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Jane Austen and Free Indirect Speech

When talking about free indirect speech, it is necessary to first define what free indirect speech is. According to David Lodge, free indirect speech: “Renders thought as reported speech (in the third person, past tense) but keeps to the kind of vocabulary that is appropriate to the character, and deletes some of the tags, like ‘she thought,’ ‘she wondered,’ ‘she asked herself’ etc. that a more formal narrative style would require. This gives the illusion of intimate access to a character’s mind, but without totally surrendering authorial participation in the discourse”.

Here is an excellent example of free indirect speech in Persuasion: “She knew herself to be of the first utility to the child; and what was it to her, if Frederick Wentworth were only half a mile distant, making himself agreeable to others!”

Austen was one of the first authors to write in this narrative style, rather than drawing on the tradition of another narrative style. Although this is owing largely to the fact that the novel was a fairly new form in that time, it implies that she had a specific reason for writing in this manner. In the specific context of Persuasion, what is the advantage of using free indirect speech, what effect does it have on the characters and how does it effect the reader?

Jane Austen’s novels are notable for having plots that are simplistic but that make up for them in the intricacy of their character development. The above quote from Persuasion reveals Anne’s motivation, and on several different levels. It reveals the contradictory nature of her thoughts; in that she believes that Wentworth means nothing to her, yet her need to ask that question implies that he does, and that her thinking this is her attempt of self-assurance. Not only does the reader gain an understanding of the complexity of Anne’s motivations in an ordinary sense, but the tone and the emotion behind her thoughts can give the reader a more implicit understanding of the character’s thoughts as well. Such a nuanced understanding of a character’s psyche can generate empathy for the character within the reader; which is especially important to the protagonist of any story and motivates the reader to continue reading.

But free indirect speech has its limitations. The narrator (at least in the the case of Persuasion) is not an omniscient figure, and there are points in the novel where the protagonist’s perspective cannot offer sufficient insight into the motivations of another character, so a shift from the mind of one character to another is necessary; such as the shift between Anne’s thoughts and Wentworth’s.

In conclusion, and to answer the questions previously posed, the advantage of using free indirect speech lies in the effect it has on the characters and the reader. This style effectively mimics the process of thought in content, tone, and deliverance; and it is in this understanding that creates, within the reader, empathy for the characters (but mostly the protagonist) of the novel.

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2 responses to “Jane Austen and Free Indirect Speech

  1. “Jane Austen’s novels are notable for having plots that are simplistic but that make up for them in the intricacy of their character development. The above quote from Persuasion reveals Anne’s motivation, and on several different levels.”

    I think you offer a great explanation of free indirect discourse. My personal feelings are that although the reliability of the narrator comes into question at moments throughout the novel the insight that you define above is worth what the price of the form seems to be. The interaction between the narrator and the characters becomes almost like a side plot in which there is even more potential for analysis. I cannot really tell if I prefer a omniscient narrator or one like what Austen employs, but the narrator in Persuasion seems incredibly naturalistic and really sets the bar high for what Henry James, Edith Wharton and the “realists” will imitate. Great job defining not only the more pleasing effects of this style of narration and what seems to be it’s limitations. :))

    -gH

  2. *Great job defining not only the more pleasing effects of this style of narration [but also] what seems to be it’s limitations.*

    Haha sorry. 🙂

    I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    -gH

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