Discourse: Used specifically, (1) the thoughts, statements, or dialogue of individuals, especially of characters in a literary work; (2) the words in, or text of, a narrative as opposed to its story line; or (3) a “strand” within a given narrative that promotes a certain point or value system. Discourse of the first type is sometimes categorized as direct, indirect, or free indirect. In direct discourse, the narrator relates the thoughts and utterances of others in an unfiltered way, typically by using quotes. (She thought, “Maybe I should take an umbrella.”) In indirect discourse, the narrator takes a more independent approach, reporting — and sometimes paraphrasing — what characters think or say. (She thought that it might be a good idea to take an umbrella.) Free indirect discourse combines elements of direct discourse and indirect discourse, giving the reader a sense of being inside a character’s head without actually quoting his or her thoughts or statements. (Maybe it would be smart to take an umbrella.)
More generally, discourse refers to the terms, methods, and conventions employed in discussing a subject or area of knowledge or transacting a certain kind of business. Human knowledge is collected and structured in discourses. Theology, law, and medicine are defined by their discourses, as are politics, sexuality, and literary criticism.
Contemporary literary critics have maintained that society is generally made up of a number of different discourses or discourse communities, one or more of which may be dominant or serve the dominant ideology. Each discourse has its own vocabulary, concepts, and rules — knowledge of which constitutes power. The French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan treated the unconscious as a form of discourse, the patterns of which are repeated in literature. Cultural critics, following Soviet critic Mikhail Bakhtin, use the word dialogic to analyze the dialogue between discourses that takes place within language or, more specifically, a literary text. Some poststructuralists have used discourse in lieu of text to refer to any verbal structure, whether literary or not.