Free indirect discourse

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Free indirect discourse

Free indirect discourse: A mode of presenting discourse, the thoughts or statements of characters in a work, that blends third-person narration with the first person point-of-view. Free indirect discourse combines elements of direct discourse and indirect discourse to give the reader a sense of being inside a character’s head without actually quoting his or her thoughts or statements. Describing the mode in The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and Its Functioning in the Nineteenth-Century European Novel (1977), Roy Pascal wrote: “On the one hand it evokes the person, through his words, tone of voice, and gesture, with incomparable vivacity. On the other, it embeds the character’s statement or thought in the narrative flow, and even more importantly in the narrator’s interpretation, communicating also his way of seeing and feeling.”

In direct discourse, the narrator relates a character’s thoughts and utterances in an unfiltered way, conveying precisely what the character thinks or says. (She thought, “I’ll demand the money from him, or else!”) In indirect discourse, the narrator takes a more independent approach, reporting — and sometimes paraphrasing — what characters think or say. (She planned to demand the money from him, coupling it with a threat.) Free indirect discourse infuses the reportorial approach with the character’s perceptions and language, giving rise to a “dual voice” that may interweave or even merge the voices of narrator and character. (She would demand the money from him, or else!)

Pioneers of free indirect discourse include nineteenth-century English novelist Jane Austen and French novelist Gustave Flaubert, who used it extensively in Madame Bovary (1857). In the twentieth century, modernist writers made particular use of the mode, which remains common today.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: The following passage from Austen’s Emma (1815), which relates Emma’s impressions of the orphaned, illegitimate Harriet Smith, whom she decides to take on as a protégé:

She was not struck by anything remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether engaging — not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk — and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given. Those soft blue eyes and all those natural graces should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connections. The acquaintance she had already formed were unworthy of her. The friends from whom she had just parted, though very good sort of people, must be doing her harm.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) relies heavily on free indirect discourse, beginning “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her.”