Stream of consciousness

From New World Encyclopedia

Stream of consciousness is a literary technique, used primarily in poetry and fiction, which seeks to portray an individual's point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose internal interior monologue, or in connection to his or her sensory reactions to external occurrences. Stream-of-consciousness writing is strongly associated with the modernist movement. Its introduction in the literary context, transferred from psychology, is attributed to popular British writer May Sinclair. The phrase “stream of consciousness” to indicate the flow of inner experience was first used by William James in Principles of Psychology. The name of the literary technique comes from the psychological concept of stream of consciousness, also known as internal monologue, which means thinking in words.

Modern stream of consciousness writing is closely related to, but distinct from, the Surrealist concept of Automatic writing, which is the process of writing material that does not come from the conscious thoughts of the writer. Surrealism, influenced by the theories of the Unconscious of Sigmund Freud, attempted to use automatic writing to bypass the conscious mind and tap into the unconscious. By contrast, modern Stream of Consciousness writing is a literary technique. It comes from the conscious thoughts of the writer, but is untempered by constraints of style, structure, and punctuation, coming from the mind of the writer filtered only through the mind of the character. Stream of consciousness is writing that sounds more like how people think than how they speak. It is meant to portray the inner psyche of the character. Modern examples include the novels of Virginia Woolf.

Controversy: Validity as a psychological theory

"Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instant. 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" (James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890, p. 233).

"I want to call your attention to the discontinuous character of thought—the complete inappropriateness of James’ expression ‘the stream of thought'" (Geach, God and the Soul, 1969, p. 34).

As the two above quotes indicate, debate raged for a very long time on whether or not consciousness (or conscious thought, or experience) could even be characterized as a stream. The heart of the debate is the dichotomy between the cognitive and the sensory functions. The question of what it is for an aspect of mind to be "stream-like" raises the issue of how the temporal features of an aspect of mind are relevant to its metaphysical category. James' choice of terminology with stream of consciousness is, in-and-of-itself, a supposition on the nature of thought, not necessarily an absolute fact.

"Spoken words last so long in physical time… —one could sensibly say that the utterance of the words was simultaneous with the movement of a body… from one place to another. The same would go for the duration of mental images of words, or any other mental images… With a thought it is quite different. Even if we accepted the view… that a judgment is a complex of Ideas, we could hardly suppose that in a thought the Ideas occur successively, as the words do in a sentence; it seems reasonable to say that unless the whole complex content is grasped all together - unless the Ideas … are all simultaneously present—the thought or judgment just does not exist at all" (Geach, Mental Acts, 104)

Much scholarly writing has been done debating the very credibility of the idea of a stream of thought. James' stream of consciousness, while permanently fixed to the literary technique of the same name, has been debunked and expanded upon countless times in the field of psychology. A more recent work by Vendler characterizes James' idea of a stream-of-consciousness in a way very similar to its use as a literary technique:

"Thinking is an activity, a process, something that goes on, which we can pursue, and of which we are aware throughout our conscious life. Thinking is the stream of consciousness, the buzzing, blooming confusion of images, sounds, feelings, and emotions; interspersed, it is true, by words or even sentences dimly ‘heard’, sub-vocally ‘pronounced’, or ‘glanced at’ with the mind’s eye… We ask in the progressive tense ‘what are you thinking about?’… Moreover the philosophically interesting sense of thinking is this process sense; the process of thinking constitutes our ‘inner life’" (Vendler, Res Cogitans p. 40).

As a literary technique

Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative (and at times dissociative) leaps in syntax and punctuation that can make the prose difficult to follow, tracing a character's fragmentary thoughts and sensory feelings. Stream of consciousness and interior monologue are distinguished from dramatic monologue, where the speaker is addressing an audience or a third person, chiefly 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) and is primarily a fictional device. The term was first introduced to the field of literary studies from that of psychology by philosopher and psychologist William James, brother of the influential writer Henry James.

Literarily, a number of distinctions are made between stream of consciousness narration and interior monologue. Firstly, stream of consciousness is a special, specific style of interior monologue. While an interior monologue does present 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, syntax, and logic. A stream of consciousness is an interior monologue that does one or both of these things.

Like not all interior monologues are stream of consciousness, not all stream of consciousness writings are interior monologues:

Stream of consciousness writing comes in a variety of stylistic forms, most importantly narrated stream of consciousness and quoted stream of consciousness (“interior monologue”). Narrated stream of consciousness is most often composed of a variety of sentence types including psycho-narration (the narrative report of characters’ psychological states) and free indirect style. Interior monologue is the direct quotation of characters’ silent speech, though not necessarily marked with speech marks. “Interior monologue” is sometimes mistakenly used as a synonym for stream of consciousness writing as such.

