indirect speech

Free indirect speech

Free indirect speech (also free indirect discourse, free indirect style, or discours indirect libre in French) is a style of third-person narration which combines some of the characteristics of third-person report with first-person direct speech. Passages written using free indirect speech are often ambiguous as to whether they convey the views, feelings and thoughts of the narrator or those of the character the narrator is describing. This allows a flexible and sometimes ironic interaction of internal and external perspectives.

Comparison of styles

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 he can use devices such as interjections and exclamation marks, that cannot be normally used within a subordinate clause.


Direct speech:
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.
Indirect speech:
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

The nineteenth century French novelist Flaubert is often cited as an early and influential example of free indirect speech. This style would be widely imitated by later authors, called in French style indirect libre.

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 and Irish literature

In English literature, Jane Austen was among the first authors to use free indirect speech in a significant and deliberate manner. The opinions of her narrators are frequently blurred with the thoughts of her characters. The Irish author James Joyce is also renowned for invoking the method in works such as "The Dead" (see Dubliners) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Some argue that free indirect discourse was also used by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. 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

Ann Banfield's critical work Unspeakable Sentences presents a typology of literary discourse.


External links

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