Story-time and discourse-time in the novel and film "Beloved"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

17 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The terms “story” and “discourse”
2.1 Story-time and discourse-time
2.2. Flashbacks and flash forwards

3. Summary of the plot

4. Comparison of book and film

5. Time structure of the first chapter

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

8. Appendix
8.1. Analysis of the Book
8.2. Film Analysis

1. Introduction

It is always very interesting how literature is adapted into the medium film. Often the results are very surprising for the viewers as the personal images one develops when reading a book do not match with the ones used in the movie. For instance the appearance of the characters, the look of the setting, the performing of the actors etc.. Questions are raised like: “Did the hero in the novel not have blond hair?” or “I thought the princess was described as the prettiest girl on earth – well, she definitely wasn’t in the film!”. People just have different tastes and anything but the same ideas. That is what makes life so various and why there can exist many different films on the very same topic. Every film adaptation of literature is a personal interpretation of the filmmakers. They have to think about ways how to translate the novel into film language, as every medium has its own characteristics.

This research paper shall summon up the peculiarities of film and fiction, especially under the aspect of time, and what changes the transformation requires. I want to point out the relation of story-time and discourse-time and with which problems the filmmakers have to deal in order to produce a film adaptation very close to the novel it is based on.. My source for the analysis will be the book “Beloved” written by Toni Morrison in 1987 and the film “Beloved” directed by Jonathan Demme in the year 1998, as in these story and discourse play an important role and are very complex.

First of all, I want to give a short definition of the terminology of discourse and story to get a good basis for the analyses of book and movie, which will be provided in the appendix. After that I will point out some important facts on “Beloved” including a short summary of the plot and the main characters. Then I will show the differences and similarities in the plot of both mediums. That is, to have an overview of the structure of film and novel, and to collect information about the translation of story-time and discourse-time. These results will support my closer approach on the first chapter of the book and the very same sequences in the film in comparing them under the aspect of time. At the end I will generalize my results in the conclusion.

2. The terms “story” and “discourse”

When dealing with narrative texts two questions are very important for the research, the question of what is told (story) and the question of how it is told (discourse). Therefore, the term ‘story’ can be defined as the content of a narrative expression which is the basis for the whole narration, and the term ‘discourse’ can be formulated as the form/ manner in which this content is shown and written. The content of a narrative refers to the events, persons, places. The manner how this content is arranged and stylistic organized demonstrates the connection of the events, the arrangement of time and place of the several parts of the action, and after the theorist Gerald Genette the narrative duration, perspective and frequency.[1]

When analysing the relation between story and discourse two aspects have to be considered, firstly, the different relation between the narrated time (story-time) and the narrative time (discourse-time), and secondly, the arrangement of time in the action (= the use of flashbacks and flash forwards). These two aspects are the basis for my approach in this paper, that is why I will give a detailed description of these.

2.1.) Story-time and discourse-time

Usually, the duration to read a narration is not identical with the duration of the events told in that narration. That means, there is a great discrepancy between the discourse-time, “the time it takes to peruse the discourse” and the story-time, “the duration of the purported events of the narrative”.[2] These different times are only identical in scenes, for example when direct speech is used. Yet, a novel does not only consist of dialogues or monologues. A typical characteristic for fiction is the existence of a narrator who describes the settings, the action, the characters and often also their feelings and thoughts. Narrators are the ones who tell the plot of the diegetic level. They can summarize long passages or leave something out. Summaries and ellipses are very common in narrations and often used to cut out events which are unimportant for the story.[3]

The opposites of summary and ellipsis are stretch and pause. The reason for using these terms can be inserted descriptions, for instance to pause the narration to describe the characters, the landscape etc. or to show important moments in the life of a character in which time stands still. The alternating changes of summary and stretching, or ellipsis and pause is called rhythm which can be very characteristic for some genres, e.g. short stories are specified through summaries.[4]

2.2) flashbacks and flash forwards

In literature time is rarely arranged in a chronological order. The events of the story can be rearranged in the discourse as much as possible. The term anachrony stands for such differences in the time structure, like the use of flashbacks, forwards or the start of the narration in medias res.[5]

With flashbacks (also called retrospection) the discourse breaks the story-flow to recall earlier events of the past. This is a very common technique used in literature and cinema. Retrospections have a very close connection to the narrative presence as a certain atmosphere. Just a special object can already make a person remember any happening of his/her past. Flashbacks carry the function to clear up secrets or to make the viewer/reader aware of some important events to understand the story. They can be presented in form of insertions, but there are also narrations with long passages of flashbacks only. Retrospection is frequently used in the novel/film “Beloved” and has a very important effect on the story.

