Stream of consciousness (narrative mode)

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In literary criticism, stream of consciousness, also known as interior monologue, is a narrative mode or device that depicts the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind.[1] The term was coined by William James in 1890 in his The Principles of Psychology, and in 1918 May Sinclair first applied the term stream of consciousness, in a literary context, when discussing Dorothy Richardson's novels.


Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that attempts to give the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue (see below), or in connection to his or her actions. Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative leaps in thought and lack of some or all punctuation.[2] Stream of consciousness and interior monologue are distinguished from dramatic monologue and soliloquy, where the speaker is addressing an audience or a third person, which are chiefly used in poetry or drama. In stream of consciousness the speaker's thought processes are more often depicted as overheard in the mind (or addressed to oneself); it is primarily a fictional device.

The term "Stream of Consciousness" was coined by philosopher and psychologist William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

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.[3]
Cover of James Joyce's Ulysses (first edition, 1922), considered a prime example of stream of consciousness writing styles.

In the following example of stream of consciousness from James Joyce's Ulysses, Molly seeks sleep:

a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early [4]

Interior monologue

While many sources use the terms stream of consciousness and interior monologue as synonyms, the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms suggests, that "they can also be distinguished psychologically and literarily. In a psychological sense, stream of consciousness is the subject‐matter, while interior monologue is the technique for presenting it". And for literature, "while an interior monologue always presents a character's thoughts ‘directly’, without the apparent intervention of a summarizing and selecting narrator, it does not necessarily mingle them with impressions and perceptions, nor does it necessarily violate the norms of grammar, or logic- but the stream‐of‐consciousness technique also does one or both of these things."[5] Similarly the Encyclopædia Britannica Online, while agreeing that these terms are "often used interchangeably," suggests, that "while an interior monologue may mirror all the half thoughts, impressions, and associations that impinge upon the character’s consciousness, it may also be restricted to an organized presentation of that character’s rational thoughts".[6]


The beginnings to 1922

While the use of the narrative technique of stream of consciousness is usually associated with modernist novelists in the first part of the twentieth-century, a number of precursors have been suggested, including Laurence Sterne's psychological novel Tristram Shandy (1757).[7] In the nineteenth-century it has been suggested that Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) foreshadows this literary technique.[8] The short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) by another American author, Ambrose Bierce, also abandons strict linear time to record the internal consciousness of the protagonist.[9] Because of his renunciation of chronology in favor of free association, Édouard Dujardin's Les Lauriers sont coupés (1887) is also an important precursor. Indeed, the possibility of a direct influence is evoqued by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and having "picked up a copy of Dujardin's novel [ ... ] in Paris in 1903".[10] There are also those who point to Anton Chekhov's short stories and plays (1881-1904)[11] and Knut Hamsun's Hunger (1890), and Mysteries (1892) as offering glimpses of the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative technique at the end of the nineteenth-century.[12] Henry James has also been suggested as a significant precursor, in a work as early as Portrait of a Lady (1881).[13]

However, it has been suggested that Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), in his short story '"Leutnant Gustl" ("None but the Brave", 1900), was in fact the first to make full use of the stream of consciousness technique.[14]

But it is only in the twentieth-century that this technique is fully developed by modernists. Marcel Proust is often presented as an early example of a writer using the stream of consciousness technique in his novel sequence À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927) (In Search of Lost Time), but Robert Humphrey comments, that Proust "is concerned only with the reminiscent aspect of consciousness" and, that he "was deliberately recapturing the past for the purpose of communicating; hence he did not write a stream-of consciousness novel".[15] The term was first applied in a literary context in The Egoist, April 1918, by May Sinclair, in relation to the early volumes of Dorothy Richardson's novel sequence Pilgrimage.

