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Discourse refers to spoken or written communication, typically in a formal manner.



The term "discourse" supports a wide variety of definitions and functions, having evolved in meaning due to the modernist, structuralist, and postmodern movements (etc.). Broadly defined in terms of narratology, discourse refers to the set of principles governing how a story is told, referencing both its linguistic situation and the relationship between giver/sender/narrator of that information and its receiver/audience. Michel Foucault (Archaeology of Knowledge) played a major role in transforming the concept of discourse into a more social phenomenon, arguing for discourses as systems of thoughts or beliefs that are socially held and accepted. Discourses, in this conception, construct social "truths" and maintain them through a complex system of power relations.


"The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis-- the final overthrow."

-Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native

This passage illustrates discourse in that as opposed to story or plot, the passage discusses and elaborates upon more descriptive and contextual elements in the narrative. Discourse in this case, then, acts as an expository agent, broadening the scope of the plot to reach a deeper level of the narrative.

Critical Debates

{is the term contested, challenged, defined differently, etc.?}

Related Terms

direct discourse, indirect discourse, free indirect discourse


Prince, Gerald. Dictionary of Narratology.

Keen, Susan. Narrative Form.

Herman, David and Manfred Jahn, Marie-Laure Ryan. Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory.

Martin, Wallace. Recent Theories of Narrative.

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