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Stream of Consciousness

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 10 months ago

Stream of Consciousness


 Created by Laura Barnes



I.   Overview of the Technique

II.  Variations of the Technique

III. A Modernist Technique

IV. Quotes from the Authors



I. Overview of the Technique: What is stream of consciousness?


      Psychologist William James coined the term "stream of consciousness" to describe the complex mental flux of thoughts that characterize human consciousness. Some modernist writers of the early twentieth-century attempted to recreate this flow of thought in their narratives, and, thus, emerged the stream of consciousness novel. These writers, unlike William James, were not interested in a psychological decoding and cataloging of the human mental processes, which would result in writing almost impenetrable and impossible to read, but rather they meant to capture the general effect of viewing the external world from within the character’s psyche.


      Stream of consciousness writers of the modern age viewed the character as a psychological battlefield. They believed that one could best understand a person or a character by searching within his or her mind, where he or she exists in the truest sense. These writers recognized that there was another significant dimension of human beings, the unobservable subconscious, that traditional authors neglected to use when creating character personalities. Traditionally, characters developed personality from what they said or did, what other characters said about them, and what the omniscient author chose to add. Giving a voice to the unspoken, reflective thoughts, imaginations, conceptions, and sensory feelings of the human psyche, as the modernist "stream of consciousness" writers did, provided the potential for more accurate, comprehensive, and in-depth character development than had existed in the traditional approach.


      In the traditional novel a more obviously present, omniscient author describes the characters and events. In a stream-of-consciousness narrative the author is virtually nonexistent, inserting no explanatory, interpretative, or evaluative commentary. The author is like an invisible God that creates and remains aloof from his creation. Everything is presented from the character’s point of view, bringing the reader into the character’s mind, and, thereby, exposing that character’s very personal, unrefined thoughts and feelings. The stream of consciousness technique takes a penetrating look beneath external surface appearances to probe and explore the inner depths of the character’s consciousness, and so, discover the subjective reality of the individual character. These writers wanted to depict the often unspoken stream of thoughts flowing through the character’s active mind as he or she executes his or her routine activities – dining with friends, sailing on a boat, or braiding a child’s hair.



II.  Variations of the Technique


       Slight variations of the stream of consciousness technique exist.  One type of stream of consciousness writing is the interior monologue, first used by Edouard Dujardin in his novel, Les Lauriers Sont Coupes.  The interior monologue was "used in fiction for representing the psychic content and processes of character, partly or entirely unuttered, just as these processes exist at various levels of conscious control before they are formulated for deliberate speech" (Humphrey 24).  Two variations of this technique are the direct and indirect interior monologues.

      In direct interior monolgue, the character speaks neither to another character within the story nor to the reader, and the author either never interferes or does so very subtly.  The direct interior monologue most nearly approaches a true stream of consciousness effect.  In the last forty-five pages of UlyssesJames Joyce uses direct interior monologue to trace his character, Molly Bloom's, mental excursions as she lays awake in bed beside her sleeping  husband.  This section is one stream of fragmentary ideas interrupting each other, without punctuation or explanations to account for people and events mentioned.

      Indirect interior monologue differs slightly from direct interior monologue in that it uses second or third person pronouns, and the author appears less distant, guiding the reader through the unspoken thoughts of the character's conscious.  Thus, indirect interior monologue produces writing with just a tad more coherence.  Virginia Woolf makes frequent use of this method in her novels, Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.

      Omniscient description and silent soliloquy are two more conventional methods of writing that stream of consciousness writers have adapted to serve their purposes.  In the former technique, an omniscient author uses narration and description to present the thoughts of the character's mind, and the reader always remains positioned within the character's psyche.  James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf all make use of this technique at some point in their writing.  Dorothy Richardson especially uses omniscient description in her novel, Pilgrimage.

      In the soliloquy, the character translates his or her thoughts into verbal speech spoken only to himself or herself.  Silent soliloquy achknowledges the presence of an audience or reader and, thus, purposes to communicate ideas to that audience, creating more coherent and ordered writing than the other stream of consciousness techniques.  Silent soliloquy limits its depth of probing the character's conscious, but still presents the character's inner life; "allowing for the idiom of the character, there remains an arrangement of thought units as they would originate within the character's consciousness, rather than as they would be deliberately expressed" (Humphrey 37).  William Faulkner uses this variation of stream of consciousness writing in his novel, As I Lay Dying.



III. A Modernist Technique


      So why did stream of consciousness style writing find such favor in Modernist literature?  Virginia Woolf gives us a clue in her essay "Modern Fiction."  Woolf rejects the traditional style of writing novels "so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what shink or crevice decay can creep in...And yet--if life should refuse to live there?" (Woolf 87)  The traditional style of writing, Woolf argues, is an untrue representation of life around us.  "Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end" (88).

