, it seems to me that the shift in tense is to place the reader in a position of impending occurance — like the instantaneous rate–of–change in differential calculus, — and which so tells of things happening now and continuing to happen rather than already happened.

That seems to me to be the gist of it. I could review my other thoughts on the style of narration and such in those and in other chapters, but I don't think that necessary to answer your query.

  • Thanks for your observations, can-ned_food, as well as your imaginative handle! I think your evaluations are quite reasonable and on target. – Suttroper Jan 1 '18 at 16:11
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I haven't read that book, but past tense is usually used for narration and present tense for dialogue. Perhaps the past tense is used for a retelling of the past, and the present tense is employed for an ongoing scene. For example, if the character went to a therapist and imagined his past, then took a break for a chapter to live the current life, then went back to the therapist and continued the past story, and back and forth. Read the book, and you'll probably find out why.

  • Thanks for you comments. Actually I had finished the book when I submitted my question. But after going back to "investigate" a bit more I discovered that, for whatever reason, third person past tense was used in dialogue and narration to describe present-day events, and third person present tense was used for past events. I suppose I should attempt to query the author. – Suttroper Oct 9 '17 at 22:10

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