Free Indirect Discourse and the Problem of the Will in Two Novels by William Godwin
In his discussion of emma (1815) in jane austen; or, the secret of Style, D. A. Miller draws our attention to an essential quality of free indirect discourse. By focusing on a single sentence repeated before and after the chapter break of volume 2, chapters 2 and 3—“She could not forgive her”1—Miller observes that the repetition of this sentence allows us to see the two ways in which it may be read: as “the indirect and impersonal performance of Emma’s consciousness” and as “the mere matter-of-fact notation of that thought.”2 It is able to “perform” what Emma would think about Jane Fairfax, in the sense that she might say “I cannot forgive her,” and is also able to denote a fact about Emma’s state of mind as part of a third-person omniscient narrative. This is possible because the sentence emulates the character’s “direct speech” without leaving the perspective of the narrator, and so it can also be read as the narrator’s simple description of the character’s mind or plain “indirect speech.”3 Miller’s observation draws from standard accounts of narrative perspective in Emma; as Wayne C. Booth has written, there is a “double vision that operates throughout the book: our inside view of Emma’s worth and our objective view of her great faults.”4 In its “double vision,” or what Roy Pascal later called “the [End Page 301] dual voice,”5 free indirect discourse then stands out as a privileged strategy in allowing us momentarily to embody the protagonist’s consciousness as well as stand apart from it and judge it.
However, there is an added dimension to this sentence from Emma that has received less attention in standard accounts of free indirect discourse. This becomes apparent when we focus in closer detail on the words “She could not,” and the difference in meaning they convey when considered from an “inside” and from an “outside” perspective. These words attract our attention because they express something peculiar about Emma’s volition and her capacity to exert herself: when we read them as vocalized by Emma herself on the one hand and as third-person matter-of-fact notation on the other, we simultaneously register two very different conceptions of the will.
This becomes clearer when we consider a separate but similar example from Emma. Here, immediately before Emma lets loose her infamous unkind remark to Miss Bates in the company of Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Mr. and Mrs. Elton, Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, and Mr. Knightley, we are given a paragraph break comprising a single sentence: “Emma could not resist.”6 Unlike the previous example, this sentence is not delivered in the midst of a narrator’s discussion of Emma’s train of thought, but rather in an extended quoted conversation. For this reason, we are not likely to read it as free indirect discourse, but strictly as a notation of Emma’s mind. Yet if we pause over the sentence, we can recognize that it can also be read, like “She could not forgive her,” in two different ways: as a “performance of Emma’s consciousness” and as a “matter-of-fact notation of the thought,” and the difference is significant. If we read the sentence as a mere notation, we understand Emma as being sincerely unable to act any differently, taking the words “could not” literally: it was not within the range of available possibilities for her mental capacity at that point and time. Alternatively, when we read the sentence as a “performance of her consciousness,” we discover quite the opposite: if “I cannot resist” were a sentence spoken privately in Emma’s mind, we would understand instantly that Emma can resist. It is as though one were to say in passing, “I cannot resist having one more chocolate,” meaning something more like “it is very hard for me to resist”: the implication would be exactly that “I can resist,” with the added qualifier that I say I cannot resist so as to justify an action that I know I should not be warranting.
After all, Emma would not say “I cannot resist” to her immediate social [End Page 302] circle precisely because she would be opening herself up to condemnation: “Yes you can resist, Emma. You must resist,” a friend might say. This is exactly the basis by which Mr. Knightley chastises her afterwards. Emma attempts to defend herself: “Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it.”7 Knightley correctly ignores this point; he takes it for granted, as do we, that her very saying this exposes her capacity to have acted differently. “Emma could not resist” plays both meanings at once, asking us to recognize the difference between saying a person cannot in actuality “resist” an action and saying that that person tells herself she cannot resist in order to have an excuse for proceeding with that action. It thus is able to evoke a distinct quality of the way we talk about the will—namely, the way we frequently want to speak of it as causally explicable and at the same time as under our power and responsibility.
In this essay I argue that free indirect discourse (henceforth identified as FID) becomes a particularly vital formal technique in the early realist novel due to its ability to convey the complex and often contradictory qualities of the will. I stage this argument not through Austen, but through William Godwin, whose early novels—particularly St. Leon (1799) and Fleetwood (1805)—raise philosophical and moral issues regarding the capacity of the will by centering on weak-willed characters who regularly fail to follow through with what they know they ought to do. The problem of “weakness of will” proves a particularly troublesome topic of narration for Godwin. Insofar as he draws upon his own philosophical models of human action and volition, his novels tend to construe the will in mechanistic terms and thus depict the mind strictly through what D. A. Miller calls “matter-of-fact notation.” However, Fleetwood in particular claims our attention for its experimentation with “performing” a character’s consciousness, thus fusing the voices of narrator and character. This strategy allows Godwin to evoke the confusions that accompany his characters’ abilities to account for the multivalent dimensions of the will—the ways they seem capable of both “moving” and “being moved.”
