FID and the Politics of Modernist Dialogism:
Auerbach, Bakhtin, Woolf

Modernist writers were not the first to use free indirect discourse (FID); Jane Austen was using it in the early nineteenth century, for example. If they did not invent it, however, they did discover it. Like a previously unknown species of bird, Austen’s use of the device existed in the wild long before it became known to science — Roy Pascal argues that while she was among the first to use FID, the modernist Flaubert was probably the first to use it consciously. Modernists were thus the first to name FID: Adolph Tobler began the modernist FID-naming mania in 1892 with his clumsy offering, “peculiar mixture of direct and indirect speech,” and as many as seventeen other terms appeared in the period.* As well, modernists were certainly the first to theorize the significance of FID. 

Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis

To my mind, the best — the most stirring, and indeed the most beautiful — modernist account of FID belongs to Erich Auerbach. It comes in the last chapter of his great work Mimesis (1946 tr. 1953), where he performs a brilliant close reading of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Our website is named after this chapter, “The Brown Stocking.”

Auerbach begins the chapter by analyzing a particularly baffling passage from early in the novel. It comes in the midst of the scene in which Mrs. Ramsay is measuring a stocking against her son James’s leg.

Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this was and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad. (I:5)

Auerbach, puzzled, asks,

Who is speaking in this paragraph? Who is looking at Mrs. Ramsay here, who concludes that never did anybody look so sad? Who is expressing these doubtful, obscure suppositions? — about the tear which — perhaps — forms and falls in the dark, about the water swaying this way at that, receiving it, and then returning to rest? There is no one near the window in the room but Mrs. Ramsay and James. It cannot be either of them, nor the “people” who begin to speak in the next paragraph. Perhaps it is the author. However, if that be so, the author certainly does not speak like one who has a knowledge of his characters — in this case, Mrs. Ramsay — and who, out of his knowledge, can describe the personality and momentary state of mind objectively and with certainty. (531)

Rather than regarding this uncertainty and lack of objective authorial perspective as an artistic fault, Auerbach sees it as the key to the style of To the Lighthouse — and indeed to modernist literature more generally.

Analyzing another passage in To the Lighthouse, Auerbach writes,

No one is certain of anything here: it is all mere supposition, glances cast by one person upon another whose enigma he cannot solve. (532)

About another, he says,

[W]e are not taken into Virginia Woolf’s confidence and allowed to share her knowledge of Mrs. Ramsay’s character as it is reflected in and as it affects various figures in the novel: the nameless spirits which assume certain things about a tear, the people who wonder about her […] (534)

Auerbach concludes that what is unique to Woolf’s style is the absence of a fixed authoritative authorial perspective that might tells us the absolute truth. Instead, in To the Lighthouse there are multiple overlapping perspectives, each of which is allowed to have its say, and none of which can claim to be absolutely “true.” As Auerbach phrases it, in To the Lighthouse there is “not one order and one interpretation, but many” (549).

For Auerbach, this is something new in literary history. He writes,

Goethe or Keller, Dickens or Meredith, Balzac or Zola told us out of their certain knowledge what their characters did, what they felt and thought while doing it, and how their actions and thoughts were to be interpreted. They knew everything about their characters. […T]he author, with his knowledge of an objective truth, never abdicated his position as the final and governing authority. (535)

In Woolf, however, “The writer as narrator of objective facts has almost completely vanished; almost everything stated appears by way of reflection in the consciousnesses of the dramatic personae” (534).

Auerbach names this tendency the “multipersonal representation of consciousness” (536). For him, it is one of the defining traits of modernist literary style.

 Modernism and Dialogism

Auerbach’s sense of what made the modernist novel distinctive is remarkably similar to that of another, better-known modernist literary theorist, the Russian Mikhail Bakhtin. Like Auerbach, Bakhtin believed that multi-voicedness was the essential element of the novel, that most important of modernist literary genres. What Auerbach called “multipersonal representation of consciousness,” Bakhtin called “dialogism” (“double-voicedness”). In one of the loveliest formulations of the concept, Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929),

At the base of the [novel] lies the Socratic notion of the dialogic nature of truth, and the dialogic nature of human thinking about truth. The dialogic means of seeking truth is counterposed to official monologism [“single-voicedness”], which pretends to possess a ready-made truth, and it is also counterposed to the naïve self-confidence of those people who think that they possess certain truths. Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction. (110; italics in original)

Given the striking similarities of their respective accounts of the multi-voiced modernist novel, and given that they were working at approximately the same time, it is remarkable that Bakhtin and Auerbach were unaware of one another’s work. So what is responsible for this incredible coincidence? Why did Bakhtin and Auerbach have such similar ideas at the same time?

Both writers had their own ideas about why dialogism became such a prominent feature of modernist writing when it did — and, again, both gave very similar accounts, focusing on modernist-era technological developments.

