Stream of Consciousness

The coining of this term has generally been credited to the American psychologist William James, older brother of novelist Henry James. It was originally used by psychologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe the personal awareness of one’s mental processes. In a chapter of The Principles of Psychology titled “The Stream of Thought,” James provides a phenomenological description of this sensing 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. (239; italics in the original).

It is helpful at the outset to distinguish stream of consciousness from free association. Stream of consciousness, from a psychological perspective, describes metaphorically the phenomena—that continuous and contiguous fl ow of sensations, impressions, images, memories, and thoughts—experienced by each person, at all levels of consciousness, that are generally associated with each person’s subjectivity, or sense of self. Free association, in contrast, is a process in which apparently random data collected from a subject allow connections to be made from the unconscious, subconscious, and preconscious to the conscious mind of that subject. Translated and mapped to the space of narrative literatures, free association can be one element in the means used to signify the stream of consciousness.

William James / Wikimedia

As a literary term, stream of consciousness appears in the early 20th century at the intersection of three apparently disparate projects: the developing science of psychology (e.g., investigations of the forms and manifestations of consciousness, as elaborated by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, James, and others), the continuing speculations of Western philosophy as to the nature of being (e.g., investigations of consciousness in time by Henri Bergson), and reactionary forces in the arts that were turning away from realism in the late 19th century in favor of exploring a personal, self-conscious subjectivity. The psychological term was appropriated to describe a particular style of novel or technique of characterization that was prevalent in some fictional works, which relied on the mimetic representation of the mind of a character and which dramatized the full range of the character’s consciousness by direct and apparently unmediated quotation of such mental processes as memories, thoughts, impressions, and sensations. Stream of consciousness, constituting as it did the ground of self-awareness, was consequently extended to describe narratives and narrative strategies in which the overt presence of the author/narrator was suppressed in favor of presenting the story exclusively through the thought of one or more of the characters in the story. Examples of stream of consciousness techniques can arguably be found in narratives written during the last several centuries, including works by Rhoda Broughton and Lucy Clifford in the 19th century. Generally speaking, however, the British writers who are most often cited as exemplars of the stream of consciousness technique are associated with the high modern period of the early 20th century: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, May Sinclair, and Dorothy Richardson.

Bearing in mind the origin of the term, it is easy to see why some Anglo-American literary critics and theorists have subsumed all textual manifestations of the mental activity of characters in a narrative under the overarching term stream of consciousness. While convenient, this tendency belies the rich range and depth of narrative methods for representing a character’s consciousness, often best described by the terms originally naming them. Consider, for example, the interior monologue, in which, a running monologue—similar to those we all experience inside our own minds but that we cannot experience in the minds of others except in fictional narrative—is textually rendered as the unmediated but articulated, logical thoughts of a fictional character. That this monologue is unmediated, presented to the reader without either authorial or narratorial intervention or the common textual signs associated with narrative speech (e.g., quotation marks or attributive verbs), is crucial to establishing in the reader the sense of access to the consciousness of the character. That it is logical and respects grammatical form and syntax, as opposed to appearing as a random collection of disconnected thoughts and images, distinguishes it from another textual rendering of the stream of consciousness, that of sensory impression.

Sensory impression, as a mode of representing the stream of consciousness, occurs as simple lists of a character’s sensations or impressions, sometimes with ellipses separating them. These unconscious or preconscious sensory impressions represent the inarticulable thoughts, the imaginings of a character that are not experienced as words. To prevent the free associations that stem from such sensory impressions from running away with and destroying the flow and integrity of the narrative, a story must somehow be anchored within the stream of consciousness. One method is a recurring motif or theme. The motif appears on the surface of a character’s thoughts and then disappears among the flow of memories, sensations, and impressions it initiates only to resurface some time later, perhaps in a different form, to pull the story back up into the consciousness of both the character and the reader. Consider the example of Virginia Woolf’s short story “The Mark on the Wall.” The story begins as a meditation, which could easily be read as a spoken monologue, on a series of recollected events but quickly turns, through the motif of a mark seen by the narrator over a mantlepiece on the wall, to a nearly random stream of loosely connected memories and impressions. As the story progresses, the mark and speculations as to its nature and origin appear and disappear as a thread running in and out, binding the loose folds of the narrator’s recollections to one another. The narrator’s stream of consciousness ranges widely over time and space, whereas the narrator quite clearly remains bound to a particular place and time, anchored—seemingly—by the mark on the wall.

While not generally considered a textual manifestation of stream of consciousness in the conventional sense—in part because it is associated with third-person rather than first-person narration—another method of representing the consciousness of characters is free indirect discourse, or reported or experienced speech. Consider the following, from the ending paragraphs of Joyce’s short story “The Dead”:

He wondered at his riot of emotions an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. (222)

The first sentence is clearly the narrator telling what the character, Gabriel, is thinking; but with the second sentence comes a transition in the form of a series of sensory impressions that moves the reader to Gabriel’s own conscious thoughts. In the end, it is not the narrator who thinks, “Poor Aunt Julia!”

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.
Bowling, Lawrence Edward. “What Is the Stream of Consciousness Technique?” PMLA 65, no. 4 (1950): 333–345.
James, William. The Principles of Psychology. 1890. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1916. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.
Woolf, Virginia. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, 1989.

Categories: British Literature, Literary Terms and Techniques, Literature, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: