The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Markku LehtimÄki and and Pekka Tammi

A notoriously fluid concept, discourse may be used to designate the linguistic strategies available for rendering the speech, verbal interaction, or verbalized thought processes of fictional characters in novels (see LINGUISTICS). On the other hand, as Mikhail bakhtin(1973) has famously stated, “dialogic relationships [involving discourse in the novel]...are extra linguistic 2 phenomena.” It was Bakhtin who also affirmed that “verbal discourse is a social phenomenon—social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning” (1981, 259), urging subsequent novel criticism toward the deep waters of exploring discursive formations (in the Foucauldian sense), the construction of subjectivity in narrative, and the role narrative discourse plays in propping up—or in subverting—the prevailing social order (see Lodge).

This entry focuses on the formal categories for rendering speech and thought in fiction, though with due acknowledgment of the Bakhtinian insight that discursive strategies always involve more than just linguistic parameters. In this regard every novel emerges as a combination of what may be termed the narrator's discourse and the character's discourse. These categories encompass, besides the more obvious verbalized instances, the vast area of the fictional mind, including “dispositions, beliefs, attitudes, judgments, skills, knowledge, imagination, intellect, volition, character traits, and habits of thought” (Palmer, 58). Such occurrences may be rendered via a variety of narrative modes, thoroughly typologized by students of classical as well as contemporary narratology (Cohn, 1978,1978 Fludernik, 1993, 19961993, 1996). While often considered the province of properly fictional writing, these possibilities for discourse presentation also extend to the nonfiction novel, historiography, and journalism (Cohn, 19991999).

Direct Discourse

Direct discourse (DD) represents a character's speech or thought in an ostensibly mimetic fashion (Leech and Short). It may be framed by quotation marks and is often accompanied by a tag clause which qualifies the nature of the utterance (see below). Taking its cue from drama, dialogue in fiction renders directly the verbal exchange between characters, serving the narrative functions of characterization and plotting. In free direct speech, characters appear to be speaking immediately without the narrator as an intermediary, a technique much favored in Ernest Hemingway's prose:

“What are you thinking about now?”


“Yes you were. Tell me.”

“I was wondering whether Rinaldi had the syphilis.”

“Was that all?”


“Has he the syphilis?”

“I don't know.”

“I'm glad you haven't. Did you ever have anything like that?”

“I had gonorrhea.” (1929, A Farewell to Arms)

Directly quoted dialogue effects an illusion of realism and authentic speech acts. In fiction, however, DD cannot but be a stylized invention. The narrator is quoting the character's discourse, setting apart and foregrounding its given features (vernacular traits, sociolect, idiom). In the following example, the characters' spoken dialect is overtly juxtaposed with the narrative voice, highlighting the fact that transcription is never neutral:

“We're divorced.” Rahel hoped to shock him into silence.

“Die-vorced?” His voice rose to such a high register that it cracked on the question mark. He even pronounced the word as though it were a form of death.

“That is most unfortunate,” he said, when he had recovered. For some reason resorting to uncharacteristic, bookish language. “Most-unfortunate.” Arundhati Roy, 1997, God's Own Country.

While the illusion of authentic speech may still be sustained in DD, in many cases of direct thought the illusion of authenticity becomes much more difficult to maintain. Direct thought is a narrative convention allowing the narrator to present a verbal transcription that merely passes as the reproduction of the fictional characters' thought processes (see Palmer). In modernist fiction, direct speech can fluently transform into thought: “’I dont even know what they are saying to her,’ he thought, thinking I dont even know that what they are saying to her is something that men do not say to a passing child” (1932, William Faulkner, Light in August). Direct thought is also known as quoted monologue and private speech. Free direct discourse corresponds to interior monologue and stream of consciousness and is typical of the associative and spontaneous flow of thought in modernist fiction (see PSYCHOLOGICAL).

Indirect Discourse

In indirect discourse (ID), the character's reported speech or thought is integrated into the narrator's reporting discourse, commonly by backshifting the tenses and shifting from the first to the third person (“She wondered where she was”). ID paraphrases the content of the “original” speech act or thought without reproducing the verbal traits of speech. Such a transformation can be manifested in highly formalized and literary language deriving from the narrator, as in the well-known opening of Henry James's novel:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him. It was at this point, however, that she remained; changing her place, moving from the shabby sofa to the armchair upholstered in a glazed cloth that gave at once—she had tried it—the sense of the slippery and of the sticky. (1902, The Wings of the Dove, Chap. 1)

ID, as thought report, can be further used to present various mental events (perceptions, emotions, visual images, memories, and dreams); latent states of the mind; combinations of thought processes with surface descriptions of the physical storyworld; interpretation, analysis, commentary, and judgment. In fiction, ID can express the view of a collective in the sense of intermental, joint, or shared thought; so in George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871—72) it is the voice of the town of Middlemarch that is evoked by the narrator (Lodge; Palmer). In this regard thought report is the most versatile of modes available for discourse presentation, showing characters' minds responding to their social context.