With flash forwards (also called anticipation) the discourse leaps ahead of the story, to events which lie in the future. They are not that often used in early fiction, but more common in modern and post-modern works. Flash forwards can like flashbacks be presented in short or long passages in a narration, and often function in making the recipient curious on coming events. Yet, a shifting in time is often hard to differentiate and confusing for the viewer/reader. That is why film language, for instance the use of long dissolves to point out a change of time, is so significant to read a film.

3. Summary of the book

Toni Morrison’s fifth novel “Beloved” was published in 1987 and is to be her greatest novel up to now. It soon became a best seller, won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and still is very popular. The book is divided into 3 parts, where the first one is the largest, the second the most poetical and the third the most complex one. The story is based on the life story of Margaret Garner, a slave woman who killed two of her children to keep them out of slavery. Written in a part history, part ghost story form it does not only present the force of slavery and the new culture of black people but also the meaning of love, motherhood and the values of life.

The novel plays in the middle of the 19th century at Sweet Home in Kentucky (past), a plantation holding slaves as workers, and in Cincinnati/ Ohio (present), a place in the Northern States of America where slavery is already abolished. The four main characters are Sethe, Beloved, Paul D. and Denver.

Sethe, a born slave was brought to Sweet Home as a teenager. There she took the slave Halle Suggs for her husband and had 4 children with him. She and her children managed to escape from the farm and fled to Halle’s mother Baby Suggs, who since Halle bought her freedom is living in 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati. But after 28 days only, schoolteacher comes to her house to bring Sethe and her children back to Sweet Home. Frightened to death Sethe attempts to kill her children to save them from slavery. 18 years later, she still has problems with her past.

Since the day of schoolteacher’s arrival the ghost of Sethe third child, murdered by her at this very day, haunts the house and later returns to Sethe as a strange behaving and greedy young woman. Her name is Beloved. At the end of the book she is exorcized by the women of the town and vanishes.

Denver is Sethe’s youngest child. She was born during Sethe escape from Sweet Home. Denver is 18 years old and has not left the house since years. As she is a very lonely person she has a possessive need for Beloved. With Beloved’s more and more demanding wishes on Sethe, Denver realises that she has to change her position to protect Sethe from Beloved. In the third part of the book Denver becomes very dynamic and changes into a strong grown-up woman who is caring for her sick mother and has a new understanding concerning Sethe’s past.

Lastly, there is Paul D. who was also a slave on Sweet Home and a good friend of Sethe’s husband Halle. As a free man he visits Sethe at Bluestone Road after 18 years and tries to build up a life together with her. Like Sethe Paul D. is suffering from his horrible past. After hearing that Sethe had killed her baby daughter and after Beloved seduced him as a way of dividing him from her mother, he leaves Sethe for some time. At the end he comes back to her, determined to care for Sethe who got kind of apathetic after Beloved left her again.


[1] see Beck, R.(ed.)1998: Forum Sprache: Terminologie der Literaturwissenschaft, p. 144ff

[2] Chatman, Seymour 1980: Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, p.62

[3] see Beck, R.(ed.)1998: Forum Sprache: Terminologie der Literaturwissenschaft p.144ff

[4] see Beck, R.(ed.)1998: Forum Sprache: Terminologie der Literaturwissenschaft p.144ff

[5] see Chatman, Seymour 1980: Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, p.63f.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Story-time and discourse-time in the novel and film "Beloved"
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar)
Film and Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
421 KB
Comparison of the book and its film adaptation Beloved (by Toni Morrison) under the aspect of story-time and discourse-time. The appendix includes full sequence records.
Story-time, Beloved, Film, Literature
Quote paper
Magistra Artium Claudia Stehr (Author), 2002, Story-time and discourse-time in the novel and film "Beloved", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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