The Trouble With Tense

Tense is what allows us to describe an action as being in the past, present or the future. But I've been thinking for the past while, it also affects our judgement of the characters we are presented with, both in fiction and in reality.

If we look at Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, we see a character recounting his childhood and adolescence while looking back from the perspective of old age. Tony Webster is filled with regret for the mistakes that he made, and for the things he never did. The story revolves around the return of a character that holds much more hate for Tony than he thinks he deserves, making him question the events that brought them together and apart. It's here that tense presents a dilemma to the reader: Do we judge Tony by his past, which is slowly  uncovered for us? Or, do we judge him as the articulate man who narrates in the fictional present?

Barnes does an excellent job in creating a character who's credibility comes under fire throughout the book, to the point where we don't immediately believe everything Webster says- a this performance won him the Man Booker Prize. is efforts to show us the fallibility of memory and the subjective nature of past experience make the distinction between the Tony of the past, and the Tony of the present, more difficult. This dilemma leads me in two directions.

First, what makes a good person? Is it enough to say that a good person is someone who has done good things? I think this approach relies too much on the past. We can't rely on past actions to determine our present states, at least for too long. It seems obvious that a character's good/bad distinction, as simplistic as it is, relies at least somewhat on their present.

Second, what makes a bad person? Here we are usually quicker to say that a bad person is someone who has done bad things. There are fewer people who say that a bad person is someone who continues to do bad things. This difference in thinking between what makes a bad person versus a good person usually relies on the thought that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. Is this enough to justify our judgement of character?

What I'm rying to illustrate is the difference in tense that we use in our judgement. Do we look at someone and say "they a good person (present) because they've done good things (past)?". And do we focus on the negative pasts of the people we meet and read about?

One interesting example is JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield remains one of the most iconic characters in American writing even today, and illustrates another option apart from the past/present distinction above.

hen we meet him, Holden is being kicked out of school for the nth time. He has the immediate feel of a troublemaker who is too smart for his own good. Even as the plot develops, his actions show him to be a person of questionable character, meeting with some of the least reputable members of society. Even his self-induced isolation and relentless judgement should leave a bad taste in our mouths.This begs the question: Why do we love him?

If we judge him based on his past, he does not meet the criteria of a good person- at least not mine. As I read though,  I couldn't dislike his character, and believe me, I tried. If his past is questionable, and his present actions don't signal any sort of change, that leaves us with only Holden's future to place our hopes on. Holden represents that moment in time where we judge character not on someone's past or present, but on their potential. He is obviously a smart young man, and we give him the benefit of the doubt that maybe, this time, he'll get it together and succeed. 

All of this leaves us the the ultimate question: How do we judge character? It's not a question I have an answer for, but I find it a helpful one. It makes us think before we make judgments, which is infinitely more useful when those judgement are of actual people, and not just characters in a book. I think in reality, we give far less thought to a person's future than we do Holden Caulfield's, and give more thought to their past then we do Tony Webster's.

Duncan Field2 Comments