Definition of Stream of Consciousness
When used as a term in literature, stream of consciousness is a narrative form in which the author writes in a way that mimics or parallels a character’s internal thoughts. Sometimes this device is also called “internal monologue,” and often the style incorporates the natural chaos of thoughts and feelings that occur in any of our minds at any given time. Just as happens in real life, stream-of-consciousness narratives often lack associative leaps and are characterized by an absence of regular punctuation.
The term “stream of consciousness” first came about in 1890 when the philosopher and psychologist William James used it in his book, The Principles of Psychology. He used it to describe the natural flow of thoughts that, even while the different parts are not necessarily connected, the brain does not distinguish one thought as strictly independent from the next. May Sinclair was the first person, in 1918, to adapt the definition of stream of consciousness to literature.
Difference Between Stream of Consciousness and Free Writing
The activity of free writing is a technique to remove inhibitions from creativity. Free writing encourages a writer to get words down on paper without editing or worrying about the product, knowing that most of it will not necessarily be all that interesting. Stream of consciousness, on the other hand, is writing that has been polished and has a purpose, even while giving the impression that it is somewhat “random.” Authors who use the technique of stream of consciousness do so with intentions to guide the character from one place to the next internally and not just let the character’s thoughts go haywire.
Common Examples of Stream of Consciousness
All of us experience the sensation of stream of consciousness on a daily basis when we are alone with our thoughts. For example, imagine the following situations:
- “Let’s see, what else do I need to buy? I’ve got chips, chocolate…oh, and I need to get that awful prune juice for Harold. I can’t believe he actually thinks this cleanse thing is gonna work. And to think he wanted me to do it with him. As if I need to lose weight. Hmm, I wonder how late the gym is open tonight.”
- “I’ve got to get this spreadsheet done by the meeting. I hope Miller likes it better than last time. I can’t believe he liked Joe’s work better. What a brown-noser. And he’s wearing the stupidest suit today. Oh shoot, I’ve got a mustard stain on my sleeve.”
Significance of Stream of Consciousness in Literature
Stream of consciousness is a device that gained popularity in twentieth-century literature. There are some examples of stream of consciousness before this time, such as in the 1757 novel Tristam Shandy or Edgar Allen Poe’s precursor style in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and other works. In general, however, it’s considered a modern style.
Stream of consciousness can be found in literature from different cultures and languages. Stream of consciousness examples can be found in the works of French writer Marcel Proust, Indian writer Salman Rushdie, Irish writer James Joyce, Italian writer Italo Svevo, Mexican writer Roberto Bolaño and contemporary American novelist Dave Eggers. Authors use stream of consciousness to more closely follow a character’s interior life. Stream of consciousness gives a very direct view into the subtle and sometimes rapid shifts in the way a character thinks while going about his or her day. This provides a very intimate relationship between the reader and the character.
Examples of Stream of Consciousness in Literature
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 Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot)
This is one of the early examples of stream of consciousness writing from the twentieth century (it was published in 1915). T.S. Eliot explores his narrator’s inner life throughout the poem, moving from one thought to the next quickly. The above excerpt shows several different thoughts within the space of just a few lines. However, the use of stream of consciousness in this poem belies a real depth of feeling, as the narrator seems to want to make himself understood throughout the poem and struggles with that connection.
I could hear Queenie’s feet and the bright shapes went smooth and steady on both sides, the shadows of them flowing across Queenie’s back. They went on like the bright tops of wheels. Then those on one side stopped at the tall white post where the soldier was. But on the other side they went on smooth and steady, but a little slower.
(The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner)
One of the characters in William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury is Benjy, a cognitively disabled man. His section of the novel is written in a stream of consciousness style, documenting Benjy’s sensory experiences of the world without the advantage of being able to really understand them. In this excerpt, Benjy describes moving in a carriage and Faulkner imagines the details that stream though Benjy’s mind as he has this experience.
For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life.
(Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf)
In the above example of stream of consciousness from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the character of Clarissa is walking to a flower shop. She is noticing beauty around her and feeling happy to be alive. In her happiness she thinks of how a homeless person might be able to see the same things and feel the same happiness. Woolf uses stream of consciousness here as a bit of foreshadowing; Clarissa’s husband will later see a homeless woman on the street and have a different impression than Clarissa does here. By introducing the reader to Clarissa’s thoughts here on this matter, the reader later is able to understand more of the significance of her husband’s different views.
Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
(Ulysses by James Joyce)
The above excerpt is the famous conclusion to James Joyce’s monumental work of stream of consciousness, Ulysses. In it, the character Molly is seemingly reflecting on accepting a marriage proposal from Bloom, her husband. The lack of punctuation or stops and starts is characteristic both of Joyce’s writing style and stream of consciousness in general. The repetition of the word “yes” is the connective tissue between all of Molly’s disparate thoughts.
Test Your Knowledge of Stream of Consciousness
1. Choose the correct stream of consciousness definition from the following statements:
A. A linear flow of thoughts with obvious associations between one idea and the next.
B. A narrative device which mimics the chaos of natural thoughts patterns that often lacks obvious connections.
C. A form of writing with clear rhythm, pattern, and rhyme scheme.
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2. How are free writing and stream of consciousness different?
A. They are synonyms—there are no differences.
B. Free writing is polished writing that reflects an author’s best work while stream of consciousness is random words strung together.
C. Stream of consciousness is a highly stylized form even though it appears random, while free writing is an author’s first draft of writing that doesn’t attempt to be polished.
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3. Having read the above example of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness style, which of the following quotes would you guess also comes from Mrs. Dalloway?
All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!-that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant . . .
There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
Saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from. He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.
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