Blog Post

Free indirect style was so simple. He'd have to say something about it. How simple it was. Have to argue against Blakey's view.

I've been thinking a bunch about free indirect style -- I may try to incorporate this issue into a short talk I'm giving in April. Or not.

But here's what I've been thinking about: the relation of free indirect style to a hierarchy that I think is of very great importance in fictional (or fictionalized) interactions. The hierarchy is this: in most narratives of any interest there's an inequality in how well characters understand each other -- how well they get each other's intentions, motivations, secrets, beliefs about themselves, beliefs about others, beliefs about how well others can understand them, etc.

I think the hierarchy is most clear cut in standard detective novels. Let's take a very obvious template, with a clear cut detective hero, say Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. Then we could list the hierarchy of characters more or less like this, from most insightful to least:

Villain or mastermind
Hastings, minions of the villain
police chief

Obviously there's some reasonable shuffling that can occur. The victim may in fact be someone who's figured out the villain's nefarious plot and must be silent. This would place her somewhere around the level of the villain, probably just below (she's killed) but possibly just above (she saw through him, but not quite fast enough). But leave that variation out, and just consider the most obvious ordering.

Now we can add opinions to that ordering, which I'll do with > signs. Each sign indicates who the character imagines, rightly or wrongly, is just below him or her on the hierarchy, again in some obvious way:

Poirot > mastermind
mastermind > Poirot
minions > police chief
police chief > Poirot
witnesses > minions
victim > mastermind

I don't insist on this ranking. It's illustrative more than firm. Now we still have to add the central figures of narrator (in third person narratives) and narratee, and here things get really hard. Still a reasonable possible ordering at the top looks like this:

Omniscient narrator, Miss Marple (same level)
mastermind, narratee (same level)

The second line is the most interesting, because the narratee has it over the mastermind in knowing that the detective will win; but the mastermind has it over the narratee in acting in a way the narratee doesn't understand but knows the detective will understand.  (The narratee is the detective's minion.)  On the other hand the mastermind doesn't know the narratee exists, so that's one place where the narratee knows more. Of course the mastermind would want to know that the narratee exists: that would be very useful knowledge likely to dissuade him or her from the crime ("oh no, I'm the ultimate loser in a detective fiction!") Whereas the detective (in a third person narrative and probably in most first person narratives) is essentially indifferent to the narratee's existence.

It's this last fact that brings us back to free indirect discourse. Most free indirect discourse is not indifferent to the narratee. Let's follow Blakey Vermeule and see it as ironic: here's what the character is thinking, which is partial, hence less than what we ourselves may know from the perspective we take in knowing that it's free indirect discourse. Free indirect discourse might be initially defined as how the character would be narrating his own story on the fly, from a third person perspective. ("Here's the World War I fighter ace searching for the Red Baron.") Since it shows the more or less failed attempt of a character to affect narrative omniscience, it delineates that character's foibles and weaknesses and blind spots. Narrative omniscience is total (God can't know more about a fictional narrative than its omniscient narrator does), but free indirect discourse represents the character (fairly or not) as deceiving himself into a complacent belief in his own omniscience. (Let me add: belief in omniscience about himself if not about others; in his authority over an accurate description of his own actions and thoughts.)

What ironizes this is the fact that free indirect discourse generally shows the character (fairly or not) caring about how he comes off. Because he wants to come off the way he does come off, it shows how he wants to come off, which does most of the work of delineating him. (Like goofy clothes: the fact that someone thinks they look good in that shows how goofy they are. Or goofy political representation: the fact that someone wants to be represented by Michelle Bachman shows how goofy they are.)  There is nothing wrong with this: Leonard Michaels, in his great story "I Would Have Saved Them If I Could" suggests of a moment of preciosity in Byron (in the letter whence Michaels takes his title) that caring how you come off is a social virtue (therefore a virtue tout court, as Hume argues), a tribute to the world of others, the world at large: "by attitudinizing, it suggests that it sees itself."

One way, then, that free indirect discourse can help in the essential task of hierarchizing characters is simply through being present or absent. When some but not all major characters are represented through free indirect discourse, those who are tend to be ranked below those who aren't. Since generally only one character can be represented by free indirect discourse at a time, the very fact of free indirect discourse also prompts us either to ascribe a little self-consciousness and awkwardness to the character, with respect to the opaque figures that surround her, or perhaps to volunteer the embarrassment she doesn't quite feel at being an open book to us.

This is a very important feature of narrative, because it allows for changes in the hierarchy, which any narrative more interesting than a detective story must manage. What makes any fiction deep, in the end, is characters switching places in the ordered list. (We could call this moral learning, maybe, in an older vocabulary, one that risks piety.) Isabel Archer starts out the toy of Mrs. Touchett, of Madam Merle, of Osmond. We see her point of view but not theirs. In the end she thinks her way past them, and James's narrator can barely keep up. Indeed he doesn't quite keep up, and Isabel's grandeur is in her opacity. The same is true of Milly Theale: it's her point of view for half the book, and then she figures it all out and becomes inaccessible. Adam Verver plays a similar role in The Golden Bowl.