In his 1941 essay “Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin argued that the development of the dialogic novel was

powerfully affected by a very specific rupture in the history of European civilization: its emergence from a socially isolated and culturally deaf semipatriarchal society, and its entrance into international and interlingual contacts and relationships. (11)

The expansion of transportation networks such as the railroad — which carried messages, newspapers, and books in addition to people — and development of new communications technologies like the telegraph, telephone, radio, and film, all made it possible to quickly disseminate new, unfamiliar ideas to people living far away. New ways of seeing and living were suddenly accessible, making everyday life in the modernist period increasingly “dialogic.” This variety of experience and opinion then made its way into literature.

In Mimesis, Auerbach gives a similar explanation for the development of modernist “multipersonal representation of consciousness”:

It is easy to understand that such a technique had to develop gradually and that it did so precisely during the decades of the first World War and after. The widening of man’s horizon, and the increase of his experiences, which began in the sixteenth century, continued through the nineteenth at an even faster tempo — with such a tremendous acceleration since the beginning of the twentieth that synthetic and objective attempts at interpretation are produced and demolished every instant. (549)

While both of these accounts suggest a certain inevitability in the process, it would be a mistake to believe that the development of the dialogic modernist novel was a passive process simply determined by developments in technology. Indeed, for proof of this — proof that dialogism was a willed, deliberate response to the prevailing state of affairs by people who wanted to change it — one need look no further than the (again) oddly similar personal histories of Bakhtin and Auerbach.

The Politics of Dialogism

Auerbach and Bakhtin not only independently developed very similar theoretical accounts of literary modernism — they also did so in response to very similar personal circumstances.

Bakhtin produced his greatest analysis of dialogism — the essay “Discourse in the Novel” (1933-34) — while living in forced exile in Kazakhstan. In 1929, he was arrested by Stalinist authorities in the USSR and charged with corrupting the youth in the course of private lessons. He was sentenced to the Solovki gulag, a forced-labour camp notoroious for the high death rate of its inmates, though due to poor health his sentence was reduced to six years’ exile in Kazakhstan.

The vehemence of Bakhtin’s condemnation of monologic language — and his celebration of dialogism — comes into clearer focus when this personal history is taken into account. In a passage like the following, from “Discourse in the Novel,”

The prose writer does not purge words of intentions that are alien to him, he does not destroy the seeds of [dialogism] embedded in words, he does not eliminate those language characteristics and mannerisms glimmering behind the words and forms (298)

the terms I’ve bolded attest to the urgency of Bakhtin’s political situation. In a time and a place where dissenting voices were routinely purged, destroyed, and eliminated, it is only sensible that Bakhtin should argue for a style of writing that is inclusive and open-ended.

Auerbach also wrote Mimesis while in exile. At the time that Bakhtin was in Kazakhstan, Auerbach was a professor of Romance Philology at Marburg University in Germany. As a Jew living under the Nazis, however, this position was extremely precarious. He was fired in 1935 and left for Istanbul, Turkey the next year. He wrote Mimesis there without a proper library or access to scholarly materials.

Auerbach’s theories of the modernist novel, like Bakhtin’s, emerge from his historical situation. Above, we saw how Auerbach argued that modernist dialogism arose from the cauldron of competing ideas and ideologies brought about by new technologies of communication. Auerbach saw Fascism as a different kind of response to this same situation. In Mimesis, he wrote that, in a modernist era in which so much was uncertain,

The temptation to entrust oneself to a sect which solves all problems with a single formula, whose power of suggestion imposed solidarity, and which ostracized everything that would not fit in and submit — this temptation was so great that, with many people, fascism hardly had to employ force when the time came for it to spread through the countries of old European culture. (550)

Whereas modernist literature responded to the chaos of competing voices by seeking to reproduce it — with a new technique, the “multipersonal representation of consciousness” — Fascism, in Auerbach’s view, adopted the opposite strategy, trying to settle this chaos by imposing a singular, authoritative interpretation. This is the sense in which dialogic modernist literature is political, and is (for Auerbach) specifically anti-Fascist: because it refuses to boil down the real variety of lived experience to a single interpretation that claims to be absolutely true. The democratic mission of the dialogic modernist novel is instead to give every voice its chance to speak, and to value each of these voices equally. As Auerbach himself phrases it,

These are the forms of order and interpretation [that] modern writers […] attempt to grasp in the random moment — not one order and one interpretation, but many, which may either be those of different persons or of the same person at different times; so that overlapping, complementing, and contradiction yield something we might call a synthesized cosmic view or at least a challenge to the reader’s will to interpretive synthesis. (549)

Because it refuses to allow the privileged perspective of the author to prevail over that of his or her characters and thus allows truth to emerge from the free competition of individual perspectives rather than being imposed from above, the modernist novel has for Auerbach much more than simply artistic significance. It functions for him like an ideal democratic political system in miniature — and thus serves as an effective rebuttal to authoritarianism.

