What is Free Indirect Discourse (FID)?

One of the goals of our project is to challenge top-down, a priori critical understandings of free indirect discourse by “crowdsourcing” the question and deriving a fresh definition by analyzing the actual reading practices of human readers. But to challenge exsting definitions, you need first to understand them. What follows is a summary of how FID is normally defined and understood, ending with some reflections on the ethics of FID.

Defining FID

FID is a narrative device for introducing character speech or thought. While FID is difficult to grasp, it is perhaps most easily understood by comparing it to the two other most common methods that narrators use to render characters’ words in fiction: direct discourse and indirect discourse.

In The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, H. Porter Abbott defines direct discourse as follows:

The direct expression of a character’s speech or thought. Often, but not always, enclosed in quotation marks; and often, but not always, introduced by statements like “she thought” or “he said.” (231)

For the purposes of our examples (modified from Abbott’s own, adding some illustrative profanity), let’s imagine a character in a novel whose name is Marta. Marta is in an extremely foul mood: it is a very hot day, and for some reason she finds herself moving stones in her garden. Her actual, direct thoughts as she moves the stones around are the following: “What the hell am I doing lugging around these heavy goddamned stones on a scorcher like this?”

A passage employing direct discourse might render this scene as follows, giving Marta’s exact thoughts in her own words:

It was a hot day. Marta wondered to herself, “What the hell am I doing lugging around these heavy goddamned stones on a scorcher like this?”

Note the function that quotation marks play in direct discourse, clearly and neatly indicating the boundaries of the narrator’s and the character’s speech.

Indirect discourse provides another way of introducing Marta’s thoughts. Abbott defines it as follows:

The speech or thinking of a character rendered in the narrator’s own words. While it is not as common as directly reported speech, in most novels this is the commonest way of rendering a character’s thoughts. (235)

With indirect discourse, the narrator paraphrases the character’s words; rather than giving these words exactly as they are, the narrator rewrites them in his or her own language. Direct discourse is called direct because you’re told what’s happening from someone actually experiencing it—right from the horse’s mouth. Indirect discourse is called indirect because you’re told what’s happening from someone who isn’t actually there, and is narrating the scene by interpreting the words of someone else, who was there. Suppose, in our previous example, that our narrator is not nearly as foul-mouthed as the character Marta. The narrator might choose to employ indirect discourse, and to render the scene in the following less profane manner:

It was a hot day. Marta asked herself why she should be carrying such abominably heavy stones on a day of such excessive heat.

In this passage, we get the general gist of what Marta is thinking, but are not given the actual words she uses in her thought process. Whereas direct discourse gives us Marta’s thought in their “pure” state, indirect gives them to us heavily filtered through the consciousness of the narrator.

One way of looking as FID is as a mixture of direct discourse and indirect discourse.* Like direct discourse, it gives you some of the character’s actual words—in this case, some of Marta’s profanity. And like indirect discourse, the speech is also filtered through the perspective of the narrator—it takes on some inescapably narrator-like, indirect traits like the past tense and use of third-person pronouns

Abbott defines FID as follows: **

Third-person narration in which a character’s thoughts or expressions are presented in the character’s voice without being set off by quotation marks or the usual addition of phrases like “he thought” or “she said” and without shifting into grammatical first-person discourse. (234)

Our scene rendered in FID might look something like this:

It was a hot day. What the hell was she doing lugging around those heavy goddamned rocks on such a scorcher?

Here, you get many of Marta’s distinctive speech patterns (the swearing, the use of the informal verb “lugging,” the term “scorcher”). But the fact that Marta's words are rendered in the third person and in the past tense testify to the “filtering” presence of the narrator—since Marta herself was thinking in the present tense and using first-person pronouns, we’re definitely not being given her words in their “pure” state. The absence of quotation marks leaves us uncertain, however, exactly where Marta’s words end and those of the narrator begin.

FID is thus a kind of hybrid: neither an entirely pure rendering or Marta’s thoughts nor a completely opaque rewording of them, it’s somewhere in between, mixing Marta’s way of thinking and speaking with those of the narrator—without telling us exactly where this mixing occurs, or in what proportion.

FID and the Ethics of Inbetweeness

“Inbetweenness” is one of the absolutely crucial aspects of FID, and one of the main reasons it was such an attractive device to a writer like Woolf. M. H. Abrams captures this quality beautifully in his definition from Glossary of Literary Terms:

[FID] refers to the way, in many narratives, that the reports of what a character says and thinks shift in pronouns, adverbs, and grammatical mode, as we move—or sometimes hover—between the direct narrated reproductions of these events as they occur to the character and the indirect representation of such events by the narrator. (169)

As Abrams says, in FID we often hover uncertainly between the perspective of the character and that of the narrator. One of the most fascinating things about FID is that it’s generally impossible to know for sure exactly to whom particular words belong. For Kathy Mezei, the “undecidability inherent in the structure of FID”—what she calls its “structural indeterminacy”—has important ethical and political consequences. “Its indeterminacy of voice,” she writes, “breaks down any rigid ‘betweenness’ or categoric polarization of author, narrator, and character; as a rhetorical figure it mediates between, through, and across voices seeking to be heard” (67). Breaking down the term FID into its three component words, “free” “indirect” and “discourse,” she elaborates as follows:

“Free” indicates that the narrator has delegated a certain authority and equality to the character and has deliberately repressed overt markers of his or her control. Imagine FID as an expression of the character’s bid for freedom from the controlling narrator rather like the gingerbread man gleefully escaping from his creator. […] “Indirect” is significant because it implies the indeterminacy of this discourse, an “indirect” discourse into which the reader must insert him/herself and try to determine the positions of narrator and character-focalizer. It points to what is not fixed or determined or directed, privileging subtlety and uncertainty. […] “Discourse” is significant because it embraces both form and content, both speech and writing; it includes monologue, dialogue, dialect. (68)

While it might seem hyperbolic to read so much in to a simple narrative device, there is little doubt that Woolf chose FID for reasons very much like those described by Mezei: because of its uncertainty and undecidability; because it blurs the hierarchical lines between author, narrator, and character; and because it encourages the reader to become more active in the production of meaning.

These traits, in fact, are precisely what made FID so attractive to modernist writers.

—Adam Hammond

Having come this far, you may wish to continue by reading our essay “FID and the Politics of Modernist Dialogism.”


* Indeed, this is the oldest way of conceptualizing FID. Adolph Tobler, who “discovered” FID in the late 19th century initially described it as a “peculiar mixture of direct and indirect speech” (1897; qtd. in Pechey 208.)

** While much has been made of “omission of the reporting verb” in definitions of FID, you’ll notice that in my reading of To the Lighthouse, I often mark as FID passages in which the narrator does use phrases like “she thought.” It seems to me that Woolf mixes and blends the voices of the character and the narrator even in sentences that use such phrases. And whenever I’m not sure whether a given word belongs to the narrator or a character (which is one of my own definitions of FID), I tend to mark that passage as FID.

Works Cited

Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edn. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.

Mezei, Kathy. “Who is Speaking Here? Free Indirect Discourse, Gender, and Authority in Emma, Howards End, and Mrs. Dalloway.” Ambiguous Discourse: Feminist Narratology & British Women Writers. Ed. Kathy Mezei. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1996. 66-92.

Pechey, Graham. Mikhail Bakhtin: the Word in the World. London: Routledge, 2007.