Disadvantages of Jane Austen's Free Indirect Discourse in 'Emma'

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Jane Austen, who is considered by some critics to be ‘the best novelist in England’, started writing narratives at an early age. She is famous for her visual representation of society, social status, and typical marriage traditions. Austen can be seen as a feminist during this time because her heroine's strength is different from the norm. Reading ‘Emma’, Austen acknowledges and questions the belief that marriage is the maturity and lifestyle of a woman. She is an expert of vague sentences that maybe the feelings of a character, but can also be the voice of the narrator. Also, known as free indirect discourse (FID). Free indirect discourse intended effect is to connect the reader and the character, by helping the reader see through the character’s eyes. In the book Emma it is hard to tell whether Emma, one of the characters or the narrator are the one thinking these thoughts. She’s often in Emma’s head, but using free indirect discourse allows her to be ironic about Emma’s thoughts, as well. The use of free indirect discourse in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ leads to misreading due to misinterpretation of the novel.

Being that free indirect discourse is told within a passage, it is visible by the use of dialogue and quotes. It is up to the reader to interpret it based on the context surrounding it. One scholar LaCapra states, “Free indirect style has the peculiarity of being very easy to recognize but rather difficult to analyze. Commentators will invariably agree on the selection of passages in which it is pres­ent, but they will vary significantly in their explanations of it”. Although readers notice FID in ‘Emma’, their descriptions will be fairly different. Readers will interpret the passage differently and providing different meanings leads to a misreading of the novel. When the narrative changes frequently, in unstructured conduct the novel becomes confusing.

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Emma has been deemed one of Austen’s greatest novels because of her use of free indirect discourse. But many interpretations have aroused after reading the book, because of the style. Another scholar Thaden states “'Emma' especially, we are never sure how much of the narrative is told from Emma's point of view and how much is Austen's commentary. We know (or think we know) that we are not in a totally subjective first-person narrative because occasionally we know things that Emma does not”. Reader disagrees constantly on whether or not a passage is told from Emma’s point of view or the narrators. For instance, when Emma starts to dance with Henry the narrator states, “Not more than five couple could be mustered; but the rarity and the suddenness of it made it very delightful, and she found herself-well matched partner. They were a couple worth looking at”. It is hard to distinguish whether or not the narrator or Emma is talking. Although we have a narrative approach, in the beginning, the last sentence “They were a couple worth looking at” seems almost as if it was Emma’s thoughts.

Knowing the difference between the narrator and the audience helps understand the character, and connect on a deeper level. Oberman’s other scholars argue why it is good to know the difference between a narrator and character. She states, “Becoming aware of the double-voicedness of narrated monologue enriches a reader’s understanding of how a narrator manipulates readerly perceptions of a given character”. An easy narration does not give off the same effect, as reading two voices and in this novel it works. The narrator helps the reader know whose side they are on and if he/she is biased, they control the audience’s feelings towards a character. Which emphasizes the reliability of the narrator. The narrator is very important when reading any book. In ‘Emma’, the readers develop empathy for Emma on her journey of self-discovery with the help of free indirect discourse.

Readers are constantly in Emma’s head throughout the novel, and free indirect discourse steers their reactions towards her ideas. Gunn argues that “Thus, even as we find ourselves fully inside of Emma's consciousness in a passage like this one, her thoughts are still inflected by the surrounding narratorial context”. Austen demonstrates her presence in the novel by stating her judgment, before or after Emma’s. It never contradicts Emma’s thoughts but becomes difficult to notice. Although in some instances we are only restricted to Emma’s point of view, the continuous use of free indirect discourse makes the passage unclear. Gunn goes on to state, “Because we have seen Emma make this sort of confident, fanciful judgment before because we recognize her distinctive quickness and the way her mind runs, we are prepared to recognize the sentimental excess of her fancy here, and to see the FID as a piece of ironic mimicry”. Readers are used to Emma reacting in certain ways, so it does not come off as a surprise. We understand her as a character. So when FID is used it may come off as an imitation of her reacting but amusingly. It depends on how the readers interpret it, and that makes an impact on how they will view the book as a whole.

As I said before, the use of free indirect discourse helps the readers develop empathy for Emma and her mistakes made throughout the novel. Rosmarin argues, “To read ‘Emma’ mimetically is to watch Emma's education with dispassionate sympathy, any excess involvement or doubt signaling a fault either in our reading or in Austen's art”. To read Austen’s free indirect discourse in ‘Emma’ as an imitation you will not empathize with her character. An interference of doubt will change with the way we read it as well as Austen’s use of it. Rosmarin continues to argue, “By inviting us to doubt the text, it upholds this act as inherently interesting and valuable; by depending on the interpretive skills of the reader, it implies a reality that needs interpreting and a reader actively involved in that interpretation”. By encouraging the reader to challenge the text, they become more engaged, but it questions their interpretive skills. Misreading becomes crucial when reading a novel because the reader’s engagement is based on their analysis of the novel.