The condition of weakness of will pervades Godwin’s corpus as well as a range of other canonical eighteenth-century and Romantic texts, works by figures from Richardson and Sterne through Coleridge and Keats. However, eighteenth-century and Romantic literary criticism has not attended to the particular hermeneutic difficulties that attend such a condition, preferring to center on problems of autonomy and self-governance through the discourses of the passions or affects rather than agency or the will.8 [End Page 303]
This can be attributed to the fact that “weakness of will” is a concept neglected by Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers themselves. Aristotle describes the incontinent or akratic man who consciously neglects the reasons that ought to inform his action while instead pursuing the worse action with simultaneous regret at his own weakness. St. Augustine characterizes the “weak will” as perversely turning against the will of God, as described by Paul in Romans 7 who says: “The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will.”9 However, the mechanistic and deterministic contours of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and indeed Godwin remove the sense of agency as a site of normative accomplishments or failures, instead construing will and action as strictly following the laws of Newtonian causation. As Alasdair MacIntyre has succinctly put it, during the Enlightenment, “[t]he explanation of action is increasingly held to be a matter of laying bare the physiological and physical mechanisms which underlie action.”10 Thus in Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), actions are explicable as causal consequences of states of uneasiness, and in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1740), as causal consequences of non-cognitive passions. With both philosophers, there is never a conflict in the site of volition itself, but rather a collection of mental or bodily states that can readily explain why one set of events occurs rather than another. [End Page 304]
Godwin’s early experimentation with FID in depicting weak-willed individuals can then help us understand this technique as a formal novelistic solution to a broader conceptual problem. Godwin is an especially privileged novelist in this regard because of his sustained attention to weakness of will and because of his pioneering experimentation with FID—two aspects that we can see as interconnected. While Godwin did not invent FID, his novel Fleetwood includes particularly early non-epistolary English examples of the “intertwining of objective and subjective statement, of narratorial account and free indirect speech.”11 In this sense, Godwin’s narrative techniques in perspective foreshadow if not influence the well-known usage of FID in later nineteenth-century novelistic treatments of weak-willed individuals by authors including Flaubert, Eliot, Tolstoy, and James.
Yet these examples in Godwin have gone undiscussed in either Godwin studies or accounts of FID. The dominant historical accounts of FID locate its invention in the eighteenth century; Pascal suggests that the enclosed social settings of eighteenth-century novels demand the narrator’s ability “to evoke thought-processes as the characters themselves know them,” whereas Ann Banfield argues that FID’s deep linguistic structure only manifested itself with the emergence of “written narrative” in an increasingly literate eighteenth-century culture.12 These accounts have not addressed, however, why FID becomes so important in plots concerning characters’ struggles with self-governance and reliance on self-deception. Nor do they consider its relation to broader conceptual transformations in treatments of the mind and agency during the Enlightenment.13 Godwin’s stylistic [End Page 305] changes in representing weakness of will between St. Leon and Fleetwood thus highlight a distinct epistemological function for FID that would continue to inform the nineteenth-century novel.
The Explicable Will in Political Justice and St. Leon
In the early pages of St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century, the narrator—an older St. Leon looking back with a tone of repentance—tells us how he arrived at Paris and succumbed to his old gambling addiction. “All the demon seemed to make his descent upon my soul,” he writes. “This was the first time that I had ever felt the struggle of conscious guilt and dishonour. . . . I did not take into the account the ungovernableness of my own passions.”14 St. Leon tells the story of a sixteenth-century aristocrat who, after recklessly gambling away his money, encounters a stranger who imparts on him the philosopher’s stone, endowing St. Leon with the capacity for endless riches and immortality. Most of the novel depicts his fall from happiness with the acquisition of the elixir: the effects of his secrecy on the stability of his family, his persecution on account of his mysterious abundance of wealth, the early death of his wife, and more. At the center of the novel are St. Leon’s battles with himself, his struggles with his inclinations toward greed, and his gambling addiction.
As Gary Kelly has written, St. Leon is “about the adventures of a man wholly unable to govern his life by reason.”15 However, Godwin’s novel nonetheless also places great trust in the narrator’s capacity for reason. In proclamations like “I did not take into the account the ungovernableness of my own passions,” the narrator exemplifies the tendency for straightforward and transparent descriptions of his former self’s intemperate state. We can consider this stylistic tendency by attending to a particularly telling sentence, which contrasts significantly with the more ambiguously agential sentences considered earlier from Emma. St. Leon tells us that, as he approached the gambling tables, “I resisted—I yielded” (95). Recall that in Emma we are told that she “could not resist,” which we understand as both a notation of her inability to resist and as a performance of Emma’s mind that ironically suggests the opposite. Here Godwin’s narrator has used the verbs “resisting” and “yielding” as mere events. They are presented as two separate actions, divided grammatically by a dash that indicates temporal division. What is peculiar about this sentence as opposed to Austen’s then is that it tells us nothing about the experience of “resisting” itself, no expression [End Page 306] or evocation of the struggle inherent to the action of “resisting.” Instead, “resisting” is grammatically treated like any other action that follows from a clear and explicable cause: it is pure “matter-of-fact notation.”
Throughout the novel, St. Leon describes his actions by explicating the psychological and physiological causes of them. After winning “a considerable sum” while gambling, the narrator tells us, “[t]his incident produced a strong impression upon me, and filled my mind with tumult and agitation” (95); he continues, “the very tumult of my thoughts operated strongly to lead me once more to the gaming-table,” and “[t]his frame of mind led me on insensibly to the most extravagant of adventures. It threw me in the first place into the hands of notorious gamblers” (98). In each of these phrases, “me” is the passive object that has been the recipient of a “strong impression,” which has “led” it to one or another location. His “failures to resist” are in this sense automatic consequences or entailments of mental and bodily states: they are perfectly explicable.
