Perceptions of Time
March 28, 2005 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Have perceptions of time changed in the last few hundred years? Did people used to speak more casually about periods of time? I'm reading Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Bronte uses "ten minutes" in an odd way. I suspect she means (by today's standards) 30 seconds. Is this sloppy writing, cultural difference or what?

From "Jane Eyre" (a clergyman is lecturing Jane, who is a school girl, in front of the other girls and teachers):

Mr. Brocklehurst hemmed.

"Ladies," said he, turning to his family, "Miss Temple, teachers, and children, you all see this girl?"

Of course they did; for I felt their eyes directed like burning-
glasses against my scorched skin.

"You see she is yet young; you observe she possesses the ordinary form of childhood; God has graciously given her the shape that He has given to all of us; no signal deformity points her out as a marked character. Who would think that the Evil One had already found a servant and agent in her? Yet such, I grieve to say, is the case."

...Now came a pause of ten minutes, during which I, by this time in perfect possession of my wits, observed all the female Brocklehursts produce their pocket-handkerchiefs and apply them to their optics, while the elderly lady swayed herself to and fro, and the two younger ones whispered, "How shocking!" Mr. Brocklehurst resumed.


Could that REALLY have been a ten minute pause? After the first 2 minutes, I would have suspected that the clergyman had suffered a stroke.


From "Crime and Punnishment":

Raskolnikov did not speak, but looked firmly and intently at Porfiry. Razumihin was scowling gloomily. He seemed before this to be noticing something. He looked angrily around. There was a minute of gloomy silence. Raskolnikov turned to go.


"What do I mean? I really don't know. . . ." Svidrigaïlov muttered ingenuously, as though he, too, were puzzled.

For a minute they were silent. They stared in each other's faces.

"That's all nonsense!" Raskolnikov shouted with vexation. "What does she say when she comes to you?"


"You say Katerina Ivanovna's mind is unhinged; your own mind is unhinged," he said after a brief silence.

Five minutes passed. He still paced up and down the room in silence, not looking at her. At last he went up to her; his eyes glittered.
posted by grumblebee to Media & Arts (20 answers total)
I think they have.. I can somewhat remember people saying "just a minute" in the past where the common phrase now is "just a second". It does seem that life tends to move faster nowadays though than it seemed to in the past.
posted by mrg at 9:03 AM on March 28, 2005

Heh, good question. Biblical ages went into the hundreds, after all.
posted by fatllama at 9:17 AM on March 28, 2005

only the jane eyre example seems odd to me, and that could be for comic effect. she (bronte) is writing as if the character (jane) was talking, not as a "godlike" all-knowing author.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:23 AM on March 28, 2005

Great question. I can't offer an answer, but I can offer this...

"Hesitantly, reluctantly, Helen slipped out of a sling, tight-waisted waspy and stood naked in the moonlight before me. Somewhere a clock chimed three. An owl hooted in the nearby copse. No wind stirred the casement window. She stood in the pale, translucent light on the Persian carpet. A minute passed. Then another. Then, another minute. Then... another minute passed. Then another minute passed. And another. A further minute passed quickly, followed by another minute, when suddenly, a different minute passed, followed by another different minute. And another. And yet another further different minute. A minute passed. I glanced at my watch. It was a minute past. This was it. A minute passed. After a moment, another minute passed. I waited a minute while a minute passed quickly past. And then, a minute which seemed to last an hour but was only a minute... passed."
posted by schoolgirl report at 9:26 AM on March 28, 2005

Couldn't this just be hyperbole? By exaggerating the amount of time, Brontë is highlighting Jane's discomfort. (Or, more or less, what Mr. cooke said.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:29 AM on March 28, 2005

I think that time is perceived in smaller increments, yes.
This question reminds me of the one minute of silence scene in Band of Outsiders. It is almost impossible to sit through a full minute where nothing happens in a film. Actually I never have, the scene only lasts about 35 seconds but it feels like forever.
posted by mike_bling at 9:38 AM on March 28, 2005

I can't speak for the Brontes, but when I write "He stood there a minute" I don't mean a literal minute; it's shorthand for a pause that's longer than a second. (It's the same "minute" that people use when they say "I'll be there in a minute.")

The ten minutes/five minutes/multiple long minutes are hyperbole, to heighten the tension or absurdity of a scene. I'm partial to using hours for that kind of hyperbole myself (I stood there for sixteen hours and I didn't even know I had my skirt tucked into my underwear!)
posted by headspace at 9:50 AM on March 28, 2005

Best answer: As clocks (and even more so watches) were rare in the time of Bronte and Dostoevsky, most people would *not* have understood a second, minute, or hour in the way we do. Regularised time-keeping only began to spread in the second half of the nineteenth century - E. P Thompson's 1967 essay "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism" is a good read here - and so early Victorians, particularly those that did not own time pieces, would not have experienced these units on a daily basis, and would not be able to count them in their heads. So I reckon these terms are being used for effect rather than to describe a precise interval of time.
posted by carter at 9:55 AM on March 28, 2005

Response by poster: I like carter's answer (it makes sense, though I don't know whether it is true. I have a gut sense of how long ten minutes lasts. So to me, that seems like a unimaginably long pause. Like most people, I am somewhat sloppy when I speak about periods of time (if I say "two minutes," I mean somewhere in the vicinity of two minutes), but I would never be so sloppy as to claim that an awkward pause lasted 10 minutes. Even the Dostoyevsky examples are strange to me. Try pausing for one whole minute in the middle of a conversation. In really life, awkward pauses ten to last just a few seconds. If they go on for a minute, people will flee (or start talking about the weather).

Those of you who claim it's hyperbole may be right, but it seems odd to me. It's like saying "I love all nine of the Beatles," when we know there were only four. It's an odd exaggeration -- but again, that might just be from my perspective. I have a pretty exacting sense of time which doesn't bend much in my imagination.
posted by grumblebee at 10:08 AM on March 28, 2005

For another discussion of time see Daniel Boorstin's admirable book The Discoverers. The first section is all about the gradually changing measurement and perception of time.
posted by shothotbot at 10:19 AM on March 28, 2005

Minute ("mih-nut") and minute ("my-noot") share the same etymology. Small.'s entry even for present-day usage of "minute" says to see 'moment' for synonym: "Minute is often interchangable with moment and second with instant."

I suspect the authors quoted above aren't using "minute" to mean "one-sixtieth of an hour" at all. As per carter's answer, that sort of precision of meaning wouldn't even be on their minds.
posted by nobody at 10:24 AM on March 28, 2005


I think you're confusing reality and (literary) Realism. I'm not trying to be snarky, I'm being serious. The Dostoevsky quotes all seem perfectly fine, and very very reasonable for some of the other behavior we're expected to take as actually happening in his novels. Pausing for a minute is mundane by his standards. Much of Dostoevky's effects come, I would argue, from the way that he plays with time, making it fly by in some cases (the interregnum in The Idiot, the end of C&P) and crawl in other places (like those close quarters intense tete-a-tete's you quote). But what else could he have said? They stared at each other for 35 seconds?

Also, I think that you're sense of time is arranged by clocks all around you. I'm looking at three different time pieces just in my small office (a clock, my watch, my computer). I'm not sure the experience of time was so different, in the sense that a measure meant something different; but it seems clear that people did not have the same access to even the sense of what ten minutes feels like that you do.
posted by OmieWise at 11:04 AM on March 28, 2005

Just to play devil's advocate for a moment: St. John Rivers explicitly times the minutes he spends adoring Rosamond Oliver's portrait--while Jane stares at him--so the absence or presence of clocks is not quite at issue. Offhand, I can't think of another early Victorian equivalent to CB's somewhat bizarre time-sense, not even in Anne or Emily B.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:06 AM on March 28, 2005's entry even for present-day usage of "minute" says to see 'moment' for synonym: "Minute is often interchangable with moment and second with instant."

