Guide on Free Indirect Style

also called “free indirect discourse” (abbreviated, FID)

What is free indirect style?

According to the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (3rd ed., 2009), it is:

“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” (p.190)

Other major practitioners of this technique include Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and Franz Kafka.  All these modernist authors come significantly later than Jane Austen!

Austen’s technique in the deployment of free indirect style not only blend third-person narration with first-person point of view, as a technical aspect of narrative perspective.  Her use of FID often has the ability to capture “first person” voice, thought, speech patterns, key words and recurrent themes.

Austen often moves in and out of free indirect style within the same paragraph.  She even does it sometimes within a single sentence!    

What are some examples of free indirect speech?  And what kind of narration is it opposed to?

An easy clarifying exercise is to contrast the use of free indirect style with direct and indirect discourse.  Make sure you understand the meaning of these other two more basic literary terms and how they appear in the texts!

Examples of free indirect style so far from the novels:

An easy one:

“ Had Edward been intentionally deceiving her?  Had he feigned a regard for her which he did not feel?”  (Sense and Sensibility, p.99)

A more difficult, even troubling one:

“ As these considerations occurred to her in painful succession, she wept for him, more than for herself.” (p.100)

To aid in understanding this device, you can oppose free indirect style to—

Indirect discourse =the omniscient narrator reports authoritatively on a character’s feeling or thought:

“Elinor thought it wisest to make an answer to this, lest they might provoke each other” (Sense and Sensibility, 107-08).

Direct discourse = the character’s thought or feeling is quoted directly and explicitly to the reader:

“All this,” thought Elinor, “ is very pretty; but it can impose upon neither of us” (SS, 106).

There can be collective voice, groupthink, and rumor in FID:

“[C]rowds of people were every moment passing in and out, up the steps and down; people whom nobody cared about, and nobody wanted to see” (Northanger Abbey, p.18).

There are examples of quasi-free indirect style already in Northanger Abbey.  This is an odd kind of ‘inverted’ FID in which characters are quoted but in the third person!  (Note: Austen revised Northanger Abbey relatively late in life, in 1816)

“She applied to Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Allen’s opinion was more positive.  ‘She had no doubt in the world of its being a very fine day, if the clouds would only go off, and the sun keep out’ ” (Northanger Abbey, p.55).

And don’t forget that FID is not just for Austen’s heroines.  Austen uses FID extensively — though perhaps for different purposes — with minor characters!

“The happiness of Miss Smith was quite equal equal to her intentions.  Miss Woodhouse was so great a personage in Highbury, that the prospect of the introduction had given as much panic as pleasure— but the humble, grateful, little girl went off with highly gratified feelings, delighted with the affability with which Miss Woodhouse had treated her all evening, and actually shaken hands with her at last!” (Emma, p.19)

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