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“Train? Nope. It’s a Stream!”A Brief Look into the Stream-of-Consciousness Narrative

Updated: Apr 28

Edmund Husserl, in his Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (1913), talks about phenomenological reduction, which implies being conscious of one’s consciousness of an object. It makes available another’s phenomenon. According to the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, “In Immanuel Kant’s theory of knowledge, fusing rationalist and empiricist aims, what appears to the mind are phenomena defined as things-as-they-appear or things-as-they-are-represented (in a synthesis of sensory and conceptual forms of objects-as-known). In Auguste Comte’s theory of science, phenomena (phenomenes) are the facts (faits, what occurs) that a given science would explain.”




Edmund Husserl

Picture Credit: Britannica

According to classical Husserlian phenomenology, our experience only depicts or "intends" things through certain concepts, thoughts, ideas, images, and so on. These are distinct from the things they display or mean and comprise the meaning or content of a specific experience. It is when one adopts this phenomenological attitude that one becomes able to access one’s different states of mind, and subsequently, document them in the form of a narrative.

This brings us to the stream-of-consciousness narrative. Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique that involves long passages of introspection, in which the narrator records what passes through a character’s mind in great detail. According to M.H. Abrams, it attempts to “reproduce the full spectrum and continuous flow of a character’s mental process, in which sense perceptions mingle with conscious and half-conscious thoughts, memories, expectations and feelings.”




Stream of Consciousness

Image Credit: Ryan Hatton at “Dribble”

The narrative technique is sometimes also called an interior monologue. The term “stream of consciousness” was first used by William James in his Principles of Psychology, published in 1890. Interestingly, William’s brother Henry James is a well-known practitioner of this technique. (Well, you know what they say about like-minded families.)




William James

Picture Credit: Britannica

Today, I want to talk about some authors that employ the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique:

#1: James Joyce

If you think a book is long, try reading James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Constructed as a modern parallel to Homer’s Odyssey, the characters of Stephen Deadlus, Leopold Bloom, and his wife, Molly, are meant to parallel Odysseus, Telemachus, and Penelope in a 20th-century narrative. Well, you might say, it’s a modern adaption of an age-old classic, so what? But, the point lies in this — the entire book, approximately a thousand pages long, only covers one day in the narrative. The book starts on the morning of June 16, 1904, in Dublin, and ends with Leopold Bloom going to bed that day with his wife. In the span of the novel, he essentially goes about his day — talking to people, attending funerals, drinking with friends — as one does. The long (and they are, in fact, long) passages of his internal monologue, his thoughts, his ruminations, his conversations, and his perception make up this narrative, and provide a profound insight into his mind.



James Joyce

Picture Credit: Britannica

#2: Marcel Proust

You may have heard Proust mentioned many times — for instance, in Gilmore Girls, the book that Max Media gives Lorelai to read is Proust’s “Swann’s Way” (the first volume of In Search of Lost Time), or most recently, Proust was mentioned in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, when Barbie says “I’m having a real Proustian flashback right now!”The reason she says this is because, well, Proust has a long (and I do mean long) flashback after he eats a tea-soaked Madeleine.

He then proceeds to recall his childhood in great detail — describing the people around him, his habits, his thoughts and fancies. A few pages are dedicated to a particularly vivid description of the church in Combray, which is the town where the narrator lives, which I personally liked. The narrative style involves long sentences that include, at several points, quoted conversations and over fifteen clauses. His most famously long sentences fall in the range of five-to-seven-hundred words long. But, it’s an incredibly stirring and vivid narrative that captures you in and keeps you hooked for hours.




Marcel Proust

Image Credit: Britannica

#3: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of the most well-known writers in the 20th-century canon. She’s known for her quintessential, everyman characters, and the glaring evidence of influences of impressionism and expressionism on her writing. She has dabbled in a lot of areas — fiction, non-fiction, criticism and poetry.

Her affinity for stream-of-consciousness was developed through the influence of the writers we explored before this, Joyce and Proust. She read their works in the years between 1922 and 1924, and developed her own view of modern fiction. She later wrote Mrs Dalloway, which is regarded as one of her best novels that uses the stream-of-consciousness technique, along with To the Lighthouse.

She uses the technique of incorporating multiple narratives that switch between the characters, and the Proustian concept of involuntary memory. Her narrative presents a seamless oscillation between the past and the present, giving staccato glimpses into the characters.




Virginia Woolf

Picture Credit: Britannica

#4: Emily Bronte

A type of novel that uses the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique is the psychological novel. According to Britannica, a “psychological novel [is a] work of fiction in which the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the characters are of equal or greater interest than is the external action of the narrative. In a psychological novel the emotional reactions and internal states of the characters are influenced by and in turn trigger external events in a meaningful symbiosis.”

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a novel revolving around two families. But the external plot is not (rather shouldn’t be) so much the focus of the reader as the internal ruminations, remarks and interjections of the narrators, Mr Lockwood and Nelly Dean.



Emily Bronte

Picture Credit: Britannica

#5: William Faulkner

William Faulkner, like Emily Bronte, also makes use of the “multiple narratives” technique. Faulkner’s style is different in the sense that he adapts his narrative technique to fit the mind of the character that is narrating the scene in both content and style.

A research paper says, “Faulkner was a good observer of what he is surrounded by. Thus his novels deal with many aspects of humanism. His novels deal with tragedy, energy, and humor of ordinary human life. In other words, William Faulkner is primarily interested in man who is in conflict against himself, against his fellow man, against his timeand place, and against his environment.”





William Faulkner

Picture Credit: Britannica

Stream of consciousness is a reflection of our real-time thoughts. It is the pinnacle of a human attempt to recreate the workings of the most boggling of all things ever encountered by us — the human mind.


ABOUT THE BLOGGER


Mrunal Rajadhyaksha is a student currently studying English Literature in Ruia College. She is passionate about reading, art and history, and the sea. She plays the guitar as a hobby.




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