     "Stream of consciousness" literature is modernist, in the sense of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot "high modernism," in that it is challenging to read and difficult to understand.  This complexity arises from the fact that "stream of consciousness" writing is meant to reflect the nature of the human pysche.  Our thoughts often follow no logical sequence, but rather jump from one subject to another, hence, the roughly juxtaposed ideas, the fragments of thought and sentence, and the lack of punctuation in stream of consciousness writing, like the following excerpt from William Faulkner's, As I Lay Dying:


              Cash tried but she fell off and Darl jumped going under he went and Cash hollering to catch her and I hollering running and hollering

              and Dewey dell hollering at me Vardaman you vardaman you vardaman and Vernon passed me because he was seeing her come

              up and she jumped into the water again and Darl hadn't caught her yet  (Baum 1748)


      The stream of consciousness technique appealed to those modernist writers, like T. S. Eliot, for example, who sought to capture the essence of modern life in form and content.  Eliot's, "The Waste Land," is characterized by fragmentation, discontinuity, and disjunction -- qualities equally descriptive of modern society. 

          In addition, the stream of consciousness style of writing sheds light not only on the nature of the human psyche, but also on the nature of human communication and relationships since most of the events take place in the character's mind, with little verbal dialogue and narration.  Consider, for example, the following quote from Virginia Woolf's novel, To The Lighthouse:

          But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making

               white circles on it. "William, sit by me," she said.  "Lily," she said, wearily, "over there."  They had that -- Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle

               -- she, only this -- an infinitely long table and plates and knives.  At the far end, was her husband, sitting down, all in a heap, frowning. 

               What at?  She did not know.  She did not mind.  She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him. 

               She had a sense of being past everything, as she helped the soup, as if there was an eddy -- there -- and one could be in it, or one could

               be out of it, and she was out of it.  It's all come to an end, she thought, while they came in one after another, Charles Tansley -- "Sit there,

               please," she said -- Augustus Carmicheal -- and sat down.  And meanwhile she waited, passively, for some one to answer her, for something

               to happen.  But this is not a thing, she thought, ladling out soup, that one says. 

                     Raising her eyebrows at the discrepancy -- that was what she was thinking, this was what she was doing -- ladling out soup -- she felt,

               more and more strongly, outside that eddy; or as if a shade had fallen, and, robbed of colour, she saw things truly." (Woolf 83)


Mrs. Ramsay muses over the value of her life and her marriage to her husband -- weighty issues of much significance yet completely unrelated to the external events going on around her -- all while mechanically seating her guests round the dinner table and serving them soup.  Throughout the whole of the novel Woolf makes the main characters' sensory feelings and internal sequences of thought accessible to the reader as she does here, thereby, reflecting the propensity of the human mind to rove even when our physical appearance gives pretense of our attention and listening. 




IV. Quotes from the Authors


     William James

"There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields (or whatever you please to call them), of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life" (Stream of Consciousness Technique 43).   


     Virginia Woolf

           "Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.The mind receives a myriad impressions -- trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.  From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape  themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old . . . Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness" (Stream of Consciousness Technique 154).


        "Life is . . . a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.  Is it not the task of the novelists to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit . . .?"  (Humphrey 13).


     James Joyce

          "The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak.  The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and projected from the human imagination.  The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished.  The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." 

          From A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Humphrey 15).


      Dorothy Richardson

          ". . . whatever be the means by which the reader's collaboration is secured, a literary work, for reader and writer alike, remains essentially an adventure of the stable contemplative human consciousness" (Steinberg 77).





Works Cited:


Baum, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. 6. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.


Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962.


James, William. Stream of Consciousness. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/jimmy11.htm


Raitt, Suzanne. "The Rhetoric of Efficiency in Early Modernism." Modernism/Modernity. 13.1 (Jan 2006): 84-105.


Steinberg, Erwin R. The Stream of Consciousness and Beyond in Ulysses. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.


The Stream of Consciousness Technique in the Modern Novel. Ed. Steinberg, Erwin R. New York: Kennikat Press Corp, 1979.


Woolf, Virginia. "Modern Fiction" 2oth Century Literary Criticism. Ed. David Lodge.  New York: Longman, 1972.


Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2001.







Link back to Encyclopedia of Modern American Literature

Comments (2)

Anonymous said

at 8:48 am on Mar 28, 2007

Good start, Laura. I wonder if you could attach more thoroughly to any of our writers. Both T.S. Eliot and Faulkner, for instance, make extensive use of stream of consciousness techniques in The Waste Land and in As I Lay Dying respectively. Showing the use and the effects of such use in their work might be a little more relevant and illuminating to students than Woolf or Joyce, for instance.

Anonymous said

at 8:26 am on Apr 25, 2007

Good text, Laura. Can you link from your opening outline to later elements of the page? The illustration you choose is good. Any chance of a couple of other short illustrations, especially since you suggest different kinds of stream of consciousness. I'd use more links to external sources within the text of your essay itself.

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