The Stream-Of-Consciousness Novel

The stream-of-consciousness technique is a revolutionary modern technique which has tried to transform the art of narrative almost in every respect. The first user of this technique was the French novelist Edouard Dujardin in a short novel published in 1888. The phrase “stream of consciousness,” however, was coined by the psychologist William James who wrote Principles of Psychology (1890).

By calling consciousness a stream, James meant that human consciousness is something fluid; it is an unbroken current of feelings, impressions, fantasies, half-formed thoughts, and awareness in general. Consciousness is a continuity like time, and it is independent of time. At any given instant of time, an individual’s consciousness may not be entirely concerned with the present. He may be living through an experience of the past or fantasizing about the future. The clock of subjective consciousness is independent of the mechanical clock-time. The stream-of-consciousness novelist tries to render the consciousness of his characters in its fullness (not excluding even its pre-verbal component) without the least authorial intervention and without ordering it into logical, lucid, and even grammatical narrative. Works like Joyce’s Ulysses are indeed revolutionary in the history of English fiction.

Psychological and Philosophical Background:
We have mentioned above the name of William James who coined the phrase “stream of consciousness.” However, the “stream-of-consciousness” novelists are much indebted to Freud, Jung, and Bergson than to James. Freud’s theories of sexuality, unconscious, repression, and dreams, Jung’s of collective unconsciousness and myth and archetypes; and Bergson’s of the subjectivity and relativity of time created around 1914 what Allen calls the right “environment of ideas” which nurtured the stream-of-consciousness novelists like Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Dorothy Richardson who made use of the technique in her series of twelve novels. Pilgrimage, is not an outstanding name for the reason that her psychology is largely pre-Freudian.
New Concept of Reality:
The stream-of-consciousness is a revolutionary technique because of the fact that it is based on a revolutionary concept of reality. It is a common practice to contrast Modernism with Realism, as if the moderns were not concerned with reality. They were in fact as much concerned with reality as any of their predecessors. But their concept of reality was very different, as different as their technique of presenting it. For them reality is not something superficial, mechanical, rational, or purely “‘scientific,” but something deeper, mythic, alogical, or even irrational. In herjustly famous essay ‘The Modem Novel” Virginia Woolf enunciates the new concept of reality as also the new concerns of tjhe modern psychological novelists like Joyce and herself even as she rejects the theory and practice of her Edwardian predecessors like Wells, Galsworthy, and Bennett. She denounces these novelists as “materialists” who delight in the “solidity of the fabric” without venturing to come to grips with the inward reality of life. They make a lot of fuss about creating lifelike characters, all dressed and buttoned up. They make’a fetish of coherence, causality, probability, plot-making, and the other paraphernalia of novel-making. As for herself, she will render life as it is1 really experienced by human beings. And what is life? Virginia Woolf says: “Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning, of consciousness to the end let us record the atoms as they all upon- the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”
Advantages of Using the Stream-of-Consciousness Technique:
The stream-of-consciousness technique bestows at least three major advantages on the novelist. They are:-
(1)                 Freedom from the constraints of time.
(2)                 Complete objectivity.
(3)                 Greater inwardness and profundity.
Let us elaborate.
(1)                 The stream of consciousness is, according to Daiches, “a means of escape from the tyranny of the time dimension.” “Traditionalists,” as Ward puts it, “keep their eyes upon the calendar and the clock.” But because human consciousness is not a respecter of time, and the job of the psychological novelist is to render this, time loses its tyrannic rigidity. The stream of consciousness differs from a stream of water insofar as it can course both up and down at various speeds subverting all chronological barriers. Thus one  peciality of the stream-of-consciousness novelists is their daring experiments with time. Joyce in Ulysses (the locus classicus of the stream-of-consciousness novel) has confined the outward action to a single day, June 16,1994. Whatever is experienced by the consciousness of the three central
