Stream of consciousness

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Stream of consciousness

Stream of consciousness: In psychology, the continuous flow of past and present experience through the conscious mind; in literature, a narrative mode rendering an individual’s subjective, ongoing, and often jumbled mental observation and commentary. The term was first used by Scottish philosopher Alexander Bain, who referenced the “concurrence of Sensations in one common stream of consciousness, — in the same cerebral highway” in The Senses and the Intellect (1855). Subsequently, American psychologist William James gave currency to the term in The Principles of Psychology (1890), writing that “Consciousness … does not appear to itself chopped up in bits… . It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ’river’ or a ’stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.”

Literary works written using stream of consciousness feature the mental flow of one or more characters, a flow determined by free association rather than logic or linguistic rules (e.g., of punctuation or syntax). As a result, stream-of-consciousness narratives tend to strike readers as fragmented, illogical, or even incoherent — as our thoughts, emotions, and sensory impressions often are. This lack of cohesion, however, is orchestrated rather than random or purposeless, designed to reveal particular characteristics of and provide insight into a character’s mind.

Whereas stream of consciousness and interior monologue are often used interchangeably, the former is the more general term, encompassing a variety of techniques including interior monologue, which has itself been variously defined. Direct, or quoted, interior monologue approximates or mimics a character’s mental flow, using the first-person point of view to plug the reader straight into the character’s mind. Indirect interior monologue, also called narrated monologue, combines direct interior monologue with third-person narration, providing some context for the character’s mental flow through commentary and description. An even more indirect technique, psychonarration, also called internal analysis and omniscient description, likewise uses third-person narration but takes a descriptive, reportorial approach to the depiction of consciousness.

EXAMPLES: The opening lines of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) combine stream-of-consciousness techniques, beginning with psychonarration, then shifting to indirect interior monologue:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) is composed of a series of direct interior monologues by fifteen characters, including the illegitimate son of a dying family matriarch. As the family prepares for her death, he thinks:

And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn’t keep on sawing and nailing at it [the coffin] until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn’t get them clean… . I said if you’d just let her alone… .