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Narrative 12.1 (2004) 35-54
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Free Indirect Discourse and Narrative Authority in Emma
Daniel P. Gunn
Jane Austen is generally acknowledged to be the first English novelist to make sustained use of free indirect discourse in the representation of figural speech and thought. 1 Unfortunately, however, the theory of free indirect discourse (FID) in English has not been congenial to Austen's work, often obscuring the way the technique functions in her novels. 2 Two theoretical tendencies, in particular, have contributed to this confusion. First, the most influential accounts of FID in English have tended to stress the autonomy of FID representations of speech and thought and to contrast them with authoritative narrative commentary: FID is, on this account, the preeminent technique of "objective" narration, in which the narrator supposedly withdraws or disappears in favor of impersonal figural representation. 3 Second, FID has often been characterized as innately disruptive and destabilizing—a technique that allows other voices to compete with and so undermine the monologic authority of the narrator or the implied author. 4 Whatever their relevance to later fiction, these characterizations of FID are inadequate and misleading when applied to Austen's novels, which deploy FID in conjunction with a trustworthy, authoritative narrative voice and which repeatedly intertwine FID with narratorial commentary, sometimes inside of a single sentence. Indeed, much of the aesthetic pleasure in Austen's FID passages comes from subtle modulations among narrative registers, as the prose moves in and out of a complex array of voices, including that of the narrator herself. In this essay, I will examine Austen's use of FID in a series of passages from Emma,emphasizing the narrator's role in an effort to provide a more accurate picture of Austen's practice than has been available in criticism influenced by the prevailing theoretical accounts. In Emma, I will argue, FID is best seen not as a representation of autonomous figural discourse but as a kind of narratorial mimicry, analogous to the flexible imitations of [End Page 35] others' discourse we all practice in informal speech and expository prose. 5 My principal interest here is in Austen's narrative practice: I hope, in particular, to oppose the recent tendency to read FID as subversive of narrative authority and stable interpretation in Emma. 6 But since this sort of misreading can be traced to the assumption that FID entails the displacement of narratorial presence and judgment, I hope also to stimulate further theoretical discussion of the interaction between narrative voice and figural discourse in texts that, like Austen's, have strong, authoritative narrators.
The assumption that FID is ordinarily a representation of autonomous figural discourse and thus symptomatic of a distinctively "modern" and impersonal narrative style is shared by several of the most influential theorists of FID in English. The seminal work on the topic, Dorrit Cohn's Transparent Minds, follows F. K. Stanzel in distinguishing between "authorial" and "figural" narrative situations, and associates "narrated monologue" (her term for FID) strongly with the latter: the "normal milieu for narrated monologue," she writes, is "serious figural narration," in which characters are presented "'from within,' through a profusion of narrated monologues" (122). Cohn's discussion of narrated monologue is subtle and perceptive, and she acknowledges that "the continued employment of third-person references indicates, no matter how unobtrusively, the continued presence of a narrator" (112). But, as the term "monologue" will itself suggest, she insists that it is the narrator's "identification . . .with the character's mentality that is supremely enhanced" by FID (112), and she has argued recently that the narrator is "reduced to a merely functional presence" as FID predominates ("Optics" 14). Similarly, in Unspeakabe Sentences, Ann Banfield sees her account of what she calls "represented speech and thought" as offering a scientific, linguistic explanation of the historical development of fiction, which emerges finally, in her view, as entirely impersonal, a combination of purely objective narrative sentences and sentences that dramatize the speech or thought of characters. For Banfield, neither kind of sentence has a speaker; in the name of representation, language has...