The first time readers see FID in ‘Emma’ is the opening sentence. This is the first time the audience encounters the narrator, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her”. Readers get confused on whether this authoritative voice is a narrator from the community, or one speaking for the community. Finch and Bowen suggest that “If the narrator had a definite source of authority….she would not tell us how Emma seemed but what she was”. Telling the readers how she seems, proposes that the narrator is not telling us her thoughts but the thoughts of her community. This shows that the community disregards Emma’s unwanted humor. The dialogue is full of unreliability and doubt because the words used to describe Emma are good, but the sound is sarcastic.

Another obvious use of free indirect discourse is after a few days with Harriet, Emma decides that she wants to be more like her. A part of the passage states, “It was rather too late in the day to set about being simple-minded and ignorant, but she left her with every previous resolution confirmed of being humble and discreet, and repressing imagination of herself”. It is difficult to distinguish whether it is Emma speaking/ thinking or the narrator suggesting these thoughts from her point of view. If we read it from Emma’s point of view the sentence will come off as rude calling Harriet “simple-minded and ignorant”. But, if we read it from a narrative standpoint, it can be considered Emma’s way of self-improvement realizing where she is wrong, giving her more room to grow.

When Mr. Elton gives admires Emma’s painting, the narrator responds with Emma’s thoughts rather than her words. “Yes, good man!—thought Emma—but what has all that to do with taking likenesses? You know nothing of drawing. Don’t pretend to be in raptures about mine. Keep your raptures for Harriet’s face”. The narrator is responding on behalf of Emma. It is seen here that the narrator uses is to include Emma’s thoughts, therefore demonstrating free indirect discourse. The narrator will not refer to themselves as “mine”, or a character as “you”, so he/she is not a character in the novel. The narrator has both their response and Emma’s thoughts which can be difficult to analyze when reading.

Further, in the novel, the narrator states “The lovers were standing together at one of the windows”. Referring to Mr. Elton and Harriet are the lovers. Knowing how Emma is determined to play matchmaker and react to certain situations, it can be read as Emma’s thoughts as well. It is unbelievable to see anybody refer to someone as “lovers” besides Emma. Calling those two lovers are misleading because the use of the context behind it lets the readers know they do not like each other. But it is not until a few pages after that we find out the two are not lovers. Confusing, and misreading if one does not go back to re-read it and notice the free indirect discourse.

Jane Austen uses free indirect discourse for multiple reasons in her novel. Another example of free indirect discourse is “With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body's destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken, and she had not quite done nothing—for she had done mischief”. The narrator is talking to the audience for the benefit of Emma’s actions so that we can empathize and feel shame with her. She is also using this to imitate certain reactions, forcing them on the readers. Creating tension between Emma and the rest of the readers that may have found her responses to situations uncanny. In doing this she is giving us a look at the double-voicedness in her novel.

Although, the free indirect discourse work in some passages in the novel, it still makes it hard to analyze the book as a whole. Finch and Bowen make the case that “gossip is a secret mechanism of control, communicated and naturalized by the free indirect style”. Gossip may have been the technique to tie the story together if either the narrator or Emma was using it. But they both continuously use it, Emma gossip about the characters surrounding her in the story, and so does the narrator. Each sharing some of the same vocabulary in the following sentences.

Narrator: “The real evils..the danger, however, was at present so unperceived”. Emma: “If a separation of two months should not have cooled him, there were dangers”. If the roles were switched, they sound the same, not having a distinct difference in speech. Rachel also disagrees with this statement stating, “The narrative voice, while it disseminates the communal voice through free indirect discourse, does not give the voice of gossip any weight on these important matters; in fact, the communal voice is repeatedly shown to be unreliable”. Gossiping is not a reliable form of speech for a narrator or character it is an act of uncertainty. Spreading the thoughts of Emma’s community the narrator uses free indirect discourse and doing this reveals no important significance.

Free indirect discourse is a key element in ‘Emma’. By the use of that style of writing, the readers can hear Emma’s thoughts. Emma as a character raises uncertainty between both the narrator and the readers, keeping it hard to analyze certain passages. Although Emma tells the story of her experiences when they happen to her at the moment, the narrator recounts the growing awareness of Emma over a few days with the help of other characters.

The private feelings of a character are easily misunderstood as the real expressions of the narrator, and the other way around. The narrator is the heart of the book, they tell the story to the reader. They allow us to know how to feel about a character and how the character feels about themselves. The way they tell the story is important because it tells the audience what to take away from it, if they get confused between the narrator and the main character, it will be hard to fully understand or connect.

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Disadvantages of Jane Austen’s Free Indirect Discourse in ‘Emma’. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/disadvantages-of-jane-austens-free-indirect-discourse-in-emma/
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