Thank you nobody, I've been reading some Agatha Christie books in the last week or two -- she, too, has a lot of these passages like "The telephone rang and we looked at each other for a few minutes (!) then answered the call."
posted by blueberry at 12:18 PM on March 28, 2005

I'm not sure I buy carter's argument. People in the nineteenth century may have been less precise in their time-keeping, but I find it hard to believe that they could have been so wildly imprecise as to confuse ten minutes with thirty seconds. It stretches credulity; a bit like saying, 'people in those days were often innumerate, so they would have seen nothing odd in saying 'five hundred' when they really meant fifty'. No, no .. I prefer to believe that when Charlotte Bronte says 'ten minutes' she means something more precise than merely 'a-surprisingly-long-interval-of-time-but-I-don't-know-exactly-how-long-so-I'll-call-it-ten-minutes'.

carter's argument rests on the assumption that clocks were rare in early nineteenth-century England. However, several of the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary appear to contradict this: for example, 'the minute-hand moved on; -- it was within three minutes of the appointed time' (1817; from Thomas Love Peacock's novel Nightmare Abbey). OED also gives the verb 'to minute' (meaning 'to ascertain or determine to the minute; to time accurately'), with several relevant citations from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: e.g. 'the above observations were minuted from a stop-watch' (1762), 'I have minuted these birds with my watch for an hour together .. they return about once in five minutes' (1773), 'scarcely anyone had sufficient presence of mind to minute the time by his watch' (1784). It seems clear from these examples that people in nineteenth-century England would have been perfectly accustomed to measuring time by the minute.

The best suggestion I can come up with -- and I have no evidence to back this up -- is that Charlotte Bronte was using 'minute' to mean 'one-sixtieth of the way round a clock-face', so that when she says 'ten minutes' she actually means ten seconds; i.e. she is imagining the second-hand ticking its way through ten minute-spaces on the dial.
posted by verstegan at 1:20 PM on March 28, 2005

Response by poster: I think you're confusing reality and (literary) Realism.

I understand what you're saying, but I disagree. I've spend years reading books with all sorts of "realities": naturalism, magic realism, fantasy, satire, etc. I am also pretty well versed in various metaphorical systems.

But in most novels, there's a distinction between simple reporting of facts and more fantastic/metaphorical levels. It's silly to say that just because in one passage an author writes "he was so hungry he could eat a horse," we should take all passages with a grain of salt. If, in another paragraph, the same author writes, "the house was green," I think it's makes most sense to assume the house LITERALLY was green.

In Bronte's book, there is nothing metaphorical or fantastical about that passage. She says ten minutes, so I say it's ten minutes. True, it's about a young girl's feelings of humiliation, so one might argue that it FELT like 10 minutes to her (whereas in reality it was a much shorter time), but that's at odds with the surrounding prose, which feels like levelheaded reporting.

Obviously, it's FICTION, so ANYTHING is open to interpretation.
posted by grumblebee at 1:37 PM on March 28, 2005

I think nobody's answer is the answer: the common meaning of the word has changed over time. Interpret as "moments" and the passages make far more sense.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:19 PM on March 28, 2005

For the Bronte passage, I vote with the others who think it's exaggeration for emphasis. For "...Now came a pause of ten minutes" read "...Now came a pause that seemed like an eternity."
posted by jfuller at 2:48 PM on March 28, 2005


Fair enough, I meant no disrespect. I do tend to think she means ten minutes, and that it's down to exaggeration. On the other hand, I think that Dostoevsky really means that the pauses are as long as he says they are.
posted by OmieWise at 5:10 PM on March 28, 2005

Not an answer, but I like the late Patrick Campbell's version, while waiting to be served at an ironmonger's (or hardware store as we tend to call them now):

"Some time the following year another assistant appeared..."
posted by TiredStarling at 7:58 PM on March 28, 2005

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