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Stream of Consciousness

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English Literature

In literature, stream of consciousness is a narrative device that can be used both in poetry and prose. It took root as a narrative technique during the Modernist literary movement, which can be dated to the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.

Buckle in, you’re going to learn about some difficult literature and you’ll soon be able to brag about understanding Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce.

Stream of consciousness meaning

The term ‘stream of consciousness’ was popularised by the psychologist William James’s theory of consciousness. In Principles of Psychology (1890), James theorised that our minds work as a continuous flow.

William James (1842-1910) was the brother of novelist Henry James.

In literature, stream of consciousness refers to the technique used by writers to represent the true nature of our consciousness, depicting the interior worlds of characters as they actually are.

Stream of consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a narrative mode that represents the continuous flow of an individual's mental processes.

There is debate among literary scholars as to whether we can only categorise a piece of writing as stream of consciousness if the author fully commits to representing the nature of consciousness as unbroken and fragmentary, or whether any narrative mode that represents inner thoughts as a continuous flow counts as stream of consciousness.

We're going to stick with the broad definition and explore how different authors portray the flow of consciousness in different styles.

Writing stream of consciousness

Let's take a look at the features of stream of consciousness and how writers use techniques such as fragmentary syntax to reproduce the flow of consciousness.

Features of stream of consciousness

Stream of consciousness is an introspective technique, it is all about looking inward and diving into the individual mind. This means that, depending on whose mind a writer is diving into, stream of consciousness narratives can be fragmentary, random and illogical. This is because the narrative is structured around emotional connections between thoughts, rather than following a logical sequence of plot events.

The stream of consciousness technique is characterised by the application of principles of free association. We can take free association to mean the mind's ability to draw a myriad of different associations.

For example, if a character is looking at flowers, this may trigger a chain of thoughts about their childhood, they might remember the garden they used to play in when they were little and go on to think about their parents, etc.

Associative thought is often illogical and random, as characters - like real people - may make associative leaps when they think. Authors using this technique to try to capture this randomness in their writing, without imposing logic onto the associative processes of the mind.

Techniques

Let's look at the techniques that are used to create stream of consciousness narration.

Unconventional grammar and syntax can be used to depict free association. Sentences may be left unfinished or words and phrases may be constantly repeated if a particular idea is lingering in a character’s mind.

Punctuation

Punctuation can also be used to depict the flow of consciousness.

For example, some writers such as Dorothy Richardson in Pilgrimage (1915-1935) and Jean Rhys in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) make use of ellipsis. On the other hand, James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) gets rid of punctuation in the final chapter from Molly Bloom’s perspective.

Point of view

Stream of consciousness narratives can be told from either an intimate first-person point of view or from a third-person point of view. The Free Indirect Style is one way of presenting streams of consciousness through a third-person narrator.

Free Indirect Style

A narrative style whereby a third-person narrator embeds elements and characteristics of characters' attitudes, thoughts and feelings into the narrative.

Free Indirect Style can be used to bounce back and forth between the streams of consciousness of multiple characters. The use of this narrative style is also a way for authors to impose order on the chaos of free association.

Quantity of perspectives

An author can either depict the stream of consciousness of one character without diving into anyone else’s mind, or they depict multiple streams of consciousness by splitting each stream into different chapters or juggling several perspectives simultaneously.

James Joyce plays with the stream of consciousness technique in Ulysses (1922), at first using Free Indirect Style to order different perspectives, and ending the novel with a chapter entirely dedicated to representing the sporadic flow of Molly Bloom's consciousness, in first-person point of view.

In To the Lighthouse (1927), Virginia Woolf also uses the narrative style of Free Indirect Style to order different streams of consciousness at the same time. The third-person narrator brings each character’s thoughts into a sort of indirect dialogue with one another.

Literary history and theory of stream of consciousness

In the early 20th century, the term ‘stream of consciousness’ was picked up on by literary critics who saw it as a Modernist literary technique. Although it was developed by the modernists, sustained use of the stream of consciousness as a literary technique can be traced back to Edouard Dujardin’s novel, Les lauriers sont soupés (1888).

The early Modernist novel Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad was structured by Charlie Marlow’s stream of consciousness narration of his time in the Congo.

But the term was first applied to literature by May Sinclair in 1919, in her critique of the first volume of Dorothy Richardson’s novel, Pilgrimage (1915-1935). Pilgrimage is a novel split into several volumes published over two decades.

‘The human forms all round her lost their power. They grew suffused and dim.... The pensive swing of the music changed to urgency and emphasis.... It came nearer and nearer. It did not come from the candle-lit corner where the piano was.... It came from everywhere. It carried her out of the house, out of the world.’

