stream of consciousness (writing)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

stream of consciousness
"Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits," wrote William James. "It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a ' stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life" (The Principles of Psychology, 1890). (Amana Images/Getty Images)


Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique that gives the impression of a mind at work, jumping from one observation, sensation, or reflection to the next. These varied elements are usually expressed in a flow of words without conventional transitions.

Though stream of consciousness is commonly associated with the work of novelists (including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner), the method has also been used effectively by writers of creative nonfiction.

(See below.)

The metaphor of the stream of consciousness was coined by American philosopher and psychologist William James (The Principles of Psychology, 1890).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • Stream of Consciousness in E.B. White's "The Door"
    "Everything (he kept saying) is something it isn't. And everybody is always somewhere else. Maybe it was the city, being in the city, that made him feel how queer everything was and that it was something else. Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the names of the things. The names were tex and frequently koid. Or they were flex and oid or they were duroid (sani) or flexsan (duro), but everything was glass (but not quite glass) and the thing that you touched (the surface, washable, crease-resistant) was rubber, only it wasn't quite rubber and you didn't quite touch it but almost. The wall, which was glass but turned out on being approached not to be a wall, it was something else, it was an opening or doorway—and the doorway (through which he saw himself approaching) turned out to be something else, it was a wall. And what he had eaten not having agreed with him."
    (opening paragraph of "The Door" by E.B. White. The New Yorker, 1939)
  • "Literary journalism does not gain its name or identity from being the only lyrical or creative prose in journalism. It does, however, differ significantly from everyday journalistic stories published in newspapers and magazines. It requires immersion in an event; presumes a point of view; and employs literary techniques unapologetically, making rich use of stream of consciousness, metaphor, symbolism, description, point of view, narration, dialog, and other conventions considered by many to lie within the province of literature."
    (Jan Whitt, Women in American Journalism: A New History. University of Illinois Press, 2008)
  • Stream of Consciousness in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway
    "She remembered once throwing a shilling into the Serpentine. But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself."
    (Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1925)
  • Stream of Consciousness in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

    "—Kesey has Cornel Wilde Running Jacket ready hanging on the wall, a jungle-jim corduroy jacket stashed with fishing line, a knife, money, DDT, tablet, ball-points, flashlight, and grass. Has it timed by test runs that he can be out the window, down through a hole in the roof below, down a drain pipe, over a wall and into thickest jungle in 45 seconds—well, only 35 seconds left, but head start is all that’s needed, with the element of surprise. Besides, it's so fascinating to be here in subastral projection with the cool rushing dex, synched into their minds and his own, in all its surges and tributaries and convolutions, turning it this way and that and rationalizing the situation for the 100th time in split seconds, such as: If they have that many men already here, the phony telephone men, the cops in the tan car, the cops in the Volkswagen, what are they waiting for? why haven't they crashed right in through the rotten doors of this Rat building--"
    (Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1968)

    - "In an important monologue towards the end of the book [The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test], [Tom] Wolfe reveals [Ken] Kesey's paranoia about the police in Mexico. The crazed, stream-of-consciousness narrative here shows Kesey to be an insecure and ridiculous fool."
    (Chris Anderson, Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction. Southern Illinois University Press, 1987)

    - "The most controversial aspect of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as a nonfiction novel, a book which purports to be a registration of happened events, is its style and linguistic maneuvering. . . . Tom Wolfe's linguistic transcendences capture the psychic transcendences of the Pranksters' extended trip; their immediate medium is 'drugs,' Wolfe's is language. . . .

    "The dominant narrative device in the chapter ['The Fugitive'] is 'interior monologue' with suggestions of 'stream of consciousness.' The technical rationale for the use of such narrational devices in the nonfiction novel is the treatment of the subjectivity of the situation or person portrayed, as distinguished from the projected subjectivity (empathy) of the fictive novelist. The consciousness transcribed in this chapter is the layer of awareness experienced and articulated by [Ken] Kesey."
    (Mas'ud Zavarzadeh, The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel. University of Illinois Press, 1980)