A Short Introduction to Free Indirect Style

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Free indirect style, alternatively known as free indirect speech or free indirect discourse, is a narrative style which requires some explanation and unpicking, since it is subtle and sometimes difficult to spot in a work of fiction. However, it is one of the most powerful tools a writer possesses, and has been used to great effect by writers as diverse as Jane Austen, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence.

What Is Free Indirect Style?

What is free indirect style (free indirect speech/free indirect discourse)? Put simply, free indirect style is when the voice of a third-person narrator takes on the style and ‘voice’ of one of the characters within the story or novel. It is, if you will, as if a detached third-person narrator has begun to turn into a first-person narrator, i.e. one of the characters within the story (or novel). The objectivity and detachment we associate with third-person narrators dissolves into the subjective and personal style of a character.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example.

Imagine we have a story narrated in the third person. In this particular scene, the protagonist, Bob, is watching his cat, Dribbles, who is meowing urgently at him. A conventional third-person narrator might ‘report’ or narrate this as follows:

Bob looked at his cat, Dribbles, who was meowing at him. He wondered what the cat wanted.

This second sentence, ‘He wondered what the cat wanted’, is a simple statement or summary of Bob’s thought. We might report this slightly differently, as follows:

Bob looked at his cat, Dribbles, who was meowing at him. What does the cat want? he wondered.

Here, in that second sentence, rather than simply summarising Bob’s thought, we have it framed as the question Bob would have ‘asked’ to himself, in his mind. We know this is Bob’s thought because we have the helpful tag provided: ‘he wondered’. But what if we removed that tag, so that the thought was, as it were, floating free of the narrator?

Bob looked at his cat, Dribbles, who was meowing at him. What did the cat want?

This has now become free indirect style, because that helpful tag, a kind of ‘stabiliser’ which makes it explicit to the reader that what we are reading is Bob’s thought rather than the narrator’s question, has been removed. Instead, we’re left in some doubt (though not too much) as to whose question that is. Is the narrator still speaking in his/her own words, or has the narrator’s voice been co-opted by the character, Bob? Is the narrator now ventriloquising Bob’s inner monologue?

This would be even clearer if the phrasing of that second question made it obvious that the rational, detached voice of the third-person narrator had given way to something more subjective and personal. What if we allowed a little more of Bob’s thoughts and feelings to show in that question?

Bob looked at his cat, Dribbles, who was meowing at him. What on earth did the thing want now?

As mentioned before, third-person narrators tend to be (though not always, it’s true) rational, detached, objective. They report what happened in the story, and tend not to pass personal judgments on people’s cats. It would be a weird kind of third-person narrator who suddenly described Bob’s cat as a ‘thing’ rather than a creature or animal, and the rather frustrated tone of the question (‘What on earth…’) sounds like Bob’s impatience rather than the narrator’s.

Here, then, we have moved from the detached reporting of the third-person narrator in the first sentence (‘Bob looked at his cat’) to the altogether more personal thoughts and feelings of Bob (‘What on earth did the thing want now?’), and Bob’s thoughts and feelings are being given to us in his own words. The narrator isn’t merely summarising Bob’s thoughts (‘What did the cat want? he wondered’), but is relaying Bob’s state of mind to us in the precise words that Bob is using in his own head.

This, in essence, is the nature of free indirect style.

Why Use Free Indirect Style?

This provides a clue to the purpose of free indirect speech: it can bring us closer to the character, and it can even give us a clearer sense of their personality. We know from that simple sentence quoted above that Bob is frustrated at his cat; perhaps he is not especially fond of the animal (‘the thing’ strips poor Dribbles of his animate qualities, rendering him an object rather than a living creature; and who on earth calls their poor cat ‘Dribbles’ anyway?), and perhaps he is not an altogether nice person.

Perhaps he is a good man, but we’ve merely caught him in a moment of frustration. The rest of the narrative will probably allow us to form a firmer judgment about him.

Let’s turn from a made-up illustrative example of free indirect discourse to some examples of the real thing, taken from proper writers who’ve actually written works of literature and such. First, consider this example, the opening paragraphs from Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘Bliss’ (1918):

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply.

What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss! – as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe? …

Oh, is there no way you can express it without being ‘drunk and disorderly’? How idiotic civilisation is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?

One of the easiest ways of spotting free indirect style in a work of fiction is the use of questions and exclamations. So-called ‘omniscient’ third-person narrators, as the word ‘omniscient’ indicates, are supposed to know everything, so they have little use for questions (although it’s true they may use rhetorical questions occasionally).

Exclamations, similarly, can sound too emotional, and therefore not in keeping with the usually dry, detached, level-headed ‘voice’ of an impersonal third-person narrator.

We can see from the excerpt above that although the narrative voice begins with conventional reporting (‘Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk’), it quickly begins to take on the ‘feel’ and sound of a different person’s idiom: Bertha’s own:

What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss! – as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?

Here questions and exclamations suggest that we are reading, not the words of the narrator, but the thoughts and opinions of Bertha, which are being channelled through the narrator. But the narrator is not going to ‘tidy’ these up for us by saying, for instance, ‘Bertha thought of how wonderful it was to be overcome by a feeling of absolute bliss. She reflected that it was like suddenly swallowing a bright piece of late afternoon sun…’).