On the one hand, the difference from Austen resides in the use of first-person retrospective narration rather than third-person omniscient narration. In its retrospective mode, Godwin’s novel indeed more clearly borrows from the epistolary tradition, in which thoughts and actions are reported directly to an interlocutor.16 But these moments also speak to the tensions inherent in Godwin’s philosophy of action spelled out in the Enquiry concerning Political Justice. In the first edition of that text, Godwin argues that the “theory of the human mind”
is properly, like the theory of every other series of events with which we are acquainted, a system of mechanism; understanding by mechanism nothing more than a regular connexion of phenomena without any uncertainty of event, so that every incident requires a specific cause, and could be no otherwise in any respect than as the cause determined it to be.17
It follows then that all actions follow a “doctrine of necessity,” not merely “involuntary actions,” or physiological compulsions not caused by the mind, but also “voluntary actions,” or actions that proceed from the mind’s [End Page 307] understanding of truths. Indeed, when it comes to voluntary action, Godwin follows the line of argument from Jonathan Edwards, David Hartley, and Joseph Priestley that sees man as perfectible because of this doctrine of necessity: as Mark Philp has put it, “the connection between ideas, and our preference for one idea over another . . . are governed by a rational necessity that is fully causal.”18 This view, rooted in theories of predestination, becomes adapted in Godwin’s atheist paradigm so that psychologically understanding something to be true results automatically in action: making use of mechanistic language, Godwin writes, “[t]he perception of something true, joined with the consciousness of my capacity to act upon this truth, [is] of itself sufficient to produce motion in the animal system.”19
Notably, under this mechanistic scheme of voluntary action, one cannot freely act against one’s better judgment, for once one has acquired the appropriate rational belief, action necessarily follows. Thus “failures to resist” like those of St. Leon can only be described in terms of “involuntary action”—through physiological descriptions. This eliminates the classic Augustinian notion of a wavering, struggling, or indeterminate will; as Godwin continues in Political Justice:
According to [necessitarian] doctrine it will be absurd for a man to say, ‘I will exert myself,’ ‘I will take care to remember,’ or even ‘I will do this.’ All these expressions imply as if man was or could be something else than what motives make him. Man is in reality a passive, and not an active being. In another sense however he is sufficiently capable of exertion. The operations of his mind may be laborious, like those of the wheel of a heavy machine in ascending a hill, may even tend to wear out the substance of the shell in which it acts, without in the smallest degree impeaching its passive character.20
Man is “a passive being” whose actions can be understood as the automatic consequence or entailment of either the true beliefs or the physiological impulses that occupy him. To the extent that man is “capable of exertion,” then, it is merely in the sense that a wheel exerts pressure in carrying a machine up a hill. As Godwin explains, if a person’s motives are divided, “it is [End Page 308] equivalent to the putting equal weights into the opposite scales of a balance. If one of them have a greater tendency to preference than the other, that which has the greatest tendency must ultimately prevail.”21
Notably, by the late 1790s, Godwin became increasingly dissatisfied with this characterization of volition. His 1797 essay collection The Enquirer famously touts a new form of epistemological humility, departing from the highly rationalist model of systematization, which he now calls “a method of investigation incommensurate to our powers.”22 “The intellectual eye of man,” he continues, “perhaps, is formed rather for the inspection of minute and near, than of immense and distant objects.”23 As the Preface to The Enquirer reveals, a key example from human experience that demands non-systematic models of the human frame is the case of “intemperance,” about which Godwin became increasingly concerned in the wake of the French Revolution. Godwin’s revisions to his ideas about human agency are most clearly expressed in the second edition of Political Justice, in which he includes a new chapter solely devoted to the more complex dimensions of volition.24 In this chapter, entitled “The Voluntary Actions of Men Originate [End Page 309] in their Opinions,” Godwin moves beyond the two categories of action (“voluntary” and “involuntary”) he had established in the 1793 version. He adds a third category called “imperfectly voluntary action,” which describes cases in which people act in voluntary ways even though they do not readily or easily access the reasons behind those voluntary actions, as when someone follows a course of action by habit. Godwin crucially notes that in order to conceptualize such a case we need to draw from “experience and history” rather than from an a priori rationalist system. He writes, if all actions were under the designation of purely “voluntary action”
the human mind would then be a very simple machine, always aware of the grounds upon which it proceeded, and self-deception would be impossible. But this statement is completely in opposition to experience and history. Ask a man the reason why he puts on his clothes, why he eats his dinner, or performs any other ordinary action of his life. He immediately hesitates, endeavours to recollect himself, and often assigns a reason the most remote from what the true philosophy of motive would have led us to expect. Nothing is more clear, than that the moving cause of this action was not expressly present to his apprehension at the time he performed it. Self-deception is so far from impossible, that it is one of the most ordinary phenomena with which we are acquainted. . . . Here then we are presented . . . with a striking instance of men’s acting from motives diametrically opposite to those which they suppose to be the guides of their conduct. . . . Are not these facts in express contradiction to the doctrine, that the voluntary actions of men in all cases originate in the judgements of the understanding? 25
Here “experience and history” teach us something new: man can acquire habits from social circumstances that go unquestioned and forgotten, and as a result, men can act “from motives diametrically opposite to those which they suppose to be the guides of their conduct.” This simple observation entails that man is not as rational a creature as he was in the first edition, not a transparent vehicle of matter and motion, but consistently following self-deceptions regarding what is best to do at one time or another.26 [End Page 310]
St. Leon’s attention to the forms of self-deception and irrational action described above reflects Godwin’s evolving interest in the less rational and less rationally-predictable predilections of human mind and behavior. Yet the novel struggles to express such cases beyond portraying physiological states and processes as determined events. In what is perhaps a growing realization that the human mind is a site that thwarts all pretensions for linguistic representational capacities, the novel occasionally proclaims that characterizing St. Leon’s state is “impossible.” “[N]o reading of my story, no mere power of language and words,” the narrator tells us at one point, “can enable a by-stander to imagine” his condition (266). In a particularly exemplary passage, the narrator’s excessive descriptions appear to serve as compensation for what causal physical language ultimately can never do: convey how a person can be diametrically at odds with himself:
No man who has not felt, can possibly image to himself the tortures of a gamester, of a gamester like me, who played for the improvement of his fortune, who played with the recollection of a wife and children dearer to him than the blood that bubbled through the arteries of his heart, who might be said, like the savages of ancient Germany, to make these relations the stake for which he threw, who saw all my own happiness and all theirs through the long vista of life, depending on the turn of a card! . . . Never shall I cease to recollect the sensation I have repeatedly felt, in the instantaneous sinking of the spirits, the conscious fire that spread over my visage, the anger in my eye, the burning dryness of my throat, the sentiment that in a moment was ready to overwhelm with curses the cards, the stake, my own existence, and all mankind. How every malignant and insufferable passion seemed to rush upon my soul! . . . My mind was wrapped in a gloom that could not be pierced! My heart was oppressed with a weight that no power human or divine was equal to remove! My eyelids seemed to press downward with an invincible burden! My eyeballs were ready to start and crack their sockets! I lay motionless, the victim of ineffable horror!(99–100)
Godwin paints an evocative scene of interior violence with striking physiological descriptions (“conscious fire,” the “anger in my eye, the burning dryness of my throat,” “sentiment,” “passion,” “blood,” “mind,” “heart,” [End Page 311] “eyelids,” “eyeballs”). The sentences notably depict St. Leon as the passive recipient of physical onslaughts: “seemed to rush upon my soul,” “[m]y mind was wrapped in gloom,” “[m]y heart was oppressed,” “[m]y eyelids seemed to press downward,” “I lay motionless, the victim of ineffable horror!” However, at the same time, the passage begins by noting that “No man who has not felt [the tortures of a gamester] can possibly image [them] to himself.”
