Technique Of Empathy: Free Indirect Speech
Let's say I want to write a narrative poem about an orthodox Jew in the nineteen twenties who also happens to be a much sought after hit man for murder incorporated. Let's say his name is Manny The Moyel Mandelbaum, and that, because he is such a pious Jew, he refuses to kill anyone on the Sabbath. Let's say the title of the poem is, Guns and Mothers, and it opens like this: "Hester Street, 1923, a Friday evening, late fall, one hour before sundown. Everywhere the smell of fish and chick peas, carts piled high with produce, street hawkers hawking beads, garments, leather goods, candles. Steam rising through the gratings and manhole covers up and down the neighborhood. Next to the shul, the bakery. Next to the bakery, the deli, and inside the deli, at his usual booth, wearing a suit to show he was in business, and carrying a gun to show what business he was in, Manny 'the moyel' was waiting for Sammy the Schnauz, the local bookie. "Thank god," he thought, glancing at the deli counter, "it's Mama's day off." He didn't want her to see him getting rough with Sammy. She thought Manny was in the funeral business. He hated lying to his mother, but it would kill her if she knew the truth, and killing was a graver sin than lying or working on the sabbath. He was a good boy, a good son, he told himself, watching the door for Sammy, confident (if Sammy didn't show by sundown) he'd find him at the track on Saturday night." This isn't bad, I think. Maybe a little stiff in its movement from full to limited omniscience, not quite as charged with Manny's subjectivity as I would like. Maybe if I cast the narrative entirely in limited third person omniscience, the narrative would acquire a bit more immediacy.
"Wearing a suit to show he was in business, and carrying a gun to show what business he was in, Manny 'the Moyel" entered Fleishchman's deli, looking for Sammy the Schnauz, the local bookie. "Thank God," he told himself, "today is Mama's day off." He didn't want her to see him getting rough with Sammy. After all, she thought he was in the funeral business. That's what he told her he did for a living. See, he just hated lying to Mama. He shuddered to think what would happen if she ever knew what it was he really did. It would kill her. It would be worse than forgetting to call her on her birthday, worse than working on the Sabbath. He checked his watch. Only a half hour before sundown. He scanned the joint, saw that Sammy wasn't in his usual booth and left, thinking he'd find him at the track on Saturday night, if not at Lenny 'the Loin's poker game on Sunday." While this version carries a bit more feeling, it still seems more reportorial than I'd like ("he thought, he shuddered), the idiom still a little too removed from my character's subjectivity.
But there is a third option I can utilize, an option called free indirect style. Free indirect style is a subset of limited third person. While it isn't exclusive of full and limited omniscience, it can bring me closer to my character's perspective and sensibility without trapping me inside it. It's a style that can catch the "tang" of my speaker's voice without exactly quoting him : "Wearing a suit to show in he was in business, and carrying a gun to show what business he was in, Manny 'the moyel' Mandelbaum slipped into Fleischman's Deli, looking for Sammy the Schnauz, the local bookie. He glanced at the deli counter where his mother wasn't working, thank god. He didn't want she should see him getting rough with Sammy, not her son, the undertaker. That's what he told her he did for a living. He hated lying to Mama, just hated it, and being an undertaker wasn't exactly a lie. God, if she ever knew what he really was, it would positively kill her. It would be worse than forgetting to call her on her birthday. And killing your mother, god forbid, was a graver sin than lying to her, please god it should never happen. He scanned the joint, checked his watch. Only a few minutes before sundown, and still no Sammy. Oh, he'd find the Schnauz, the little putz, sooner or later, at the track on Saturday night, if not at Lenny 'the Loins' poker game on Sunday." This version isn't as creaky as the other two. The narrative distance shifts smoothly from limited omnisicent to something close to but separate from first person, as we move from the first sentence to the ones that follow. "He didn't want her to see him getting rough with Sammy" becomes inflected with Manny's voice, his Yiddish/English syntax ("He didn't want she should see him...") The elimination of the expository gestures"He shuddered", "He thought," "He told himself"transform the scene from something reported to something dramatized, more immediately present. My character's idiom informs the narrative voice without becoming it. He appears not merely against the background of the narrator's imagination but also within his own. The narrative voice, in other words, is blended with the character's, and depending on how the story develops or where this scene falls in the overall arc of the piece, this blending of voices and points of view can be a source of empathy or irony or both. It can articulate a character's pre-verbal thoughts in an idiom the character himself would use if he could think them. It can let us see what he sees, feel what he feels, without confining what we see and feel only to his perspective and understanding. We see and feel beyond his horizon of vision even while we see and feel within it.
