‘Kafkaesque’. On tense and aspect in Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” and “The Burrow”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

19 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Terminology
2.1 Tense and time
2.1.1 Universal time and event time
2.1.2 Historical Present
2.1.3 Past Tense
2.2 Aspect

3 Kafka’s work
3.1 “A Country Doctor” and “The Burrow”

4 Usage of time and tense in Kafka’s works

5 Conclusion

6 Works consulted and quoted

1 Introduction

There is no way to use grammar without there being an intention behind it. The speaker/writer always wants to do something with how they employ certain grammatical constructions, phrases, clauses or even tenses and aspect. This paper will put its focus on tense and aspect and how the German-speaking writer Franz Kafka availed himself of these particular functions to achieve his goals he pursued with his texts: to puzzle the reader and to leave him wondering about what to believe is the reality they are living in. The first section of this paper will be dealing with the general terminology and briefly explain the terms tense and aspect which will be crucial and essential to the understanding. Tense will then again be split up into past tense and the (historical) present tense. After that, there will be a short depiction of Franz Kafka’s life and work, followed by rough summaries of his works “A Country Doctor” as well as “The Burrow” on which the focus will be put to demonstrate how tense and aspect are used in order to achieve his goals with the reader. The main part of this paper will be on the usage of said focus on tense and aspect in Kafka’s work. The terminology out of section (2) will be picked up and be put into connection and context with the two stories of Kafka’s to demonstrate how Kafka’s world works and what makes it so difficult to tell his (fictional) world apart from the one that the reader knows as reality. The key question shall be what the peculiar usage of tense and aspect is which is a distinct feature of Kafka’s texts affects the reader, and how they make the reader think about what he is reading or if he even realizes what is going on as far as tense and aspect is concerned. Is he able to process this flood of information that is headed his way? We will see that there is plenty to think about, plenty to take into account when reading both The Burrow and A Country Doctor.

2 Terminology

Tense and aspect are essential factors in functional approaches of grammar. Elson (47) states that “an incorrect assignment [of tense or aspect] can give the erroneous impression that a continuous action has ended, or that a previous state is the current reality”. Therefore, it is crucial which tense or aspect is chosen by the writer. In the following section, the idea of tense and aspect will be presented. Furthermore, the paragraph on tense will again be split up into past tense and (historical) present tense.

2.1 Tense and time

Confusing the grammatical term tense with time is an error that occurs quite often. The following section will however show that it is not the same thing at all. In order to do so, we first have to look at both tense and time and the distinction between them.

Time is generally set equal to the idea of the Newtonian universe time, “a limitless linear time along whose axis any event can be situated” (Coetzee: 568). It is what lets us perceive reality in certain bits and pieces, one thing after another.

There are three times: past, present and future.

Tense on the other hand is grammatical category which is marked by verb inflection and which expresses when an event or action happens in the course of time. It expresses the passing of time, i.e. the duration, sequentiality and chronology as well as subjectivity which is frequently linked to aspect (Fludernik: 117). Especially in discourse, one has to differentiate between narrating (“Erzählzeit”) and narrated (“erzählte Zeit”) time. Narrating time describes the stretch of time it takes to tell a story or an event (which again can consist of a series of smaller events). This event might have lasted only a couple of seconds but it may take the narrator several minutes to explain to the listener what happened in these couple of seconds. Which brings us to the narrated time. This is the amount of time in which the event being told actually took place.

One does not get around discussing the four types of speed of narrating time (Genette 1966, Engl. Translation 1980). The ellipsis, as the name suggests, plainly leaves out elements of the story, e.g. sleep or bathroom breaks, which speeds up the story as only the important parts of the story are in focus, those which actually play a role in the point of the story. The summary is the second type of speed is the summary in which an abbreviated version of a sequence of events is stated to the listener, shortening long a long series of events to an essential minimum. The third kind of speed is called scene. This is the closest kind of narrating a story to real time that there is. So the narrating time and the narrated time are seemingly identical. The last sort of speed in discourse is the pause. It is often found in descriptions of all kinds of things, like a landscape, buildings, or people.

Another distinction that has to be met is the one between story level and discourse level. At first sight, this does not have much – if anything – to do with tense and time. On second sight, though, there are means through which tense shifts can mark the chronology of events being told. The story level is basically the order in which the events occurred. There are times when the reader or listener will have to put those sequence of events in the right order for some reason, may this be because the events are told in a wrong order, incidentally or on purpose, to make the story more appealing or to save the punch line until the end, for example. This leads us to the other kind of sequence, the discourse level. This is the ordering of words on the page or as the narrator tells it. There may be several reshufflings taking place, some events are mixed up chronologically. This again produces anachronies. Anachronies are frequently signaled by shifts of tense which closes the circle (Fludernik: 118). The maybe most famous cinematic example would have to be Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction which consists of 14 scenes. The very first scene antecedes the very last one of which again both of them are situated at the beginning of the plot.