- Dorothy Richardson, Pointed Roofs (1915).

The Modernist literary giant, James Joyce, having begun writing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) in 1904, also played with the technique of stream of consciousness in this early novel, before pushing it to extremes in Ulysses (1922).

The technique was developed by other Modernists, such as Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1923) and To the Lighthouse (1927), and American author William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1931).

Modernism and stream of consciousness

Modernism was an experimental artistic movement that took place from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Modernist writers believed traditional modes of literary expression were unsuitable for the modern age. Modernists rebelled against plot-driven Victorian realist novels by foregrounding the rich inner lives of characters instead.

Why did the Modernists gravitate towards the stream of consciousness technique? Well, the Modernists were all about the rich inner lives of individuals, so naturally, some Modernists structured their works around these rich internal worlds by making use of and developing the stream of consciousness technique.

Rather than being structured around a logical sequence of external events (plot), the Modernist novel was instead structured around internal events, following all the perceptions and thoughts the mind takes in the day-to-day. This sentiment was prominent in Woolf's essay, 'Modern Fiction' (1919):

'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.'

- Virginia Woolf, 'Modern Fiction' (1919).

In Woolf's writing, and in other Modernist writing, authors focus on 'atoms' of consciousness; thoughts, feelings, reactions, sensory experiences, and memories.

Examples of stream of consciousness

We will discuss some popular examples of stream of consciousness in Modernist literature.

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

Let's look at two different chapters of the Modernist masterpiece Ulysses, which make use the stream of consciousness technique differently. Ulysses follows the rich interior lives of Leopold Bloom and his friends and wife on June 16th, 1904 in Dublin, Ireland.

In Episode 6, Leopold attends a funeral and the narrative reproduces the flow of his consciousness, as he fixates on the details of a suit:

'Nice soft tweed Ned Lambert has in that suit. Tinge of purple. I had one like that when we lived in Lombard street west. Dressy fellow he was once. Used to change three suits in the day. Must get that grey suit of mine turned by Mesiaats. Hello. It’s dyed. His wife I forgot he’s not married or his landlady ought to have picked out those threads for him.'

- James Joyce, Part III, Episode 6 'Hades', Ulysses (1922).

In this passage, you can trace the connections between the 'atoms' (to use Woolf's terminology) of Leopold's thoughts:

  1. Sensory experience: sees a nice suit with a purple tinge on Ned Lambert
  2. Memory association: remembers a similar suit he once had
  3. Memory: remembers Ned used to have better style and his extravagant habits
  4. Reaction: he wants to take his suit to the tailor's
  5. Realisation: Ned's suit has a purple tinge because it has been dyed
  6. Judgement and memory: he thinks Ned's wife should have fixed his suit, but remembers he doesn't have a wife mid-thought.

In the last line of the passage, Joyce disregards the rules of syntax to depict stream-of-consciousness exactly as it happens, showing lapses in Leopold's memory.

In the final chapter of Ulysses, Molly Bloom is lying in bed, thinking about her day. In this passage, her mind wanders from her husband to her cat and when she remembers her cat stole her dinner, she realises she has a hankering to eat fish:

I love to hear him falling up the stairs of a morning with the cups rattling on the tray and then play with the cat she rubs up against you for her own sake I wonder has she fleas shes as bad as a woman always licking and lecking but I hate their claws I wonder do they see anything that we cant staring like that when she sits at the top of the stairs so long and listening as I wait always what a robber too that lovely fresh plaice I bought I think Ill get a bit of fish tomorrow or today is it Friday yes'- James Joyce, Part III, Chapter 18 'Penelope', Ulysses.

In the final chapter, Joyce takes the stream of consciousness technique to the extreme, disregarding syntactical rules, and getting rid of punctuation and paragraph breaks to show the fluidity of Molly's mind. In 'Penelope', there are only two full stops and only five paragraph breaks.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway also takes place over the course of a single day, in London, England.

In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf uses Free Indirect Style to order her characters' streams of consciousness.

'"That is all," she repeated, pausing for a moment at the window of a glove shop where, before the War, you could buy almost perfect gloves. And her old Uncle William used to say a lady is known by her shoes and her gloves. He had turned on his bed one morning in the middle of the War. He had said, "I have had enough." Gloves and shoes; she had a passion for gloves; but her own daughter, her Elizabeth, cared not a straw for either of them.'

- Virginia Woolf, Chapter One, Mrs Dalloway (1925).