This inclusiveness and flexibility, this ability to move swiftly and without transition in and out of points of view and voices is one of the great pleasures of this narrative mode. And the compression and speed it affords is especially suited to poetry, narrative or otherwise.
"The Mill," by E.A. Robinson is a case in point:
The Miller's wife had waited long.
The tea was cold, the fire was dead.
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said.
"There are no millers anymore"
Was all that she had heard him say.
And he had lingered at the door
So long that it seemed yesterday.
Sick with a fear that had no form
She knew that she was there at last.
And in the barn there was a warm
And mealy fragrance from the past.
What else was there would only seem
To say again what he had meant.
And what was hanging from a beam
Would not have heeded where she went.
And if she thought it followed her
She may have reasoned in the dark
That one way of the few there were
Would hide her and would leave no mark:
Black water smooth above the weir
Like starry velvet in the night
Thought ruffled once would soon appear
The same as ever to the sight.
The wife's is the central point of view, yet the distance between the speaker's omniscient voice and hers is constantly shifting. The opening line is straight "objective" narration, the voice seems entirely disentangled from the woman's, but in the second line the two are merged. The phrasing catches her attempting to convince herself that everything's okay. Had Robinson wanted to maintain an "objective" stance, he could have simply flagged the wife's anxiety with something like, "And she was really really worried." Instead, he lets her inner voice, her mental energy, contaminate his idiom; her speech suffuses his without quite becoming it. And by the end of the stanza even what at first appears "objective" seems retroactively tinted with the dread and guilt she's trying not to feel. In light of everything the miller might have said but that his wife didn't hear, even the literal cold tea and dead fire of the first line foreshadow her growing sense of having failed him; they seem retroactively expressive of her point of view.
The speaker returns to a more omniscient stance in the beginning of the second stanza, but that too quickly modulates back into free indirect speech, or something like it: "What else was there would only seem/to say again what he had meant./And what was hanging from a beam/would not have heeded where she went." The indefinite pronoun, "what," is the grammatical extension of her guilt, her averted gaze, her inability to face the consequences of her failure. And the switch to the conditional tense, which is then sustained for the remainder of the poem, expands our focus to include both the wife's perspective and the speaker's as he imagines what the water may have looked like to her in the moment before she plunges to her death. The conditional is the grammatical correlative of free indirect speech, the grammatical enactment of the empathy that wants to look out from within the body of the other even while acknowledging the other's separateness and mystery. Both free indirect speech and the conditional construction are thought experiments, in other words, driven by curiosity, on the one hand, and recognition, on the other, that our knowledge of other lives is guess work, always incomplete, and thus our stories must be tentative, revisableplausible at best, if never absolutely true.
"The Mill" is a plot driven poem. It traces a double suicide. We follow the Miller's wife from the house to the mill, where the miller has hanged himself, and then to the river where the wife will drown. It is remarkable in a poem describing such dramatic events that we get as much of her inner life as we do. On the other hand, "Donohue's Sister," by Thom Gunn, is a poem in which after the first line nothing at all happens outside the character's consciousness. Which is not to say there is no plot but rather that the plot is entirely psychological, entirely drive by a single point of view:
She comes level with him at
the head of the stairs
with a slight, arrogant smile
and an inward look, muttering
some injunction to her private world.
Drunk for four days now.
He's unable to get through.
She's not there to get through to.
When he does get through,
next week, it will all sound
exaggerated. She will apologize as if
all too humanly she has caused him
a minute inconvenience.
That sudden tirade last night,
such conviction and logic
had she always hated him or
was it the zombie speaking?
Scotch for breakfast,
beer all morning.
Fuelling her private world, in which
she builds her case against the publc.
Catching at ends of phrase
in themselves meaningless,
as if to demonstrate how well
she keeps abreast.
inaccessible and sodden replacement.