The term “stream of consciousness” has become common in literary criticism and has a certain intuitive appeal, since it helps to identify in a rather general way what is was that writers were aiming to achieve in their fiction. However, there is no agreed precise definition of the term and no consensus has been arrived at as to how it is best used. This has caused much muddle and confusion in discussions of modernist technique.[1]

For example, James Joyce's Ulysses experiments in types of stream-of-consciousness narrative, while Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is an example of a series of interior monologues:

"It seemed to her as she drank the sweet stuff that she was opening long windows, stepping out into some garden. But where? The clock was striking—one, two, three: How sensible the sound was; compared with all this thumping; like Septimus himself. She was falling asleep."

Notable examples

The earliest precedent of any literary work using this technique is possibly Ovid's Metamorphoses in ancient Rome. Sir Thomas Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) with its rapid, unconnected association of objects, geometrical shapes, and numerology, may be considered one of the earliest examples of stream of consciousness writing. Some of the works of Gyula Krúdy (The Adventures of Sindbad) also employ a technique that can be considered the forerunner of stream of consciousness. Further examples of the development of this style are The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, (1760) and Édouard Dujardin's Les Lauriers sont coupés (1888). Tolstoy used a similar stream-of-consciousness technique in Anna Karenina (1877) in the portions leading to the climax; another early example is Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 short story "Leutnant Gustl," and the false document making up the bulk of Arthur Machen's "The White People" (1904).

Stream of consciousness writing gained rapid prominence in the twentieth century, particularly through the writings of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner.

Several notable works employing stream of consciousness are:

  • Eduard Dujardin's Les Lauriers sont Coupés (Credited by Joyce as the first example of this technique.)
  • Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song
  • Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage (1915-28)
  • James Joyce's Ulysses (in particular Molly Bloom's Soliloquy), as well as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves
  • William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying
  • Robert Anton Wilson & Robert Shea's Illuminatus!
  • William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness
  • Bob Dylan's songs Like a Rolling Stone and Desolation Row
  • Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren
  • Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream
  • Jerzy Andrzejewski's Gates to Paradise
  • A.B. Yehoshua's A Late Divorce
  • Will Christopher Baer's Phineas Poe Trilogy (Seen in all of Kiss Me, Judas and Hell's Half Acre and parts of Penny Dreadful)
  • Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy
  • T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
  • Oğuz Atay's Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected)
  • Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms

Particularly notable here are Eliot's poems, which defined the technique of stream of consciousness, which was a central component of the Modernists and which greatly influenced all subsequent generations of poets.

Translating stream of consciousness

Because of the unusual placement of language, Stream of Consciousness writing has been notoriously difficult to translate from one language to another. In China, for instance, the classic Stream of Consciousness works were long thought of as completely untranslatable. Ironically, several Chinese writers throughout the twentieth century imitated and used the technique in their own writing, throughout the thirties, the sixties, and the eighties. It was not until the nineties that the difficult stream of consciousness novels by Joyce and Woolf were reliably translated in China, a phenomenon of translation following imitation.


The technique is not specifically confined to literary sources, and has been used, loosely defined, either separately or in combination with other media. For instance, Travis Trent sings unwritten stream of consciousness lyrics on five of the six songs on the album, Stories: His, Mine, Others. The proliferation of stream of consciousness writing to other media has resulted in it being much misunderstood. (Not every interior monologue is necessarily stream of consciousness in the literary sense. Stream of consciousness is characterized by its wild associative leaps, not just conscious and linear thought.) Even so, hundreds of genuine examples of stream of consciousness in diverse mediums exist, far too many to list exhaustively here.

Cinema and sketch comedy

  • The British comedy troupe Monty Python used the technique in their sketches. The technique capitalizes on the nonsensical absurdist humor that Python is famous for. The technique also features in the animated shorts created by Terry Gilliam for the show, which, similarly, use stream of consciousness as means to showcase absurdist humor. An example of this within their work is the famous opening scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which conversation progresses from a discussion about the master of the castle to African Swallows, all due to the characters who speak their thoughts, nonsensical though they may be.
  • Writer and director Terrence Malick is notable for using a stream of consciousness voice over for one or several of his characters in all of his four films to date. His style as an auteur is closely linked to Transcendentalism and his characters usually express thoughts of existentialism and are deeply rooted in philosophical matters.
  • The movie The Weather Man with Nicolas Cage presents a scene where the main character narrates his line of thought when going off to buy tartar sauce. The use of stream of consciousness in this scene has the purpose of explaining why the character forgot to buy the tartar sauce.
  • The movie Adaptation. by Charlie Kaufman, starts with an internal monologue from the main character, who is also named Charlie Kaufman. The monologue shows he suffers from a writer's block, and is by association filled with random thoughts of failure.

