The Stream of Consciousness School of Novelists

Also Read

      It was around 1920 that the attack on the traditional novel began. For some years new influences had been making themselves felt. In the twenties, the sensitive psychological patterning of Proust was to be a potent French influence. But the influence of the Russian novel was in the long run to have a considerably deeper effect than that of the French. By the work of the Russian masters, particularly of Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tchehov, it was possible to realize how much more deeply one could penetrate into the human soul than English novelists had so far attempted. The influence of the Russian novel came to a head in time to join forces with the psychology of the sub-conscious mind which was also by 1920 becoming current. Freud and Jung shook the foundations of human thought by their revolutionary discoveries in the field of psycho-analysis. It was revealed that the human consciousness has very deep layers, and, buried under the conscious region, are the subconscious and unconscious recons of the human psyche. Infinitesimal buried thoughts keep coming to the surface from the vast oceans of the sub-conscious. According to Freud human thinking suffers greatly from sexual obsession and every action of and man even his dreams, reverie, half expressed and unexpressed thought-could be breast pack to his sex instincts. People now began to look at things from a new perspective. Experiments were made in the light of psycho-analysis. Stream of consciousness was one such experiment.

      It was William James who, first of all, named the ‘Stream of Consciousness’ in his admirable book Principles of Psychology published in 1890. The metaphor was invoked by him to describe the flux of the mind, its continuity, and yet its continuous change. The stream of consciousness novelists follow the expressionist technique by which characters are projected, not by reporting their actions and sayings, as observed from without by an omniscient recorder, but by making the characters themselves reveal their inmost thoughts, moods and feelings, however inconsequent, fragmentary, and fleeting these may be. The expressionists see a man’s life not as a sequence of separate acts and emotions, each capable of analysis in isolation, but rather as a ‘stream of consciousness’ eddying and flowing in a perpetual flux, which is only partly manifested in what he says or does.

      The exponents of this technique believed that our consciousness which is part of our soul does not proceed logically or coherently. Generally it follows a freakish association of ideas whose progress cannot be charted. So they deviated from the convention of chronological continuity. They take no account of time. They believe that a part of an evening or morning can represent eternity or less than a single pulse-beat. One person’s life story may have less importance than twenty-four hours in the life of another.

      Dorothy Richardson: Dorothy Richardson is the first novelist to use the stream of consciousness method deliberately in order to portray character. Miriam Henderson is the heroine of ‘Pointed Roofs’, and her story is continued in a series of sequels, collectively called ‘The Pilgrimage’. The moments of Miriam’s consciousness pass one by one, or overlapping; moments tense with vibration, moments drawn out fine, almost to a snapping point. There is no drama, no situation, no set scene. Nothing happens. It is Miriam’s stream of consciousness going on and on. Dorothy Richardson gives us a wonderful insight into the mind of a woman, who, though sometimes annoying is undoubtedly a strange and interesting person. ‘The Pilgrimage’ books mark an epoch in the technical development of the novelist’s art.

      James Joyce: James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was a remarkable experiment in the novel. Tracing a not very attractive, though very human, “hero” through some twenty-four hours of a Dublin day, Joyce portrayed the outer world through the inner workings of his hero’s consciousness. In language and structure, it is one of the outstanding achievements of modem literature. It is divided into eighteen episodes, and each carries three layers of allegorical meaning, apart from the superficial story, and is related organically to the whole. Joyce had to evolve a new kind of language in which normal syntax was abandoned and the sentence was no longer the basic unit of expression. He discarded the traditional method of composition and employed a language in which words were tom from their customary associations, mutilated, coined afresh and sent chasing helter and skelter after the elusive shreds of meaning.

      Joyce set out to give a very acute expression to the breakdown of modem civilization. To do this he went back to the Dublin of his youth, and imagined with unflagging detail the life, for some twenty-four hours, of an advertising agent of thirty-eight, an Irish Jew, Leopold Bloom. From the early morning in June 1904 when Bloom gets up and makes his wife’s breakfast until the early hours of the next day Joyce exposes more than Bloom himself could know about himself and his environment. We have a sense of the teeming life of a city seems under a microscope. As Joyce shows, it is a dreary spectacle, in which hardly anything exists to stir the reader to admiration, love, pity, sympathy or even hatred. It joins T.S. Eliot’s indictment on the ‘Waste Land’ and shares Huxley’s disgust at the human animal. It is the twilight of an age, and its chill has infected its author.

      The basic technique for the exposure of Leopold Bloom and his wife is that of internal monologue. The reader is inside Bloom’s mind, in the flow of his inconsecutive and partially formulated thoughts and transient feelings. Bloom’s psychological process is one of expansion and contraction; and encounter, a memory, an association of ideas start his mind into extra-activity, which having reached a climax, ebbs away.

      Virginia Woolf: At the same time, in the early twenties, Virginia Woolf dealt the traditional novel, another effective blow. Looking at the novels of Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy she found that the reality of life escaped them. All three novelists were adjudged “materialists” because of their preoccupation with the outside of life. For her the true and enduring resided in the very essence of life, the ever-changing, ever-fluctuating consciousness. “Life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” “Is it not”, he asked, “the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?” Because she found in Ulysses an attempt “to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain”, she found Joyce, in contrast to her materialist, spiritual.

      The work of Woolf, though she was stimulated by the experimental work of Joyce’s Ulysses, is very different in essentials from Joyce’s. The demands that she makes are upon our spiritual understanding and aesthetic sensibility rather than upon the intellect. Her concern is for beauty, and she is worlds apart from the sordid life of Joyce’s Dublin. If at times she expresses a feeling of the meaninglessness of life, it is only in a temporary, trough in the sea of life: even if she felt herself in the ‘Waste Land’, she would raise her eyes and her heart to the stars, and, because in 1941 her spirit failed and she could not, she died.

      Her first attempt in a new manner was Jacob's Room. Mrs. Dallaway was nearly successful, and in 1927 ‘To the Lighthouse’ showed her in full control of a technique which displayed the inner stream of consciousness, the spirit of life ebbing and flowing; symbolism too played its part in her treatment; a Very sensitive artistry added a delight at times akin to poetic pleasure. A new kind of novel had been born in England. Story in the old sense had largely disappeared, but the traditional English gift was supremely retained by means of the new technique in the two unforgettable realities of Mrs. Ramsay and her husband. Excellent though To the Lighthouse is, her supreme achievement is The Waves (1931). In so far as we are submerged almost completely in the waves of consciousness of the characters (a part of the meaning of the title) it is less satisfactory as a novel, at any rate much more difficult of complete apprehension, but as a vision of life it has the complex harmonies, the suggestive mystery and beauty of great poetry. In fact it is a prose poem of the human consciousness, conceived and executed by a wise, sensitive and skilled artist.

      Reading deeply into human consciousness, Virginia Wolf keeps two aspects especially before us. Men and women exist in ultimate loneliness, out are incomprehensible except in their full setting: as she says of Mrs. Dalloway, “to know her, or anyone, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places”. Secondly, what is visible is but a fragment of the whole, for below the surface are the depths of the subconscious, from which, from time to time, only small emanations proceed, and these are often unpredictable. Thus, she presents her men and women with a rare humility, seeming to declare that personality must remain finally inscrutable, beyond complete understanding. We see personality at moments unified, but can never analyze with certainty all the elements that make that unity, or know how many other different unities that same personality can at other times produce. Humble in this way herself she hated those who would, in her phrase, “force the soul” trying to pierce and rifle its sacred privacy.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions