The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

How Fiction Works in Electronic Culture

(Reading Time: 8.5 minutes)

In 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse christened the American telegraph with the words, “What hath God wrought?” It was a turning point in world history. It was the introduction of electronic media and the annihilation of distance.

Just 13 years later in 1857, Gustav Flaubert published his famous novel, Madame Bovary. In the words of James Woods, author of How Fiction Works, Flaubert’s writing “decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration” (39). “It all begins with him” (39).

Wood calls Flaubert’s style “free indirect narration.” He asserts that, “There is almost no area of narration not touched by the long finger of free indirect narration” (25).

I would like to amend Wood’s claim, however, and argue that the telegraph “decisively established” free indirect style, and not Flaubert. This does not discredit Wood’s claim, or even Flaubert’s perfection of the style for fiction. I don’t doubt Wood’s expertise, which far, far outstrips my paltry reading and writing. His expertise is evident in his deft analysis of fiction’s development since the 1600s.

I only argue that the telegraph established a style, which Flaubert then put work for modern realist narration. Indeed, I accept without argument—or even the capacity to argue—that Flaubert perfected the style for fiction in a way most suitable readers in our electronic age. I don’t disagree that Flaubert was the pivotal figure who inaugurated this style.

Throughout his book, Wood identifies at least three characteristics of free indirect style: visual collection, time compression, and urbanism. Each of these is also a characteristic of the telegraph as well. Let’s take each one in turn.

Visual Collection

Wood provides us with a perfect example of Flaubert’s new free indirect style in an excerpt from Sentimental Education. Flaubert’s description, says Wood, “seems to scan the streets indifferently, like a camera” (40). But Wood rightly recognizes that “Flaubert is asserting a temporal impossibility: that the eye . . . can witness, in one visual gulp as it were, sensations and occurrences that must be happening at different speeds and at different times” (43).

In other words, one cannot see all these things happening at the same time. Even if they are happening simultaneously, an observer can only look at one, then another, then the next, and so on. For the observer, the seeing is sequential, not simultaneous. But Flaubert’s free indirect style suggests simultaneity.

Wood affirms that writers in free indirect style intend to create the sense of simultaneity. “The writer zooms in and out at will, but these details, despite their difference in focus and intensity, are pushed at us, as if by the croupier’s stick, in one single heap” (50, italics mine).

This simultaneity is better suited for the ear. As I’ve explained before, vision dissects, hearing collects. The ear hears multiple sounds simultaneously. The eye can’t look at multiple objects at the same time though.

Nonetheless, the telegraph pushes everything at us “in one single heap” like an acoustic environment does. Everything is happening concurrently. Everything is happening now. Just like free indirect style, it’s a “temporal impossibility” to process the visuals simultaneously, but the telegraph expects that we should.

Like modern electronic media, the telegraph presents content in a format that better suits the ear. There’s a reason the radio succeeded the telegraph. The ear was the better medium for all that content.

But the book is the eye’s domain. So in novels, it makes sense to describe the visuals more than the sounds or smells. However, with the advent of the telegraph in the 1800s, simultaneity began to supplant sequence.

Flaubert, I suggest, sensed this shift away from the book toward to telegraph, away from the print environment toward an electronic one, away from sequence toward simultaneity—even if he wouldn’t have said it this way. Free indirect style accommodated this shift by wedding the two. It was a hybrid between sight and sound. It was the simultaneity of the ear in the sequence of the eye. It was content fit for the eBook.

Time Compression

Wood traces these “Flaubertian innovations” to Christopher Isherwood’s writing in the 1930s. “Posing as a camera who simply records . . . . Isherwood insists on slowing down the dynamic activity, and freezing habitual occurrence” (53). In other words, Isherwood compresses together events that happen at different times, and over the course of time. He also compresses together events and objects, so that paper advertisements–”bills”—and “children in tears” are “happening” simultaneously. But they’re also frozen in time, happening perpetually.

In fact, these bills are “made temporally noisy: they flash at us suddenly, but they belong to a different time signature than the children and youths” (54). Notice that Wood uses the acoustic term “noisy” for the description. Even though everything Isherwood is describing is primarily visual, Wood uses an acoustic adjective.

But as well, it is “temporally noisy.” The bills are put up and taken down, even while the street they’re on and the church nearby are much more fixed. In the description, they’re given a similar temporality, even though “they belong to different time signatures.” In some sense, a single moment is enshrined as the fixed nature of the place for all time.

Again, this fits the nature of the telegraph, where everything is happening now. Everything is present. Peter Fallon said that in the “immediate electric simultaneity,” we “make all time now.” Whatever is now is equally substantial—whether it’s a street or a crying child. This is true of the newspaper—the telegraph’s immediate representative. The newspaper collects and recounts events relating to transportation or to suffering, places them in parallel columns, and anchors them all to a dateline.

In this way, time, events, and objects are compressed and the moment is enshrined.


Visual collection and time compression can be done in a novel with any sort of setting—rural, suburban, or urban. But they may be best suited for the contemporary urban environment. People have lived in cities for a long time. But not until recently has the majority of the world lived there. And not until recently have cities become such diverse places. A city thrusts upon its inhabitants a mélange of details—random, foreign, artificial, variegated.

Wood links the development of free indirect style to this increasing urbanism. Newer novels, he points out, seek to capture the miscellaneous content of the city. For this purpose, novelists needed a character who could pass along selected bits to the reader in a similarly random fashion. Thus, Flaubert introduced “the loafer, usually a young man, who walks the streets with no great urgency, seeing, looking, reflecting” (48). Now, perhaps Flaubert could have described the setting himself, and Wood admits “this figure is essentially a stand-in for the author” (48), but for whatever reason, authors created characters to do this work instead.

Wood connects this character to the urban context. “The rise of this authorial scout is intimately connected to the rise of urbanism, to the fact that huge conglomerations of mankind throw at the writer—or the designated perceiver—large, bewilderingly various amounts of detail” (48). Later, Wood argues that this variety is exactly what makes Flaubertian realism so lifelike: “detail really does hit us, especially in big cities, in a tattoo of randomness” (56).

The modern city, of course, is largely a product of modern technologies, including the telegraph and its accompanying electronic environment. The telegraph helps to sustain variety by connecting immigrants to the old world via news sources. By maintaining a connection with their old worlds, they can continue to reflect those old worlds in the city. So the Indian restaurant owner keeps up on news from India and Bollywood and broadcasts Indian television in his restaurant. The east Asian manicurist does the same in her shop. People maintain their diversity this way, and so the city does too. All of this creates the “bewilderingly various amounts of detail” that is innate to the modern city.

But Wood doesn’t simply say that our surroundings are “a tattoo of randomness.” He goes further and says that the way that we see and remember them is random. This is the difference between object and perception. Even in a largely homogenous area, we see and remember a random collection of images. Has electronic culture shaped not only what there is to see but what we notice? There could be some validity to the argument, though to what degree I don’t know.

So is free indirect style an innovation that Flaubert introduced? I trust Wood’s analysis given his expertise. My own argument doesn’t preclude his. Rather, my argument suggests that Flaubert was a man of his times and of his surroundings. His time involved the newly minted telegraph and those surroundings included the electronic environment it ushered in.

Could Flaubert have happened before the telegraph? I doubt it. With the locomotive, distance was slowly beginning to compress, and with it, time. But until the telegraph’s warp speed of information, time and space were still relevant measures. The visual collection and time compression that Flaubert captured in free indirect style really wouldn’t have made sense to readers until they’d been calibrated to it by the telegraph’s simultaneity.

Your mom taught you well