Narrative techniques

Free indirect discourse

Narrative takes up only just over half of the novel of Persuasion. Even then, much of that narrative is free indirect discourse. This is a technique that blends a character's thoughts and feelings (without using speech marks) with narrative and normal direct speech. Although free indirect discourse had been used before, Jane Austen pioneered its expansion and development as a way of exploring the human consciousness:

  • There is a melding of the narrator and character so that the narrator seems to get inside the character
  • The reader has a more intimate and immediate access to a character's thoughts and feelings without the sense of the narrator being the intermediary
  • The objectivity of the narrator is softened by the subjectivity of the character's consciousness
  • As the character's consciousness unfolds, we are more aware of how those thoughts and feelings contribute to the direction of the story.

Investigating narrative techniques

An example of the different nuances of narrative viewpoint

  • Look at Chapter 7. Consider how Jane Austen's use of free indirect discourse enhances our sense of Anne's inner turmoil when she begins to reason with herself that she ought to be over her feelings toward Captain Wentworth:
    • Free indirect discourse
      • Eight years, almost eight years had passed since all had been given up.
    • Direct discourse
      • She reasoned, ‘Eight years, almost eight years had passed since all had been given up.'
    • Indirect discourse
      • She reasoned that almost eight years had passed since she had given everything up.


Jane Austen's use of natural and realistic dialogue was a mark of progress for the novel. Each character has his or her own distinctive way of speaking that Austen uses to reveal character traits:

  • Mrs. Musgrove's way of speaking is good-natured and unaffected when she is sympathising with Mrs. Croft about being separated from her husband (Ch. 8)
  • Mrs. Croft's words have an air of deliberateness and self-assurance when she is explaining how comfortable it is to be on board a naval ship (Ch. 8)
  • Mary's speech is self-centred and complaining when she realises that Charles is going to dine with the Musgroves and she will be left to look after her son (Ch. 7)
  • Captain Wentworth's words indicate his intelligence and charisma as he discusses his shipboard experiences with the Musgrove sisters (Ch. 8)
  • The fact that Anne Elliot does not at first enter much into the conversation signifies her solitariness and isolation:
    • Her speech is characteristically brief and understated at first
    • As her position in the story becomes more central, she speaks more
    • As the novel progresses, Anne moves beyond mere responses to a lengthier, more active and declarative way of speaking.
    • There are several occasions when she does not have words to express her feelings, even to herself. This is particularly affected by her interactions with Captain Wentworth.

The rapidity of the dialogue in Persuasion helps set the brisk pace of the narrative:

  • Sentences are generally short
  • Conversation between characters goes back and forth quickly
  • There is a spontaneity which sometimes verges on stream-of consciousness
  • The multi-layered meanings in Austen's dialogue contribute to its wit and sparkle

Investigating dialogue

  • Select a passage of dialogue and explore the layers of meaning beyond the most obvious, bland meanings of the words.
    • Use different colours to highlight each section of text and then make notes according to:
      • Those things not being said aloud, but assumed by the speaker
      • The thoughts of the character as they are speaking
      • The feelings that the character is experiencing and / or is aware of during the conversation.
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