Stream of consciousness (narrative mode)
- This article is about the literary device. To read about the prewriting technique, see Free writing.
Stream of consciousness is a narrative device used in literature "to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind. Another phrase for it is 'interior monologue'." The term "Stream of Consciousness" was coined by philosopher and psychologist William 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 literary criticism, stream of consciousness is a narrative mode that seeks to portray an individual's point of view by giving 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 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.
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 or the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brain 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.||”|
Stream of consciousness
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".
The beginnings to 1930
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 eighteenth-century psychological novel Tristram Shandy, while in the nineteenth-century it has been suggested that Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" foreshadows this literary technique. Because of his renunciation of chronology in favor of free association, Édouard Dujardin's Les Lauriers sont coupés (1887) is also an important precursor to the stream of consciousness narratives of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Joyce "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 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. Henry James has also been suggested as a significant precursor, in a work as early as Portrait of a Lady (1881).
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". Dorothy Richardson is the first English writer to use it, in the early volumes of her novel sequence Pilgrimage (1915–67). In a review of these novels, in The Egoist, April 1918, May Sinclair first applied the term "stream of consciousness" in a literary context, in her discussion of Richardson's stylistic innovations. The other modernist novelists that are associated with the use of this narrative technique are James Joyce in Ulysses (1922), Italo Svevo in La coscienza di Zeno (1923), Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1928). 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.
However, it has been suggested 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. 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 work probably influenced by the narrative poetry of Robert Browning, including "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister".
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The technique continued to be used into the 1970s. Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and the Robert Anton Wilson/Robert Shea collaborative work Illuminatus! (1975) are popular works that make use of this narrative device. Gravity's Rainbow is narrated by many distinct voices and the style and tone of the voices vary widely: Some narrate the plot in a highly informal tone, some are more self-referential, and some might even break the fourth wall. Some voices narrate in drastically different formats, ranging from movie-script format to stream of consciousness prose. With regard to Illuminatus!, 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".
Most of Bret Easton Ellis works, but particularly Less Than Zero (1985) and Glamorama (1998), also use of stream of consciousness. Less Than Zero is titled after the Elvis Costello song of the same name, and follows the life of Clay, a rich young college student who has returned to his hometown of Los Angeles, California for winter break during the early 1980s. Through stream of consciousness, first person narration, Clay describes his progressive alienation from the youth party scene, loss of faith in his friends, and his meditations on important events in his recent past. Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar (1963), also employs stream of consciousness.
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". Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting (1993) uses this narrative technique. Michael Cunningham, a contemporary American writer, used stream of consciousness in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Hours. The book was deeply influenced by Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, and mentions three women, including Virginia Woolf, and their association with the novel Mrs Dalloway. Cunningham's novel also mirrors Mrs. Dalloway 's stream-of-consciousness narrative style in which the flowing thoughts and perceptions of protagonists are depicted as they would occur in real life, unfiltered, flitting from one thing to another, and often rather unpredictable. In terms of time, this means characters interact not only with the moment in the time in which they are living, but also shoot back to the past in their memories, and in so doing create a depth of history and back story that weighs upon their present moments, which otherwise might appear quite trivial.
Toni Morrison used the stream-of-consciousness style of writing in several of her novels depicting the life of African-American women, such as Beloved. Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, becoming the first black woman and second black person to do so; Wole Soyinka being the first. Another figure within African-American literature to use the technique is Terry McMillan, in her novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
Stream of consciousness literature in the 21st century
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, as written in "a fevered stream of consciousness". The first decade 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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Daniel Clowes' graphic novel "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" is an example of stream of consciousness writing in cartoon-form. Michael Cunningham's 1998 The Hours, which is an homage to Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, makes use of stream of consciousness, while the subsequent film adaptation also employs this narrative device. In fact, the film Adaptation can be considered a fine example of stream of consciousness in screen-writing. David Lodge, in the final chapter of The British Museum Is Falling Down, parodies the form. John Frusciante, noted guitarist of the popular rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, uses a version of this technique in the lyrics for Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994) and Smile From The Streets You Hold (1997).
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