Past tense or present tense?

Past tense or present tense?

Postby kenttony on Mon May 25, 2015 10:28 am

Dear Professor,

Do I use the past or present tense to answer the following question?

Write about a moral value found in the novel "Around the world in 80 days". Support your answer with evidence from the text.

Let’s look at the following example.

A moral value that I’ve learned in the novel is to face all odds patiently and with much strenght. In this novel, Phileas Fogg, the protagonist had to face lots of forces which actually delayed his trip around the world. Nevertheless, Phileas took everything in his stride patiently.While on their way to Calcutta by train, he had to make a stop as the railroad was not completed. Phileas Fogg bought an elephant for two thousand pounds and hired a guide to take him to Allahabad.

I realize that when discussing events in a book or novel, there is always a rule-literary present tense, that needs us to follow. However, is it wrong if I use past tense to describe the events or plots? Would it be much better, grammatically speaking, if I change the paragraph to what the paragraph below shows?

A moral value that I’ve learned in the novel is to face all odds patiently and with much strenght. In this novel, Phileas Fogg, the protagonist has to face lots of forces which actually delays his trip around the world. Nevertheless, Phileas takes everything in his stride patiently.While on their way to Calcutta by train, he has to make a stop as the railroad is not completed. Phileas Fogg buys an elephant for two thousand pounds and hires a guide to take him to Allahabad.

Really looking forward to your reply. Thanks.
kenttony
 

Re: Past tense or present tense?

Postby prof on Thu May 28, 2015 11:33 pm

It is common when describing events in a book to use the present tense, because the book is always there, so in one sense the events within the book are constantly happening. However, this is not a 'rule'.

In this particular case, you are describing moral values which you identified when reading the book. While the events always 'happen' in the book, you identified these values at a particular time in the past. So when the protagonist discovered that the railway was not completed, you discovered his imperturbability. When he did not complain that fate was against him, you discovered his stoicism, and so on.

So while you can describe events in the book with the present tense, as usually done, in this case you can use the past tense. This is because you are describing an interaction between yourself and the text which happened in the past.
prof
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