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  • Introduction:Revisiting Dialogue
  • William A. Cohen (bio) and Laura Green (bio)

OVER the past half-century, discussions of characters' speech in fiction have been dominated by the category of free indirect discourse (FID), which is often described as blending the point of view of a character with that of a narrator. Ann Banfield influentially argued that FID has been the most distinctive formal achievement of literary writing in the modern period.1 Following Banfield, critics have provided innumerable accounts of the origins and functions of FID in fiction, not only to analyze the complexities of its formal features, but also to understand the psychological, political, and aesthetic effects of its use. While disagreement persists among critics about the characteristics and boundaries of FID, this particular way of representing characters' speech and thought has received so much attention that it leads us to wonder about what alternatives may have been neglected for it to become so salient. FID is distinguished, on the one hand, from a narrator's discourse, whether in the service of exposition, reporting, interpreting, or evaluation of events. It contrasts, on the other, with both direct and indirect discourse. Direct discourse purports to quote a character's speech ("She said, 'I have to get out of here'"); indirect discourse reports on it ("She said she had to get out of there"); and FID incorporates the character's speech within the language of the narrator ("She had to get out of there"). What critics find most interesting about FID are its many forms of mediation: it conveys meaning through some words that belong to the character and some that belong to the narrator—and sometimes through some words whose ownership is not so clearly marked. Different accounts of FID may address characters' speech, thoughts, or both, and these differences can lead to conflicting understandings of what FID is as well as reveal the complexity of the phenomenon itself.2 [End Page 129]

By contrast with FID, dialogue in fiction is often understood to represent the utterances of characters unfiltered through any intermediary frame. Dialogue is easily recognizable—and distinguished from other narrative elements—by the typographical and phraseological conventions that were stabilized in English in the first decades of the nineteenth century.3 Dialogue shares these features with quoted speech as represented in nonfiction: quotation marks ("inverted commas" in British English) or other typographical indicators, paragraph or line breaks, and speech tags such as "she said," often qualified by adverbs of manner ("loudly," "curtly"). This marked discourse is a familiar feature of fictional narrative at all levels of literary ambition. As Lewis Carroll's Alice wonders, "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" (9). While contemporary adult readers have mainly left pictures behind (or relocated them to the subgenre of the graphic novel), it is hard to imagine a novel that contains no conversation—no exchange of character speech—at all.

In addition to its promiscuous familiarity, the critical view of dialogue as a relatively self-evident, uninteresting feature, by contrast with FID, arises from the persistence of the illusion it creates—namely, that it plainly represents characters' words. Some accounts of direct speech explicitly assign it the function of mimetic reproduction. Patrick O'Neill, for example, distinguishes FID from both indirect speech and direct, quoted speech. He identifies quoted speech as "the maximally mimetic option . . . where the narrator elects to show what happened rather than tell about it[;] we hear . . . only [the character's] voice, as if we were physically present ourselves" (59). Most theorists in principle acknowledge the artificiality of this mimesis. Gérard Genette, for example, while agreeing with O'Neill that fictional dialogue is optimally mimetic because it refers to nothing but itself, also distinguishes it from nonfiction dialogue by virtue of its doubled artifice: "History, biography, autobiography are supposed to reproduce speeches that were actually made; epic, novel, story, novella are supposed to pretend to reproduce them. . . . Supposed to: Those are the generic conventions, which of course do not necessarily correspond to reality" (Narrative Discourse Revisited 50; emphasis original). Yet such is the power of what Meir Sternberg calls the "direct speech fallacy" ("Point of View" 68) that this mimetic...


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pp. 129-139
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