He glances at her, her
body stands light and meatless,
and estimates how high he would have
to lift it to launch it
into a perfect trajectory over
the narrow dark staircase
so that it would land on its head
on the apartment-house mosaic of the hallway
and its skull would break in two
an eggshell full of alcohol
leaving, at last, his sister
lying like the garbage by the front door
in a pool of Scotch and beer,
understandably, this time, inaccessible.
Everything we see we see through the brother's eyes. The narrative voice is entirely submerged within Donohue's internal speech. His frustration and impotence infuse everythingit governs the poem's many temporal shifts (present to past to present to future to more recent past, back to present); it shapes the imagery and idiom ("had she always hated him or/ was it the zombie speaking?"), and most remarkably it determines both the syntax and its relation to the line. The opening stanza, for instance, consists of a long compound sentence, and a one line, adjectival fragment. The long sentence sets up the expectation that some dramatic confrontation is about to happen ("She comes level with him at/the foot of the stairs..."). But what begins as the promise of decisive action ends with a fragmentary phrase, a phrase without an active verb, the syntactical effect of being blocked and helpless, unable to effect any kind of change at all. The two short sentences that follow this fragment coincide with the short lines and end with prepositions, prepositions which strain awkwardly and painfully after some release or breakthrough which again does not occur ("He's unable to get through./She's not there to get through to./When he does get through..." It's the purpose of a preposition to move us forward or place a subject in relation to an object, to relate the two. But here there is no relation, and the prepositions which gum up the end lines and rhyme so clumsily, impede our movement, and thus reinforce the brother's entrapment. Even the long conditional sentence that concludes the poem with a fantasy of escape through violence ironically increases the feeling of impotence, since it occurs in imagination only, in wish but not in fact.
The poem illustrates free indirect speech at its most expressive. It brings into play a medley of voiceswe hear the narrative voice inflected with the brother's voice that is, in turn, inflected with the sister's as he recalls her drunken rants and self justifications: "She will apologize as if all too humanly she has caused him a minute inconvenience". The complex blending of idioms reflects how deeply and hopelessly entangled these two lives have become; it is itself an image of a paralyzing co-dependency.
At its most powerful, free indirect speech can be an instrument of moral exploration. Its advantage over direct speech is that it's capable of going beyond the conscious verbalization that constrains dramatic monologue; it can articulate the half thought or the unthought, the confused or unconfronted. It can avoid the coolness of indirect third person speech while retaining a clarifying distance, a wider horizon of vision. It can evoke even while it analyzes.
Here's another poem by Gunn that utilizes free indirect speech in a more restrained way, but that illustrates how the technique can reverberate through a poem even when it isn't being explicitly used. It's called "Slow Waker":
I look at the nephew,
eighteen, across the breakfast.
He had to be called and called.
He smiles, but without
conviction. He will not
have tea, oh OK,
if it's no trouble,
he will have tea.
His adult face is brand-new.
Once the newness
clears up and it has got
an expression or two
he could be a handsome
devil. He could be
a carpenter, a poet, it's
impossible. The future
is not a word in his mouth.
That, for him, is the trouble:
he lay in bed caught deep
in the mire between
sleep and awake, neither
alert nor resting,
between the flow of night
ceaselessly braiding itself,
and the gravelly beach
that our soles have thickened on.
Nobody has ever told him
he is good-looking,
just that his feet smell.
He paces through alien London
all day. Everything
is important and unimportant.
He feeds only by osmosis.
He stares at the glint
and blunt thrust of traffic. He
wants to withdraw.
He wants to withdraw into
a small place, like
the cupboard under the stairs
where the vacuum cleaner is kept,
so he can wait, and doze,
and get in nobody's way.
The speaker here is not a "non-personal" narrator as in all the other examples but a participant in the scene itself, sitting across from his nephew at the breakfast table. Free indirect speech appears as vocal mimicry at first, a gesture more affectionately ironic than empathetic. But the contradictory shape of it, "he will not...oh okay he will..." provides the syntactical template for the speaker's evocation in his own voice of the nephew's indeterminate identity, his in between condition, neither boy nor man, in which everything is possible and impossible, important and unimportant, neither fully awake nor sleeping, neither resting nor alert, between the flow of night and the gravelly beach. Unlike in "Donohue's Sister," where the speaker speaks from within the brother's voice and point of view, here he remains outside the boy's perspective, looking in. The distance, though, is qualified by the repeated conditionals, the negative constructions, and the antitheses, all of which bear the stamp of that initial bit of mimicked speech ("he will not...oh, okay, he will...").
