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The Nuanced World of Literary Dialogue
Nainen istuu portailla kirja sylissään.
The doctoral thesis of Linda Nurmi considers the mimetic effect of free direct speech in Finnish and French contemporary literature.
Linda Nurmi found herself in a Parisian research basement, writing a thesis that utilises tools from both literature research and linguistics.

Text: Reeta Holma
Photos: Petri Summanen

From the perspective of a literary story and its reader, it is by no means irrelevant whose voice is heard in the text, and in what form.

“The nature of text varies significantly depending on whether the voice is that of a character or the narrator, and whether the character is thinking or speaking,” explains Linda Nurmi, who is composing a doctoral thesis for the University of Helsinki on methods of speech presentation in French and Finnish contemporary literature.

Traditionally, there are considered to be four ways of presenting the speech of fictional characters in literature: indirect speech, free indirect speech, direct speech and free direct speech, of which the latter is the topic of Nurmi’s research. Additionally, a wide range of combined or hybrid forms have been recognised.

Nurmi’s interest in the topic was sparked during her bachelor’s studies in French, when she explored Marguerite Duras’s ways of reporting her characters’ speech. Now she has added more authors to her research, including Annie Ernaux and Annie Saumont, who write in French, and Raija Siekkinen and Marja-Liisa Vartio, in Finnish.

Although free direct speech is common in contemporary literature, Nurmi says that it has not been extensively researched. “It is a phenomenon that deserves to be studied; after all, it has been found in literature for several centuries. Examples include works by Honoré de Balzac and Stendhal.”

Nurmi emphasises the fact that storytelling and speech reporting are integral aspects of the social and collective nature of human community. In our daily lives we continuously come across nuanced verbal and written forms of speech reporting. “In other words, the phenomenon on which my research centres is fairly basic. Literature always reflects who we are and how we think about things,” she says.

Tools for artistic expression

Mustavalkoinen kuva, nainen istuu tuolilla kirjahyllyn edessä.
Nurmi says that literature always reflects who we are and how we think about things.

Free direct speech is today a ubiquitous form of reporting in contemporary literature. It reinforces the illusion of immersion by eliminating the narrator’s voice.

In grammatical terms, free direct speech (FDS) refers to a direct quotation, which is presented without a reporting clause such as “she said”.  In many cases, it will also lack the typographical means that are typically used for reporting speech, such as a colon or quotation marks.

For example:

She looked at her diary. Are you coming tomorrow?

Here, “Are you coming tomorrow?” is FDS.

Nurmi describes FDS as a nuanced method utilised in diverse ways by authors in different contexts.

“Creative writing requires an original use of language and every author has their own style and methods of using the tools of artistic expression,” she says.

Used by Marguerite Duras, for example, FDS makes dialogue very vivid. Duras accentuates the significance and rhythm of speech and strives to embody a voice in her text. In contrast, Annie Ernaux uses FDS to describe a form of collective or social speech.

Merging academic disciplines

Linda Nurmi’s research creates connections between literature research and linguistics. FDS is both a grammatical and a literary phenomenon, and language and literature cannot be separated from each other in this respect.  

“It seems that literary researchers will sometimes balk at discussions of syntax, but I feel that using tools from linguistics and analysing the structure of language are also useful when studying literature,” Nurmi says, while also calling for more extensive considerations of the broader significance and functions of linguistic phenomena from linguists.

In practice, Nurmi’s work consists of highly detailed, close readings of her material, as well as studies of theoretical literature. She will also utilise methods from digital humanities in her research, to make the quantitative analysis of her data easier. “Techniques are evolving very rapidly,” Nurmi says. “I intend to digitise the texts and to study the necessary amount of coding myself.”

Financial aid from the Cultural Foundation has allowed Nurmi to focus on her thesis project, as well as to get close to a wealth of information. “I worked for a month at the Récollets residence in a former monastery in Paris. I was also able to obtain access to the research basement of the National Library of France, with its brilliant research materials.”

Linda Nurmi received a grant totalling EUR 26,000 from the Veikko and Helen Väänänen Fund in 2021. Her doctoral thesis (in progress) considers the mimetic effect of free direct speech in Finnish and French contemporary literature.