Speech and Thought Representation in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Going Postal’

pic for speech and thought in going postal



The following is an excerpt from chapter two of my MA thesis, Stylistics and the Form/Content Dichotomy. The stars (*****) represent the places where I’ve removed chunks of the text in order to create something suitable for a blog post. The Speech and Thought Continuum is reproduced below with an example from each of the categories…I hope it’s helpful.

The Speech and Thought ContinuumExamples of the fictional representation of speech and thought from Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal:

PN (Pure Narrative of Narrative Report of Action): Vetinari looked down at the table again, and seemed to lose interest in Moist for a moment (p. 27).

NRS (Narrative Report of Speech): He nodded at Commander Vimes of the Watch, who whispered to another watchman, who pushed his way though [sic] the crowd and towards the door (p. 335)

NRSA (Narrative Report of a Speech Act): In a silence punctuated by chuckles from the crowd, Pony tried to explain, in so far as he now had any grip of what was going on (p. 320).

IS (Indirect Speech): Lord Vetinari told Mr. Pump to break one of Moist’s fingers.*

FID (Free Indirect Discourse): And what would you have done against a banshee? Moist had thought. You suspect Gilt. Well done. But people like Gilt don’t bother with the law. They never break it, they just use people who do. And you’ll never find anything written down, anywhere (p. 244).

DS (Direct Speech): ‘Oh dear.’ The Patrician sighed. ‘Mr. Pump, just break one of Mr. Lipwig’s fingers, will you? Neatly, if you please.’ (p. 27)

FDT (Free Direct Thought): Welcome to fear, said Moist to himself. It’s hope, turned inside out. You know it can’t go wrong, you’re sure it can’t go wrong… But it might. I’ve got you. (p. 331)

*There are, to my knowledge, no examples of indirect speech in this novel. I have therefore rewritten the example of DS above as an utterance in IS.

The methods of representing speech and thought in written language have been carefully categorised following linguistic criteria, most notably by Leech and Short (footnote i). I have reproduced these categories [above], placing the options available to the author on a continuum with Pure Narrative (PN) on the far left and Free Direct Discourse (FDD) on the far right.  In the fictional representation of speech, Free Direct Speech (FDS) represents the voice of the character without any interference from the narrator whatsoever – not even the inclusion of quotation marks and the reporting clause which characterise Direct Speech (DS); any movement toward the left on the continuum therefore represents an increasing degree of narratorial control.  When we reach the Narrative Report of a Speech Act (NRSA), the character’s actual words are lost altogether and the narrator provides only a summary of the sentiments expressed.  Free Indirect Thought (FIT) is most commonly used to represent a character’s thoughts; any movement to the right on the continuum takes the reader closer inside the character’s head.

The fictional representation of speech and thought can serve many purposes in a prose work.  Fictional dialogue, be it speech or thought, can advance plot or it can delineate and develop character; dialogue can also serve to ‘describe setting or atmosphere, to present a moral argument or a discussion on cabbages and kings, or to perform any combination of these purposes’ (footnote ii).  In addition, the dialogue of a novel can add to the illusion of reality created in fictional prose: ‘language can copy reality.  This is the case of fictional speech: here, the events being described as part of the mock reality are themselves linguistic, and so language is used to simulate, rather than simply to report, what is going on in the fictional world’ (footnote iii).  It is important from the outset, however, to recognise that fictional speech does not resemble or imitate life: a glance at any transcript of real speech will reveal why this is so.  Real speech is full of hesitations and pauses, stopgap noises, false starts, syntactic anomalies, interruptions, overlaps, and frequent transitions, all of which, if presented in written form, would render a text intolerable and unreadable (footnote iv).  In the past, critics have made the mistake of praising a novel’s dialogue for its resemblance to real-life speech, but readers have since been alerted to the idealised nature of fictional dialogue.


Speech and Thought Representation in Going Postal

Terry Pratchett, the author of the hugely popular Discworld series, is a writer who, like many modern authors, makes extensive use of dialogue.  Pratchett’s dialogue serves both to advance plot and to delineate character, but there is more to it than this: through his use of FID, Pratchett is able to pass comment on both the characters he creates and the world they – and by allegorical extension, we – inhabit.  Pratchett’s use of FID enables the characters to comment both on themselves and on other characters, and the narrator can do the same.  The allegorical nature of the text means that there is frequently a real-world counterpart to which the comments of the narrator/character also apply.  For modern-day readers, comments of a moral nature are generally more palatable when they come from the mouths of fictional characters rather than that of the narrator.  The idea that literature exists to edify and instruct the reader is now old-fashioned, but this is what Pratchett manages to do nevertheless.  The didactic purpose of the text is achieved through FID without alienating the reader: because his voice is inextricably intertwined with that of his characters, the narrator can moralise without appearing to do so.

