Monday 3 November 2008

Research Bulletin: Free Indirect Style

The term style indirect libre was first published about a hundred years ago, although the style itself was introduced into fiction a hundred years before that. It is a form in which a thought seems to float free of narrator or fictional character. An informative reference is Banfield (1993). Here is an excerpt about the style that we have written (Oatley & Djikic, 2008, p. 19).
Lodge (2002) says, “most novelists today would probably not recognize [the term 'free indirect style']” (p. 45), but the style has become widespread. Lodge describes it as giving the reader access to a character’s consciousness. The example he offers is from Jane Austen’s Emma (1816/2003) in which the protagonist’s attempts to match-make for her friend Harriet bring about, instead, a proposal of marriage to Emma herself: “The hair was curled, and the maid sent away, and Emma sat down to think and be miserable.—It was a wretched business …” (p. 106). If a writer were to express the last part of this in a first-person narrative such as a letter, it might be rendered: “I sat down and thought: ‘It is a wretched business.’” At its most typical, free indirect style dispenses with quotation marks, transposes the present tense of direct speech into past tense, and changes first person into third person (cf. Banfield, 1993). The effect is that: “We overhear Emma’s thoughts,” and because some sentences lack main verbs, there occurs a “further blurring [of] the distinction between author’s voice and character’s voice” (Lodge, p. 48).
Do ordinary readers experience this style as distinctive? An approach to this question was made by Violeta Sotirova (2006). She found a passage in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and lovers (p. 342) with the following in free indirect style.
Miriam shuddered. She drew him to her; she pressed him to her bosom; she kissed him and kissed him. He submitted, but it was torture. She could not kiss his agony. That remained alone and apart. She kissed his face, and roused his blood, while his soul was apart, writhing with the agony of death. And she kissed him and fingered his body, till at last, feeling he would go mad, he got away from her. It was not that he wanted just then—not that. And she thought she had soothed him and done him good.
Sotirova gave her participants this passage, divided into eleven parts (sentences or clauses). Her research question was whether each part could have just one perspective or more than one. She found that, when she asked participants to say for each part whether the perspective was of the Narrator, or Miriam, or "him" (Paul), or more than one of these, they sometimes designated parts as having multiple perspectives. For instance the first sentence was read by 14 of Sotirova's participants as from the narrator's perspective, by 37 as from Miriam's, and by 22 as from both.

We (Maja Djikic and I) would like to go further with this idea. In the hands of some writers, Jane Austen being an example, free indirect style sometimes achieves three-way ambiguity: a thought can be the narrator's, a character's, and also the reader's.

Jane Austen (2003). Emma. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Original work published 1816).

Ann Banfield (1993). Where epistemology, style, and grammar meet literary history: the development of represented speech and thought. In J. A. Lucy (Ed.), Reflexive language: Reported speech and metapragmatics (pp. 339-364). New York: Cambridge University Press.

D. H. Lawrence (1944). Sons and lovers. London: Heinemann (Original work published 1913).

David Lodge (2002). Consciousness and the novel. In D. Lodge (Ed.), Consciousness and the novel (pp. 1-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Keith Oatley & Maja Djikic (2008). Writing as thinking. Review of General Psychology, 12, 9-27.

Violeta Sotirova (2006). Reader responses to narrative point of view. Poetics, 34, 108-133.


Muckefuck said...

I would appreciate a more expansive article on the topic of free indirect style.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks, Samuel, for this request. I think the issue of free indirect style is interesting, and I'll consider writing a longer piece about it. Can you tell me what particular issues, or aspects, you are concerned with?

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