Stream of Consciousness

Stream of Consciousness Definition

The literary device stream of consciousness is the continuous flow of thoughts of a person and recorded, thereof, in literature as they occur. In other words, it means to capture a continuous stream of thoughts into words and then scribble them on paper for others to read. This device is used as a noun. The term was first used by a psychologist, William James, in his work published in 1890.

“… it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ is 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.” –  William James from The Principles of Psychology.

Another appropriate term for this device is “interior monologue,” where the individual thought processes of a character, associated with his or her actions, are portrayed in the form of a monologue that addresses the character itself. Therefore, it is different from the “dramatic monologue” or “soliloquy,” where the speaker addresses the audience or the third person.

Difference Between Stream of Consciousness and Free Writing

Stream of consciousness and free writing seems the same. However, the stream of consciousness is a literary activity in which the character is planned, sketched, and then thoughts are scribbled afterward. In freewriting, it is specific, planned, and topic-centered. It is non-fiction as well as a fictional activity. On the other hand, the stream of consciousness in literature writing is character-specific and objective-oriented. Yet, in one way, both are similar in that both need a free mind to write on some topic which in the case of fiction could be a character while in the case of free writing could be a non-fictional essay.

Difference between Traditional Prose and Stream of Consciousness:

  1. Syntax: Syntax in traditional prose is correct, has an appropriate structure, and is to the point, while it could be choppy, poor, and even wrong in the case of a stream of consciousness.
  2. Grammar: There is no sense of grammar in the stream of consciousness writing when it is jumbled up or the mind is in a state of flux. However, it is correct, pure, and exact in traditional prose.
  3. Association: Traditional prose has some association with the general world while the stream of consciousness is removed from reality and is associated with the mind of the character.
  4. Repetition: Traditional prose is not repetitious unless it is rhetoric, while the writing in a stream of consciousness could be repetitious to the point of annoyance.
  5. Plot Structure: The plot is structureless in the case of a stream of consciousness, while in the case of traditional prose, it is well organized.

How to Write Stream of Consciousness?

A writer must keep the following points in mind when writing in a stream of consciousness style.

  1. It must be character-specific.
  2. It must sync with the character’s world; profession, relations, work, near and dear ones, and even daily activities.
  3. It must seem to follow the thoughts of that person.
  4. It must have some links and pieces of evidence of the thought process.
  5. It must not have a structure, grammar, or any other formal linguistic evidence unless it is recorded for an educational academic.

Examples of Stream of Consciousness in Literature

The stream of consciousness style of writing is marked by the sudden rise of thoughts and lack of punctuation. The use of this narration style is generally associated with the modern novelist and short story writers of the 20th century. Let us analyze a few examples of the stream of consciousness narrative technique in literature:

Example #1 Ulysses by James Joyce

James Joyce successfully employs the narrative mode in his novel Ulysses, which describes a day in the life of a middle-aged Jew, Mr. Leopold Broom, living in Dublin, Ireland. Read the following excerpt:

“He is young Leopold, as in a retrospective arrangement, a mirror within a mirror (hey, presto!), he beholdeth himself. That young figure of then is seen, precious manly, walking on a nipping morning from the old house in Clambrassil to the high school, his book satchel on him bandolier wise, and in it a goodly hunk of wheaten loaf, a mother’s thought.”

These lines reveal the thoughts of Bloom, as he thinks of the younger Bloom. The self-reflection is achieved by the flow of thoughts that takes him back to his past.

Example #2 Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seemed to me when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which I can hear now, I burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as I then was) solemn, feeling as I did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen …”

Another 20th-century writer that followed James Joyce’s narrative method was Virginia Woolf. By voicing her internal feelings, Ms. Woolf gives freedom to the characters to travel back and forth in time. Mrs. Dalloway went out to buy flowers for herself, and on the way her thoughts move through the past and present, giving us an insight into the complex nature of her character.

