The Stream of Consciousness: in English Novel

Also Read

      The Pioneers: “The Stream of Consciousness” novel is the peculiar product of the 20th century. The rise of this art form on the eve of the World War I, marks an epoch in the history of the English novel. This particular kind of novel is also called the novel of subjectivity or the psychological novel. The phrase, “stream of consciousness” was first used by William James in his Principles of Psychology. 1890, to denote the chaotic flow of impressions and sensations through the human consciousness. Dorothy Richardson in England, James Joyce in Ireland and Proust in France are the chief architects of the novel of subjectivity, and Virginia Woolf is the novelist who imparted form and discipline to it and thus made it a: popularly accepted art-form.

      Formative Influences: The New Concept of Time: The rise of “The Stream of Consciousness Novel”, in the early twenties is but a reflection of the increasing inwardness of life, consequent upon the break-down of accepted values with the turn of the century, a process which was accelerated by the outbreak of the world war. Giving an account of the various influences which led to the rise of the psychological novel, David Daiches writes, “Two other factors in addition to the breakdown of a public sense of significance help to produce what we have called the modem novel. One is the new concept of time as continuous flow, rather than as a series of separate points a concept independently enunciated in France, in Henri Bergson concept of la duree, and in America by William James with his interest in the continuity of consciousness.” Bergsonian ideas about time were in the air in the 1920’s and influenced even those writers who had not read Bergson. It led to a suspicion of the old kind of plot which carried the characters forward from moment to moment, in a precise chronological sequence, and there developed instead the kind of narrative texture that moved backward and forward with a new freedom to try to capture the sense of time, as it actually operates in the human awareness of it. Closely linked to this new view of time was the new view of consciousness deriving in a general way from the work of Freud and Jung, but concentrating on the fact of the multiplicity of consciousness, the presence in the given consciousness, of all it had ever experienced and perhaps also of all that the race had experienced. The individual personality is the sum of the individual’s memories, and to regard the past as something to be recalled by a conscious effort of memory is in this view to do violence to the facts of experience. The past exists always in the present coloring and determining the nature of the present response, and to tell the truth about a character’s reaction to any situation we must tell the whole truth about everything that has ever happend to him.

      The New Psychology: Among the psychologists, Bergson’s theory of time has been of far-reaching significance in this connection. He divided Time into (a) 'Inner time' or Duree or psychological time, and (b) clock time or mechanical time. Inner Time or Duree is conceived of as a flow, a continuous moving stream and the division into past, present, and future as artificial and mechanical. The past lives on in the present, in memory and its consequences, and in this way it also shapes the future. Freud, Adler and Jung, on the other hand, studied the human consciousness and conceived of it as nothing static or fixed, but something in a state of flux, constantly changing and becoming different, in response to sensations and emotions received from out-side. It was conceived of as chaotic, a welter of sensations and emotions, feelings and desires and memories. There were deeper and deeper probings into the human consciousness by these psychologists. Their researches revealed that there are layers within layers in the human consciousness. Beneath the conscious, there is the subconscious, and then there is the unconscious. The past lives on in the subconscious and the unconscious and is brought up to the conscious level through memory and recollection. The conscious is only a very small part of the human psyche or soul. Human actions are determined more by the subconscious, and the unconscious, than by the conscious. Hence it is that there is so much of the irrational and the emotional in human conduct. Freud; particularly, tried to account for neuroses and other abnormalities by His theory of sexual inhibition and frustration. His concepts like, mother-fixation or father fixation or 'Oedipus complex' have been freely Exploited by the modern writers of what has been called the psycho-analytical novel. The stream of consciousness novel carries the impress of all these theories.

