Stream of Consciousness

What is Stream of Consciousness? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Stream of Consciousness Definition


Stream of consciousness (stuhREEM uhv CAHN-shush-niss) is a narrative technique that imitates the nonlinear flow of thought. The term originates from 19th-century psychology and later became associated with literature as psychological theories began to influence late 19th- and early 20th-century fiction.


The History of Stream of Consciousness


The term originated in William James’s 1890 book The Principles of Psychology, in which he compares thought to a stream. At the time, the contemporary belief was that thought worked as an organized chain.

Stream of consciousness, however, was already emerging in literature before James’s text; it appeared in works like Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. However, the technique wouldn’t come to prominence until it began appearing throughout modern literature as psychology became a subject of interest to early 20th-century writers.

Irish author James Joyce is a notable proponent of this technique, using it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake. Other authors of the time, like Virginia Woolf, used stream of consciousness as well. The technique’s relevance progressed into the second half of the 20th century and into the present day. More contemporary works that utilize the technique include Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, and Brendan Connell’s The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children.


Elements of Stream of Consciousness


Stream of consciousness is characterized by its lack of linearity, which is evident in the technique’s grammar and word order, ambiguous transitions, repetition, and nonlinear plot structure or narration. Since stream of consciousness is meant to depict thought, we experience it every day. Stream of consciousness may appear as follows:

“Look at that kitten sitting on the bin outside. Did I sort through the recycling—crap, I think I threw away my debit card this morning before breakfast I really want a coffee now.”

In the example, thoughts are only loosely connected, change abruptly, and appear as run-on sentences to show the unbroken flow between the thoughts.


Why Writers Use Stream of Consciousness


This technique can depict the chaotic and disorganized nature of human thought. As a result, readers witness the complexity of characters’ minds in real time, allowing a clearer view of characters’ emotional and psychological state. This develops the reader’s connection to the character and makes the reader pay close attention to the character’s disjointed thoughts to better understand them.


Stream of Consciousness vs. Internal Monologue


Internal monologues and stream of consciousness are similar in concept but distinct in execution. Both involve internal thoughts, but while stream of consciousness renders the messy, fragmented human thought process, internal monologues follow traditional grammatical and structural rules to maintain full. Stream of consciousness thus seeks to let the audience experience what the character is thinking or feeling as it naturally occurs, whereas internal monologues are explicit, coherent statements of what the character is thinking or feeling.


Stream of Consciousness vs. Freewriting


Freewriting is an idea-generating technique that writers use to combat writers’ block. In an effort to spark creativity, writers will jot down anything that comes to mind rather than attempt to coherently organize their thoughts at the beginning of the writing process. Freewriting is similar to stream of consciousness in that the ideas are written down as they come to the writer organically.

However, after freewriting, writers are meant to sort through this material to find useable content that can be turned into a story. Stream of consciousness, on the other hand, is an aspect of a finished story—although the writer has created the effect of nonlinear thought, the precise wording and structure of these thoughts are purposeful.


Writers Known for Stream of Consciousness


Some writers most known for this technique are Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Marcel Proust, though other prominent writers who have used this technique include Sylvia Plath and Jonathan Safran Foer.


Examples of Stream of Consciousness in Literature


1. James Joyce, Ulysses

In this excerpt, Leopold Bloom’s thoughts transition to his younger self:

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.

Joyce accomplishes this transition by creating a continuous narrative flow of Bloom’s thoughts to his past experiences, bringing the reader along for his mental journey back in time.

2. Toni Morrison, Beloved

In this excerpt, Beloved is frantically clinging to life:

I am alone    I want to be the two of us    I want the join    I come out of blue water after the bottoms of my feet swim away from me    I come up    I need to find a place to be    the air is heavy    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    I sit    the sun closes my eyes    when I open them I see the face I lost    Sethe’s is the face that left me    Sethe sees me see her and I see the smile    her smiling face is the place for me    it is the face I lost    she is my face smiling at me

Beloved’s fear of death and desire to be with Sethe are communicated through disjointed, unpunctuated, and repetitive thoughts. The use of stream of consciousness underscores her panic and urgent desire to see Sethe.

3. T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

In this excerpt, Eliot’s speaker jumps from one thought to the next as he considers mortality:

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.

As the speaker struggles to understand death, he attempts to communicate his state of mind, and his flow of thoughts jump from one subject to the next.


Further Resources on Stream of Consciousness


Oregon State University has a concise YouTube video on the topic.

The School of Life has also created a video on the topic with additional examples.


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