Audrey Magee

Does Interior Monologue have a National Identity?

A new essay by Audrey Magee, author of The Undertaking, and The Colony.

How do we talk? How do we talk to each other and how do we talk to ourselves? What is said in the space around our talk? In the gestures that accompany that talk? And what are those influences on that internal and external talk?

That we still have no single scientific, irrefutable and immutable answer to these seemingly simple but utterly complex questions must surely be a joy to writers. As long as they remain unanswered we can dig and delve, mine seam after seam in search of new truths about dialogue, about monologue, about stream of consciousness, about things that can be framed in words and things that are beyond expression in conventional language.

We have been at it for centuries; writers, philosophers, academics, all of us hunting for the essence of how we speak to each other and to ourselves. Socrates, Hegel, Shakespeare, Derrida, Heidegger, Dujardin, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Morrison and Beckett, all digging away, puzzling over how best to realise and depict that internality and externality of language. 

The Greeks in their theatre addressed their monologues to the gods, seeking an omniscient voice external to themselves to resolve their crises and direct their actions. Socrates, though, disrupted this system of finding certainty through religion and external of the self, becoming instead what Hegel described as a prophet of inner Gewissheit, or internal certainty. 

In Medieval English plays, soliloquies were addressed to the omnipresent monotheistic God while good and evil was played out between the angels and Lucifer, the bad angel. For Nietzsche, though, addressing God was never true solitude. Writing in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, he said ‘for a pious person there is no solitude – we were the first to make that discovery, we the godless.‘ 

Shakespeare compelled his characters to turn inwards, to delve into that interior, into that solitude, sending Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth on terrifying journeys of psychological introspection to resolve the crises that beset them, but doing so without the certainties of God. They were to decide their own fates, their soliloquies packed with conflict, hallucinations, visits from ghosts, ghostly curses, threats of madness and actual madness, all without the Greek or Medieval gods to guide, direct and resolve their crises, leaving them alone in the world to decide their own fates and to self-determine. 

By the time of Dujardin, Proust and Joyce, the interior life of a character began to mean something else other than a space to resolve a crisis. It was about depicting the interior thinking of a character as he crossed a street, went to the toilet or ate a madeleine. It was the inner life of the every day, of the mundane rather than the exceptional. No crisis, no drama, just a rendering of the banal within the interior of the character, using writing and style to make the ordinary extraordinary. Beckett, Wolf and Morrison all followed, delving deeper through stream of consciousness in Molloy, To the Lighthouse and Beloved into the thoughts and thinking of their characters. The Irish writer Mike McCormack has gone one further than stream of consciousness as his principal character in Solar Bones is dead so that his narration is stream of post-consciousness.   

But is mono-logos or solitary speech even a reality? Is it anything beyond a literary device? Philosophers have long argued over whether people can really talk to themselves. Is monologue even possible when the speaker is already aware of their thoughts before they are even articulated? How is it possible to render the momentariness of thought into protracted monologue? Is monologue even credible? Heidegger came to the writer’s assistance when he wrote: ‘Nothing rests on bringing forth a new view of language. Everything rests on learning to live in the speaking of language.’

But how to live in the speaking of language and how to depict its essence is a challenge when much of what is unsaid and said – externally and internally – derives from influences so deep within us that we struggle to understand the impact on ourselves and subsequently on each other. Personal, familial, societal and national experiences influence our thinking, our language and our speech. What is the impact of that national identity on the thought processes that create language? Could Proust’s Marcel be other than French as he ate the crumbs of a madeleine dipped in lime blossom tea? And could Joyce’s Leopold Bloom be other than Irish, indeed Dublin, as he wandered off to the outside toilet with the newspaper: ‘he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read; reading still patiently, that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive’. Do the national influences on those characters make it impossible for Marcel to be other than French and Bloom to be other than Irish? What is the impact of national identity on individual thought and, by extension, on language? In the case of Beckett, what is the impact of stripping away all identifiers until all his characters are from nowhere but from everywhere? Or is that an impossible creation because in the end the influences on the writer will seep inevitably into the language of the characters?

Dialogue, speech with others, is a huge part of my work. My first novel, The Undertaking, is built principally around dialogue, the characters creating a discursive space of spoken and unspoken truths about the ordinary German in the Second World War. In The Undertaking just one character has an internal life, but only briefly as to survive the war and the truth of the Holocaust he and the characters around him only skate across the surface of their existence, holding back inner thinking, thus preventing any ownership of or responsibility for their actions during the Nazi regime. That silence – internal and external – was, I found, a very German response to that country’s part in the war and Holocaust. 

