Introduction to the Stream of Consciousness Literary Technique

Stream of Consciousness in the Early 20th Century Novel

woman writing in journal outdoors
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Stream of consciousness is a literary technique pioneered in the early 20th Century by English novelist Dorothy Richardson and carried forward by a generation of better-known writers like Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse), William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and James Joyce (Ulysses). The technique is also known as interior monologue or flux de conscience. Psychologist William James first used the term "stream of consciousness" in his "Principles of Psychology."

A Cultural Touchstone

In the early part of the 20th Century, a view of consciousness as a fluid stream of unorganized thought became nearly a cultural fixation. Many writers and thinkers began to feel there was something nearly dishonest about a straightforward narrative told by an author who presumes to know everything about her characters -- a stance called "the omniscient author." A writer like Jane Austen, for instance, brilliantly describes in her own voice exactly what her characters are thinking and tells us infallibly not only about her characters pasts but what may befall them in the future.

For Jean Paul Sartre and others, this has nothing to do with the way things work in real life. We're alive in a present we may never understand; all we know of the past are imperfect memories further distorted by our psychological investment in seeing them in a particular way. Our conceptions of what the future may bring seldom match what really happens.



Our understanding of the world, in short, is highly subjective. We don't even think in complete rationally organized sentences. Instead of saying, "I plan to go to the store today and buy several vegetables, among them sweet potatoes," the narrator may think: "Dark and round. Potatoes. Mother used to, yes,  sweet like that and buy them.

Not for her: dead."  

A more ambitious example is Molly Bloom's interior monologue in James Joyce's "Ulysses," which begins

"no that's no way for him has he no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in us behind like that on my bottom because I didn't call him Hugh the Ignoramus poetry from a cabbage...

and continues for more than 4,000 words. Joyce emphasizes the informality of Molly's interior thoughts by stripping the sentence -- actually many sentence fragments -- of all punctuation. Typical of the technique, Molly's thoughts ramble forward and backward, not in chronological order but according to the associations that each preceding thought calls to her mind. 

Relationship to Plot and Meaning

One of the inevitable differences between a story told by a reliable narrator and one that moves forward through the interior monologues of its characters is that truth becomes relative. In Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying, sixteen different narrators, each with a unique voice and in varying degrees psychologically afflicted, describe the events surrounding Addie Bundren's death, a death with a different significance and meaning for each character. There is no one "real meaning" of Addie's death, but only fallible versions of various events.

The meaning of her death differs from character to character. The coherence of the narrative, if there is one, comes from the reader's comparison of each of these imperfect accounts in order to make her own account -- which, of course, is also subjective.