Two Ways of relating a story
mimesis = imitation. So actors in theater relate a story mimetically. In fiction mimesis is when characters other than the narrator are quoted speaking or thinking in their own voice; often but not always this will be marked with quotation tags, such as ‘he said…’ or ‘she thought…’
diegesis = describing or reporting. Diegesis means telling a story rather than acting it out. Diegesis covers everything the narrator tells us to advance the story without quoting others.
Two kinds of speech
direct speech = speech or thought we get directly from the speaker, be it the narrator or an implicitly or explicitly quoted character. Consider for example this sentence: <He said, “I’m one tough cookie.”> Here <I’m one tough cookie> is direct speech by a character but <he said> is also direct speech by the narrator.
indirect speech = speech or thought that is reported in the third-person. So this sentence – <He said he’s one tough cookie.> is different from the previous one because here <he said> is still the narrator’s direct speech but <he’s one tough cookie> is indirect speech.
So diegetic narration can use both direct and indirect speech, because the narrator can tell a story both by speaking in her/his own voice and by reporting what characters say. On the surface it would seem that mimetic narration by contrast could only work with direct speech, since mimetically imitating someone would seem to require speaking in the first rather than third person: if you’re referring to someone as “him” you’re apparently not letting him speak as “I.” Jane Austen’s signature innovation though was to show that a character’s first-person voice can be heard even when the narrator is referring to them in the third person.
Austen accomplished this by way of the narrative technique that became her signature and the foundation of novelistic realism as we know it. This is known variously as free indirect discourse or untagged indirect speech. Untagged indirect speech gives us mimesis in the form of diegesis: it gives us a character’s first personal thoughts in the form of third personal omniscient narration. The other term to know in this context is focalization. This refers to the fact that untagged indirect speech always implicitly singles out the thoughts of a particular character or characters at a time, but it does so without explicit attribution. So in P&P’s famous opening passage, the second sentence makes it evident that the first sentence could not be direct speech by the narrator but is instead implicitly attributed to “the minds of the surrounding families.” But the point about focalization is that untagged indirect speech moves in and out of characters’ heads not in a clear, abrupt way but in a subtle, fluid way.
So generally speaking untagged indirect speech increases rather than decreases ambiguity and uncertainty. Compared with an epistolary novel, in a realist novel you’re more likely to encounter uncertainty as to whose perspective is speaking or representing a scene. The point of focalization is not to be clear-cut but to effect subtle shifts and shadings of voice and perspective. Tracking focalization in fiction is just as imprecise as tracking meter in poetry: good literature is by nature not formulaic; the point of analyzing form isn’t to reduce a work of literature to these formal operations but to use them to reveal as much as possible of its particularity.
The huge artistic advantage of the ambiguity of untagged indirect speech is that it represents how reality feels in the individualistic modern world: questioning how objective a given thought, feeling or statement is is a modern condition of life. This is why it’s a mistake to think of ‘subjective’ in contrast to ‘objective:’ subjectivity doesn’t mean the absence of objectivity but rather the way objectivity looks and feels from a particular subjective perspective. Subjectivity without objectivity would be unimaginable madness, and objectivity without subjectivity is the uninhabited world of scientific knowledge: “the view from nowhere.” The ambiguity of untagged indirect speech – exposing the nuanced interplay of subjectivity and objectivity – is integral to its realism.
As a rule of thumb, the smartest, most virtuous and interesting person in a Jane Austen novel will be the most focalized character; i.e., the one who gets the most untagged indirect speech. The reasons for this are complex and have to do with the basic nature of Austen’s novels.
Austen was a social conservative: like Edmund Burke, she stood for preserving the traditional social order at a time when that order was under unprecedented threat, both from domestic reformers and from hostile foreign powers like France. For Burke this meant preserving the monarchy and aristocracy. For Austen, Burke’s stance here is so obviously right that it went without mentioning. So blood nobility – that is, Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, Barons – rarely appear in Austen novels. Instead they are peopled by the lesser aristocracy or landed gentry. Austen focuses on characters at the bottom of the aristocratic hierarchy because they are the ones most threatened by any change to the social order.
