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|Free indirect style at work
Written by Laraine
(1/23/2005 2:51 p.m.)
"Free indirect style" is Austen getting as close to the character as possible by using the language the character (Emma in this case) would use to describe something, but still speaking much like the omniscient narrator. The clearest examples of this style are when Austen is actually recounting conversation but doesn't put it in quotes as dialog.
Austen is often said to have created this innovation, and even if there are examples of it in earlier novels, no one did it as much or nearly as well as she did it. She's truly masterful. It's one of the ways that her irony shines out in her novels in a wonderfully subtle way.
It's amazing to me how Austen can start by narrating something in an omniscient, objective tone, and then easily slide into Emma's voice (for example). Its effect is to contrast the objective tone with the slightly less objective tone, and then move away from objectivity into irony by contrasting the tones.
When we learn about Harriet, we first have the omniscient narrator talking about her:
Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard's school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder. This was all that was generally known of her history. She had no visible friends but what had been acquired at Highbury, and was now just returned from a long visit in the country to some young ladies who had been at school there with her.The subtle shift occurs in the last line: Emma is mentioned as thinking Harriet particularly pretty. We start to move into Emma's head at that point, but we're still in objective speech:
She was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness; and before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.Now we're in Emma's head, and without really "moving" there. We just naturally have dropped into her consciousness, without even noticing it. The next lines are all Emma:
She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith's conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging -- not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk -- and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given. Those soft blue eyes and all those natural graces should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connections. The acquaintance she had already formed were unworthy of her.It's it amazing how the narration, since we are in Emma's head, is now making judgements: Harriet is proper, pleasant, has good sense, deserves things, has soft eyes rather than just blue eyes, she cannot be wasted, and she needs acquaintance that is worthy of her. Contrast that with how we started out, objectively describing Harriet's illegitamacy without any moral judgments at all.
So very smooth. I marvel at it.
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