Comparative Literature Professor Dora Zhang gives us a brief overview excerpted from her presentation at the November 29 symposium on the subject.

The origins of free indirect discourse are disputed. Cases in classical and medieval literature have been proposed but they are usually subject to debate. The history of the style, however, seems to gain greater clarity as it goes on. A number of critics cite La Fontaine’s Fables as an early example of the style (sometimes along with Pascal and Fanny Burney), while Goethe and especially Jane Austen are widely credited with developing it into a full-fledged form and using it in sustained fashion. What is indisputable is that by the mid-19th century, free indirect style had become a well-established technique in a number of European literatures. Associated perhaps with no writer more than Flaubert, its use explodes after him, and by the early decades of the twentieth century, one would be hard pressed to find a novel that is free of free indirect discourse. Those odd sentences blending features of direct and indirect discourse, blurring the boundaries between narrator and character, can be found in Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Zora Neale Hurston, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust and André Gide, to name just a few examples.

The early twentieth century is also the moment when this style becomes consolidated as a critical term of art (1).   The English term “free indirect style” comes from style indirect libre, coined in 1912 by the Swiss linguist Charles Bally, who was a student of Saussure’s. It’s a somewhat infelicitous translation, since the “libre” referred to the syntactic independence of such sentences, the fact that they don’t have to be embedded. A number of other alternatives have been proposed, including Dorrit Cohn’s “narrated monologue” and, to my mind, the clearest description of what the style does, Ann Banfield’s term, “represented speech and thought,” which she expands to include “represented perception”(2).   Nevertheless, despite its infelicities, the terminological battle is long over and the term “free indirect style” or “free indirect discourse” seems here to stay.

Why does the style become so widespread in modernism? One reason surely has to do with the increasing emphasis on focalization and narrative point of view. As the omniscient narrator disappears and presenting the narrative from the perspective of a character becomes more prominent, free indirect discourse becomes an elegant way to represent a character’s thoughts, speech, and perceptions directly without the intervention of a narrator who reports these. It also does double-duty. Once the facts of the narrative are presented through the  perspective of a particular character, we’re learning something about not only the world that is being perceived, but also the subject who is perceiving it. So to describe how Kate Croy seems to Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, for instance, tells us something not only about Kate but also about Milly. This in turn allows for greater concision, which was good for writers, like Henry James, who were always worried about staying within magazines’ word limits.

Such double-sided perceptions also create epistemological affordances. Virginia Woolf, one of the most adept and systematic practitioners of free indirect style, was especially interested in the play of perspectives that opens up once narration is liberated from the tyranny of the first person. By meticulously presenting the setting of the story and its events through the represented thoughts, speech, and perceptions of particular characters, her novelistic universe is intricately built up by piecing together the fragments that we get – sometimes very brief, sometimes quite extended – from each individual’s perspective.

Free indirect style is often understood as a blending together of the subjective and the objective, thus it creates what D. A. Miller calls in Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style, “the paradoxical form of an impersonal intimacy”(3).  Does it allow for characters to be represented more fully in their subjectivity and alterity? Or does it instead, as Miller proposes in The Novel and the Police, reinforce the control of the narrator’s “master-voice,” infecting characters’ thoughts and speech with its own language, becoming a kind of “novelistic Panopticon”?(4).  Without resolving the question about the politics of free indirect style, let’s look at this passage, which comes from the Nausicaa episode of Joyce’s Ulysses, when Gerty McDowell, a young girl, observes Leopold Bloom looking at her on the Sandymount Strand beach. “Yes it was her he was looking at, and there was meaning in his look. His eyes burned into her as though they would search her through and through, read her very soul”(5). Although the thoughts represented here are Gerty’s, the language comes not from her or from a narrator, but from outside the work altogether, the domain of sentimental fiction that Joyce is parodying in this episode. As Franco Moretti argues about a similar use of free indirect style in Madame Bovary, when Emma marvels at having a lover and becoming like the heroines of the romantic novels she read as a girl, the words are neither the character’s nor the narrator’s, but “commonplaces, collective myths, signs of the social that is inside her”(6).  For Moretti, this is a sign that in the bourgeois France of Flaubert, “character and narrator have lost their distinctiveness, subsumed by the composite discourse of bourgeois doxa”(7).  Can the same be said of Joyce? Whether we agree with Moretti’s argument or not, what moments like these show is that even as free indirect style can convey characters’ thoughts intimately, it can also show that our language is not always, not only (not ever?) our own.


(1)  There are early discussions of it in the 1880s by Alfred Tobler, but the first critics to discuss it in a sustained way (most of them philologists or linguists) are overwhelmingly doing so in the 1910s and 1920s – Charles Bally, Otto Jespersen, Marguerite Lips, Etienne Lorck (a philologist and Romanist whose was the teacher of Leo Spitzer), and Gertraud Lerch, whose term “Uneigentliche direkte Rede” is adopted by the Russian Marxist linguist Valentin Voloshinov.

(2)  See Dorrit Cohn, Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), and Ann Banfield, Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).

(3) D. A. Miller, Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 60.

(4)  D. A. Miller, The Novel and Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 32.

5 James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Vintage, 1986), 13.411-3.

6 Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature (New York: Verso, 2013), 99.

7 Ibid.