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January 1, 2017

Stream of Consciousness


Definition

Stream of Consciousness (often called interior monologue) is an immensely intricate modernist technique of narration. Hence no precise or acceptable definition of the method prevails up till now. However, in general sense, stream of consciousness is a mode of narration that attempts to reproduce the full and uninterrupted stream or flow a character’s mental process in which thoughts, ideas, reactions, memories, and sense impressions may intermingle without coherent or logical transitions.

Discussion

Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique in non-dramatic fiction which is particularly preferred by the writers of psychological novels. By means of words the technique describes the continuous flow of thoughts in the minds of the characters. Therefore, Stream of consciousness technique features a trip from the outer world into the inner world of a character. It puts Over-emphasis on the latter since it is more important than the former.

Stream of consciousness presents the character’s thoughts and feelings in the way people actually think. In real life the flow of human thoughts occur in a non-linear manner without having any beginning or end. As a result, it lacks chronological or logical pattern, which ultimately results in fragmentary thoughts and sensory feelings. Since stream of consciousness follows this very disjointed or randomized sequence, the audience may face difficulty to comprehend the narrative. However, if executed masterfully, stream of consciousness can make the text really enjoyable.

Salient Features

The salient features of stream of consciousness are as follows:
  • Description of the continuous flow of unspoken thoughts or perceptions of the character.
  • The character's thoughts and feelings are depicted as overheard in the mind or addressed to oneself.
  • Chiefly concerned with subjective description of life.
  • The flow of character’s thoughts often appears without a coherent structure or cohesion.
  • Use of informal and colloquial language.
  • Abandonment of conventional rules of syntax and punctuation.
  • Use of the cinematic device of montage, i.e., the shift of thoughts randomly from one thing to another.

Forms

Stream of consciousness technique has two major stylistic forms:
  1. Narrated Stream of Consciousness: Also called indirect interior monologue or psycho-narration wherein the character’s thoughts are presented by a third person omniscient narrator who serves as selector, presenter, guide, and commentator. Narrated stream of consciousness renders the narrative report of the character's psychological states, i.e., the remote, preconscious state that exists before the mind organizes sensations. Consequently, the re-creation of a narrated stream of consciousness frequently lacks the unity, explicit cohesion, and selectivity of direct thought. It shifts from third person omniscient narration to interior monologue by using verbs of perception such as “he thought” to enter the character’s mind, thus providing some context for the character’s mental flow of description and commentary. For instance, Virginia Woolf uses indirect interior monologue in her novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927).
  2. Interior Monologue: Also called quoted stream of consciousness. The term interior monologue is often mistakenly used as a synonym for stream of consciousness. In essence, it is a type of stream of consciousness. It entails the presentation of consciousness in a seemingly transparent, uninterrupted way, from the first person point of view of a character, without guidance or commentary from a third person narrator. More specifically, in interior monologue the author seems not to exist and the interior self of the character is given directly. For example: James Joyce employs direct interior monologue in the final chapter of his groundbreaking novel Ulysses (1920).

Function

  • Stream of consciousness technique enables the writer to portray the inner status of a character in an effective and convincing way. In this way the author takes the reader inside the mind of the character to follow his or her thought patterns.
  • Stream of consciousness often presents rapid shifts in the character’s thought processes, such as memories, feelings, etc. by means of flashback and foreshadowing. That means the characters’ mind is shifted from one position to another seemingly discontinuous one so that the audience need to draw an inference about their connection and also about the upcoming twists. In this way the author is able retain the reader’s interest till the end of the text.
  • Stream of consciousness technique sometimes contributes to the overall development of the plot.

Stream of Consciousness Vs. Interior Monologue

Although often used interchangeably, a number of distinctions could be made between stream of consciousness and interior monologue:

Sl. # Stream of Consciousness Interior Monologue
  1.  
First coined by William James in the thesis The Principles of Psychology in 1890. First used in Les Lauriers sont coupés by Édouard Dujardin in 1887.
  1.  
Presentation of the flow of the character’s mind combining unorganized or irrational thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions. The relatively rational and orderly compilation of thoughts and memories, wishes, and ideas that the character has reunited throughout the different events of his life.
  1.  
Manifests the inner workings of a character. Attempts to dramatize a conflict using thoughts.
  1.  
Does not maintain formal syntax, vocabulary, or punctuation. Does not violate formal syntax, vocabulary, or punctuation.
  1.  
Usually presented by third person narration. Typically presented by first person narration.
  1.  
Is a separate mode of narration. Is a form of stream of consciousness.

History

The term stream of consciousness has been transferred in literary context from the field of psychology. It was first used by the American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842 –1910) in his book The Principles of Psychology (1890) to describe the unbroken flow of thought and awareness of the waking mind. In Chapter XI he provided a phenomenological description of this sensation of consciousness:

“Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.”

The Freudian theories of psychoanalytic findings exerted tremendous influence in modernist literature, no doubt. However, William James’s theory about the nature of consciousness had a much profound influence than that of Freud's. In 1918 the English novelist and critic May Sinclair (1863 –1946) first applied the term stream of consciousness, in a literary context, when discussing Dorothy Richardson's novels.

The technique was perhaps brought to its highest point of development in Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) by the Irish novelist and poet James Joyce (1882 –1941). Other exponents of the form were American novelist William Faulkner (1897–1962) and British novelist Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). The British writer Dorothy Richardson 1873–1957) is considered by some actually to be the pioneer in use of the device. Her novel Pilgrimage (1911–1938), a 12-volume sequence, is an intense analysis of the development of a sensitive young woman and her responses to the world around her.

Although strongly associated with the 20th century modernist movement, some earlier works also share similar technique. The earliest precursor of any literary work using this technique is possibly Ovid's (43 BC – AD 17/18) Metamorphoses (8 AD). Other works include Sir Thomas Browne's (1605–1682) discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658), Laurence Sterne's (1713-1768) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759), Edgar Allen Poe’s (1809-1849) “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), Édouard Dujardin's (1861 –1949) Les Lauriers sont coupés (1888), and Leo Tolstoy's (1828 -1910) Anna Karenina (1877). Moreover, some of the books by Henry James (1843 – 1916), the younger brother of William James also reflect this technique: What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Golden Bowl (1904). Last but not least TS Elliot's (1888 – 4 1965) "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915) is also an early paradigm of stream of consciousnesses narrative technique.




References

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Griffith, Benjamin W. A Pocket Guide to Literature and Language Terms. New York: Barron's, 1976

Gupta, A.N. and Satis Gupta. A Dictionary of English Literature. 2nd ed. Bareilly: PBD, 1995

Harmon, William and Hugh Holman. 10th ed. A Handbook to Literature. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.

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