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What does a character in a short story/novella/novel really do while soliloquizing? Are they talking to themselves or thinking silently?

An example of this occurs in Jane Eyre, where the titular character "soliloquizes" somewhat lengthy soliloquys. How should the reader interpret this behavior?

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3 Answers 3

There are different kinds of ways a soliloquy might be presented in writing. In a play or a movie, the character is usually shown to be either talking out loud to themselves (some people do this in real life) or they are breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience. In writing, it's common for the narrator to break the fourth wall and address the reader, or to present at length the thoughts of the author, narrator, or one of the characters. This is typically just considered part of the narration and not necessarily part of the story. Therefore nothing happens while it is going on.

However, in-story characters presented as talking out loud, as Jane is in Jane Eyre:

As the wet twilight deepened, I stopped in a solitary bridle-path, which I had been pursuing an hour or more.

"My strength is quite failing me," I said in a soliloquy. "I feel I cannot go much farther. Shall I be an outcast again this night? While the rain descends so, must I lay my head on the cold, drenched ground?...."

from Google Books

In the above passage, the literal interpretation is that Jane is actually talking out loud. It doesn't seem unbelievable for her to do that, but you could choose to interpret it as a bit of dramatization of the telling of her story. If you do opt for the literal interpretation (as I do), then as to what else she might be doing at that moment, I'd say, is up to your imagination.

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According to the OED, the noun soliloquy has the following meanings:

1.
    a. An instance of talking to or conversing with oneself, or of uttering one's thoughts
       aloud without addressing any person. 
    b. A literary production representing or imitating a discourse of this nature.
2. Without article: the act of talking to oneself; soliloquizing.

The verb soliloquize has these meanings:

1. intr. To engage in soliloquy; to talk to oneself.
2. trans.
    a. To utter in soliloquy.
        1854   Fraser's Mag. 50 72   Balder soliloquises his ambition.
    b. To address or apostrophize in soliloquy.
        1823   New Monthly Mag. 7 332   When you are soliloquizing the moon.

I gave two more uncommon of the many usage examples.

So if someone "soliloquizes", they either talk or write to themselves, address an inanimate object (Hamlet's skull), or write in the literary genre of the soliloquy. The context should make clear, what exactly the character does.

In a sense, writing a diary could be understood as soliloquizing: Soliloquy of a Farmer's Wife. The Diary of Annie Elliott Perrin.


In a drama, a monologue, a soliloquy and an aside are differentiated thus:

  • monologue is long, breaking the back and forth of normal conversation, but it is addressed at other characters (who may be off stage, e.g. on the telephone)
  • during a soliloquy, which may be long or only a few words, the speaker is alone on the stage
  • an aside is addressed at the audience

A short soliloquy would be one of two characters exiting the stage, the remaining character uttering: "Well, there he goes ...," and the next charactering coming onto the stage.

The most famous soliloquy is probably the "to be or not to be"-speech in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

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Unless the author tells me otherwise, I always picture the character going about his business half talking to himself out loud and half talking to himself in his head. I picture it that way because that's what I do when I'm alone and in deep thought. OTOH, if the author actually uses the word soliloquy (or a form of it) to describe what the character is doing, then I would picture the character almost orating, out loud, to himself. How melodramatic my mind-picture would be would depend upon the character's previously described behavior.

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