Strictly speaking, only two tenses, past and present, are marked by the inflection of the verb, namely –ed and –s, respectively. Every other tense is marked by auxiliaries like be, have or will. We will focus on two tenses, the past and the present of which Fludernik (124) distinguishes three kinds:

1. The deictic use of the present tense indicating the here-and-now. This kind of present tense covers the narrator’s part of the communication with the addresse and includes the authorial commentary as well as gnomic and proverbial statements. There will be a short paragraph on deictics that mark other elements than the “when and where”. Deictic expressions like yesterday, the day before yesterday, tomorrow etc. indicate that the speaker perceives himself as located on a linear time axis. Aside from that, tense as such is a deictic category which helps us locate a situation in time. In this framework, it also collaborates with aspect which will be presented below. Additionally, there will be given a brief approach to the correlation of deictics and aspect.
2. The intermittent use of the present tense in a past tense context. The historical present functions as a highlighter of major junctures of the narration, marking beginnings or climaxes to make it easier for the listener or reader to follow. Further explanations and its function on this so called historical present is given in 2.1.1 below.
3. The consistent use of the present tense. Not only does tense have little to do with time which we have explained already above but it also functions as a “textual and relational device” (Fludernik: 125). So using the present tense or any tense for that matter does more than just to indicate the time or put order in the sequence of events. It adds subjectivity.

2.1.1 Universal time and event time

The concept of universal time is rather easy. It is the concept of time that you and I take for granted. It is a linear time axis along which all events, no matter if short or long, are situated. On the one hand, an event goes alongside with the universal time as aforementioned events are situated along this time axis. On the other hand, a single event however has a beginning and an end point whereas the time axis is an open-ended arrow with no set end point.

Events are ordered alongside the time axis where events longer passed than others are further back on the time line that more recent ones. The idea that one event occurs over and over again, as represented in (figure 1) shows the concept of iteration. One events happens not only once but several times over a period of time, each event having a point of beginning and end.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

figure 1 (Coetzee: 569)

Of course, the more extensive a single event is or becomes, the more likely it is for other events to take place right within this timeframe of the large event. Take a sports event, for example. The large event is the game itself within which certain smaller events, like goals or halftime breaks, can occur. In contrast to the concept of an event represented above, the concept in (figure 2) does contain several different small events that do not necessarily repeat within a larger one.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

figure 2 (Coetzee: 570)

The event time goes along tightly with the idea of aspect that will be dealt with below. The single event consists of two phases (Coetzee: 568) of which the first one is the “coming-to-be phase” in which single, smaller events occur and are strung one after another. The second phase is called the “result phase” where all the small events are concluded and no further development happens. The final stage of the event is reached.

2.1.2 Historical Present

The present tense can indicate a number of time references and is therefore to be seen as timeless or semantically unmarked (Schiffrin: 46).

As the name is already giving away, the historical present combines events that have already occurred and the present tense. What might sound strange the first time you hear it, is actually quite common when narrating a story back to a listener to make it more “vivid and exciting” (ibid.). It is as if the teller is re-living the experience what makes the listener feel like they were right there on the scene of the events. Narrating an event in historical present is supposed to make the listener feel like the events “were occurring simultaneously with their telling” (ibid.) so both the speaker and the listener are situated not at the moment of the speaking but at the moment of experience, as far as the time axis is concerned.

One has to be careful though when using the historical present when narrating a story. Fludernik argues that “when all narrative clauses are kept in the present tense but the events do not occur in the here-and-now of the narrator’s discourse, the present tense loses its natural deictic quality” (123). This again means that there has to be a structure of time after all. If all is told in present tense it loses its cachet and there is a chance that the listener will not be able to follow the chronological order. We will encounter this phenomenon later on when we will talk about Kafka and how he uses the present tense.

Both the historical present as well as the past tense work as structuring features in discourse to dramatize the events being told. Interestingly enough, Wolfson argues that the direction in which the tense changes either from historical present to past tense or vice versa does not play a role, as far as the organization is concerned. She states that a switch from the historical present to the past tense organizes and structures a story told just as much as the switch from the past tense to the historical present (Wolfson 1978: 222 and 1979: 174, cf. Schiffrin: 46). We will deal with the direction of the switch between these two tenses later on when discussing “A Country Doctor” where this will be an important factor.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


‘Kafkaesque’. On tense and aspect in Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” and “The Burrow”
University of Cologne
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
franz, kafka’s, country, doctor”, burrow”
Quote paper
Benjamin Halking (Author), 2014, ‘Kafkaesque’. On tense and aspect in Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” and “The Burrow”, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1284542


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