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Stream of Consciousness in Literature: Definition & Examples

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ben Nickol
Of all the tools authors use to draw readers into their characters' lives, one of the most useful is stream of consciousness narration. This lesson takes a closer look at that technique and provides two prominent examples of its use.

Definition of Stream of Consciousness

At the heart of almost any work of fiction is the question of what the story's characters think and feel. There are many tools an author might use to communicate to her readers just what exactly those thoughts and feelings are. She might describe a facial expression, or tone of voice. She might, just by describing her characters' actions, imply what's occurring in their minds. Maybe she'll even tell the readers directly what the characters are thinking and feeling.

In the last century or so, though, authors often have chosen to take the reader directly into the characters' minds, letting the reader 'listen in' on the character's thoughts and feelings as those thoughts and feelings occur. When this happens in a book, it is called stream of consciousness narration, and while it carries some risk (often what a character thinks or feels might not be beautiful, or even comprehensible), when done well, it offers a glimpse at the humanity of fictional characters that few other literary techniques can deliver.

The term was first used by psychologist William James in 1890, and he describes it like this: 'consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits. . . it is nothing joined; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are 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.' Let's look at some examples to see exactly what this means in practice.

Example One - The Works of James Joyce

One of the earliest and best known practitioners of stream of consciousness narration was the modernist writer James Joyce (1882 - 1941). One of the most famous examples of stream of consciousness narration occurs in the last chapter of his novel Ulysses, in which Molly Bloom delivers a 4,391-word sentence, all of which is internal monologue. It ends like this:

'. . . I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.'

You can see how the narrative attempts to jump around, foregoing standard syntax, in order to portray something closer to the thoughts that occur in our brains. Also famously, Joyce uses no punctuation in this chapter, except for the final period (which is also the final period of the book). In this way, he is able to portray the 'stream' that William James talked about, and while the excerpted passage may be difficult to understand at first, the effect of the internal thought process shines through.

In a second example, we see the young hero of Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man wandering the streets of Dublin's red light district in a state of lusty confusion:

'. . . the wasting fires of lust sprang up again. . . his blood was in revolt. He wandered up and down the dark slimy streets peering into the gloom of lanes and doorways, listening eagerly for any sound. He moaned to himself like some baffled prowling beast. He wanted to sin with another of his kind, to force another being to sin with him and to exult with her in sin. He felt some dark presence moving irresistibly upon him from the darkness, a presence subtle and murmurous as a flood filling him wholly with itself.'

Obviously, one can imagine another way of writing this. Joyce might simply have described the character walking down the street. Or he might've offered some paraphrase of the character's thoughts (something like, 'he looked around for someone to sleep with'). But by using stream of consciousness, he brings the reader into close proximity with the character's actual thoughts as they're occurring and creates an intimate (perhaps even uncomfortably intimate) knowledge of that character's struggle.

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