Stream of Consciousness


Doctor William James who was an American philosopher and psychologist introduced the term stream of consciousness. In 1890, he published his book The Principles of Psychology. In this book, he shared his views about four aspects of human psychology – emotion, habit, will, and stream of consciousness. The last of the four got the greatest popularity. With the evolution of the novel as a literary genre, the term assumed the form of a narrative technique to unfold the thought process of a character. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Arthur Schnitzler, and many other novelists employed this technique in their novels. This theory proposed that the human thought process is connected with consciousness. This consciousness is neither single nor unified. Instead, it is in a state of flux. It continues to change through a process of associations.

Main Points

The following points are an interpretation of the focal concepts of the theory of stream of consciousness.

  • The human thought process is a series of unending impressions in the mind. These impressions generate consciousness that never breaks.
  • The human thought process is not in chronological order. It depends upon momentary experiences which connect human thoughts and perceptions.
  • Since the human thought process relies upon momentary experiences, the consciousness it creates is in a state of flux. It continues to change through a process of associations with surrounding objects, previous knowledge, or thoughts in the mind.
  • There is a sense of individuality attached to every moment of consciousness. We may not contain or recreate the same moment on another occasion.
  • The stream of consciousness is not a passive concept. It is a dynamic concept. Human thoughts, feelings, desires, and objectives shape it.

Stream of Consciousness in Literature

The concepts developed by the stream of consciousness helped novelists expose the inner self of their characters. It proved the most viable method to show that the world inside is quite different from the world around a character. Also, the reactions and responses of characters to the world around them may not correspond with their inner feelings. Therefore, the novelists employed this technique to depict the split personalities of their characters. These characters face a conflict between the reality of the world and the reality they assume it to be.

Stream of Conscious

Major Works

Henry James was the first literary figure who employed the stream-of-consciousness technique in his novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881). It marked a departure from the traditional structure of a novel that focused on external action. Nor did the novel have the conventional framework of dialogues and descriptions. The novel focused on the inner thoughts of the main character, Isabel Archer.  However, critics consider Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson the first accomplished work of art with this technique. It is a series of thirteen books published between 1915 and 1967. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf are among the novels patterned on this technique. A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce are examples of the same. The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner also receives appreciation for this narrative mode.


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