Even though technically free indirect speech appears only in those opening lines, the empathetic spirit of it permeates everything that follows. In the third stanza, we get three short simple sentences all in the narrator's voice, but each one moving closer to the boy's perspective: "He feeds only by osmosis./He stares at the thrust/and dull glint of traffic. He/ wants to withdraw." The first sentence takes us back to the nephew at the breakfast table, wanting and not wanting tea. Like the "future," "osmosis" is probably not a word the boy would use even while it's a completely credible inference drawn from everything preceding it. The next sentence shifts from abstraction to imagery, and thus in a way moves closer to the boy's emotional situation, his confusion and vulnerability. Or better yet think of the images as an imaginative translation of the boy's inchoate perspective into the speaker's empathetic understanding of it: "He stares at the glint/and blunt thrust of traffic." If there's any mimicry here it's in the rhythm, the alternation of clustering heavy and light stresses ("glint/ and blunt thrust...") that suggest the sensory impact of the world on the boy's overwhelmed and foggy sensibility. And there's also mimicry, or something like mimicry, in the breaking of the next sentence across two lines: the repetition of the pronoun "he" and its conspicuous placement at the end of the stanza's penultimate line call attention to the boy's self-conscious isolation, the feeling of which, intensified by the repetition in the next line ("he wants to withdraw"), governs the more homely language of withdrawal into the closet under the stairs where the vacuum cleaner is kept, an metonymic figure of regression drawn from the boy's literal circumstances. In effect we come full circle, back to the house where we started, to details which are in a way the objective correlatives of the boy's voice, a kind of imagistic free indirect speech. The language returns to the mundane and banal, so close to the boy's perspective, from the speaker's more elaborate "poetic" language earlier of the flow of night and gravelly beach, a poetic idiom far removed from the boy's voice, and thus more expressive of the speaker's empathetic understanding of the nephew than of the nephew's understanding of himself.
Like "Slow Waker," "A Fantasy" by Louise Gluck deploys a single instance of free indirect style, and yet that instance, as in "Slow Waker," provides the pivot on which the narrator turns empathetically from an outside perspective of widows and orphans to a perspective within a particular woman whose anguish and helplessness produce (in the midst of the social conventions of mourning) an unconventional and inattainable fantasy in the closing lines:
I'll tell you something, every day
people are dying. And that's just the beginning.
Every day in funeral homes, new widows are born,
new orphans. They sit with their hands folded,
trying to decide about this new life.
Then they're in the cemetery, some of them
for the first time. They're frightened of crying,
sometimes of not crying. Someone leans over,
tells them what to do next, which might mean
saying a few words, sometimes
throwing dirt in the open grave.
And after that, everyone goes back to the house,
which is suddenly full of visitors.
The widow sits on the couch, very stately,
so people line up to approach her,
sometimes take her hand, sometimes embrace her.
She finds something to say to everybody,
Thanks them, thanks them for coming.
In her heart, she wants them to go away.
She wants to be back in the cemetery,
back in the sick room, the hospital. She knows
it isn't possible. But it's her only hope,
the wish to move backwards, and just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.
The poem turns dramatically after the one line of free indirect speech,
"thanks them, thanks them for coming". There has been an implicit lyric urgency throughout the poem, an urgency signaled by that opening line, "I'll tell you something, people are dying..." Is the speaker speaking to a specific someone or is she talking to us? Have we entered the poem in the middle of an animated conversation, if not an argument? And while no one person's point of view (besides the narrator's) governs the opening two stanzas, once we enter the house of this specific widow, her perspective subtly emerges from the adverbs "suddenly" and "stately," but it's only after her voice, her idiom, inflects the narrator's, that we fully inhabit her external: "In her heart she wants them to go away." It's as if Gluck first had to let the widow's vocal show of well-mannered earnestness resonate within the voice of her narrator before she'd let the narrator enter the widow's psyche where we see and feel the desperation ("it's her only hope") hidden behind the "stately" mask. While up to this point we see mostly the face of customary mourning that the new-born widows and orphans are struggling to learn, in the closing lines we go beyond convention into an anguished fantasy of turning back the clock. The fantasy is an odd one, modest in its way (is it so much to ask to go back in time just a little, to the immediate past of the sick room and the hospital), but it also seems a little creepy. Maybe the marriage wasn't so great to begin with, or maybe the suffering and care-taking has made the pre-sickness phase of the marriage seem unimaginably remote. Either way, we feel her devastating realization of the inexorability of loss, the irreversibility of time, all of which, I think, springs subtly yet powerfully from that little bit of free indirect speech at the end of the previous stanza. The widow's voice, her speech, is the gateway to her heart.