Godwin here appears to confront the limits of the conception of the novel as a site for matter-of-fact stipulation of events. Such moments of self-conflict require modes of narration beyond indirect speech that describes a character’s mind. In his next novel, Fleetwood, Godwin experiments with fusing indirect and direct speech in order to evoke the contradictions of a distempered subject.
Free Indirect Discourse in Fleetwood
Like St. Leon, Fleetwood, Or, the New Man of Feeling centers on what Aristotle would call an akratic: someone who dispositionally holds beliefs and judgments that he regularly betrays in action. The first half of the novel (Volume 1 and the first half of Volume 2) describes Fleetwood’s Rousseauvian education, his childhood years communing with nature, his education at Oxford, his life as a libertine in Paris, followed by sincere declarations of repentance at the errors of his ways, promising to live a more virtuous life. However, in Volume 3, Fleetwood proves to be a suspicious and irritable husband to the young Mary Macneil despite his awareness that his outbursts are wrong and unnecessary, nearly ruining his marriage and killing Mary with his impossible demeanor. As several critics have discussed at length, the novel presents itself as an inversion of the novel of development and the sentimental novel genre (as indicated in the novel’s subtitle, a reference to Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling). A prolonged “upbringing” or bildung results in the opposite of what we would expect: an uncultivated and maladjusted adult. What begins by resembling Rousseau’s Emile indeed ends up looking more like Rousseau’s Confessions.27 As Gary Kelly has written, Fleetwood subverts the “literary types found in earlier Jacobin novels” with its focus on an intemperate misanthrope.28
In this way most criticism of the novel has interpreted Fleetwood’s development by focusing on social questions: the role of the inherently misogynistic notion of education espoused by Rousseau, as Gary Handwerk [End Page 312] has argued, or the role of the cult of sentimentalism untethered from judgment in Hina Nazar’s account.29 These readings are persuasive, though they also elide issues in Godwin’s philosophy of action that motivated formal innovation at the level of narration. The scholarly attention towards this novel on the issues of belief, education, the passions, or domesticity rather than the discourses of will and action indeed exemplify a broader trend in Godwinian scholarship that follows Godwin himself in neglecting the will as a central topic of concern.
Fleetwood’s formal experimentations appear most notably in Volume 3 after Fleetwood has married and is presented with the task of living amicably with his wife. At times, the novel veers closely to the techniques of St. Leon in which the narrator (present-tense Fleetwood) attributes physiological and physical causes to past-tense Fleetwood’s actions; “ [t]he reader must recollect my character, as an old bachelor, as a man endowed with the most irritable structure of nerves,” he tells us at one point.30 In this way, past-tense Fleetwood is intermittently presented as an object of knowledge whose tendency to act and react in given ways can be predicted by a set of physical conditions.
However, more frequently, the novel presents Fleetwood’s thoughts without supplemental explanation of the mental or bodily states that preceded them. In some cases, the novel depicts Fleetwood’s erratic and anxious mind by presenting his thoughts as direct speech indicated by quotation marks. In one scene, Fleetwood discovers that the young Mr. Matthews has visited his house, and this briefly sends Fleetwood into a spin of paranoia regarding Mary’s fidelity. He then periodically tempers his suspicions with his certainty that Mary is innocent:
At first I felt in the higher degree irritated against her behaviour. “What chance,” said I, “have we for happiness, if, supposing me to be [End Page 313] in the wrong,—it is impossible I should be wrong!—she, instead of soothing my weakness, thus answers me with taunting and retort?”
Soon, however, I came to see the subject in a different light. “Fleetwood! Fleetwood!” said I, striking my forehead with my hand, “what is it you are doing? I have entered upon a serious and weighty task, the guardianship of the felicity of a young woman, who, without reserve, or defence, or refuge against me, has thrown herself into my power. What engagements did I form to her father! with how solemn protestations did I undertake to remove all uncertainty from his mind! . . . Look upon this young creature! Soft, and tender, and winning as she is, shall I be her destroyer? Do I doubt her innocence? Truth and honour are written in her front, in characters which folly itself cannot mistake. . . . What a brute am I, to misuse, and give uneasiness to so much excellence! I will throw myself at her feet, and with tears of anguish confess to her my fault.”
Full of these sentiments of remorse, I hastened back by the way I came, and entered the house.(314)
In this passage, Fleetwood’s inner disputes are vocalized and can thus be portrayed as reportable actions. This strategy allows Godwin to evoke the scene of internal conflict while borrowing from the tools of theater, insofar as the mode of soliloquy proves particularly fruitful for expressing the dilemma of a self-loathing state. Godwin is likely inspired by Shakespeare in this regard, whose weak-willed protagonists offer rich models as they reflect through soliloquy on their own failures. Fleetwood’s “What a brute am I” echoes Hamlet’s “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I”: Godwin clearly recognizes the dramatic irony of characters who reflect aloud on matters of the self that ought to be fully under one’s control.
