On: Margaret Atwood's Surfacing Academic blogs:
Atwood's Surfacing
Coetzee's Disgrace
T. S. Eliot's Prufrock


       Speech, or dialogue, is of course an important feature of a novel; in theory, it allows voices other than the narrator's to get a word in, and is a vital tool in characterization.
       In Surfacing we can root out a few different 'types' of speech, but as you'll see, we should treat them with caution:

1. Direct speech
2. Reported speech
       Both of these terms, and their instances in Surfacing, are fairly straightforward. In the first, the speaking character is given full autonomy of voice, as below:

    "That's the best pie I ever ate," David said. "Just like mother used to make." He smacked his lips and posed, pretending to be a T.V. ad.
    "Stuff it," Anna said, "you can't afford just one measly compliment, can you?"
    David's purple mouth grinned. "Aw," he said, "that was a compliment."
    "The hell," Anna said. "I've met your mother." (83)
       In this sketch between husband and wife, the narrator disinterestedly (as far as we can tell) shows us how two important characters interact. There isn't much need to elaborate on it; the instance literally speaks for itself. This is not always the Narrator's desire however, and the following reported speech shows a different method and motive of communication:

We find out from Claude we can hire Evans, who owns the Blue Moon Cabins, to run us down the lake. Paul would take us for nothing, he offered, but I wouldn't feel right about it... (23)
       In the discussion of Chapter Three I make the point that in this passage and the bit following it, the Narrator seems to have a concern with controlling the situation. Now, that is exactly what 'reported speech' allows. Stylistically of course it is infinitely preferrable to report speech in prose than to try to represent dialogue over long periods (which becomes tedious); but it also gives to the Narrator control of our reception of what people say. In this instance, the presences of Paul and Claude are both elided by the 'I' voice, especially as seen in the incidental-sounding, simple clause, 'he offered', which is immediately dominated by the bulkier compound construction, 'I wouldn't feel right about it; also I'm sure...'. It centres the attention on the main group rather than the support characters, but it also starts to sound like self-justification.
       These are the two obvious forms for speech to take, but there is one more peculiar to this narrator:

3. Reported direct speech
       This is a term we coined at Benenden for use in our A-Level classes; I thought it was a useful way to describe it, but it requires just a little explanation. It occurs through the simple omission of an expected comma before speech begins, like this:

Anna says "Oh wow, what a great fountain." (6)
David says "The true north strong and free." (7)
       If you were analysing poetry, you would call this a run-on sentence, and so it is. The punctuation is disengaged, and the sentence is coasting. This has implications not for whether the character spoke these exact words - they clearly did - but for whether the Narrator was engaged with them at the moment of speaking. The tone is disengaged, reinforced by the fact that these brief utterances stand on their own, and it is clear that the Narrator is either not completely focused on the words of her companions, or worse, doesn't rate their observations highly. Because these utterances sound as though they were included as an afterthought, we call them 'reported direct speech'.
1. Introduction
       To the students
2. The Techniques
       Narrative Position
       Narrative Structure
       Parataxis as Metaphor
3. The Tensions
       [Spiritual] Journey
       Language as theme
       Garden vs. Wilderness
4. Chapter Discussions
       Chapter One
       Chapter Two
       Chapter Three
       Chapter Four
5. The Other Characters

6. Wider Reading
       Academic books

Copyright © Richard Cheadle, 2004-2006. All rights reserved.

Richard Cheadle, Hemsted House, Benenden School, Nr. Cranbrook, Kent. TN17 4AA.