Free indirect speech

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, in French, discours indirect libre.

Free indirect discourse can be described as a "technique of presenting a character's voice partly mediated by the voice of the author" (or, reversing the emphasis, "that the character speaks through the voice of the narrator") with the voices effectively merged.[1] This effect is partially accomplished by eliding direct speech attributions, such as "he said" or "she said".

The following is an example of sentences using direct, indirect and free indirect speech:

  • Quoted or 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.
  • Reported or normal 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?

According to British philologist Roy Pascal, Goethe and Jane Austen were the first novelists to use this style consistently[2] and 19th-century French novelist Flaubert was the first to be aware of it as a style.


Randall Stevenson suggests 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.[3]

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 were 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 psycho-ostensive expressions like curses and swearwords can be used that cannot be normally used within a subordinate clause. Deictic pronouns and adverbials refer to the coordinates of the originator of the speech or thought, not of the narrator.

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 Gérard 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".[1]

Use in literature

Roy Pascal cites Goethe and Jane Austen as the first novelists to use this style consistently.[2] He says the nineteenth century French novelist Flaubert was the first to be 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 (experienced speech), is perhaps most famous in the works of Franz Kafka, blurring the subject's first-person experiences with a grammatically third-person narrative perspective.

In Danish literature, the style is attested since Leonora Christina (1621–1698) (and is, outside literature, even today common in colloquial Danish speech).

English, Irish and Scottish literature

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" (in 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 some of 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] According to Charles Rzepka of Boston University, Elmore Leonard's mastery of free indirect discourse "is unsurpassed in our time, and among the surest of all time, even if we include Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and Hemingway in the mix."[5]

Some argue that free indirect discourse was also used by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.[6] 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.

See also


  1. Randell Stevenson, Modernist Fiction: An Introduction, p.32.
  2. Roy Pascal, "The Dual Voice", Manchester University Press, 1977, page 34
  3. Modernistic Fiction: An Introduction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992, p.12.
  4. Modernistic Fiction: An Introduction, p.32.
  5. Rzepka, Charles (2013). Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 21.
  6. E.g. Helen Phillips, An introduction to the Canterbury tales, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000

Further reading

  • Cohn, Dorrit, Transparent Minds
  • Gingerich, Jon. "The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse". LitReactor. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  • Haberland, Hartmut, Indirect speech in Danish. In: F. Coulmas ed. Direct and indirect speech. 219-254. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1986
  • Mey, Jacob L., When Voices Clash. A Study in Literary Pragmatics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2000.
  • Prince, Gerald, Dictionary of Narratology
  • Stevenson, Randall, Modernist Fiction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992.
  • Wood, James, How Fiction Works. New York: Picador, 2009.
  • Ron, Moshe, "Free Indirect Discourse, Mimetic Language Games and the Subject of Fiction", Poetics Today, Vol. 2, No. 2, Narratology III: Narration and Perspective in Fiction (Winter, 1981), pp. 17-39
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