Direct, Indirect and Free Indirect Discourse


1. DIRECT DISCOURSE is the report of words actually used. Quotation marks enclose the words spoken. Example from Austen’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY (9):

"'It was my father's last request to me,' replied her husband, 'that I should assist his widow and daughters.'
'He did not know what he was talking of, I dar say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give awayhalf your fortune from your own child.'"

2.INDIRECT DISCOURSE is the indirect report of words or thoughts -- without quotation marks. Example from SENSE & SENSIBILITY (20):

"No sooner was her answer dispatched, than Mrs. Dashwood indulged herself in the pleasure of announcing to her son-in-law and his wife that she was provided with an house, and should incommode them no longer, than till every thing were ready for her inhabiting it. Mrs. John Dashwood said nothing; but her husband civilly hoped that she would not be settled far from Norland."

FFREE INDIRECT DISCOURSE is a style of third-person narration that easily slips into reporting the actual point of view, speech, thought, or feelings of characters but without quotation marks. At times, it’s difficult to separate the narrator’s “voice” from the “voice” of the character. See example below from S&S, p. 21:

"Mr. John Dashwood told his mother again and again how exceedingly sorry he was that she had taken an house at such a distance from Norland as to prevent his being of any service to her in removing her furniture. He really felt conscientiously vexed on the occasion; for the very exertion to which he had limited the performance of his promise to his father was by this arrangement rendered impracticable."

This technique often creates sympathy for characters (through revelation of the details of their thinking and feeling), but it isn’t linked necessarily to sympathy and can be used to expose characters through their own thinking (as here with Mr. John Dashwood).

Free indirect discourse allows a writer both to maintain the “public,” “objective” stance of the 3rd-person narrator and to create a sense of the interior life of characters. Austen’s narration is always firmly located in the social world. Free indirect discourse allows her to maintain that social point of view and at the same time give the reader glimpses of the psychological “reality” of her characters. Gaining access to her characters’ interior experience does not cause readers to lose the socially-grounded (socially-defined) context in which they “exist.”