I'll get back to The Golden Bowl in a minute. But first consider the trade-off of free indirect narration in Zora Neale Hurston's story "The Gilded Six Bits." There the characters whose emotional lives matter to us are Joe and Missy May. We alternate between a free indirect presentation of her point of view and his, and this alternation is motivated by series of shifts in who is subordinate to whom. These shifts have the effect, not of ironizing a character's view of the world, but of underscoring his or her anxiety about the opacity of the other character. Anxiety sues for comfort and love; opacity withholds or grants that comfort, that love, but it is the nature of anxiety that it can never know whether when opacity seems to offer love it does so whole-heartedly or ironically. Thus the character whose point of view is given in free indirect style is indeed open to ironization (as Vermeule argues), but conscious awareness of the possibility of that irony is in fact the source of anxiety. The happy ending of the story comes when we shift back to Joe's point of view. The Adam Verver character in the story is his mother: who shall know where her thought ends? We never get her point of view, only the judgment she declares, but whether she's speaking her mind or hiding it we never know. What matters though is that a sort of leap-frogging game of free indirect style has several times altered the hierarchy of who's figured whom out, and the two main characters return to a mutuality of understanding. (At the opposite extreme from the mother is the utterly clueless white shopkeeper: he and Joe's mother frame the reconciled couple from below and from above.)

Back to Adam Verver: I think he has to play the role of maximum opacity because James is doing something else in The Golden Bowl too, something part of his radical experimentation in his last three novels. He gives us free indirect discourse without a superseding superiority on our part. If Adam Verver is inaccessible, this doesn't prevent us from having full access, through free indirect style, to the mind of the character who keeps up with him no matter where he is: Maggie. And however her good will is ironized in our first encounter with her point of view (which is not at all the case with Isabel Archer or with Lambert Strether, but is with Millie Theale) we follow her as she manages to think her way past the Prince and past Charlotte Verver. As I say, we don't quite do this with Isabel -- we finally have to go to poor Goodwood for our last glimpse of her. We do do this with Lambert Strether too, however (and with Merton Densher).

The point here is that James is giving us a version of free indirect discourse which in no way derogates from the intelligent insight of the person thus presented. Verver stands for the opacity usually superior to the "transparent minds" (Dorrit Cohn) of free indirect style. But in this case he is not superior. He is at best her equal (as Amerigo too can perhaps rise with great difficulty and awe to her level), but it is she who defines the level which Adam might or might not achieve.

In The Ambassadors we could note that Lambert imagines himself Chad's inferior, but finds that this is not so: despite and because of the fact that we never get Chad's point of view. Again, as with "The Gilded Six Bits," the point is that both narrative and moral movement occur when the hierarchy shifts.

James and Hurston (and Woolf and earlier George Eliot and Thackeray and Flaubert, to say nothing of the use of the mode in naturalist novelists, preeminently Zola, Norris and Dreiser, and also Cather) might be said to be finding a novel use for the older mode.

I suspect, but this isn't something I know enough about yet, that the mode began in cruel or teasing first person accounts of victims. It's the sort of ironically sympathetic way Lovelace represents Clarissa, or jokey way (picked up from Richardson) that Julie will sometimes make fun of her cousin Claire. Stendahl's ironies are similarly jokey or angry. The later use is surprising because of the way its subjects transcend and show up the ironic point of view: that's the whole point of practically every third person Henry James novel.

I would say that in these cases you get free indirect discourse without its usual element of narrative desire, of the desire to be represented that way. Since there's no desire, there's nothing to make fun of.

And this leads to a further interesting category, the one I started this post wanting to mention: the apparently not-quite-self-consistent idea of first person free indirect style. I think there are two ways that this may be pulled off. There is, first of all, the present tense mode of a lot of contemporary fiction. The point there is that we get narrative experience as it's happening, and the difference between narrator and character, between the world in which the written account of the story exists and the world in which the narrated events take place (which I've considered before) is maximalized. Present tense narration just is how the character would imagine the play-by-play of her life, but the irony is problematized by the fact that it's in the intentional, explicitly communicative first person mode, not the wishful, imagined third.

The other category, one that gets us very deep into the relation of thought and knowledge, can be seen most clearly, I think, in certain detective stories, like Elmore Leonard's. Here we get third person free indirect discourse, but we still don't know what the detective-character is thinking. As Wittgenstein says, looking into her mind, reading the words and sentences there, doesn't tell us what she's really thinking about. So the detective can be noticing all sorts of things, and we with her, and then suddenly reveal to us that she's been thinking and figuring out the truth without our knowing it. Reading her mind told us nothing.

Or here's a tonier example of what I mean. In Jacob's Room Jacob has been talking to his friend Bonamy --"I rather suspect you're talking rot, Bonamy. In spite of what you say, poor old Tennyson..." -- while thinking parenthetically ("I'm twenty-two. It's nearly the end of October. Life is thoroughly pleasant, although unfortunately there are a great many fools about"), but then the Narrator, or whatever agency you would call her, intervenes:

But though all this may very well be true--so Jacob thought and spoke--so he crossed his legs--filled his pipe--sipped his whisky, and once looked at his pocket-book, rumpling his hair as he did so, there remains over something which can never be conveyed to a second person save by Jacob himself.

And here's Wittgenstein:

Then I thought: I wonder whether he'll come.

"You wore such a doubtful expression; what were you thinking?"--"I was thinking: I wonder whether he'll come--".---"Did you then speak these words, or ones like them, to yourself?"--"No. Strangely enough I was thinking of the Piccolomini [the play by Schiller], of the scene in which...."

I guess the really interesting thing here, and one of Woolf's moral intuitions, is that knowing what other people are thinking -- "so Jacob thought" -- is easy (LW: "I can know what you are thinking, but I cannot know what I am thinking"); but giving them full credit as human beings requires that we know that they're not just objects of our own analysis or telepathy or narrative access, but that they are people who can only be known by talking with them as equals.

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).