stream of consciousness

Stream of consciousness writing refers to a narrative technique where the narrator’s thoughts and emotions (consciousness) written so that these characters’ mental state tracked (stream) by the reader. It tries to capture the natural flow of a character’s thought process. Often incorporating sensory, incomplete ideas, impressions, unusual syntax, and rough grammar.

The term trail back to The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890 by William James. It was first applied to literary criticism by May Sinclair in 1918, via analysis of novels by Dorothy Richardson.

However, the technique that existed long before it was named stream of consciousness. Writing can be found in the nineteenth-century works by Edgar Allan Poe, Leo Tolstoy, and Ambrose Bierce, among many others.

It became wildly popular among writers of the Modernist era—roughly contemporary with Sinclair’s 1918 essay. Moreover, famous Modernist practitioners of the stream of consciousness technique include Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust.

It has remained fashionable in the ensuing years appearing in the mid-century works of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Jack Kerouac to those of contemporary writers like Stephen King, Nathaniel Rich, and Salman Rushdie.

What is a stream of consciousness?

The stream of consciousness writing allows readers to “listen in” on a character’s emotions or thoughts. The technique often involves using language in unconventional ways to replicate the complicated pathways that thoughts take as they unfold and move through the mind.

In short, it is the use of language to mimic the “streaming” nature of “conscious” thought or emotion (thus “stream of consciousness”). Stream of consciousness is written in the first person as well as the third person.

Examples

Stream of consciousness became widespread as a literature technique during the Modernist movement that flourished before World War I (the early to mid 20th century). Even Modernisation gave way to other movements, it remained a technique and still used not infrequently today.

James Joyce, Ulysses in (1922)

This novel portrays a single day in the life of Irishman Leopold Bloom. It has long, lengthy passages of stream of consciousness, truly mimicking a brain’s free-associative abilities. Joyce pushed this technique even further in later works, culminating in the arguably narrative-free Finnegan’s Wake.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway in (1925)

Woolf used stream of consciousness writing style to articulate her characters’ inner monologues, both in this novel and others like To The Lighthouse.

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying in (1930)

Faulkner had already worked with the stream of consciousness in earlier novels like The Sound and the Fury, but As I Lay Dying stood out in its method of narrating the novel through the perspective of 15 different characters, each of whom narrated in a stream of consciousness style.

Samuel Beckett, Molloy in (1951)

Beckett used many of the same techniques as his contemporary Irish Joyce. Most famous as a dramatist, Beckett placed stream of consciousness style monologues in the mouths of many of his characters and later applied the method to his novels.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road in (1957)

Kerouac’s novel stood out for using a stream of consciousness as actual narration. Via the largely autobiographical narrator Sal Paradise, Kerouac presents the story as a mostly uninterrupted flow of ideas. Driving home, Kerouac typed the entire novel in epic bursts on a continuous roll of typewriter paper.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground in (1864)

A few Decades before “stream of consciousness” became a literary term, authors were using it to create intimate portraits of their narrators. The writing technique was quite popular in Russian literary culture, with strong examples written by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekov.