Stream of Consciousness Definition
What is stream of consciousness? Here’s a quick and simple definition:
Stream of consciousness is a style or technique of writing that tries to capture the natural flow of a character's extended thought process, often by incorporating sensory impressions, incomplete ideas, unusual syntax, and rough grammar.
Some additional key details about stream of consciousness:
- Stream of consciousness writing is associated with the early 20th-century Modernist movement.
- The term “stream of consciousness” originated in psychology before literary critics began using it to describe a narrative style that depicts how people think.
- Stream of consciousness is used primarily in fiction and poetry, but the term has also been used to describe plays and films that attempt to visually represent a character's thoughts.
Understanding Stream of Consciousness
Stream of consciousness writing allows readers to “listen in” on a character's thoughts. The technique often involves the use of language in unconventional ways in an attempt to replicate the complicated pathways that thoughts take as they unfold and move through the mind. In short, it's the use of language to mimic the "streaming" nature of "conscious" thought (thus "stream of consciousness"). Stream of consciousness can be written in the first person as well as the third person.
What Makes Stream of Consciousness Different?
Traditional prose writing is highly linear—one thing or idea follows after another in a more or less logical sequence, as in a line. Stream of consciousness is often non-linear in a few key ways that define the style: it makes use of unusual syntax and grammar, associative leaps, repetition, and plot structure.
- Syntax and grammar: Stream of consciousness writing does not usually follow ordinary rules of grammar and syntax (or word order). This is because thoughts are often not fully formed, or they change course in the middle and become "run-on sentences," or they are interrupted by another thought. So grammar and syntax can be used to replicate this process in ways that aren't grammatically or syntactically "correct," but that nonetheless feel accurate.
- For instance, in Death in Venice, Thomas Mann uses subtly irregular syntax and grammar to help convey his main character's gradual descent into madness as part of a stream of consciousness passage that begins: "For beauty, Phaedrus, take note! beauty alone is godlike and visible at the same time."
- Additionally, writers of stream of consciousness often use punctuation in unconventional ways (using italics, ellipses, dashes, and line breaks to indicate pauses and shifts in the character's train of thought).
- Association: Stream of consciousness also makes use of associative thought. In this style of writing, writers transition between ideas using loose connections that are often based on a character's personal experiences and memories. The idea is that this technique helps writers convey the experience of human thought more accurately than they could by using a series of ideas connected with clear, logical transitions. Associative thought can seem "random" as it leaps from one thing to the next, with the help of only ambiguous or seemingly nonexistent connections, even as it can also feel similar to the actual random leaps that are a part of people's everyday thoughts.
- As an example, characters' thoughts are often presented to the reader in response to sensory impressions—fragmented observations describing what the character sees, hears, smells, feels, tastes, and so on.
- Repetition: Writers might use repetition to indicate that the character keeps coming back to, or is fixating on, a certain thought or sensory impression. Repeated words and phrases can act as a sign posts, pointing readers towards significant themes and motifs.
- For example, if a character's mind is constantly returning to the scent of a woman's perfume, the reader might conclude that the character is fascinated by or attracted to that woman.
- Plot structure: Many writers who employ stream of consciousness also experiment with structure, incorporating elements like multiple unreliable narrators or a nonlinear plot structure (i.e., one that moves forward and backward in time).
- Some writers shift rapidly between the perspectives of different characters, allowing readers to experience the “stream of consciousness” of multiple people. For example, in one chapter of his novel Sometimes A Great Notion, Ken Kesey alternates between the thoughts, emotions, and impressions of several characters (including a dog), using italics and different styles of punctuation to indicate which character is thinking each word, phrase, or sentence.
- Some writers may also choose to arrange events out of chronological order, or to give readers details about the past through a character’s memories. In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner conveys many important events and details through memories that arise as part of his different characters’ streams of consciousness.
Stream of Consciousness in Literary History
The term “stream of consciousness” originated in the 19th century, when psychologists coined the term to describe the constant flow of subjective thoughts, feelings, memories, and observations that all people experience. Beginning in the early 20th century, however, literary critics began to use “stream of consciousness” to describe a narrative technique pioneered by writers like Dorothy Richardson, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Many of these writers were interested in psychology and the "psychological novel," in which writers spend at least as much time describing the characters’ thoughts, ideas, and internal development as they do describing the action of the plot.
Stream of Consciousness vs. Interior Monologue
Both interior monologue and stream of consciousness involve the presentation of a character's thoughts to the reader. However, there are differences between the two.