However, Fleetwood is a novel and not a stage drama: Godwin’s internal dialogue through quotation marks indeed reads not as a conflict before our eyes, but as a past-tense series of events bracketed with the words “said I.” Elsewhere in Volume 3, the novel presents past-tense Fleetwood’s thoughts, but does so without the use of quotation marks, instead moving seamlessly between the voice of present-tense Fleetwood-the-narrator into the mind of past-tense Fleetwood-the-character. In one of many such instances, Fleetwood grows angry with Mary for requesting the chance to attend social gatherings and make acquaintances of her age:
Our discussion terminated in the formal churching, and the commencement of a tremendous series of wedding visits. Artful hussy! In the way she put it to me, could I refuse? Could I refuse a thing upon which, in this mild and specious temper of mind, her heart appeared [End Page 314] to be set?—I wrong her. There was no art in what she did; it was all the most adorable ingenuousness and sincerity . . .(297)
The transition between the first sentence, simply the narrator’s description of events, to the second sentence (“Artful hussy!”) proceeds, to quote Monika Fludernik, “without any noticeable shifting of gears.”31 We have moved to what appears to be the interior direct speech of past-tense Fleetwood without quotation marks. As we continue, however, the absence of quotation marks or the accompanying phrases “I said” or “I thought” allows the possibility that we are reading the exclamations of the narrator. The following sentences—“In the way she put it to me, could I refuse? Could I refuse a thing upon which, in this mild and specious temper of mind, her heart appeared to be set?—I wrong her”—can be read as either the unquoted direct speech of the past-tense character, the exclamations of the present-tense narrator, or as shifting back and forth between the two. The ambiguity becomes particularly pronounced with the dash and the sentence “I wrong her.” Have we shifted from a depiction of past-tense character’s effusions to the present-tense narrator expressing regret at his narrative choices? Are we remaining with the erratic voice of the intemperate past-tense character throughout? Or are we remaining in the voice of the present-tense narrator who is himself adopting the erratic qualities of the character he is seeking to depict? This use of unquoted direct speech allows Godwin distinct dramatic advantages: in blurring the distinction between narrator and character, intemperance is evoked rather than described.
This convergence of the narrator’s and character’s voices also allows a new sense of the narrator’s sympathy for the character, as if the narrator is prepared to relive and reembody the state of mind of his former self. With this sympathy then comes a new sense of irony. While these sentences do not qualify as FID, they share some of the qualities that are commonly attributed to it—in particular, the ability to convey empathy and irony. As Dorrit Cohn has written, because such instances “cast the language of a subjective mind into the grammar of objective narration, they . . . throw into ironic relief all false notes struck by a figural mind.”32 [End Page 315]
Thoughout Volume 3, Godwin employs further strategies for conflating the perspectives of narrator and character in order to convey Fleetwood’s “false notes.” These become especially clear when he is attempting to account for his volition—cases in which we are told that past-tense Fleetwood was “incapable” of doing or thinking otherwise. Volume 3 begins with one such scene in which Fleetwood grows furious with Mary while simultaneously acknowledging the overdetermined and ultimately unjustified nature of his anger. Fleetwood has introduced Mary to his mansion for the first time, and in touring the house, she selects a closet that she would like to have for herself. However, Fleetwood had privately cherished the closet, hoping it would remain his own. In what he recognizes is overcompensated frustration, he takes a walk in his garden and mulls over his situation:
I will go, and tell Mary what she has done. I will confess to her all my weakness. Nothing could be further from her thought than to occasion me this disturbance, and it will afford her the purest pleasure to repair it.
May I perish, if ever I breathe a syllable on the subject! What, shall I paint me thus pitiful and despicable in her eyes? Shall I tell her, that I love nobody but myself, and regard her gratifications with indifference? I will not tell her so! . . .
. . . .
I was incapable, however, of passing a just judgment in the case, and the transaction had an unfavourable effect upon my mind.”(294–95)
The final sentence, “I was incapable, however, of passing a just judgment in the case,” is presumably a plainly indirect instance of speech—a notation of the thought—from the voice of the narrator. However, the claim offered in the sentence appears particularly dubious in the light of the internal monologue we have just read. For one thing, because we have just read the conscious deliberations of the character’s mind, we see that Fleetwood was indeed quite “capable” of “passing a just judgment in the case,” even though he did not. Further, because we have just immersed ourselves (without quotation marks) into past-tense Fleetwood’s consciousness, the narrator appears to be sufficiently able to embody and perform the character’s language. Thus “I was incapable . . . of passing a just judgment” can function as FID: a sentence that performs what past-tense Fleetwood would say to himself. It can function as a matter-of-fact notation and also a performance of what past-tense Fleetwood might have said to himself: “I am incapable of passing a just judgment.” As in the case of Emma, we then [End Page 316] read this latter phrase as a way of saying, “I will not pass a just judgment, but I say I am incapable of it in order to relieve my conscience.”
Over the course of Volume 3 it grows increasingly unclear whether Fleetwood means to present his self-deceptions repentantly (as in St. Leon) or to reproduce them. In a moment of calm after several of Fleetwood’s vicious outbursts, he reflects upon the character of his wife Mary:
Deeply in love as I was, I could not help speculating, with no agreeable reflections, from the new lights I had derived on the character of my wife. Fickle and capricious I judged her; and, thus judging, I could not avoid sometimes viewing her under the notion of a beautiful toy, a plume of costly feathers, or a copious train of thinnest gauze, which nods gracefully, or floats in a thousand pleasing folds, but which is destitute of substance, firmness, or utility. There must be something, I thought, radically defective in so fluctuating a character. She acted (thus I construed her demeanour) inconsiderately and idly; she could be induced to no fixed spirit of attention; she was at one moment sunk in the lowest depths of misery, and at another wild with extravagant gaiety, with no interval to qualify the transition, with no self-government to give propriety or moderation to either. A being acting thus, was it entitled to be ranked in the scale of moral existences? What dependence could be placed upon the consistency of any thing so versatile? What principles could dwell in the bosom of so mere a woman?”(325–26)
We may begin to read this passage as a distanced retrospective notation of a character’s thoughts. However, as it proceeds, the narrator increasingly inhabits past-tense Fleetwood’s consciousness. The first three sentences tell us how Fleetwood “speculat[ed],” “judged,” and “view[ed]” her. Then it continues, “There must be something, I thought, radically defective in so fluctuating a character. She acted (thus I construed her demeanour) inconsiderately and idly; she could be induced to no fixed spirit of attention . . .” Here the modifier “I thought” moves from being a part of the core grammatical sentence towards being embedded within parentheses as “(thus I construed her demeanour).” Eventually, the notations of past-tense Fleetwood’s thoughts disappear entirely, as the clauses following semicolons are no longer given a speaker.
In this paradigmatic case of free indirect discourse, many new questions arise regarding the levels of awareness available to both the character and the narrator. The sentence that ends the paragraph—“What principles could dwell in the bosom of so mere a woman?”—leaves open the question whether the narrator, out of sympathy, continues to voice such [End Page 317] questions himself, or if it is the unquoted direct speech of the past-tense character. With this ambiguity, we return to the earlier sentences in the paragraph with new questions: “Fickle and capricious I judged her; and, thus judging, I could not avoid sometimes viewing her under the notion of a beautiful toy.” We may ask, which Fleetwood here is doing the judging? Who is doing the viewing? As we do as the narrator does and “judge” and “view” the character and the narrator together, we recognize not only that his observations of his wife are divorced from reality, but also that they accurately describe himself. “Fickle,” “capricious,” “radically defective,” “fluctuating,” “inconsiderate,” “idle,” “no fixed spirit of attention,” “no self-government to give propriety or moderation”: Fleetwood is building a fictional picture of Mary as a way of justifying his inattention to himself.
In this way, the porous relationship between narrator and character allowed by the impersonally performative mode of FID complicates our idea of moral conflict. Whereas Godwin’s first novel, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), centered its action on inter-personal aggression—from Tyrrel to Falkland, Falkland to Caleb, and Caleb to Falkland in turn—the attention of Fleetwood is more explicitly directed to the oppressiveness of an individual towards himself. FID plays a crucial role in this shift. When we consider phrases like “I could not help speculating” and “I could not avoid . . . viewing her” we see on the one hand that Fleetwood is Mary’s oppressor. However, on the other hand, the double meanings of the above phrases reveal Fleetwood to be both oppressor and oppressed. Fleetwood is our aggressor insofar as he willfully speculates about Mary and views her in knowingly malicious ways, making up excuses that he has no choice. But he is also our victim insofar as he “cannot avoid” the miserable fate that comes his way.
In the final chapters of the novel, the narrator presents his former self more simply as a victim of another’s machinations—namely, those of the conniving Gifford, this novel’s Iago—who causes Fleetwood’s cruel actions by convincing him of Mary’s guilt as an adulteress with Kenrick. However, the switching between indirect and direct speech also troubles this view, for it helps us see how Fleetwood was not merely left with no choice but to believe her guilty, but willingly partakes in his own self-deception. We can see this when we are thrust into Fleetwood’s unquoted direct speech when he glimpses a letter indicating an amorous correspondence between Mary and Kenrick. As Fleetwood notices the letter, the narration moves from indirect speech to direct speech:
Most assuredly, this discovery would not have made the smallest unfavourable impression upon me but for the incidents and insinuations which had been thrust upon my notice at Bath. What if my wife corresponded [End Page 318] with my kinsman? What harm was there in that? . . . Did I demand that Mary should give me an account of all her steps? There is no true generosity in such a demand. . . . A thousand actions, not modelled by the laws of hoary-headed vigilance, here are graceful. “Where virtue is, these are most virtuous”[Othello, 3.3.200 (adapted)].33
How was I to conduct myself? Was I to pass on, and not deign to notice what I saw? Was I to say, I will give an attentive heed to events as they rise, but I never will be indebted for knowledge, either of a gratifying or distressing nature, to any indirect proceeding? This mode of acting was most agreeable to what was moral and decorous; but I had not fortitude enough for this.
Should I determine to gratify my curiosity by the most generous means? Should I avow to Mary the fact, that I had met with the superscription of the letter by accident, and request her to acquaint me with its contents, and the circumstances that had given birth to it? Neither was my fortitude equal to this . . .(361–62)
In shifting seamlessly between the narrator’s matter-of-fact description of Fleetwood’s mind to the performance of it, we sense sympathy with the former character’s uncertainty. Phrases like “How was I to conduct myself?” again maintain an ambiguity between the indirect speech of the narrator and the direct speech of the character, blurring the sense of a narrator’s query as to the justifiable nature of what he did in the past and the performative expression of the character who thinks, “what to do now?” Further, as in the prior examples considered, the movement into direct speech reveals the character’s awareness of his own supposed “inability” to act otherwise: “I had not fortitude enough for this,” he tells us, and “Neither was my fortitude equal to this.” However, here this private expression of the character’s weakness helps expose a vital dimension to his character: because we see that his lack of fortitude is not literal but idiomatic, we see that he is in fact seeking out evidence of his wife’s guilt. By saying he has not the fortitude to consult with Mary, he implies that he elects not to consult her but instead to foster and cultivate this suspicion. The notion of Fleetwood’s deception by Gifford is here supplanted by this other view: that he is eager to find Mary guilty.