It’s hard for us to imagine how torturously precarious the position of the lower aristocracy was at this time. What’s most challenging for us to imagine is what an intense shame-culture this was: to fall from the aristocracy into the working classes (that is anybody, including merchants, who had to work for a living) was more akin to falling in evolutionary or species rank than falling in social rank. To fall out of the aristocracy, to lose entitled leisure and to have to work was really to lose what was considered a necessary element of personhood. The shame this would entail is just too horrifying to imagine let alone to talk about; yet this nightmare is at the back of all of Austen’s important characters’ minds, it informs every aspect of their lives.
Hence W.H. Auden’s famous lyric about Austen from his “Letter to Lord Byron:”
She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is, if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of middle class
Describe the amorous effect of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
So the key challenge facing an Austen heroine is how to maintain not just the appearance but also the feeling that money means nothing while in an unquestioned and unquestionable way it in fact means everything. This is a particularly daunting task for women who had nothing to do with themselves beyond getting a man to marry them. The positive actions they could undertake to achieve this end were next to none: besides being pretty and having a good dowry (which were of course not at all under a woman’s control), all she could at least partially control was her ability to be respectable and charming. If you think about it this is really an impossible way to live: with the threat of effective dehumanization constantly looming but without any means of addressing it, since to address it, either by explicitly worrying about it or somehow working to prevent it, would mean you’re already lost, fallen out of the world that defines itself in terms of entitled insouciance. It’s basically a schizophrenic existence, where your world is constantly on the verge of collapsing and your only means of avoiding this is to pretend you have no worries whatsoever. The spectacle of someone managing this is both awe-inspiring and also, as Auden’s lyric suggests, harrowing.
There are two key components to how Austen’s heroines manage it, and in untagged indirect speech they find the consummate means of joint expression: the first is interiority – which doesn’t mean having emotions or ‘sensibility’ but maintaining a rich and robust reflective perspective upon one’s emotions as well as worldly events; and the second is wit – which combines, on the one hand, incredibly subtle knowledge about all the intricate and absurd ways of the social world, with, on the other hand, exquisite linguistic facility, the ability to express this social knowledge with precisely calibrated ironic inflection so as not to betray the slightest malevolence or worry but always only the utmost elegance even when the consequences of missteps are dire.
Austen introduced a whole new mode of literary discourse, called realism, by using untagged indirect speech to show how objective social pressures play out inside individual subjects’ heads. The various ways in which the narrator’s voice yields to the untagged indirect speech of different characters maps the social reality they inhabit: characters without interior lives and hence without untagged indirect speech are tantamount to scenery or furniture; they may be powerful obstacles to maneuver around but they’re essentially static objects (Austen effectively describes this contrast when she juxtasposes Mr and Mrs Bennet, remarking with mocking emphasis that “Her mind was less difficult to develope” (4). Interiority and wit represent depth and wisdom but also extreme vulnerability because these are all essentially virtues of necessity: Elizabeth’s demonstration of these virtues is immensely admirable but there’s always the harrowing implication in Austen that even more admirable would be to not need to demonstrate such virtues in the first place; that is, to just be an unquestionably consummate (i.e. reified) figure of nobility. The ambiguity of untagged indirect speech – the fact that you can never know for certain whether you’re getting subjective thoughts or objective description – starkly displays how ambiguous and tenuous the distinction between people and things really is.
This makes for amazing art and for extremely cutting social critique. The enduring charm of Austen’s heroines’ emotional intelligence and elegance of character has to do with the fact that Austen herself wasn’t seduced by it. What makes their elegance and intelligence so appealing is also what makes it somewhat frightening: that it’s honestly responsive to what Auden called “the economic basis of society.”