(prepared by Rebecca Marez
and Jeanette Jones-Sosa
Del Mar College
Corpus Christi, Texas)
When preparing a literary
essay, you must give special consideration to your use of verb tense.
The following discussion
explains how and why.
Literary works spring into
life in the eyes and minds of readers with each and every reading. You
may therefore assume that everything happening in the works—stories, poems,
and plays—takes place in the present, and in talking about literature you
should generally use the present tense of verbs. It is thus right to
say, “Mathilde and her band work and economize
[not worked and economized] for ten years to pay off the
18,000-franc debt which they undertake “ [not
undertook] to pay off the lost necklace.”
When you also consider an
author’s ideas, the present tense should also be used, on the principle
that the words of an author are just as alive and current today (and will
be tomorrow) as they were at the moment of writing, even though this same
author may have been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Ex., “Homer clearly
presents his concept on the importance of
honor through the actions of his heroes.”
However (and here’s where confusion
can begin!), if you introduce historical or biographical details about
a work or author, it is appropriate to use the past verb tense. This is
because such details actually do belong to the past. Thus, it is correct
to state that “Shakespeare lived from 1564
to 1616,” or that “Shakespeare wrote Hamlet
in about 1599-1600.” Got it?
(Here’s another twist, so
be careful!) While it is incorrect to shift tenses inappropriately when
ou write, it is possible to mix past and present tenses if you treat historical
facts about a literary work while at the same time you are also considering
it as a living text. Of prime importance is to keep things straight. Here
is an example of what is acceptable:
was first performed
in about 1600, Shakespeare most probably wrote
it shortly before the time. In the play, a tragedy, Shakespeare treats
an act of vengeance, but more importantly demonstrates
the difficulty of ever learning the exact truth. The hero, Prince Hamlet,
is visited by the Ghost of his father. Though
the Ghost claims that his brother Claudius
is his murderer, Hamlet is
not able to verify this claim.
In this example, the historical
details are presented in the past tense. All details about the play are
discussed with present verb tense. As well, present tense is also used
when discussing Shakespeare as the creating author. Remember that this
is because his ideas and words are still alive.
(One more note of caution
here) You may encounter a problem when your work introduces references
to actions that have occurred prior to the time of the main action (flashbacks).
For example, in Ernest Hemingway’s
short story “Soldier’s Home,” the main character’s discontent is a result
of his combat experiences in Europe during World War I. In describing
this situation, therefore, you might say something similar to this:
settle down because he is
always thinking about the actions he went
through during the time he spent fighting
This use of the past influencing
the present is acceptable because it corresponds to the cause-and-effect
relationship brought out in the story.
We know this sounds confusing
at first, but the more attention you give to verb use in your literary
discussions and essays, the more this will begin to make sense. As a principle,
if you run into problems in managing verb tenses when discussing and writing
about a work, always consult a qualified writing consultant and/or your
[Much of this information
is adapted from Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, 3rd
edition by Edgar V. Roberts and Harry R. Jacobs.]
tense verbs, past tense verbs are color-coded.