This sense is accentuated by the fact that it is within this mode of direct speech that the novel quotes Othello. It is the past-tense character of Fleetwood and not merely Fleetwood-the-narrator who knows that he is [End Page 319] partaking in this well-known narrative.34 He recognizes his deception; more explicitly than Othello himself, Fleetwood’s prior anxieties contribute to his eagerness to discover Mary’s guilt. The immersion into his direct speech helps us see his case not merely as deception, but as self-deception, and weakness of will in allowing his self-deception.
In wavering between perspectives and allowing multiple ambiguous moral interpretations, Godwin’s third novel is notably not explicit about its aims and techniques. This lack of explicitness troubled a number of readers and critics upon the novel’s publication. Reviews of the novel indeed claimed that the character of Casimir Fleetwood was “insufficiently motivated” and “implausible.”35 Walter Scott wrote in the Edinburgh Review in 1805 that Fleetwood is quite simply a “selfish madman” to whom we cannot relate; likewise, the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine opined that “some of these adventures are such, we are persuaded, as never occurred to a human being . . . while the sentiments and actions ascribed to the principal character, are, in many cases, not only extravagant, but ridiculous.”36 These observations express the challenges that the readers and the author faced in construing the will within the genre of a realist novel: how could it be possible that a character whose education has been so thoroughly traced would then not act in accordance with his beliefs and understanding? Yet Godwin’s imprecision marks an epistemological turn towards depicting the elements of the will that cannot be so comprehensively explicated by stipulating mental causes. By performing the self-deception that accompanies weakness of will, the novel embraces these conceptual difficulties that had so troubled his philosophical models: the dual and paradoxical qualities of the will are preserved in their unresolved state of conflict.
Like Godwin’s critics, we are unsure what to make, for instance, of the scene in which Fleetwood is full of unreasonable jealousy after a public dance and lashes out at Mary: “I felt irresistibly prompted to avenge my sorrows by inveighing against the neighbourhood, the evening . . .” (310). The words “I felt irresistibly prompted” again offer several interpretations, and we may read this imprecision as a mark of Godwin’s shortcomings as a novelist: he is no longer the author of “plausible” realist novels that he had previously aspired to be. Yet the ambiguity is essential: it is phrased just so that it may be interpreted either as an irresistible compulsion or as a free and intentional act operating on the false excuse that it is based in an irresistible [End Page 320] compulsion. The words “I felt” indeed can be read in the indirect mode of past-tense “matter-of-fact notation” that indicates that a “feeling” arrived to him (he as the passive recipient) by “irresistible prompts.” At the same time, “I felt” not only allows this passive meaning, but also the phenomenological meaning of “I felt as if.” We may then read the sentence as a free indirect performance of past-tense Fleetwood’s mind, as he might say to himself, “I feel as if I am irresistibly prompted,” implying then that he is not actually irresistibly prompted.
In such instances, Godwin experiments with a technique that would be fundamental for Austen. He learns that the form of the novel can train one to simultaneously observe individuals empirically and to embody their consciousness, to view their behaviors and internalize their utterances. As Fleetwood reveals, FID opens up these two sides of the will, the way an individual can appear to be causally explainable but also a source of newness and potential. This capacity, Godwin finds, becomes a particular asset to the form of the novel, which constantly asks us to read the minds of individuals from without and from within, and which can then include the words “I could not resist,” and in so doing, imply the opposite.
Thomas Salem Manganaro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Richmond. He specializes in British literature and philosophy of the long eighteenth century and is currently working on a book about akrasia and literary form.
3. Dorrit Cohn characterizes free indirect speech by distinguishing direct speech (or “quoted monologue”) as “a character’s mental discourse,” indirect speech (or “psychonarration”) as “the narrator’s discourse about a character’s consciousness,” and free indirect speech (or “narrated monologue”) as “a character’s mental discourse in the guise of the narrator’s discourse.” See Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 14.
8. Adela Pinch focuses on the conception of passions as “autonomous entities that do not always belong to individuals,” thereby conceiving of pre-cognitive entities and states as destabilizing the conception of the autonomous subject as the source of actions. See Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 3. There has recently been a productive critical turn in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary studies to questions of action and causation, exemplified in work by Jonathan Kramnick, Sandra Macpherson, and Anne-Lise François. However, while these studies examine many dimensions of agency, they do not center on the particularly enigmatic causal phenomenon in which the will fails to exert itself, and causation seems to struggle or break down. Some exceptions in Romantic poetry criticism include Willard Spiegelman, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), and segments on Wordsworth in Stefanie Markovits, The Crisis of Action in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006).
9. For thorough histories of akrasia and weakness of will, see especially T. D. J. Chappell, Aristotle and Augustine on Freedom: Two Theories of Freedom, Voluntary Action and Akrasia (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995); Risto Saarinen, Weakness of Will in Renaissance and Reformation Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Tobias Hoffmann, ed., Weakness of Will from Plato to the Present (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008). See also Donald Davidson, “How is Weakness of Will Possible?” in Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), and Amélie Rorty, “Where Does the Akratic Break Take Place?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 58 (1980): 333–47, both of which present helpful introductions to akrasia and its problems for contemporary analytic philosophy.
10. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 82. For a more recent study on broader changes to conceptions of human agency with the modern era, see Thomas Pfau, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2013).
11. Pascal, The Dual Voice, 107. Pascal’s essential study begins with Goethe and Austen; for a brief note regarding first-person free indirect speech in eighteenth-century epistolary novels, see Monika Fludernik, The Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction: The Linguistic Representation of Speech and Consciousness (London: Routledge, 1993), 88. There are no sustained treatments of FID in Godwin studies that I know of, nor has there been sustained attention to representational approaches to depicting the will in St. Leon and Fleetwood. The most significant critical approaches to these two novels—by Gary Kelly, Mark Philp, Tilottama Rajan, Jon Klancher, Gary Handwerk, and Hina Nazar in particular—have illuminated the wide range of changes in Godwin’s thought in the late 1790s and early 1800s, visible in his philosophy of education, metaphysics, epistemology, and moral and political thought.