Instead, the narrator is going to pass on Bertha’s thoughts to us – a little messy, repetitive, verging on being out of control – as they tumble into her head, unfiltered, unedited. That’s free indirect speech.

Free Indirect Style: a case study

Free indirect style can sometimes be put to even greater use by a writer – indeed, it can change our entire interpretation of the story. Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘Mary Postgate’ (1915), written during the First World War, focuses on a woman who works as a servant for a family in England. The son, Wynn – whom, we gather, Mary Postgate secretly loves – signs up and goes off to train with the army, but before he can see any action he is killed in a practice flight. Mary is distraught.

When an airman crash-lands in the family’s garden, Mary is the first on the scene, as she is out there burning Wynn’s books and other belongings. Seeing that the man who has crashed is a German pilot and therefore the enemy, Mary decides to deny him medical treatment and instead watch him slowly die of his injuries. This is how Kipling describes the scene:

By its light she saw, half hidden behind a laurel not five paces away, a bare-headed man sitting very stiffly at the foot of one of the oaks. A broken branch lay across his lap — one booted leg protruding from beneath it. His head moved ceaselessly from side to side, but his body was as still as the tree’s trunk. He was dressed — she moved sideways to look more closely – in a uniform something like Wynn’s with a flap buttoned across the chest. For an instant she had some idea that it might be one of the young flying men she had met at the funeral. But their heads were dark and glassy. This man’s was as pale as a baby’s, and so closely cropped that she could see the disgusting pink skin beneath. His lips moved.

‘What do you say?’ Mary moved towards him and stooped.

‘Laty! Laty! Laty!’ he muttered, while his hands picked at the dead wet leaves. There was no doubt as to his nationality. It made her so angry that she strode back to the destructor, though it was still too hot to use the poker there. Wynn’s books seemed to be catching well.

Of course, there is a question mark hanging over Mary’s actions. Is letting the man die in agony the moral thing to do, even though he’s the enemy? Wouldn’t it be morally right to fetch the authorities and have the man treated so he can stand trial or be dealt with by the British army?

But there is another doubt here. Is the man even the enemy?

At no point in the story does the third-person narrator tell us in a reliable voice that the airman is German. He speaks with a foreign accent, but then that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s German: he might be French and therefore an ally of the British. How good is Mary Postgate at distinguishing between foreign accents?

Note how this strange airman is wearing ‘a uniform something like Wynn’s’ (suggesting he’s on the same side, after all?) and that she initially assumes he is one of Wynn’s fellow British soldiers (again, implying that this man is no German but on ‘Mary’s’ side).

And then there is the masterstroke, that piece of free indirect discourse: ‘“Laty! Laty! Laty!” he muttered, while his hands picked at the dead wet leaves. There was no doubt as to his nationality.’

But sufficient doubt has already been cast on his nationality, so we assume that this is Mary’s pronouncement rather than the narrator’s. And she is wrong. The airman may well be German, but it is not true that there is no doubt about it. We have just been given several insinuations that his nationality is very much in some doubt. Mary’s certainty is deadly, but the irony of it can easily be missed by a reader of Kipling’s story.

I suspect that was his intention: ‘Mary Postgate’ can thus be read as a patriotic story about a woman who exacts revenge on the German enemy, or a subtler, more morally ambiguous tale about a woman who condemns a possibly innocent man to death. And much of this ambiguity is created thanks to the role played by free indirect speech in the story.

The problem here – we say ‘problem’ but of course it’s quite deliberate on the part of Kipling, and part of the ingenuity of his handling of narration here – is that the story is heavily focalised through Mary’s eyes.

Focalisation is, essentially, another name for ‘point of view’: it relates to whose eyes we see the story through, and how closely the narrator ‘follows’ that character, at the expense of the bigger, more objective picture. (A good example here is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or ‘Game of Thrones’: each chapter is focalised in a very limited way through one specific character, so we learn what they learn and see what they see, but don’t learn something if that character misses it.)

In summary, then, to conclude this short(ish) introduction to free indirect style: free indirect speech can be used to bring us closer to a character through giving us an insight into not just what they’re thinking, but how they think it.

But free indirect discourse can be difficult to identify and analyse, because it can sometimes be difficult to identify where the narrator’s words end and the character’s interior monologue begins. But therein lies its power.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

10 thoughts on “A Short Introduction to Free Indirect Style”

  1. I don’t think Kipling intended the identity of the dying man to be ambiguous. He has already been introduced as the pilot of the German plane who jettisoned his bombs over the village and killed a child. Mary tells him “‘Ich haben der todt Kinder gesehn,” although her real motive is clearly that she was in love with the son of the house who died before he could kill the enemy for himself, (he too would have been a pilot, an irony which Kipling actually misses).

    • Is the dying man really the same man as the pilot, though? Or is this what we’re led to assume, following the story, as we are, very closely through Mary’s eyes (and inflected by her strong feelings for Wyn and her grief at his death)? I’m not sure…


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