In this passage, Woolf's narrative voice uses the Free Indirect Style to dive into Clarissa Dalloway's mind and follow it downstream. Clarissa is reminded of her uncle's death when she sees gloves in a shop window, and repeats 'gloves and shoes', as though she's trying not to dwell on the unpleasant memory of her uncle's death.

The Free Indirect Style represents the inner thoughts and feelings of characters through the voice of the narrator, leading the prose to take on the quality of the characters' thoughts. In this extract, for example, short fragmentary sentences show that Clarissa's flow of consciousness staggers as she remembers her uncle.

Recently, critics such as Randall Stevenson have taken issue with the oversimplistic categorisation of Woolf’s narrative style in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse as stream of consciousness. This is because Woolf imposes a lot of order on her characters' streams of consciousness through the Free Indirect Style, and some literary theorists believe that "true" stream of consciousness narrative needs to be random and chaotic.

But the above passage clearly shows that Woolf represents the flow of consciousness of her characters. If we take a broader definition of stream of consciousness, it is evident that Mrs Dalloway makes use of this technique.

As an exercise, why not sit on your bed, close your eyes and type out all your thoughts as they come to you. You might learn something about yourself in the process: are you easily distracted? Are there any thoughts you try to shut out? Does your mind wander freely like Molly Bloom's or do you think in short, splintered bursts like Leopold Bloom?

Stream of Consciousness - Key takeaways

  • Stream of consciousness is a narrative mode that seeks to represent the continuous flow of an individual's mental processes.
  • As a literary technique, the stream of consciousness narrative mode took root during the Modernist movement, with leading modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf using the technique in innovative ways.
  • The Modernist literary movement was all about honouring the rich inner life of the individual, and they developed and innovated the stream of consciousness narrative mode to that end.
  • The stream of consciousness narrative mode can be from a first- or third-person point of view. Writers such as Joyce and Woolf often use the Free Indirect Style to order is characterised by associative thought and fragmentary syntax.

Stream of Consciousness

In literature, stream of consciousness refers to a narrative mode that represents the continuous flow of an individual's mental processes.

To speak in a stream of consciousness means to say your unfiltered thoughts, as they come to you. This often leads to disordered speech and to many tangents, as the individual voices the associations that their mind makes.

A narration that uses stream of consciousness introduces the readers to the inner thoughts of the main character.

The main features of stream of consciousness are: free asscoiation, fragmented syntax, and point of view.

Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce.

Final Stream of Consciousness Quiz

Question

What is stream of consciousness?

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Answer

Stream of consciousness is a narrative mode that represents the continuous flow of an individual's mental processes.

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Question

What is William James' theory of stream of consciousness?

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Answer

The theory that our minds work as a continuous flow.

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Question

How can we describe stream of consciousness narration?

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Answer

Introspective, fragmentary, random and oftentimes illogical, etc.

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Question

Why is stream of consciousness narration oftentimes fragmentary and illogical?

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Answer

  • Because the narrative is structured around emotional connections between thoughts, rather than following a logical sequence of plot events.
  • Associative thought is often illogical and random, as characters - like real people - may make associative leaps when they think. 

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Question

What are some key techniques of stream of consciousness?

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Answer

  • fragmented syntax
  • first-person or third-person point of view may be used
  • there may be more than one stream of consciousness in a work

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Question

What is Free Indirect Style?

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Answer

A narrative style whereby a third-person narrator embeds elements and characteristics of characters' attitudes, thoughts and feelings into the narrative.

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Question

How and why might Free Indirect Style be used in conjunction with stream of consciousness narrative?


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Answer

  • Free Indirect Style is one way of presenting streams of consciousness through a third-person narrator.
  • Allows the narrator to bounce between different streams of consciousness
  • This style is a way to order the chaos of free association.

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Question

What text is considered to be the first literary work that used the technique of stream of consciousness?

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Answer

Edouard Dujardin’s novel, Les lauriers sont soupés (1888).

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Question

When was the term stream of consciousness first applied to literature?

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Answer

In 1919, it was used to describe the narrative technique used in Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage.

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Question

During which literary movement did stream of consciousness really take off as a narrative technique?

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Answer

The Modernist literary movement.

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Question

What is Modernism?

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Answer

Modernism was an experimental artistic movement that took place from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.


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Question

Why did the Modernists use this technique?

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Answer

The Modernists were all about the rich inner lives of individuals leading some Modernists structured their works around these rich internal worlds.

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Question

What are two key examples of Modernist texts that use the stream of consciousness technique?

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Answer

James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925).

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