The Term ‘Stream of Consciousness’ and the Forgotten Modernist

‘Stream of consciousness’. You may have heard the term, but where did it come from, and what does it mean? The answers are perhaps surprising, and lead us to a forgotten modernist writer whom Virginia Woolf, among others, praised.

It is often claimed that the term ‘stream of consciousness’ was coined by philosopher and psychologist William James, brother of novelist Henry James, in his book The Principles of Psychology (1890). Sure enough, James himself gives us this impression when he uses the phrase when discussing conscious thought: ‘A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.

But this was not the first use of the phrase by a psychologist, and James was actually borrowing (to put it politely) an expression that had been coined some years earlier. The real coiner was a forgotten psychologist named Alexander Bain, who used ‘stream of consciousness’ in his 1855 work The Senses and the Intellect. This shows that ‘stream of consciousness’, although associated with modernist writing of the early twentieth century, was a mid-Victorian coinage rather than a late Victorian, or proto-modernist, metaphor.

The term ‘stream of consciousness’ is most commonly associated with the writing of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, those key modernist novelists (pleasingly, both Woolf and Joyce were born in the same year, and also died in the same year; they also both wrote novels set over just one day in mid-June).

In their work, characters’ thoughts are presented not in a logical and ordered fashion, but as a ‘stream’ or flow of ideas and impressions, with one succeeding another without necessarily making logical sense. In other words, how most of us ‘think’ on a daily basis. But in fact the word was first applied to another modernist writer, whose name is not as well known as Woolf’s or Joyce’s. But since it is her birthday today (17 May) it seems fitting to mention this half-forgotten modernist innovator.

Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) wrote a long sequence of novels called Pilgrimage, published in 13 volumes between 1915 and 1967 and perhaps modelled on Proust’s multi-novel sequence In Search of Lost Time (the first volume of which had been published in 1913).

Pilgrimage follows Miriam Henderson as she grows to maturity, eventually becoming a successful writer (as Richardson’s detractors might quip, something her creator never quite manages). What sets apart this sequence from other modernist works is the relentless attention to detail: the patterns of the carpet, the state of the towel-rail in the bathroom, the noises coming from the people in the flat next door.

For some, such a level of detail is refreshing and reflects real life; for others, it is merely dull, for the reader can never be sure what is significant for the story (if that is quite the word here) and what is not. But then that is partly what Richardson is inviting us to question: what is ‘significant’, and what is ‘story’, anyway?

One of the distinctive features of the prose is the new style. It was this that led May Sinclair (herself a modernist writer of some repute) to apply the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to a literary work – the first time this had been done. (This was in a review of Richardson’s work in The Egoist in 1918.)

Woolf herself remarked in 1923 that Richardson ‘has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender.’ Richardson herself saw her writing as a sort of feminine prose, something that chimes with the work of later Francophone writers and theorists like Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous.

Indeed, Richardson herself preferred to see her style not as a ‘stream’ but as a form of immersion, which implies an attempt to capture the simultaneous and multifaceted nature of thought and experience rather than a desire to convey something linear and simplistic.

So, although ‘stream of consciousness’ more readily conjures up James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, we should not forget Dorothy Richardson. Indeed, perhaps she is more important to a discussion of the term than Woolf is: Randall Stevenson, in his book Modernist Fiction, suggests that ‘interior monologue, rather than stream of consciousness, is the appropriate term for the style’ of Woolf’s fiction.

So, next time you catch your thoughts wandering in a Jamesian (or should that be Bainian) fashion, think of Richardson as well as Woolf.

34 thoughts on “The Term ‘Stream of Consciousness’ and the Forgotten Modernist”

  1. Thanks for your research. Joyce and Woolf brought this technique to the broader world, and were the most accomplished and influential So the folks you mentioned should be recognized but they in no way diminish the influence or writings of these two great authors.

  2. Dostoyevsky also experimented with it. In “The Meek One: A fantastic Story,” he doesn’t use it the same way Woolf or Joyce did, but he does ask the reader to imagine his/herself in the mind of the protagonist.

  3. Richardson was an amazing, innovative writer – her Pilgrimage was published in four volumes by Virago and is often mentioned on the LibraryThing Virago group! it’s an enthralling read, and my Middle Child did her dissertation arguing that Richardson was more pioneering than Woolf, and gained a First!

    • Wow! I think that’s a justifiable position – I certainly think Richardson pushed things further than Woolf. Good to hear dissertations have been, and are being, written about Richardson – I always enjoy teaching an excerpt from ‘The Tunnel’ on a Modernisms module I teach on. It’s always interesting to see if any students are converts to her style…

  4. I seem to recall Joyce claiming some inspiration from a 19th century novel/novelist—do you by any chance remember who that was? All I can remember is that the scholars who mention this person are always careful to point out that he (pretty sure it was a he) was a second-rate writer.

  5. So many writers each with a history. One could stream a few books on the subject. Woolf, Joyce, Twain, just a few with birthday magic. Thank you for this refreshing cup dipped from the stream.

  6. Joyce and Wolfe died at the same time? That´s ironic. So much rich history to what now we use it as writing basics. I remember my first Literature class in highschool, where they would tell you just write whatever comes to mind and don´t edit or stop until the two minutes where up. I still use it today, even though more refined. And still has to get A LOT more refined, but it was nice hearing that two great authors used this.

    • I know – it’s great for combating writer’s block, if nothing else! It seemed to be an especially modernist preoccupation – W. B. Yeats actually went the whole hog and practised automatic writing, so he never knew what was going to come out on the page…

  7. As usual, your post was very interesting. As most people, I also associated stream of consciousness with Virginia Woolf. But now I’ll think of Dorothy Richardson.

    It’s interesting that you wrote about stream of consciousness while Margot Kinberg also posted about the usage of stream of consciousness in crime novels. You’re both on the same wave length. :)
    If you haven’t read her post you can do so at:


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