In The Colony, my second novel, four of my characters have inner lives – two of the characters are from Britain and France, the big beasts of modern colonialism; the other two characters, a mother and her son, are from Ireland, the first country to be colonised by Britain and the country that later served as template for other European colonisers on how to colonise. 

What does it mean to come from a colonising country and how does that impact on the language used? And what is it to be the colonised? What does that do to the internal and external language of a person? Is there a difference in the language used by the coloniser and the colonised? If so, how are those different languages created? 

De Saussure’s circuit de la parole, or speech circuit, goes some way to giving us a scientific basis for understanding how we communicate. The circuit ⁠— made up of langue (language), parole (speech) and the brain ⁠— creates the loop on which communication turns. Speech ⁠— written or spoken ⁠— is the physical and concrete use of language, while language itself a signifying system imbued with layers of linguistic and social influence. In The Colony I explore those many influences —  history, politics, philosophy, religion, ethics, education, social standing and nationality — on the characters’ speech, externally as dialogue and internally as monologue, all the time hunting to depict the tenderness of those moments when one person’s speech impacts on the internal and external speech of another, or on the their own internal thinking.

The Colony opens as Lloyd, an artist from London, prepares to cross to an Irish-speaking island in a currach. It is the summer of 1979. There is violence in Northern Ireland and a fragility to the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Lloyd insists on the traditional boat instead of a bigger, motorised boat as he wants to have the authentic experience, to live as the islanders live, to create the veneer of belonging, of being at one with the landscape and the people but his internal language is fragmented, his body outside itself as he climbs down the pier and into the boat:

He turned and dropped his right leg to search for the first step beneath him, his hands gripping the rusting metal as his leg dangled, his eyes shut tight, against the possibilities
of catching skin
cutting fingers
blemishing hands
of slipping
on steps
coated in seaweed and slime
of falling
falling into the sea

As the novel progresses, Lloyd’s internal life changes, his language less staccato and more fluent as he finds his language as an artist but also as a man from a colonising country, drawing on the latent power and authority invested in him by being the successor of the British colonisers. 

Masson, a linguist from Paris on a mission to save the Irish language, lands very differently onto the island. He is full of confidence, certain of his place as a friend of the islanders, a French man whose country assisted the Irish in many of its wars against the English. He is liked and he knows that he is liked and the language of his interior monologue is confident, drawing on that certainty, his language Proustian:

for this is my retreat, where I sit, alone, at the end of the day, hidden by the whitewashed walls from the rest of the island, from the islanders, the evening sun on my closed eyes as I dissect the day’s language and analyse the phrases and inflections, the intonations and borrowings, hunting for influences of English, for traces of that foreign language creeping onto the island, into the houses, into the mouths and onto the tongues of the islanders, tracking those tiny utterances that signal change, marking the beginning of the end of Irish on the island…

The internal language of Lloyd and Masson changes and shifts as their relationships with themselves, with each other and with the islanders change over the summer. As the violence in Northern Ireland intensifies, the two men battle it out for supremacy of the island, each of them carrying the legacies of their countries in their language and speech. The islanders, meanwhile, struggle to find their external and internal voices, their thoughts framed by Catholic prayers, the expectations of their elders and the dearth of opportunity and choice available to Mairéad, a still young, still beautiful widow and her 15-year-old son, James, who refuses to settle for the life planned for him as a fisherman, his internal world questioning and defiant:

Is this how a man smells? Is this how my father smelt? What my mother smelt when she lay down beside him at night, what I smelt when I lay between them? Francis doesn’t smell like this, no, not this, for this is the smell of oil and paint mixed with sweat and must, of paper, of pencil, of linseed. Not of Francis. He smells of smoke, of sweat, of salt and sea. And of fish. He has a smell of fish that never goes, no matter how newly washed he is and I hate that smell, that smell of fish, but I like this smell, your smell, Mr Lloyd, the smell of an artist, of an Englishman. 

We have so many different ways of writing internal monologue, present tense, past tense, future tense, an address to God, to the devil, to the dead father, the ghost of that dead father, in a conversation with oneself, in the conscious, sub-conscious or beyond conscious, but can we be truly find a language devoid of the influences that formed the character, or the writer? Even in the post-conscious, dead state of Solar Bones the Angelus bell still chimes. 


The Colony by Audrey Magee will be published by Faber & Faber on 3 February. To purchase a copy directly from the publisher, go here

Audrey Magee was born in Ireland and lives in Wicklow. Her first novel, The Undertaking, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for France’s Festival du Premier Roman and for the Irish Book Awards. It was also nominated for the Dublin Literary Award and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The Undertaking has been translated into ten languages and is being adapted for film.







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