Time, Space and Narrative Techniques in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


An application of narratological theories of time and space has provided valuable insight into spatial techniques and fictional worlds in nineteenth-century French novels, particularly in studies on Flaubert, Balzac and Zola (Bridgeman 1998 and 2007). However the application of narratological theories to French prose fiction of the eighteenth century has been limited to discussion of first-person narrative voice in the early decades of the century (Mander 1999). Their wider application to the eighteenth-century novel, in terms of space, has been largely hindered by the assumption that, in pre-nineteenth-century fiction, space provides nothing more than a backdrop (Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, 2005).

My paper questions this assumption. Through an analysis of Paul et Virginie (1788) it illustrates the ways in which time and space interact both to provoke the novel’s events and to elicit pathos, anger and surprise from the reader. Adopting an application of narratological theory that includes a revisiting of Bakhtin’s chronotopic paradigm and of Pratt’s theories of the speech act in literary discourse, this paper argues that space is in fact capable of exerting an influence over narrative events and the reader’s response to these, rather than merely providing a setting in which they are permitted to take place.

The paper begins by focussing on the three major spaces in the novel: Mauritius, France, and the sea in between the two. My discussion analyses how each space functions in terms of the features attributed to it, how it gives form to the characters within it, and how it is received by the reader. The paper then takes a step back and offers an overview of how these spaces interact with each other, influencing narrative possibilities and the ultimate temporal progression of the novel’s events. The final section of the paper examines the narrative construction of the text, showing how the novel’s spaces are clearly delineated by its temporal narrative framework. Whilst the majority of the story is told in flashback, a series of returns to the narrative ‘present’ (the first level of the narrative) reinsert and ultimately invite the presence of the reader.

My paper shows that a narratological analysis of time and space in Bernardin’s novel offers a significant contribution to academic debates on the aesthetic and ethical significance of the text, particularly focused on the death of Virginie (Mylne, Cherpack, Thomas). It also demonstrates that such an approach ultimately allows the previously accepted bipartite division of the novel – according to Virginie’s presence or absence – to be replaced by a tripartite division, reliant upon space and delineated by the surrounding temporal markers. My paper ultimately argues that the assumption that space provides nothing more than a backdrop in pre-nineteenth-century fiction is erroneous and that narrative analysis focused on spatially orientated literary techniques in earlier fiction can open up a new vista both on the eighteenth-century novel and on our current understanding of spatial analysis itself. The paper concludes by suggesting that a similar approach to many lesser-known novels of the later eighteenth century would broaden our understanding of how space emerges in French fiction between Rousseau and Balzac.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - Jan 2010


  • eighteenth century
  • French literature
  • space
  • narratology
  • Bernardin de Saint-Pierre

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