Saturday, March 14, 2009

Jane Austen's "Free Indirect Discourse"?

Steventon Rectory
Home of Austen and Undirected, Free Discourse
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I asked about Jane Austen's use of quotation marks with the third person, and Professor Julie Choi of Ewha Womans University posted a comment connecting this practice by Austen to something that the literary theorists call "Free Indirect Discourse":
There is a good reason for this phenomeon which literary critics call "free indirect discourse" or FID for short. The third-person framework is maintained as well as the past tense, but the diction and idioms are those that would have been used in the first person by the individual speakers. This style is a mix between direct and indirect quotation and has the benefit of creating the illusion of transparent transcription of a third-person subjectivity simply lifted from his/her thoughts or speech. The reader can get a very good feel for the "mind" of the character in a very elegant and economic mode of narration that does not rely on lengthy explanation on the part of the narrator about the shortcomings, etc. of the character in question. It is this style that is the basis for Austen's fame as such a great novelist, knowing, penetrating, ironic, sympathetic, etc.
Unclear to me, however, was why Austen uses quotation marks, as though she were quoting, so I asked Julie by email, and she replied: "more often than not quotation marks are not used, and hence the free . . . a kind of unmarked entrance and exit out of other people's minds as it were."

That helps my understanding of what is meant by the "free" in "Free Indirect Discourse" but lessens my understanding for why the terminology applies to the 'quoted' sort, and in fact, this sort with quotation marks seems to be a transitional practice by Austen, for I found that Andrew Macdonald, in Jane Austen on Screen, says this:
Still another technique involves taking advantage of Austen's mature style, in which narrative slides into and out of different characters' perspectives. The most obvious way in which Austen blurs the distinction between narrative and dialogue occurs when she casts a character's words into the third person -- as indirect speech -- but places quotation marks around the words, as if they represented direct speech. Such passages can very easily be retransposed into a character's direct speech, as is Mrs. Norris's self-congratulatory pronouncement on the adoption of Fanny: it appears in the text as "The trouble and expense of it to them, would be nothing compared with the benevolence of the action" (I.i) and in the screenplay, condensed but in the first person, as "The burden will be as nothing to our benevolence."

However, Austen has a more complex method of blurring the distinction between narrative and dialogue, much discussed among her critics, and nicely exploited here: the technique most frequently described as "free indirect discourse." Through this technique, what may seem at first to be objective third-person narrative, especially in Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion (to a lesser extent), often proves to be actually one character's view or words -- particularly Emma's, of course, in that novel. Without any punctuation, the omniscient narrator of Mansfield Park in the very first chapter slides into the words of Mrs. Price's despondent letter to Mansfield, into a condensed version of Sir Thomas's deliberate objections to adopting Fanny, and into Mrs. Norris's deft evasion of Sir Thomas's notion that Fanny will reside with her. Such passages are always written in the third person, but they do not include quotation marks: it is up to the reader to determine the point of slippage from omniscient reportage to biased account. (Andrew Macdonald, Jane Austen on Screen, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pages 77-78)
The allusions to various literary figures will make sense only to those familiar with Austen's novels, but the point is clear enough, i.e., "Austen [sometimes] blurs the distinction between narrative and dialogue . . . when she casts a character's words into the third person -- as indirect speech -- but places quotation marks around the words, as if they represented direct speech."

Some scholars side with Julie in apparently considering this to be a type of "Free Indirect Discourse" (or so a bit of Googling reveals), but some apparently do not (possibly because it's not 'free' of quotation marks). At any rate, the technique is well-known and possibly well-understood (even if I don't quite understand it).

I therefore have nothing more to add at the moment (but see questions raised by Kate Marie and Eshuneutics).

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