The stream-of-consciousness technique in modern literature: origins and impact

It is the narrative technique that attempts to simulate how thoughts are experienced by the conscious mind — perceived in a continuous non-linear flow where one mental event leads to another through association. This technique has had a lasting impact on the form of the novel itself

July 18, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 08:30 am IST

For representative purposes

For representative purposes | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Modernism, as a philosophical and aesthetic movement as well as a mode of thought, was on the rise during the late 19th and early 20th century, spurred on by what may be described as a move away from passé traditions, keeping pace with the advent of modernity and the industrial world.

Modernist influences rippled across all forms of art. In literature, this transition can be marked by the growing usage of stream of consciousness as a narrative technique. Its use had a lasting impact on the form of the novel itself and its influence remains traceable. But before we move ahead: what does stream of consciousness mean?

Origins in psychology

Popularised by William James, who is often considered to be the “father of American psychology,” the term describes how thoughts are experienced by the conscious mind — perceived in a continuous non-linear flow where one mental event leads to another through association. In literary criticism, it is the narrative technique that attempts to simulate this very experience, as closely as possible, in writing. Early modernism was heavily influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on the role of the unconscious, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche and his ideas regarding psychological drives as that which affect human behaviour.

The growth of psychology as a discipline coincided with the move of literary modernists and novelists away from the style of emulating a distinct, detached narrator describing external events, and towards exploring the internal processes of the mind. Thus, many writers were drawn to writing a psychological novel that could represent this interplay between the internal mind and external facts to whatever possible extent. By writing philosophical novels while interrogating psychological character motivations and desires in depth, Fyodor Dostoevsky (with his The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground, among others) and Leo Tolstoy (most noted for Anna Karenina and War and Peace) became important literary precursors to modernism.

Thus, hints of writing that resembled the stream-of-consciousness technique had begun appearing throughout the 19th century. However, it is only around the early 20th century that the technique began acquiring its distinction, when works from prominent modernist writers like Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf began hitting the scene. While the term was first used to describe novelist Dorothy Richardson’s writing, with her 1915 Pointed Roofs often being considered the first stream-of-consciousness novel published in English, the style is most closely associated with Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses.

Fundamental characteristics

The quintessential modernist novel, Ulysses, follows the protagonist Leopold Bloom across a single day in 1904 in Dublin but is structured such that it parallels Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. It is celebrated not just for its usage of stream of consciousness and interior monologue, but also for the richness of the literary puns and allusions employed, inscribing it as a highly referential work. How does stream of consciousness appear in his work? Let us begin with an extreme example, such as the initial lines of Leopold’s wife Molly’s 45-page long, unpunctuated monologue:

“Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting for that old [...] Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing…”

There are certain key characteristics of the style: for one, maintaining proper grammar and syntax is overlooked in favour of having run-on, incomplete sentences where the predicate may not agree with the subject, mirroring thoughts occurring in rapid succession. In this example, Joyce chooses to make use of no punctuation at all — however, it is common to see this bending of grammar across a spectrum, such as by using ellipses, dashes and oddly-placed line breaks. The progression also happens associatively, where thoughts are prompted through links that often appear random and unclear, either with other thoughts or due to sensory impressions. Perhaps the most important characteristic of stream of consciousness would be minimal or no authorial intervention: the aim is to let the character’s thoughts appear naturally, unmediated by the writer.

Another common characteristic is repetition: mirroring how one tends to repeatedly return to an unresolved or persistent thought. In Beloved, Toni Morrison writes as the character Beloved, “I am not dead I am not there is a house there is what she whispered to me I am where she told me I am not dead.” Modernist writers also frequently experimented with structure, opting out of maintaining consistency in style, as well as having the narrative itself progress associatively, rather than in a linear manner.

Among other influences was the work of philosophers like Kant and Henri Bergson, which dealt with the subjective experience of time; the entire length of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, like Ulysses, spanned a single day, and Proust’s intimidatingly-long In Search of Lost Time is written fully in retrospection, without maintaining chronological order.

The style in variance

It is difficult to identify a single, consistent, stream-of-consciousness style, since writers’ techniques varied greatly, not just across different writers but also across different works by the same person. While interior monologue is often equated with stream of consciousness as a distinct technique, it is generally more formal and grammatically intact. Woolf’s major works primarily use interior monologue, and even in The Waves the characters are constantly speaking to themselves, although it may read as though they are speaking out loud: “Now Miss Hudson,” said Rhoda, “has shut the book. Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What is the answer?”

Writers may also write in free indirect speech as a transition into interior monologue, as both Joyce and Woolf did. Mrs. Dalloway is a prime example: “She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” Besides interior monologue, a writer could also choose to focus on recording the sensory impressions that the environment makes on the character’s mind. In Honeycomb, Dorothy Richardson writes, “. . . softened angles of buildings against other buildings... high moulded angles soft as crumb, with deep undershadows... creepers fraying from balcony….”

Stream of consciousness is little restricted by form, and T.S.Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is often cited in this regard. While modernism is widely regarded to have passed by, the style remains in vogue across contemporary literature, seen in the writings of Toni Morrison, Stephen King and Salman Rushdie, among others. Although the style is no longer used as distinctly as it was in the early 1900s, the impact has been lasting, as we see a greater focus on the psychological and the internal in fiction today.

Kevin Mutta is an intern with The Hindu.

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