ID is also known as psycho-narration (Cohn, 19781978), presenting a character's consciousness rather than verbalized thought. In dissonant psycho-narration, the narrator is distanced from the character's discourse (as in the classic novel); in consonant psycho-narration, the language of figural narration is more or less “colored” by the character's idiom (in the realist and the modernist novel). There is an overlap between this kind of colored ID and free indirect discourse (FID; see below). ID can also take the form of omniscient description, which focuses on consciousness as well as on the physical surface of the storyworld:

In the mountains, the snow was iron gray and purple in the hollows, and glowed like gold on every slope that faced the sun. The clouds over the mountains were lifting with light. Brenda took a good look into [Gary Gilmore's] eyes and felt full of sadness again. (Norman Mailer, 1979, The Executioner's Song, Chap. 1)

This excerpt from a nonfiction novel first creates an illusion of an objective vision, but then introduces a focalizer present in the scene (see JOURNALISM).

Tagged Discourse

Tagged discourse identifies the speaking or thinking agent and qualifies the utterance as either verbal or mental activity (“she said/reflected”), or as perception. Dialogue in the novel is conventionally accompanied by tags originating in the narrator's discourse, specifying the style of the speech act and characterizing the scene in which the spoken exchange occurs: “’Is something happening?’ I inquired innocently. ’You mean to say you don't know?’ said Miss Baker, honestly surprised” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925, The Great Gatsby, Chap. 1).

On occasion, parentheticals and introductory tags, commonly attributed to the narrator, can be attached to the character through contextual interpretation (see Jahn). In the following, ambiguity prevails concerning the use of the parenthetical: “’Armenians,’ he said: or perhaps it was ’Albanians’” (Virginia Woolf, 1925, Mrs. Dalloway, Sec. 7). The parenthetical may represent the narrator's indecision regarding the character's speech, or it may originate in the character's hesitation, conveying information about his personality. Consider also the use of an introductory tag such as: “He either thought or said: ’Well, tomorrow perhaps I'll drink beer only’” (Malcolm Lowry, 1947, Under the Volcano). Here it seems that the narrator may not be altogether sure whether the protagonist thinks or speaks, but the narrative context informs us that the indecision belongs to the protagonist (who is drunk). Tags can accompany direct as well as ID, but in free direct or FID they are commonly omitted.

Free Discourse

The narrative mode bringing together traits of DD and ID has been variously termed style indirect libre, erlebte Rede, dual voice, narrated monologue, represented speech and thought, or FID. (For classical narrative theoretical approaches, see studies by Pascal; Cohn, 1978; Banfield; McHale, 1978, 19831978, 1983.) Literary historians have traced occurrences of FID to medieval or even earlier texts, but it did not begin to prosper in the European novel until the formal innovations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the wake of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It has since become a principal mode for representing speech acts as well as mental states in fiction. The incidence of FID in oral narratives and other text types besides the novel has been discussed by Monika Fludernik, whose 1993 study remains the fullest exposition of the topic to date. Along with the work of Alan Palmer, Fludernik also needs to be credited for her challenges to the “speech-category” approach to discourse. Palmer and Fludernik have raised questions about drawing the lines among speech, thought, perceptions, and other modes of consciousness, while drawing lines between consciousness and action. According to the standard linguistic definition, FID is distinguished by a unique combination of grammatical features derived from the narrator's discourse and the directly quoted discourse of the character. While some of these features are language-specific, the present remarks concern English usage only (for contrastive approaches see Tammi and Tommola). Hence the third person and the past tense belonging to ID, and the deictic references of place or time deriving from direct discourse, are combined in FID: “He was falling in love with Emma here and now.” There may occur additional traits of the character's discourse, like lexical fillers (“Yes, he was falling in love...”), interrogatives, interjections, or other signs of subjective syntax. Fictional practice often displays swift alternation between these modes, as in the following:

[ID] [Mr. Bingley] sat with them above an hour, and was in remarkably good spirits. Mrs. Bennet invited him to dine with them; but with many expressions of concern, he confessed himself engaged elsewhere.

[tag] “Next time you call,” said she, “I hope we shall be more lucky.”

[FID, with narrator's ellipsis] He should be particularly happy at any time, etc., etc.; and if she would give him leave, would take an early opportunity of waiting on them.

