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Free indirect speech is a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech. (It is also referred to as free indirect discourse, free indirect style, or discours indirect libre in French.) Randall Stevenson suggests, however, that the term free indirect discourse "is perhaps best reserved for instances where words have actually been spoken aloud" and that cases "where a character's voice is probably the silent inward one of thought" should be described as free indirect style.[1]

Comparison of styles[edit]

What distinguishes free indirect speech from normal indirect speech is the lack of an introductory expression such as "He said" or "he thought". It is as if the subordinate clause carrying the content of the indirect speech is taken out of the main clause which contains it, becoming the main clause itself. Using free indirect speech may convey the character's words more directly than in normal indirect, as devices such as interjections and exclamation marks can be used that cannot be normally used within a subordinate clause.

Free indirect discourse can also be described, as a "technique of presenting a character's voice partly mediated by the voice of the author", or, in the words of the French narrative theorist Gerard Genette, "the narrator takes on the speech of the character, or, if one prefers, the character speaks through the voice of the narrator, and the two instances then are merged."[2]

Examples of Direct, Indirect, and Free Indirect Speech[edit]

He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. "And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?" he asked.
He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speech:
He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

Usage in literature[edit]

Roy Pascal cites Goethe and Jane Austen as the first novelists to use this style consistently.[3] He says the nineteenth century French novelist Flaubert was the first to be consciously aware of it as a style. This style would be widely imitated by later authors, called in French discours indirect libre. It is also known as estilo indirecto libre in Spanish, and is often used by Latin American writer Horacio Quiroga.

In German literature, the style, known as erlebte Rede, is perhaps most famous in the works of Franz Kafka, blurring the subject's first-person experiences with a grammatically third-person narrative perspective.

English, Irish and Scottish literature[edit]

As stated above, Austen was one of its first practitioners. The Irish author James Joyce also used free indirect speech in works such as "The Dead" (see Dubliners), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Scottish author James Kelman uses the style extensively, most notably in his Booker Prize winning novel How Late It Was, How Late but also in many of his short stories and various other his novels, most of which are written in Glaswegian speech patterns. Virginia Woolf in her novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway frequently relies on free indirect discourse to take us into the minds of her characters. Another modernist D. H. Lawrence also makes frequent use of a free indirect style in "transcribing unspoken or even incompletely verbalized thoughts", in both The Rainbow and Women in Love.[4]

Some argue that free indirect discourse was also used by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.[5] When the narrator says in "The General Prologue" that he agrees with the Monk's opinion dismissing criticism of his very unmonastic way of life, he is apparently paraphrasing the monk himself:

And I seyde his opinion was good:
What! Sholde he studie, and make himselven wood,
Upon a book in cloistre alwey to poure?
Or swinken with his handes, and laboure,
As Austin bit? How shal the world be served?
Lat Austin have his swink to him reserved!

These rhetorical questions may be regarded as the monk's own casual way of waving off criticism of his aristocratic lifestyle. Similar examples can be found in the narrator's portrait of the friar.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gingerich, Jon. "The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse". LitReactor. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  • Prince, Gerald. Dictionary of Narratology
  • Stevenson, Randall, Modernist Fiction. Lexington: University of Kentucky,1992.
  • Wood, James, How Fiction Works. New York: Picador, 2009.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Modernistic Fiction: An Introduction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992, p.12.
  2. ^ Randell Stevenson, Modernist Fiction: An Introduction, p.32.
  3. ^ Roy Pascal, "The Dual Voice", Manchester University Press, 1977, page 34
  4. ^ 'Modernistic Fiction: An Introduction, p.32.
  5. ^ E.g. Helen Phillips, An introduction to the Canterbury tales, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_indirect_speech — Please support Wikipedia.
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2 news items

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tue, 15 Jul 2014 10:26:15 -0700

It also includes Le Blanc's adaptation, which splices Austen's superbly controlled, free-indirect speech with characters' own voices, deftly passing the narrative baton among them in a way that advances the story without feeling stilted. Most of all ...

Irish Times

Irish Times
Sun, 06 Jul 2014 17:04:50 -0700

Murphy calls the omniscient third person narrator “the God voice. Third-person can be sweeping, cinematic, like an overhead crane shot, while first-person can be conversational, slippery, totally subjective. Free indirect speech – where the narrative ...

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