In some quarters of the literary world, there is a great distrust if not dislike of narrative. The arguments against narrative go back at least a hundred years. While they have taken many forms, serving different purposes, the one assumption shared by all of them, early and late, modern and postmodern, is that formal devices falsify reality. Narrative order is a myth that bears no relation to experience as it is actually lived. The world is unknowable, other lives are inaccessible, and omniscience and narrative pattern are at best escapist fantasies, at worst tools of political and psychological manipulation. While the narrative device of free indirect speech has been around for centuries, it is only in the 19th and 20th centuries that it becomes more than verbal mimicry. In the last century especially, novelists have used it to explore the workings of consciousness in ever more refined and sensitive ways (see Roy Pascal's The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and its functioning in the Nineteenth Century European Novel). Insofar as it enables narrative to move deeper into subjectivity, free indirect speech is symptomatic of a loss of faith in an objective world external to the self, a world that's shared with others. The narrators we trust or recognize as one of us don't speak with God-like authority about the inner lives of other people. They tend to keep their opinions to themselves. They keep close to the grain of their character's point of view. They don't moralize, except perhaps implicitly in and through their choice of subject matter, of what events and incidents they bring into relation, and in how their plots are structured. They limit their language and perceptions, as much as possible, to the language and perceptions of their characters. And yet as Leo Spitzer points out, mimicry itself implies a mimic as well as a person, someone who is morally engaged with the people in his fictional world, with people he believes it's in our interest as curious and vulnerable fellow human beings to pay attention to in precisely the ways that his imagination says we should. Free indirect speech presupposes the value of empathetic understanding. It does assume we live in a world of competing points of view and interests, a world intractable to any easy understanding or judgment but a world we nonetheless must struggle to make sense of as best we can. The refusal to abandon the third person pronoun bespeaks a commitment to the ideal of shared understanding even while the limited omniscience reminds us how difficult it is to know each other or ourselves. Free indirect speech is the fictional equivalent of a thought experiment, an imaginative hunch or informed guess. It asks us to consider becoming someone else not as an as-is proposition, but as an as-if or what-if exercise. It is the fictional spirit of the subjunctive mood.
In the last thirty years or so many poets have turned back to narrative along with other modes of writing that had fallen out of favor in the modern and postmodern periods. This move has been motivated partly by a desire to reinvigorate poetry by enlarging its expressive repertoire, repossessing territory it has ceded to prose genres over last few hundred years. In the best examples, in C.K. Williams, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, Tom Sleigh and many others I could name, the return to narrative is informed by all the arguments against narrative. It shares postmodern anxieties about representation, the limits of language, and the many ways linguistic conventions of any kind can exclude, distort, or oversimplify. It is alert, as well, to the dangers of mere anecdote, and the dullness of plodding linearity. What perhaps distinguishes these poets from their more postmodern counterparts is a belief in storytelling as a mode of thinking about other lives, an imaginative thinking, however qualified or hedged by skepticism, that's embedded in the psycho-social circumstances within which people live. As I have tried to show, free indirect speech is driven by that tentative or postmodern uncertainty even while it preserves a vestige of the omniscience it no longer trusts. In a way free indirect speech, at its most profound, represents an interplay of the old and newbetween the civil dream of imagining past differences of race, gender and class, to a shared understanding of ourselves and one another, and an acute awareness of just how intractable those differences can be. In the hands of our best poets and story tellers, it establishes a superimposition in which characters appear both against the background of the narrator's imagination and also within their own. It enables us to hear both the narrator struggling to get their stories right, and the stories the characters themselves are struggling to tell.