Example #3 The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge

“It partook, he thought, shifting his weight in the saddle, of metempsychosis, the way his humble life fell into moulds prepared by literature. Or was it, he wondered, picking his nose, the result of closely studying the sentence structure of the English novelists? One had resigned oneself to having no private language any more, but one had clung wistfully to the illusion of a personal property of events. A find and fruitless illusion, it seemed, for here, inevitably came the limousine, with its Very Important Personage, or Personages, dimly visible in the interior. The policeman saluted, and the crowd pressed forward, murmuring ‘Philip’, ‘Tony’, ‘Margaret’, ‘Prince Andrew’.”

We notice the use of this technique in David Lodge’s novel The British Museum Is Falling Down. It is a comic novel that imitates the stream of consciousness narrative techniques of writers like Henry James, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf.  We see the imitation of the typical structure of the stream-of-conscious narrative technique of Virginia Woolf. We notice the integration of the outer and inner realities in the passage that is so typical of Virginia Woolf, especially the induction of the reporting clauses “he thought,” and “he wondered,” in the middle of the reported clauses.

Example #4 Notes from The Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I have been going on like that for a long time—twenty years. Now I am forty. I used to be in the government service, but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure in being so. I did not take bribes, you see, so I was bound to find a recompense in that, at least. (A poor jest, but I will not scratch it out. I wrote it thinking it would sound very witty; but now that I have seen myself that I only wanted to show off in a despicable way, I will not scratch it out on purpose!)

This passage can be found at the beginning of the novel. The protagonist of the novel narrates how he has passed more than four decades of his life as it is and has been expelled from the government service. The first-person narration shows his thoughts converted into words. However, the novel was written in Russian and translated into English. Hence, grammar, syntax, and style do not seem to follow the same pattern. However, the monologue occurs in the consciousness of a person.

Example #5  As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

“Well, it isn’t like they cost me anything,” I say. I saved them out and swapped a dozen of them for the sugar and flour. It isn’t like the cakes cost me anything, as Mr Tull himself realises that the eggs I saved were over and beyond what we had engaged to sell, so it was like we had found the eggs or they had been given to us.

“She ought to taken those cakes when she same as gave you her word,” Kate says. The Lord can see into the heart. If it is His will that some folks has different ideas of honesty from other folks, it is not my place to question His decree.”

These passages are borrowed from As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. Cora narrates how she has saved something sugar and floor and that Mr. Tull has made her realize that the eggs are now finished. In the next passage, Kate also adds to things that are coming into their stream of consciousness. This stream of consciousness shows, somewhat, sophisticated thoughts with good wording, good grammar, and good sentence structure.

Example #6 On the Road by Jack Kerouac

During the following week, he confided in Chad King that he absolutely had to learn how to write from him; Chad said I was a writer and he should come to me for advice. Meanwhile Dean had gotten a job in a parking lot, had a fight with Marylou in their Hoboken apartment – God knows why they went there – and she was so mad and so down deep vindictive that she reported to the police some false trumped-up hysterical crazy charge, and Dean had to lam from Hoboken. So he had no place to live. He came right out to Paterson, New Jersey, where I was living with my aunt, and one night while I was studying there was a knock on the door, and there was Dean, bowing, shuffling obsequiously in the dark of the hall, and saying, «Hello, you remember me – Dean Moriarty? I’ve come to ask you to show me how to write.

This passage, though, has good punctuation, and good wording gives the impression that Sal Paradise shows his understanding of different things and how his mind moves from Chad to Dean and vice versa with different places and persons coming in quick succession. This shows a beautiful example of the stream of consciousness.

Function of Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a style of writing developed by a group of writers at the beginning of the 20th century. It aimed at expressing in words the flow of characters’ thoughts and feelings in their minds. The technique aspires to give readers the impression of being inside the minds of the characters. Therefore, the internal view of the minds of the characters sheds light on the plot and motivation in the novel.

Synonyms of Stream of Consciousness

Stream of Consciousness has no other word or phrase as an exact meaning. However, the following words can be used interchangeably in general meanings such as apostrophe, association of ideas, chain of thought, interior monologue, monologue, aside, or a soliloquy.