Another early example is the use of interior monologue by T. S. Eliot in his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), a work probably influenced by the narrative poetry of Robert Browning, including "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister".[16]

1922 to 2001

Possibly the most famous use of the technique came in 1922 with the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses. Prominent uses in the years that followed include Italo Svevo in La coscienza di Zeno (1923),[17] Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929).[18] Though Randell Stevenson suggests, that "interior monologue, rather than stream of consciousness, is the appropriate term for the style in which [subjective experience] is recorded, both in The Waves and in Woolf's writing generally.[19]

Samuel Beckett, a friend of James Joyce, uses interior monologue in novels like Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies) and L'innommable (1953: The Unnamable). and the short story From an Abandoned Work (1957).[20]

The technique continued to be used into the 1970s in a novel such as Robert Anton Wilson/Robert Shea collaborative Illuminatus! (1975), with regard to which The Fortean Times warns readers, to "[b]e prepared for streams of consciousness in which not only identity but time and space no longer confine the narrative".[21]

With regard to Salman Rushdie one critic comments, that "[a]ll Rushdie's novels follow an Indian/Islamic storytelling style, a stream-of-consciousness narrative told by a loquacious young Indian man".[22]

Other writers who use this narrative device include Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar (1963),[23] Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting (1993),[24] and Terry McMillan in her novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back.[25]

The 21st century

Stream of consciousness continues to appear in contemporary literature. Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), according to one reviewer, "talks much as he writes - a forceful stream of consciousness, thoughts sprouting in all directions".[26] Novelist John Banville describes Roberto Bolaño's novel Amulet, as written in "a fevered stream of consciousness".[27] The first decade brought further exploration, including Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated (2002) and many of the short stories of American author Brendan Connell.[28][29]

See also


  1. J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms. (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books,1984), p.660-1).
  2. For example, both Beckett and Joyce omitted full stops and paragraph breaks, but while Joyce also omitted apostrophes, Beckett left them in.
  3. (I, pp.239-43) quoted in Randall Stevenson, Modernist Fiction: An Introduction. (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky, 1992), p.39.
  4. Joyce p. 642 (Bodley Head edition (1960), p. 930).
  5. ed. Chris Baldick, Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2009, p.212.
  6. "interior monologue." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 24 Sep. 2012. <>.
  7. J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 661
  8. <>.
  9. Khanom, Afruza. "Silence as Literary Device in Ambrose Bierce's 'The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.' Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. Spring 6.1 (2013): 45-52. Print.
  10. Randell StevensonJ Modernist Fiction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992, p.227 fn 14; J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms, p. 661.
  11. James Wood, "Ramblings". London Review of Books. Vol.22, no. 11, 1 June 2000, pp. 36-7.
  12. James Wood. "Addicted to Unpredictability." November 26, 1998. London Review of Books. November 8, 2008 <>
  13. M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), p. 299.
  14. <>
  15. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California, 1954), p. 4.
  16. William Harmon & C. Holman, A Handbook to Literature (7th edition). (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1996), p.272.
  17. [untitled review], Beno Weiss, Italica,Vol. 67, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), p. 395. [1]
  18. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p.212.
  19. Modernist Fiction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992, p.55; Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p.212.
  20. Karine Germoni, '"From Joyce to Beckett: The Beckettian Dramatic Interior Monologue'". Journal of Beckett Studies,;Spring2004, Vol. 13 Issue 2.
  21. The Fortean Times, issue 17 (August 1976), pp.26–27.
  22. John C. Hawley, Encyclopedia Of Postcolonial Studies (Westport: Greenwood, 2001), p. 384.
  23. American Literature, Vol. 65, No. 2, Jun., 1993, p.381.
  24. Sarah Keating, "Tales from the Other Side of the Track". Irish Times 3 May, 2012.
  25. Paulette Richards .
  26. "The agony and the irony", Stephanie Merritt. The Observer, Sunday 14 May 2000.
  27. "Amulet by Roberto Bolaño", John Banville. The Guardian, Saturday 12 September 2009.
  28. "A nine-year-old and 9/11", Tim Adams The Observer, Sunday 29 May 2005
  29. Brendan Connell, The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children. Chomu Press, 2010.


  • Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, 1978.
  • Joyce, James. Ulysses, 1922; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
  • Friedman, Melvin. Stream of Consciousness: A Study in Literary Method, 1955.
  • Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel, 1954.
  • Randell, Stevenson. Modernist Fiction: An Introduction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992.
  • Sachs, Oliver. "In the River of Consciousness." New York Review of Books, 15 January 2004.
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  • Tumanov, Vladimir. Mind Reading: Unframed Direct Interior Monologue in European Fiction. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1997. Googlebooks.

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