Free Indirect Discourse in Emma


By Dolores

Free indirect discourse (FID), is “an imitation of figurative speech or thought, in which the narrator echoes or mimics the idiom of the character for the purposes of the fiction” (Daniel Gunn). Jane Austen is seen as one of its first practitioners (Pascal), and Emma is a model. The style builds a free space for the interaction between the author, the narrator, and the readers. FID has two functions in the text: at first, it arouses suspicion and makes the narrative debatable; second, as the plot unfolds, the readers may generate emotions, and pay more attention to the characters..

The novel begins from the description of Emma, and the first function of FID can be observed, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (Austen, 55). The introduction uses third-person speech, and it integrates thoughts into the narrator. Combined with the effect of irony, the author uses the word “clever” to depict Emma, which indicates her self-righteous behavior on match-making. At the same time, the readers realize that Emma’s happy life is based on her privileged background and superior social status. The discourse is full of uncertainty and ambiguity, since the words used to depict Emma are pretty positive, however, the tone is ironic. As a result, it makes the readers think about the real attitude of the author towards Emma.

On the other hand, the second function also works, one of the good examples is the relationship between Emma and Harriet Smith. “She [Harriet] was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired…Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.” (Austen, 69) FID here works with the narrator who is also a charater(Emma). There is no “she thought”, “she said” in the text, Emma presents herself directly. Once the author uses FID, we entered into the character’s point of view. The way of moving the point of view, is just following by the narrator. According to Emma, we learn about Harriet’s beauty, and it is admired by Emma. Through Emma’s eyes, readers know the feeling of Emma towards Harriet. In the next paragraph, the speech turns to FID completely. Every reader becomes Emma here, observes and thinks about this new friend, “…that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given…” (Austen, 69) These words are not only Emma’s evaluation on Harriet, they also hint that Harriet is different from Emma’s other friends, especially in social status. By depicting Emma’s consideration, Austen leads us fade into Emma gradually. The use of this technique puzzles the readers, while Emma interferes Harriet’s marriage, the readers must have no objection.

Overall, free indirect discourse is a crucial part of the novel. According to free indirect discourse, Emma’s thoughts are learnt by the readers. The return from a fair narrator to Emma, a role with strong subjectivity, increases the tension between the narrator and the readers, so that the topic of the novel is revealed: the weakness of human judgment.



Lush rolling green English countryside
Scenic landscape view of lush rolling green hills in the English countryside with sunlight breaking through morning mist and cloud




Works Cited

  1. Austen, Jane and Flieger Samuelian, Kristin. Emma. Toronto: broadview, 2004. Print.
  2. Pascal, Roy. “The Dual Voice”. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977. Print.


Images Sourced From:

10 Quotes From Jane Austen’s Emma That Can Teach Us About Life



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