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Literary Terms: Narrative Elements and Monologue


“To be or not to be, that is the question.” Most people recognize the opening line of Hamlet’s famous speech, but they might not be able to categorize it as a soliloquy or know that a soliloquy is a kind of monologue. A monologue, the extended speech of a single speaker, can be a powerful narrative tool for developing character, catching the audience’s attention and supplying important background information for a story.

Point of View

Although monologues articulate only one character’s thoughts, they can appear in texts that use any point of view. Point of view is the narrator’s perspective in a text. Works with a first-person point of view have a narrator who calls himself “I,” like Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Second-person narration calls the reader “you”; A. M. Jenkins’ novel “Despair” uses second-person interior monologue to invite readers to identify with the narrator’s despair. Third-person works, in which the narrator calls characters by name, can include interior monologues from the narrator’s or another character’s perspective.

Interior Monologue

An interior monologue is a narrative convention for representing the thoughts, memories, perceptions and feelings -- the consciousness -- of a character. Its goal is to approximate internal experience as closely as possible within the confines of language. Writers have developed many techniques to represent consciousness this way. The beginning of James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” for example, uses minimal punctuation and capitalization and imitates childish speech to represent Stephen Dedalus as a young boy. In “Transparent Minds,” Dorrit Cohn suggests that techniques for interior monologue differ depending on whether the primary narrative is written in the first or third person.

Soliloquy

A soliloquy is a kind of monologue that occurs in drama when a character speaks his thoughts aloud to himself and to the play’s audience. Writers can use soliloquies to develop and clarify a character’s motives as William Shakespeare does in Hamlet’s famous soliloquies. Soliloquies can also provide background information for the audience, known as exposition. For instance, both the opening and closing soliloquies of Christopher Marlowe’s play “Dr. Faustus” are expository. The character must be alone on the stage, so staging becomes a narrative concern: How does the writer clear the room of other characters? If other characters are present for a speech but don’t hear the speaker, who is addressing only himself and the audience, the speech is called an “aside.”

Dramatic Monologue

Dramatic monologue is easy to confuse with soliloquy, since it sounds as if it should appear in a drama. Instead, a dramatic monologue is a poetic genre from the English Victorian period. As defined by M. H. Abrams in the authoritative “Glossary of Literary Terms,” a poem fits the genre if it’s spoken by one character who is not the poet, if it addresses a critical situation and if its main point is to let readers learn about the speaker. One narrative concern for writers of dramatic monologues is whether readers can infer the monologue’s implied audience -- that is, other characters to whom the speaker is talking. For example, Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” uses direct address to let the readers know that the speaker is a duke negotiating another marriage with a representative from a count.

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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