characters on that day is rendered by Joyce in one thousand pages or so. In
Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf too confines the outer plot to one day in 1923. However, her handling of time is so subtle that reminiscence, reverie, and even hallucination form a delicate and very suggestive pattern which offers the reader not only an insight into the deep recesses of Mrs Dalloway’s mind but also into the mystery and meaning of life itself. Virginia Woolf s To The Lighthouse comprises
three parts. The first and third cover the outer action of a day each, while the middle one, which is the shortest of all, covers a period often years. Such free handling of time is an obvious advantage.
(2)                 As Beach puts it, the progress of twentieth-century novel is marked by the disappearance of the author. In other words, narrative has approached the condition of drama. The stream-of-consciousness novelist tries to render the flow of the consciousness of a character as directly and as objectively as possible—without any comment. He tries to remain out of the picture. The true literary artist, in Joyce’s words, “like the God of creation remains within or behind or beyond or above his handwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent,  aring his fingernails.”
(3)                 Thirdly, by shifting interest from the experiential reality to theexperiencing self, the stream-of-consciousness novelist can achieve aninwardness which is difficult to achieve by conventional means. VirginiaWoolf has characterized Mrs Dalloway and Mrs Ramsay by lluminatingthe recesses of their psyche with an amazing authenticity. And Joyce’s Bloom holds the distinction of being the fictional hero most thoroughly characterized in world literature. It is not only the depth and breadth of characterization which distinguish the work of stream-of-consciousness novelists but also their penetrating insights into the dilemmas of existence. What they exactly convey or imply is often debatable no doubt, but it could have been put across by no other means.
There are mainly two disadvantages or objections to the stream-of-consciousness technique:
(1)                 Disregard of material/outer reality.
(2)                 Lack of form and pattern and even meaning.
Let us elaborate.
(1)                 The stream-of-consciousness novelist concentrates only on that miniscule component of reality which impinges on the consciousness of his characters. He shows no interest in events, even earth-shaking ones, which do not do so. Thus he fails to render life in its wholeness.
(2)                 Liberating themselves from the tyranny of time, the stream- of-consciousness novelists expose themselves to the danger of chaos and formlessness. Adherence to chronology is a restraint but it also ensures clarity of contours. Ulysses is indeed a tour deforce. But for many readers it is still an enormous puzzle. The last fifty or so pages of the novel render the stream of consciousness of Molly Bloom without any mark of punctuation: Joyce’s next novel Finnegans Wake is still
more difficult to follow. To the uninitiated it looks like a mass of words, several of which are not to be found in any dictionary.
The Principal Users of This Technique:-
The first British user of the technique was Dorothy Richardson whose long novel, Pilgrimage, comprised twelve volumes, the first of which, Pointed Roofs, appeared in 1915. Pilgrimage is a semi-autobiographical work which presents the life of the heroine Miriam Henderson. Dorothy Richardson disliked the term “stream of consciousness.” She was not a bold experimenter like Woolf or Joyce. Her pre-Freudian psychology is another limiting factor.
James Joyce is the greatest of the stream-of-consciousness novelists. His first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is quite autobiographical but at the same time objective. It tells us how the hero, Stephen Dedalus, found his vocation as an artist after experimenting with religion and politics. The next novel, Ulysses (1922), is a most complex and amazing feat. The protagonist, the middle-aged Irish Jew Leopold Bloom, is made analogous to Homer’s Odysseus and each of the eighteen episodes in the novel corresponds to one in the Odyssey. This extended analogy complicates and enriches the significance of Joyce’s novel. Joyce’s last novel, Finnegcms Wake, which took him seventeen years to write (as against seven taken by Ulysses) is indeed a hard nut to crack.
Virginia Woolf s novels are poetry novels. She excels in suggesting delicately the subtle nuances of feeling experienced by her female characters. Her sensibility is too refined to admit anything vulgar. Joyce baulks at nothing—not even at sexual indecency. But Woolf is very different. In fact a critic thinks that her major defect is her “dread of copulation.”
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