What Is Stream-of-Consciousness?

Stream-of-consciousness is a style of speaking or writing in which one says everything unfiltered, flowing out of a person exactly as it comes to the mind. Since our brains are capable of producing thousands of thoughts and impressions at once, however, it’s not possible to speak or write exactly as we think. Thus, stream-of-consciousness is impressionistic, designed to imitate a direct cognitive process.

When we say that someone speaks in a “stream-of-consciousness” manner, we are not necessarily paying them a compliment. Stream-of-consciousness can seem random and “spacey,” disorganized and even a bit pretentious.

How Do You Identify Stream-of-Consciousness in Writing?

In writing, stream-of-consciousness is a deliberate literary device most often associated with the Modern movement. Modernists believe that the writer has a subjective experience and cannot make him or herself fully understood to another person. Stream-of-consciousness becomes a way of representing the subjective self.

For some modernists, subjectivity might be grounded in a character with developmental disabilities or psychological limitations. For instance, Benji, one of the characters in William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, is “an idiot” whose stream-of-consciousness narrative stems from the way his brain processes the outside world. For other writers, stream-of-consciousness is an attempt to recreate the truth of human thought without any attempt to explain or organize concepts. Such experimental writing leaves the process of interpretation completely to the reader.

Examples of Stream-of-Consciousness

Stream-of-Consciousness Example 1. James Joyce’s impenetrable last novel, Finnegan’s Wake, is written entirely in stream-of-consciousness narrative. There are only a few people in the world who have fully read and claim to have understood it.

Stream-of-Consciousness Example 2. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is another novel that uses stream-of-consciousness to take its main character in and out of time as she goes out to perform a simple errand.

Stream-of-Consciousness Example 3. Marcel Proust’s seven volume series, Remembrance of Things Past, which took over 20 years to write, is one giant stream-of-consciousness recollection that springs from a memory of tasting a cookie dunked in coffee.

Stream-of-Consciousness Example 4. ee cummings’ poetry often employs stream-of-consciousness, joining seemingly random words and thoughts together without formal syntax.

Stream-of-Consciousness Example 5. Samuel Beckett, the existential writer, has his characters utter stream-of-consciousness lines in plays like Waiting for Godot.


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