Woolf and the Politics of FID

Auerbach was drawn to Woolf’s work — and to To the Lighthouse in particular — because, of all modernist writers, she best embodied for him this ethically-charged multi-voicedness.

Woolf was, throughout her career, an explicitly political writer, producing feminist and anti-Fascist works like A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) as well as overseeing the publication of a variety of political works at the Hogarth Press, which she owned and operated with her husband Leonard. Woolf's political activities were sufficiently conspicuous to land her (and Leonard) on a Nazi hit list — the so-called “Black Book” of undesirables to be arrested on their projected invasion of Britain.

Woolf is remembered today both for her groundbreaking political writings and for her experiments in literary form — her use of stream of consciousness, FID, and so on. It is sometimes forgotten, however, how intimately intertwined politics and style are in her work. If Woolf’s life work was to bring forward marginalized voices — women’s voices, the voices of the domestic sphere, the voices of the ordinary and the everyday — this was a political project that necessarily involved finding new technical means of including and accommodating these voices. One of the most important methods Woolf employed was FID.

Auerbach regarded To the Lighthouse as the prime example of modernist “multipersonal representation of consciousness” — and FID is the principal technical means by which Woolf achieves this multi-voicedness in the text.

Woolf likely chose to employ FID for several reasons.

First, as Kathy Mezei has argued, FID challenges the hierarchical authority of the author. By deliberately confusing and mixing together the voices of narrator and character, Woolf upsets the idea that any one person can possess the whole, final, definitive truth in any situation.

Second, FID sidesteps the ethical problems inherent in the two major alternatives to FID: indirect discourse and direct discourse. Woolf avoided indirect discourse because it masks the distinctive voices of individual characters, replacing their personal speech patterns with the authoritative voice of the author. Since Woolf’s project was to recover voices, indirect discourse makes little sense for her; as such, her narrator almost never employs it in To the Lighthouse. Direct discourse is unappealing in a different way. At first sight, it might seem that this “unfiltered” method for reporting speech would be the best choice, since it gives the exact words of each character, recovered in a “pure” state. For Woolf, the problem with direct discourse would be that it purports to give too pure a representation of an individual’s speech — that it pretends to inhabit a character's perspective completely, to understand his or her mind fully, when such complete understanding is necessarily impossible. FID is a nice ethical middle ground, because it takes you into the minds of individual characters, reproduces their characteristic ways of speaking, but still retains a sense of their “otherness,” mystery, and indescribability.

A further advantage comes from the fact that Woolf uses FID to take us into the minds of so many different characters. Since she gives us so many perspectives, and since these perspectives so often blend with one another in uncertain, unpredictable ways, the reader of To the Lighthouse needs to work very hard. When I ask students what they find difficult about To the Lighthouse, they usually respond, “It’s so hard to know who’s speaking!” This is a response that Woolf courts deliberately: she wants you to be unsure who’s speaking, because she wants you to read closely, to listen for subtle differences in intonations, to be alert to all the small things that make each character unique — and also to learn to accept that you can’t ever hope to understand all of this completely. Woolf wants you to be an active reader, but also to learn to “exist in uncertainty,”an ethical necessity in the turbulent modernist era.

She wants this, in part, because she believes that good readers make good citizens. If you’re sympathetic, humble, and open-minded, you’ll not only understand To the Lighthouse, you’ll also be a good member of a democratic community. Both Bakhtin and Auerbach saw the dialogic modernist novel as an ideal society in miniature, and believed that by reading such novels, readers could take important lessons back with them into the public sphere, and bring about real political change.

Woolf saw the same thing. For her, using FID was nothing less than a way of modeling — and promoting — democracy.

—Adam Hammond


* Graham Pechey provides an amusingly lengthy list of the names that FID was given following its discovery in the modernist period. These include, in addition to Tobler's “peculiar mixture of direct and indirect speech” (1897), “veiled speech” (Theodor Kalepky, 1899), “free indirect style” (Charles Bally, 1912), “experienced speech” (Etienne Lorck, 1921), “pseudo-objective speech” (Leo Spitzer, 1921), “represented speech” (Otto Jesperson, 1924), and “indirect interior monologue” (Edouard Dujardin, 1931) (all qtd. in Pechey 208). Mikhail Bakhtin consistently referred to the device from the 1920s as “pseudo-objective discourse.” As you can see from this explosion of names for the device, FID was a matter of considerable interest to modernists.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. 1946. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1953.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel.” 1933-34. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 259-422.

—. “Epic and Novel.” 1941. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 3-40.

—. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. 1929. Ed. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Pascal, Roy. The Dual Voice. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1977.

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

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Hogarth, 1927.