12. Pascal, The Dual Voice, 45; Banfield, Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982). Disputing the notion that FID has its roots in the eighteenth century, Monika Fludernik posits that it is rooted in oral habits and literary traditions that can be traced to antiquity.
13. In a very brief exception, Banfield discusses FID in the context of Descartes’s epistemology—namely, the distinction between reflective and non-reflective consciousness (197–99).
14. Godwin, St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century, ed. William Brewer (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2006), 97; hereafter cited in the text parenthetically.
16. Dorrit Cohn classifies first-person retrospective instances of FID (what she calls “narrated monologues”) as “self-narrated monologues.” In cases of “retrospection into a consciousness,” she writes, “[t]he same basic types of presentation appear, the same basic terms apply, modified by prefixes to signal the modified relationship of the narrator to the subject of his narration: psycho-narration becomes self-narration . . . and monologues can now be either self-quoted, or self-narrated” (Transparent Minds, 14).
19. Godwin, An Enquiry, 4.8.185. As Mark Philp writes, for Godwin, “[k]nowing a moral truth, and recognising that it applies in a particular case and that one has the capacity to perform the required action, provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for the performance of that action. . . . Truth alone motivates us” (Godwin’s Political Justice, 31). As Philp discusses at length, Godwin’s Platonic embrace of the immutable truth and its relation to perfectibility is indebted to the eighteenth-century Rational Dissenters. See especially 26–34 and 89–95.
21. Godwin, An Enquiry, 5.5.163–64. This is indeed a formulation that looks similar to one we find in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature in which he considers how a man acts knowingly against his best interests. Hume minimizes the distinctive difficulty of accounting for such an event, writing, “nor is there any thing more extraordinary in this, than in mechanics to see one pound weight raise up a hundred by the advantage of its situation.” See A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition, ed. David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2.3.3, 267.
23. Godwin, The Enquirer, vi. As Jon Klancher writes, Godwin was to “relinquish the overarching ambition of the original Political Justice—the task of philosophical totalization that by 1797 he was reluctantly calling ‘incommensurate to our powers’—so that instead of high theory, Godwin now pursued local ‘investigations,’ open-ended inquiries into ‘education, manners, and literature,’ which demanded questioning the method, the motive, and the reflexive position of the cultural inquirer himself.” See Klancher, “Godwin and the Republican Romance: Genre, Politics, and Contingency in Cultural History,” Modern Language Quarterly 56, no. 2 (June 1995): 154. Tilottama Rajan focuses on the open-ended process of “reading” encouraged by The Enquirer. “The reader cannot be governed by the announced moral, but must read actively, doing more than simply reproducing the text. . . . For by making writing the production rather than the reflection of an anterior meaning, Godwin also makes reading the production, through ‘experiment’ or experience, of a text that is still in process.” See Rajan, The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 169.
24. Mark Philp argues that “the later editions [of Political Justice] seem to abandon the rationalism of the first edition in favour of a more Humean scepticism, and some critics have argued that this shift undermines the cogency of Godwin’s argument for the inevitability of moral and political improvement” (Godwin’s Political Justice, 8).
26. We might note that this passage continues to reveal conceptual uneasiness with the notion of divided or weak agency. Godwin’s attention here is to “self-deception” (what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith” [mauvaise foi]), but he does not expound exactly on how this self-deception is possible. Presumably one may be deceived in acting and thus may act against better judgment, but then what about the self who does the deceiving? How does an individual “elect” or “will” himself to deceive himself? For more on the similarities and distinctions between weakness of will (or akrasia) and “self-deception,” see Amélie Rorty, “Self-Deception, Akrasia and Irrationality,” Social Science Information 19 (1980): 905–22, and Alfred Mele, Irrationality: An Essay on Akrasia, Self-Deception, and Self-Control (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1987.
29. See Handwerk, “Mapping Misogyny: Godwin’s ‘Fleetwood’ and the Staging of Rousseauvian Education,” SiR 41, no. 3 (Fall 2002); and Nazar, Enlightened Sentiments: Judgment and Autonomy in the Age of Sensibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). Handwerk writes persuasively that the novel “marks the way in which its author seeks to map misogyny, tracing its origins to the whole framework of natural education” modeled by Emile (397–98). Nazar discusses how “Godwin’s critique of Rousseau builds on the earlier critique developed by Mary Wollstonecraft in her novels and educational writings,” which emphasize how “Rousseau’s structuring norm of nature [exposes] its fundamental arbitrariness and injustice to women” (107). However, Nazar reads the novel more broadly as a critique of not merely the “gendering of virtue,” but the broader “cast of [Rousseau’s] sentimentalism” (84).
30. Godwin, Fleetwood; or, the New Man of Feeling, ed. Gary Handwerk and A. A. Markley (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Literary Texts, 2001), 301. Hereafter cited in the text parenthetically.
32. Cohn, Transparent Minds, 117. For extended discussions on the “debate about the qualities of empathy versus irony versus objectivity in free indirect discourse” (Fludernik, The Fictions of Language, 5), see especially Fludernik, 72–82. Following the earliest sustained scholarly account of “le style indirect libre” by Charles Bally in 1912, Fludernik notes the caricaturing and parodic elements associated with the style, which “can condense and exaggerate a character’s utterance or attitudes with the intention of implicitly criticizing those speech acts and beliefs” (80). See also Banfield, Unspeakable Sentences, 220–23.
33. The bracketed citation of Othello takes the form of a footnote in the Broadview edition.
36. Excerpted and quoted in Fleetwood, ed. Gary Handwerk and A. A. Markley, 521–24.