No Time Like the Present?

In describing the scenes at —– Jail, the narrator of It Is Never Too Late To Mend emphasizes brotherhood and equality among men.  It is disappointing that this same narrator so quickly reveals his sense of superiority over the Australian natives when he follows George overseas.  On what grounds does the narrator judge?  What supposed evidence leads him to his conclusion?  While I am sure the factors that play into the narrator’s prejudice are many, the narrative itself suggests that second language learners’ often unvaried use of the infinitive (in place of appropriate tenses) during early stages of language acquisition is one of those factors.

During George’s first interaction with Jacky, the latter responds to George’s extended hand, “Thank you, sar!  Jacky thank you a good deal! … suppose you lend me a knife, then we eat a good deal” (410).  In this first dialogue between the two men, Jacky uses the infinitive “thank” instead of the conjugated present form “thanks,” and he uses “eat” where an Englishman would express futurity (e.g. “will eat”).  As the conversation continues, Jacky continues to use infinitives, this time instead of the past tense.  Referring to the pair’s recent victory over the shark that had been pursuing Jacky, he states, “You [George] make him dead for a little while … so then I make him dead enough to eat.”  Both events – George’s assault on the shark with stones and Jacky’s subsequent knifing of the shark in order to polish him off – were completed events, but Jacky’s language does not situate those events in time.

The significance of Jacky’s use of infinitives in place of conjugated verbs that express tense (and therefore time) becomes clear when the narrator explains Jacky’s reason for throwing away all the parts of his newly-acquired coat except those found useful for carrying potatoes:  “[H]e had thrown it away because it was a good deal hot.”  When George responds, “But it won’t be hot at night, and then you will wish you hadn’t been such a fool,” the narrator provides the commentary, “No, [George] couldn’t make Jacky see this; being hot at the time Jacky could not feel the cold to come” (412).  In other words, the narrator characterizes Jacky as lacking a developed sense of time and, consequently, lacking the ability to plan for the future.  In his book Pessimism, Joshua Dienstag emphasizes time-consciousness as one of the defining characteristics of man.  He quotes Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, who describes non-human animals as “the present incarnate” (quoted in Dienstag 20) in contrast to humans who more clearly perceive the past, present, and future.  In characterizing Jacky as impulsive and lacking a developed sense of time, the narrator implies that Jacky is inferior, even animal-like.

The above characterization of Jacky as lacking a developed sense of time is not an isolated incident.  When George asks Jacky how many days he has been ill, Jacky’s response again suggests a sense of timelessness (even while indicating the passage of four days): “One, one, one, and one more day.”  Verbally, he does not express a understanding of progression as an Englishman would.  During this same conversation, Jacky recounts six different actions George performed in the past in answer to George’s question, “What makes you such a friend to me?”  Instead of counting the events one through six, he prefaces each item with the counter “one”: “One – when you make thunder the bird always die.  One – you take a sheep so and hold him up high … One – you make a stone go and hit thing…” (434).

The conclusion which it seems the narrator has drawn from the limited verbal communication of some Australian natives, such as that exampled above, is that the natives lack reason and efficiency – upon which powers Victorian England placed great value.  The narrator’s description of the scene in which George first meets Jacky evidences this plainly.  He describes three men “paddling along in boats of bark” and then remarks disparagingly, “These absurd vehicles have come down to these blockheads from their fathers, so they won’t burn them according to reason” (408).  His objection to their boat is that it is not as efficient as modern English ones.  He assumes a lack of the faculty of reason to be the culprit, for when one supposedly has an inferior sense of time and progress, how can he reason about the cause and effect (the consequences of the present on the events of the future) and pursue efficiency adequately?  It seems that, according to the narrator’s judgment, he cannot. Thus the narrator’s sense of superiority over Australian natives is closely linked with his notion of the undeveloped sense of time and reasoning skills he attributes to the natives based on the limited English (e.g. lack of tense) through which they communicate with Englishmen.


Works Cited

Dienstag, Joshua Foa.Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. Print.


Reade, Charles.  It Is Never Too Late To Mend.  Whitefish: Kessinger, n.d. Print.

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