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What Is Stream of Consciousness?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Stream of consciousness is a term used in both psychology and literature to represent the process of thought. Unlike speech or writing, human thought is unrestrained by rules of grammar or the limitations of language, incorporating sensory stimuli, speculation, and sometimes even delusion. In the 20th century, many writers tried to represent this process through a literary technique, also called stream of consciousness. Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce were especially noted for their use of this technique. Later writers employing stream of consciousness included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Alan Moore.

The pioneering psychologist William James is usually credited with coining the phrase “stream of consciousness” in an 1890 treatise. James, like many early psychologists, was concerned with analyzing human consciousness. He realized the impossibility of achieving an impartial view of the mind’s processes. The stream of human consciousness is an overlapping melange of incoming visual and sensory data, internal responses to this data, and often pure flights of fancy. At the same time that James was exploring this process, some writers were attempting to portray it in their books.

This generation of writers, known as the Modernists, dispensed with the literary techniques of the past, seeking new ways of representing a rapidly changing world. Even before James’ use of the term, French writer Edouard Dujardin experimented with stream-of-consciousness technique in his 1888 novel Les Lauriers Sont Coupés. English novelists and poets quickly followed suit. Virginia Woolf, a pioneering writer in many ways, was fond of this technique, as was the poet T.S. Eliot.

In literature, stream of consciousness often takes the form of long passages devoid of punctuation or other standard conventions of writing, such as capitalization or paragraph breaks. Writers borrowed from the psychological technique called free association, presenting ideas in quick succession with little or no obvious link between one and the next. The intended effect was to provide greater insight into characters’ inner lives by narrating not just their experiences, but their very thought processes, as realistically as possible. This was challenging for readers and daring for writers, who risked confusing or alienating any readers who could not decipher the sometimes hard-to-follow passages.

One of the most famous uses of stream of consciousness is in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, in which a 40-page punctuation-free passage presents the thoughts of the character Molly Bloom. Once stream of consciousness was an established technique, other writers put their own spin on it. In Kerouac’s autobiographical novels, it became a kind of beautiful poetry. Another Beat writer, William Burroughs, used it to describe the dark, fantastic terrain of the fictitious city Interzone in his controversial book Naked Lunch. In his novel Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore presents the thoughts and experiences of a preliterate Stone Age character who lacks the concepts of time, artifice, or deceit.

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