Going Postal is the twenty-ninth title in the Discworld series.  One of the themes of this novel is freedom: the character of Moist von Lipwig allows Pratchett to explore the nature and true extent of individual freedom when that individual is a member of a larger community.  Moist is an extremely gifted con-man who has spent his life swindling for personal gain, and he is forced to come to terms with the effect his actions have had on others; his parole officer, a golem called Mr. Pump, acts as Moist’s conscience, but the access the reader is granted to Moist’s thoughts through numerous passages of DT and FID reveals a man capable of sympathizing with the plight of others and one who eventually shuns his old ways.  Mr. Reacher Gilt (footnote v), an unscrupulous businessman and the real villain of the piece, represents in one sense the tyranny of the free market when it is not subject to government intervention, and in a more moralistic sense, the sin of avarice.  Moist, despite his initial introduction to us as a fraud and a cheat, is the romantic hero who triumphs over the black-hearted malefactor: Gilt does not survive the events of the story, choosing instead to end his own life rather than to make amends as Moist did.


Pratchett uses FID to confuse the voices of narrator and two characters in the passage just before the beginning of the race between Post Office and Grand Trunk:

(1) ‘Is this why you appear so confident?’ snarled Gilt. (2) And it was a snarl, there and then, a little sign of a crack appearing. (3) A broomstick could travel fast enough to blow your ears off.  (4) It wouldn’t need too many towers to break down, and heavens knew they broke down all the time, for a broomstick to beat the clacks to Genua, especially since it could fly direct and wouldn’t have to follow the big dog-leg the coach road and the Grand Trunk took.  (5) The Trunk would have to be really unlucky, and the person flying the broom would be really frozen and probably really dead, but a broomstick could fly from Ankh-Morpork to Genua in a day.  (6) That might just do it. (7) Gilt’s face was a mask of glee.  (8) Now he knew what Moist intended. (9) Round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows… (10) It was the heart of any scam or fiddle.  (11) Keep the punter uncertain or, if he is certain, make him certain of the wrong thing.  (p. 321)

The changes in this passage are rapid.  Over eleven sentences, the narrative voice shifts between the narrator, Moist and Gilt.  Sentences (3) to (6) are arguably FID, a mixture of an informative narrator’s voice, and Gilt’s anxious assessment of the change in his situation now that Moist has a broomstick.  The PN of (7) is followed by a trickier utterance in (8): this is not Moist’s voice, and although it looks like another instance of PN, this is unlikely on reflection.  Gilt does not know what Moist intends, but nor does the reader – at this point, only the narrator knows for sure.  So where to place (8) on the continuum?  If PN, the narrator is lying to us, so the utterance must reflect Gilt’s point of view.  This is FID sourced in the character, as Toolan’s test will verify (footnote vi).  Sentence (9) is a line chanted when performing a trick with a coin under three cups: the cups are rapidly switched and the audience has to guess the whereabouts of the coin.  At this point, the narrative is still rendered in FID, but the intermingled voices are now those of the narrator and Moist.  The choice of discourse representation in this short passage neatly encapsulates the fierce rivalry between the two men at this crucial stage of the story; Pratchett’s use of FID enables the reader to witness the internal processes of both antagonists, thereby adding to the suspense and excitement of this most important scene.

The most important point which has emerged […] is that Pratchett tends to favour a technique of rendering speech which subtly shifts from DS or DT into FID.  Why should this be so?  Firstly, this technique allows the narrator to stay close to chosen characters (footnote vii).  The reader is naturally inclined to trust the narrator, and the mingling of the narratorial voice with that of Moist von Lipwig encourages us to sympathise with this character, despite the fact that he is introduced to us as a hardened criminal.  The access we are given to Gilt’s voice, however, has the opposite effect: we are made privy to Gilt’s machinations which only helps to build the reader’s antipathy towards the wealthy banker.  Secondly, and as previously stated, the reader is far more likely to tolerate any narratorial moralising which is disguised as the words of a character, especially when that character has been shown to be as fallible as the rest of us.



(i) See G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), chapter 10.

(ii) N. Page, Speech in the English Novel (1988), p. 55.

(iii) G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 160.

(iv) Leech and Short comment on the differences between real speech and fictional speech in ibid., pp. 159-166.

(v) The name is a pun on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver; Mr. Reacher Gilt has an eyepatch and a talkative parrot, like his piratical counterpart.  The piracy as far as Gilt is concerned is not robbery on the open seas, but embezzlement on a grand scale.  His parrot, instead of repeating ‘pieces of eight’, habitually cries ‘twelve and a half per cent’, an allusion to the percentage of people who would actually receive their money if everyone simultaneously decided to withdraw their savings from their bank accounts.  The word ‘gilt’, with its reference to what is only a superficial covering of gold, is also a clue to the real nature of this particular character.

(vi) Toolan’s test is useful when the reader wishes to identify a passage of FID as sourced in the character or the ‘abstract narrator’.  The following is the test for passages of FID sourced in the character: ‘[insert text to be probed, with any pronouns referring to the putatively discoursing character converted to first person, and with tenses converted to the present tense of thinking/speaking], the character remarks, to themselves or other characters’ (p. 132).  So: ‘Now I know what Moist intends,’ Gilt remarked to himself.

(vii) Those characters kept at a distance are treated so for a reason.  The reader is not allowed to witness the internal monologues of Miss Dearheart, for example; as the object of Moist’s affections, she must remain inscrutable to the reader.  We must be kept guessing as to whether or not she will accept Moist’s proposal; in this way, our interest in the budding romance is sustained.

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