[DD] “Can you come tomorrow?”

[FID] Yes, he had no engagement at all for to-morrow... (Jane Austen, 1813, Pride and Prejudice, Chap. 55)

The grammatical description has been mostly applied to third-person, past-tense (“omniscient”) narration, but it also covers features in first-person novels, where narrators may either transmit their own past thoughts, or speech acts addressed to themselves, as here:

[ID] It was big Frank. He remained framed in the opened door, one hand on its jamb, leaning forward a little.

[FID] Howdy. Nurse Lore was on the telephone. She wanted to know was I better and would I come today? (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955, Lolita, Sec. 16)

Recent research has identified a mounting trend toward present-tense narration in contemporary fiction. With the waning of the back-shift of the tenses formerly undescribed hybrid forms of discourse presentation tend to emerge. In the following, the narration drifts into metafictional commentary (either by the narrator or the character), frustrating attempts to determine the mode of discourse employed on the basis of standard criteria (see METAFICTION). A rich repertoire of such forms is currently displayed in the novel.

[FID] He should never have come here … . A wrong move. He ought to get up at once, steal out. But he does not. Why? Because he does not want to be alone. And because he wants to sleep. [tag] Sleep, he thinks, that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care. [Narrator's or character's discourse?] What an extraordinary way of putting it! Not all the monkeys in the world picking away at typewriters would come up with those words in that arrangement. (J. M. Coetzee, 2003, Elizabeth Costello, 27)

While valid to a point, the linguistic approach has been shown to cover only inadequately the range of discourse presentation in the novel. What is also at stake, narrative theorists argue, is the Bakhtinian notion of “two voices, two meanings and two expressions” (Bakhtin, 1981, 324) which the reader infers from the narrative context. Consider a famous episode from Austen:

[ID] [Frank Churchill] stopped again, rose again, and seemed quite embarrassed.—[FID] He was more in love with her than Emma had supposed. (1815, Emma, Chap. 12)

From the grammatical standpoint, the second sentence could also be read as ID, reporting the actual state of affairs in the world of Emma. But as Austen's readers know, it is not, though the reader can reach this decision only retrospectively when it later turns out what Churchill's true feelings were. What is encountered is still FID—a false hypothesis in the heroine's mind—but to interpret this correctly the reader needs the context of the novel.

A related argument is again put forth by those theorists who warn against the “overestimation of the verbal component of thought” in studying fiction (Palmer, 57). In other terms, it is also the property of fiction to transmit inarticulate sensations or mental processes remaining on the threshold of verbalization (see Cohn, 1978, 103). These include moments of unreflective physical perception, overlapping with ID: “He looked out. Drops of rain were falling.” But fiction can play with the reflecting mind in more elaborate ways. In the following excerpt from Toni Morrison it is indicated that the character did not utter or consciously think what the novel nevertheless represents as a turbulent stream of consciousness, impulse, action, and inchoate purpose, which nevertheless comes across with all the formal traits the reader is accustomed to associating with FID:

And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe. (1987, Beloved)

A dilemma for the theorist, such ambivalence also underlines the distinctive quality of reading fiction. Thought once to enhance psychological realism in novels, FID in its protean manifestations turns out to have the opposite effect as well—laying bare the non-natural attributes of discourse presentation in the novel, where the range for innovative formal variation remains potentially infinite.

SEE ALSO: Narrative Technique.


1. Bakhtin, M.M. (1984), Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. C. Emerson.

2. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981), “Discourse in the Novel,” in Dialogic Imagination, ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist.

3. Banfield, A. (1982), Unspeakable Sentences.

4. Cohn, D. (1978), Transparent Minds.

5. Cohn, D. (1999), Distinction of Fiction.

6. Fludernik, M. (1993), Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction.

7. Fludernik, M. (1996), Towards a “Natural” Narratology.

8. Jahn, M. (1992), “ Contextualizing Represented Speech and Thought,” Journal of Pragmatics 17: 347—67.

9. Leech, G.N. and M. H. Short (1981), Style in Fiction.

10. Lodge, D. (1990), After Bakhtin.

11. McHale, B. (1978), “ Free Indirect Discourse,” Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature 3: 249—87.

12. McHale, B. (1983), “ Unspeakable Sentences, Unnatural Acts,” Poetics Today 4: 17—45.

13. Palmer, A. (2004), Fictional Minds.

14. Pascal, R. (1977), Dual Voice.

15. Tammi, P. and H. Tommola, eds. (2006), FREE Language, INDIRECT Translation, DISCOURSE Narratology.