What is Stream of Consciousness?

‘Stream of consciousness’ is a common term in literary criticism, and often used to describe the distinctive style employed by some of the most famous writers of the twentieth century. But what is ‘stream of consciousness’? Why a ‘stream’? A few words of introduction may help to clarify this common, and widely misunderstood, literary term.

In fact, ‘stream of consciousness’ began life not as a literary term at all, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – a psychological one. It’s often said that William James – the philosopher and brother of the novelist Henry James – was the person who coined the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, in his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology. But whilst James certainly used the phrase, he was merely popularising it: the term has been traced back to Alexander Bain, who used ‘stream of consciousness’ in his 1855 work The Senses and the Intellect. So it was a psychologist who probably coined the phrase.

Then, in the early twentieth century, as writers became more experimental and literary modernism was born, the term ‘stream of consciousness’ was applied to literature. Put simply, ‘stream of consciousness’ describes a literary style in which the various thoughts and impressions of a character are relayed to us in a way that captures the suddenness, spontaneity, and often inconsequentiality of those thoughts and impressions. Usually, the syntax will reflect this, and it will either break down into fragmentation or, in some extreme cases, punctuation will be largely absent. Sometimes the term stream of consciousness is applied to poetry, such as T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, although many modernist critics would reserve use of the term for fiction.

It was the author May Sinclair who first used ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe a literary style, in a review published in the magazine The Egoist in 1918. Oddly, though, the writer whose work she thus described as ‘stream of consciousness’ disagreed with the term, and said it was inaccurate. Her name was Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957), the author of the long novel-cycle Pilgrimage, and she preferred the term ‘immersion’ to describe her work, thinking the concept of a ‘stream’ too linear in its implications. ‘Immersion’ better captures Richardson’s attempt, in her writing, to capture the simultaneous and multifaceted nature of thought and experience.

So, Dorothy Richardson, the writer whose work was the first to be labelled as ‘stream of consciousness’, didn’t actually write in a stream of consciousness style. What about other modernists? How about Virginia Woolf – a far more famous and widely celebrated modernist novelist than Richardson? Surely Woolf’s work is bona fide stream of consciousness?

Well, not exactly. Randall Stevenson, in his excellent book MODERNIST FICTION: An Introduction, suggests that ‘interior monologue’, rather than stream of consciousness, is the best term to describe the style of Woolf’s fiction. Although there is some overlap between these terms, Stevenson helpfully draws attention to what he calls the ‘anarchic fluency’ and ‘syntactic fragmentation’ which we find in more extreme examples of modernist stream of consciousness. Woolf’s fiction, whether in Mrs Dalloway (1925) or The Waves (1931) – this last one arguably her most experimental novel in narrative terms – tends to be too organised and ordered in terms of its depiction of the inner thoughts and emotions of her characters. Here’s Woolf in Mrs Dalloway offering some of her title character’s thoughts:

But why should she invite all the dull women in London to her parties? Why should Mrs. Marsham interfere? And there was Elizabeth closeted all this time with Doris Kilman. Anything more nauseating she could not conceive. Prayer at this hour with that woman. And the sound of the bell flooded the room with its melancholy wave; which receded, and gathered itself together to fall once more, when she heard, distractingly, something fumbling, something scratching at the door. Who at this hour? Three, good Heavens! Three already!

Woolf is clearly providing us access to the inner mind of her character, but she is continuing to observe the strict laws of syntax: questions (silently asked to herself rather than spoken aloud) are given question marks, exclamations are given exclamation marks, and the other usual marks of punctuation are present, despite the presence of the occasional sentence fragment. This, then, is interior monologue, rather than stream of consciousness, if we want to be really picky.

To find a ‘proper’, uncontroversial example of stream of consciousness in literature, we need to turn to another modernist writer, James Joyce. Here’s the very end of his 1922 novel Ulysses, Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy:

O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

The lack of punctuation – that final full stop is only the second one in the entire final chapter of the novel – and the breathless, tumbling nature of the prose both convey the way Molly Bloom’s mind is running from one thought and memory into another, without a pause. Here, we find the anarchic fluency that Stevenson had pointed to, and which we find largely absent in Woolf.

But this is an extreme example: extreme stream of consciousness, we might say. There are numerous other examples from Joyce’s novel which can be labelled as ‘stream of consciousness’ but are less headlong:

Yes. Thought so. Sloping into the Empire. Gone. Plain soda would do him good. Where Pat Kinsella had, his Harp theatre before Whitbred ran the Queen’s. Broth of a boy. Dion Boucicault business with his harvestmoon face in a poky bonnet. Three Purty Maids from School. How time flies eh? Showing long red pantaloons under his skirts. Drinkers, drinking, laughed spluttering, their drink against their breath. More power, Pat. Coarse red : fun for drunkards : guffaw and smoke. Take off that white hat. His parboiled eyes. Where is he now? Beggar somewhere. The harp that once did starve us all.

This is the example quoted in The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, which has a neat summary of stream of consciousness (although it does misattribute the term’s origins to William James). The Penguin dictionary also reminds us that, although stream of consciousness came into its own as a literary style in the twentieth century, its actual roots are somewhat earlier. An 1887 novel by Edouard Dujardin, Les lauriers sont coupés (‘The Laurels Are Cut’) is often said to represent the origins of stream of consciousness. And certainly the plot sounds unpromising and modernist enough: the whole action takes place over the course of just a few hours, and indeed there is barely any real ‘action’ to speak of, and the main character is unremarkable. Interestingly, the most important influence on Dujardin’s development of stream of consciousness was not literary but musical: he was greatly impressed by the power of the Wagnerian Leitmotif and wanted to do something akin to this for the novel.

But in fact, we could go back even further than the nineteenth century and find examples of what appears to be stream of consciousness:

But for sleep—I know I shall make nothing of it before I begin—I am no dab at your fine sayings in the first place—and in the next, I cannot for my soul set a grave face upon a bad matter, and tell the world—’tis the refuge of the unfortunate—the enfranchisement of the prisoner—the downy lap of the hopeless, the weary, and the broken-hearted; nor could I set out with a lye in my mouth, by affirming, that of all the soft and delicious functions of our nature, by which the great Author of it, in his bounty, has been pleased to recompense the sufferings wherewith his justice and his good pleasure has wearied us …

But is this bona fide stream of consciousness? Although the syntax would perhaps not be out of place in a James Joyce novel, and the passage has the same elements of ‘thinking out loud’ which we find in stream of consciousness, this meditation upon sleep is perhaps too focused and ordered – not random or spontaneous enough in its digressions – to be classed the same as Joycean stream of consciousness.

So, what is stream of consciousness, then? Well, in conclusion, we should be wary of labelling any modernist narrative technique stream of consciousness, and instead look to the extent of the novel’s or story’s random, spontaneous, and sustained depiction of the twists and turns of characters’ minds.


  1. Informative, as always.