- In interior monologue, unlike in stream of consciousness, the character's thoughts are often presented using traditional grammar and syntax, and usually have a clear logical progression from one sentence to the next and one idea to the next. Interior monologue relates a character's thoughts as coherent, fully formed sentences, as if the character is talking to him or herself.
- Stream of consciousness, in contrast, seeks to portray the actual experience of thinking, in all its chaos and distraction. Stream of consciousness is not just an attempt to relay a character's thoughts, but to make the reader experience those thoughts in the same way that the character is thinking them.
Stream of Consciousness Examples
Stream of consciousness became widespread as a literary technique during the Modernist movement that flourished in the years just before and then after World War I (the early to mid 20th century). Even as Modernism gave way to other movements, it remained as a technique, and is still used not infrequently today.
Stream of Consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf is known for using stream of consciousness in her writing. The novel Mrs. Dalloway follows the thoughts, experiences, and memories of several characters on a single day in London. In this passage, the title character, Clarissa Dalloway, watches cars driving by:
She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fraulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.
Woolf does more than simply say "Mrs. Dalloway watched the taxis and thought about her life." Rather, she lets the reader into the character's thoughts by using long sentences with semicolons to show the slow drift of ideas and the transitions between thoughts. Readers are able to watch as Mrs. Dalloway's mind moves from observations about things she is seeing to reflections on her general attitude towards life, and then moves on to memories from her childhood, then back to the taxi cabs in the street, and finally to Peter, a former romantic interest. This is an excellent example of using associative leaps and sensory impressions to create a stream of consciousness. Woolf manages to convey not only the content but the structure and process of Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts, a fact which is all the more impressive because she does so while writing in the third person.
Stream of Consciousness in Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison uses stream of consciousness in passages throughout Beloved. In this passage, readers hear the voice of a character named Beloved who seems to be the spirit of the murdered infant of another character named Sethe:
I am alone I want to be the two of us I want the join I come out of blue water after the bottoms of my feet swim away from me I come up I need to find a place to be the air is heavy I am not dead I am not there is a house there is what she whispered to me I am where she told me I am not dead I sit the sun closes my eyes when I open them I see the face I lost Sethe's is the face that left me Sethe sees me see her and I see the smile her smiling face is the place for me it is the face I lost she is my face smiling at me
Morrison doesn't use proper capitalization or grammar throughout the passage (e.g., "join" is used as a noun). In the place of punctuation, Morrison simply inserts gaps in the text. She also makes use of repetition: when Beloved repeats the words, "I am not dead," she seems to be willing herself to live through a kind of mantra or incantation. Morrison uses run-on sentences and lack of punctuation to show the frantic urgency that Beloved feels when she finds herself alone in death, and to convey her deep desire to be reunited with Sethe—effectively letting readers "listen in" on her thoughts.
Stream of Consciousness in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot
Modernist poet TS Eliot uses stream of consciousness techniques in his famous poem, "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock."
I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
The poem generally follows traditional grammar and syntax, but Eliot moves from idea to idea and sentence to sentence using associative thought. For example, when he thinks of walking on the beach, he is reminded of mermaids. And while it's not immediately clear what peaches and mermaids have to do with old age, the passage shows readers something about how the speaker's mind wanders.
Stream of Consciousness in As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Like Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner is known for his use of stream of consciousness. In this passage from his novel As I Lay Dying, the character Jewel expresses his frustration that, as his mother is dying, his half-brother is noisily building her a casket just outside her window.
Because I said If you wouldn't keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn't get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell's arm. I said if you'd just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you're tired you cant breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the county coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.
The repetition of the phrase "one lick less" helps convey the way Jewel seems to bristle at the repetitive noises made by the saw and the adze outside the window, each noisy "lick" a reminder of his mother's impending death. His sentences also take strange turns and arrive at unexpected places, as when he begins a sentence with a memory of Cash falling off a roof, moves on to lament the constant train of visitors to his mother's room, and ends quite memorably by asking (without the use of a question mark) "because if there is a God what the hell is He for." The passage is incredibly effective at depicting the dizzying range of thoughts and emotions Jewel experiences as he visits the room of his dying mother.
Why Do Writers Use Stream of Consciousness?
Stream of consciousness originated in the late 19th and early 20th century as part of modernist literature. Many of the writers who pioneered the use of stream of consciousness were attempting to create new literary techniques to better represent the human experience—especially in a modern, urban, industrialized world. Today, writers who use stream of consciousness may feel that this technique is more honest or "true to life" than more conventional narrative styles, which force thoughts and ideas into logical and easily digestible sentences.
Writers use stream of consciousness not only to show what a character is thinking, but to actually replicate the experience of thinking, which allows the reader to enter the mind and world of the character more fully. Many people find stream of consciousness writing to be difficult to read, and indeed it does require readers to think in different ways—but this is actually one reason why many writers choose to use the technique. Readers may have to work a bit harder to discern the meaning of a particular sentence, or make inferences about the relationship between seemingly unrelated thoughts in order to fully understand the events of the story, but this is what makes reading stream of consciousness a rich and radically different experience from reading conventional prose.
Other Helpful Stream of Consciousness Resources
For other uses, see Stream of consciousness (disambiguation).
This article is about the literary device. For the prewriting technique, see Free writing.
In literary criticism, stream of consciousness is a narrative mode or method that attempts to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind. The term was coined by William James in 1890 in his The Principles of Psychology, and in 1918 the novelist May Sinclair (1863–1946) first applied the term stream of consciousness, in a literary context, when discussing Dorothy Richardson's (1873–1957) novels. Pointed Roofs (1915), the first work in Richardson's series of 13 semi-autobiographical novels titled Pilgrimage, is the first complete stream of consciousness novel published in English. However, in 1934, Richardson comments that "Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf & D.R. ... were all using 'the new method', though very differently, simultaneously". There were, however, many earlier precursors and the technique is still used by contemporary writers.
Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that attempts to give the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue (see below), or in connection to his or her actions. Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative leaps in thought and lack of some or all punctuation. Stream of consciousness and interior monologue are distinguished from dramatic monologue and soliloquy, where the speaker is addressing an audience or a third person, which are chiefly used in poetry or drama. In stream of consciousness the speaker's thought processes are more often depicted as overheard in the mind (or addressed to oneself); it is primarily a fictional device.
The term "stream of consciousness" was coined by philosopher and psychologistWilliam James in The Principles of Psychology (1890):
consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits ... it is nothing joined; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let's call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.
In the following example of stream of consciousness from James Joyce's Ulysses, Molly seeks sleep:
a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early 
While many sources use the terms stream of consciousness and interior monologue as synonyms, the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms suggests, that "they can also be distinguished psychologically and literarily. In a psychological sense, stream of consciousness is the subject‐matter, while interior monologue is the technique for presenting it". And for literature, "while an interior monologue always presents a character's thoughts 'directly', without the apparent intervention of a summarizing and selecting narrator, it does not necessarily mingle them with impressions and perceptions, nor does it necessarily violate the norms of grammar, or logic- but the stream‐of‐consciousness technique also does one or both of these things." Similarly the Encyclopædia Britannica Online, while agreeing that these terms are "often used interchangeably", suggests, that "while an interior monologue may mirror all the half thoughts, impressions, and associations that impinge upon the character's consciousness, it may also be restricted to an organized presentation of that character's rational thoughts".
Beginnings to 1900
While the use of the narrative technique of stream of consciousness is usually associated with modernist novelists in the first part of the twentieth-century, a number of precursors have been suggested, including Laurence Sterne's psychological novelTristram Shandy (1757). It has been suggested that Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) foreshadows this literary technique in the nineteenth-century. Poe's story is a first person narrative, told by an unnamed narrator who endeavors to convince the reader of his sanity, while describing a murder he committed. and it is often read as a dramatic monologue. George R. Clay notes that Leo Tolstoy "when the occasion requires it ... applies Modernist stream of consciousness technique" in both War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878). The short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) by another American author, Ambrose Bierce, also abandons strict linear time to record the internal consciousness of the protagonist. Because of his renunciation of chronology in favor of free association, Édouard Dujardin's Les Lauriers sont coupés (1887) is also an important precursor. Indeed, the possibility of a direct influence is evoqued by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and having "picked up a copy of Dujardin's novel ... in Paris in 1903".