Television and Comedy

  • The NBC sitcom Scrubs is presented with the protagonist’s thoughts heard by the viewer as a stream-of-consciousness voice over playing the role of narration; it often goes off on seemingly random tangents—much as any person’s thoughts tend to wander if not focused on something specific. The viewer also frequently sees the protagonist’s imagination at work.
  • Stand-up comedians Dennis Miller and Richard Lewis perform fast-paced monologues containing pop culture references which are often described as stream-of-consciousness.
  • TV show Family Guy often uses a simplified version of the technique. For example, the protagonist once stated "And it'll be special! But not special like the boy down the street. More like Special K. And for that matter, whatever happened to regular "K"? Or Kay Ballard? You know, if you had a cold and said "Ballard" it would sound like "Mallard." In fact, it could be said that Family Guy's entire sense of humor trades on leaping unexpectedly from one topic to the next.


One example of a website that uses the technique is Cognitec/3rd Force, which is the progressive work of an anonymous author known only as "HC." The site began in the mid 1990s, as a series of bizarre and sardonic original passages which was "spoofed" to look like prominent web portals of the early Dot com boom. For example, the now defunct "Pathfinder" site (now simply the Time Inc. portal) was parodied as "Crapfinder," the New York Times became the New Times York.

Because of the site's extensive use of the literary method, transitory and seemingly-unrelated themes became connected through hyperlinks. These seemed to further reflect the free-flowing thought process of the strangely prolific author. It was later revealed that much of the content consisted of excerpts from the metafictional novel MFU. The novel's desultory narrative structure and breadth of material was sufficient for creating years worth of related material in the form of multiple parodies, faux news reports, and essays, as well as providing prospective readers of the novel an opportunity to "sample" the book. Most of the novel was subsequently released as either readable or searchable on-line.

Many online forums have sections for so-called "Off-Topic" discussions. Threads in these forums tend to loosely follow stream-of-consciousness simply by virtue of the fact that multiple people express their own thought processes without hesitation of retribution. This perspective is, of course, controversial since traditional stream-of-consciousness is the result of one person's writing alone.

A relatively new website, conforms to the stream of consciousness style of writing using tag clouds to shift readers through various seemingly unrelated pages. Following the Virginia Tech massacre the website was used as a place of semi-anonymous mourning and was highlighted on the BBC website.[2]

The act of browsing encyclopedias such as Wikipedia tends to create a sort of artificial stream of consciousness, as easy and convenient to click hyperlinks will lead to related topics, which have their own links to related, related topics, by daisy-chained leaps of association. This "Wikipedia effect" can result in browsers spending hours on the site without ever researching the topic they initially set out to.


Specific examples
  • At least two of the songs on Van Morrison's acclaimed album Astral Weeks were said to be stream of consciousness by the composer.

"'Madame George' just came right out. The song is just a stream of consciousness thing, as is 'Cyprus Avenue.' Both these songs just came right out. I didn't even think about what I was writing."[3]

  • Hip hop artist Ghostface Killah is well known for his stream of consciousness rapping, a style largely his own that utilizes complicated and constantly shifting subject matter to illustrate his mindset and viewpoint.
  • Singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, front man of the band Bright Eyes, often writes lyrics in a Stream of Consciousness style, threading together seemingly unrelated topics from verse to verse.
Exclusion of music/lyrics

Of course, there are others who would argue that all music could be argued to be stream of consciousness writing, and hence it would be unscholarly to list all the examples of it here. The argument is that if one song can be characterized as stream of consciousness, where does it stop? Arguably, every song could be explained or framed as a stream of consciousness work.


  1. Mepham, "Stream of consciousness"
  2. BBC, Coping with death on the web. Retrieved May 30, 2007.
  3. Yorke, Into the Music, p.61

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chan, Leo Tak-Hung. First Imitate, then Translate: History of the Introduction of Stream-of-Consciousness Fiction to China. Lignan University.
  • Geach, Peter. 1957. Mental Acts. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710070586
  • Geach, Peter. 1969. God and the Soul. Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710065337
  • Humphrey, Robert. 1962. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel. Univ California Press. ISBN 0520005856
  • James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt. ISBN 0674706250
  • Mepham, John. 2003. "Stream of consciousness." In The Literary Encyclopedia. The Literary Dictionary Company.
  • Soteriou, Matthew. 2000. "Content and the stream of consciousness." In Consciousness: New Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press.
  • Vendler, Z. 1972. Res Cogitans: An Essay In Rational Psychology. London: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801407435

External Links

All links retrieved February 26, 2023.


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