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 discours indirect libre in French.)


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 is 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 exclamation marks can be used that cannot be normally used within a subordinate clause.


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?

Usage in literature

Roy Pascal cites Goethe and Jane Austen as the first novelists to use this style consistently.[1] He says the nineteenth century French novelist Flaubert was the first to be consciously 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, is perhaps most famous in the works of Franz Kafka, blurring the subject's first-person experiences with a grammatically third-person narrative perspective.

English and Irish literature

As stated above, Austen was one of its first practitioners. The Irish author James Joyce is also renowned for invoking the method in works such as "The Dead" (see Dubliners), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Much of Virginia Woolf's novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway rely on free indirect discourse to take us into the minds of her characters.

Some argue that free indirect discourse was also used by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.[2] 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.

Further reading

Prince, Gerald. Dictionary of Narratology


  1. ^ Roy Pascal, "The Dual Voice", Manchester University Press, 1977, page 34
  2. ^ E.g. Helen Phillips, An introduction to the Canterbury tales, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000

External links

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