There are also those who point to Anton Chekhov's short stories and plays (1881-1904) and Knut Hamsun's Hunger (1890), and Mysteries (1892) as offering glimpses of the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative technique at the end of the nineteenth-century. While Hunger is widely seen as a classic of world literature and a groundbreaking modernist novel, Mysteries is also considered a pioneer work. It has been claimed that Hamsun was way ahead of his time with the use of stream of consciousness in two chapters in particular of this novel. British author Robert Ferguson said: “There’s a lot of dreamlike aspects of Mysteries. In that book ... it is ... two chapters, where he actually invents stream of consciousness writing, in the early 1890s. This was long before Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.” Henry James has also been suggested as a significant precursor, in a work as early as Portrait of a Lady (1881). It has been suggested that he influenced later stream of consciousness writers, including Virginia Woolf, who not only read some of his novels but also wrote essays about them.
However, it has also been argued that Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), in his short story '"Leutnant Gustl" ("None but the Brave", 1900), was in fact the first to make full use of the stream of consciousness technique.
Early Twentieth century
But it is only in the twentieth-century that this technique is fully developed by modernists. Marcel Proust is often presented as an early example of a writer using the stream of consciousness technique in his novel sequence À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927) (In Search of Lost Time), but Robert Humphrey comments, that Proust "is concerned only with the reminiscent aspect of consciousness" and, that he "was deliberately recapturing the past for the purpose of communicating; hence he did not write a stream-of consciousness novel". Novelist John Cowper Powys also argues that Proust did not use stream of consciousness: "while we are told what the hero thinks or what Swann thinks we are told this rather by the author than either by the 'I' of the story or by Charles Swann."
The term was first applied in a literary context in The Egoist, April 1918, by May Sinclair, in relation to the early volumes of Dorothy Richardson's novel sequencePilgrimage. Richardson, however, describes the term as an 'lamentably ill-chosen metaphor".
James Joyce was a major pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness. Some hints of this technique, are already present in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), along with interior monologue, and references to a character's psychic reality rather than to his external surroundings. Joyce began writing A Portrait in 1907 and it was first serialised in the English literary magazine The Egoist in 1914 and 1915. Earlier in 1906 Joyce, when working on Dubliners, considered adding another story featuring a Jewish advertising canvasser called Leopold Bloom under the title Ulysses. Although he did not pursue the idea further at the time, he eventually commenced work on a novel using both the title and basic premise in 1914. The writing was completed in October 1921. Serial publication of Ulysses in the magazine The Little Review began in March 1918. Ulysses was finally published in 1922. In his final work Finnegans Wake (1939) Joyce's method of stream of consciousness, literary allusions and free dream associations was pushed to the limit in, which abandoned all conventions of plot and character construction and is written in a peculiar and obscure English, based mainly on complex multi-level puns.
Another early example is the use of interior monologue by T. S. Eliot in his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), a dramatic monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action," a work probably influenced by the narrative poetry of Robert Browning, including "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister".
1923 to 2000
Prominent uses in the years that followed the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, include Italo Svevo, La coscienza di Zeno (1923),Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929). Though Randell Stevenson suggests, that "interior monologue, rather than stream of consciousness, is the appropriate term for the style in which [subjective experience] is recorded, both in The Waves and in Woolf's writing generally. Throughout Mrs Dalloway Woolf blurs the distinction between direct and indirect speech, freely alternating her mode of narration between omniscient description, indirectinterior monologue, and soliloquy.
Samuel Beckett, a friend of James Joyce, uses interior monologue in novels like Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies) and L'innommable (1953: The Unnamable). and the short story "From an Abandoned Work" (1957).
The technique continued to be used into the 1970s in a novel such as Robert Anton Wilson/Robert Shea collaborative Illuminatus! (1975), with regard to which The Fortean Times warns readers, to "[b]e prepared for streams of consciousness in which not only identity but time and space no longer confine the narrative".
Scottish writer James Kelman's novels are known for mixing stream of consciousness narrative with Glaswegian vernacular. Examples include The Busconductor Hines, A Disaffection and How Late It Was, How Late.
With regard to Salman Rushdie one critic comments, that "[a]ll Rushdie's novels follow an Indian/Islamic storytelling style, a stream-of-consciousness narrative told by a loquacious young Indian man".
Other writers who use this narrative device include Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar (1963) and Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting (1993).
Stream of consciousness continues to appear in contemporary literature. Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), according to one reviewer, "talks much as he writes – a forceful stream of consciousness, thoughts sprouting in all directions". Novelist John Banville describes Roberto Bolaño's novel Amulet (1999), as written in "a fevered stream of consciousness".
The twenty-first century brought further exploration, including Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated (2002) and many of the short stories of American author Brendan Connell,
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