      Definitions and Explanations: The stream of consciousness novel has been variously defined by various writers. Thus H.J. Muller is of the view that the new novel is, “a withdrawal from external phenomena into the flickering half—shades of the author’s private world.” This definition emphasizes the inwardness of the novel of subjectivity. Robert Humphrey defines it as “a type of fiction in which the basic emphasis is placed on exploration of the pre-speech levels of consciousness for the purposes primarily of revealing the psychic being of the characters.” E. Bowling subscribes to the same view by describing it as, “a direct quotation of the. mind—not merely of the language area but of the whole consciousness” According to this view the Stream of Consciousness Novel deals with the pre-speech level of incoherence in human consciousness with a view to analyzing human nature.

      Interior Monologue: Dajaurdin, the well known French novelist, used the word “Interior monologue” for the stream of consciousness technique, and defined it as, “the speech of a character in a scene, having for its object the direct introduction of the reader into the inner life of a character, without an intervention by way of explanation or commentary on the part of the author; like other monologues, it has theoretically no organization in these respects: in the matter of content, it is the expression of the most intimate thoughts, those which lie nearest the unconscious, in its nature it is a speech which precedes logical organization, reproducing the intimate thoughts just as they are born and just as they come; as for form, it employs direct sentences reduced to the syntactical minimum, thus in general it fulfills the same requirement as we make today for poetry”. The interior monologue, thus, is a technical device to enable the reader to enter the inner life of a character straight away. Thus in this kind of novel the reader is taken directly into the mind of a character and is given a peep into his soul. The omniscient author is still there, but once he has placed his readers within the pre-speech level of consciousness of his characters, he withdraws himself and so allows them to watch the flow of sensations and impressions as they arise without any logical organization. In this connection, writes David Daiches, “The technique Dorothy Richardson or Virginia Woolf or James Joyce is, in this respect, no more real than any other: it is a convention like other conventions and it depends on our acceptance of the author’s omniscience with no limitation whatsoever; but once the convention is
accepted, it makes possible the presentation of aspects of personality, and of states of mind which were not possible in fiction, utilizing other techniques and other conventions.”

      The ‘Psyche’: Its Nature: The aim of the modern psychological novelist is to render the soul or psyche truthfully and realistically, and with this end in view he uses the stream of consciousness technique. The human psyche is not a simple entity functioning logically and rationally, in a predictable manner. Modern psychology conceives it as a vast fluid, or even vaporous mass. As J. W. Beach tells us, the human soul has “For the most part, no identity at all, but is a kind of dreaming welter of sensations and reactions, so instantaneous and spontaneous that we never become conscious of them. In many respects the soul is not individualized as belonging to this or that ego, but is a mere jet of the vitality common to our race or Sex or social group. Our consciousness which is a small part of the soul, does not proceed logically or coherently, except at certain times and for certain periods, under the pressure of some urgent practical need. For the most part, it follows an association of ideas so freakish that we cannot chart its progress, running off constantly into what seem irrelevancies as judged by reference to any recognized, dominant interest. The soul is supremely indifferent to past and future, near and far.”

      The Technique of Rendering It: The ‘stream of consciousness’ novelists are as much concerned as the old ones with the psyche, it being the focus of life experience. Only, with their modem conception of the psyche, they grow more and more impatient of the quaint little patterns into which the old psychological novelists had tried to force this protean creature, and their disposition to ignore all sorts of things that go to make up human personality. And the new writers have felt the need to break up these conventional patterns. They have wanted new technical devices, new procedures, for rendering the psyche.

      Decay of Plot and Character: In other words, the psychological novel represents a reaction against the well-made novel of the 19 th century. Its tendency, according to J.W. Beach, is towards deformalisation. Both plot and character in the conventional sense have decayed in the novel of subjectivity. There is no set description of character as in the older novel; there is a shift from the externals to the inner-self of the various personages. There is no plot construction in the sense of a logical arrangement of incidents and events, leading chronologically to a catastrophe or denouement. The action moves backward and forward in time. In the words of Mrs. Woolf, “in the novel of subjectivity, there is no plot, no character, no tragedy, no comedy, and no love-interest as in the traditional novel”. The stream of consciousness novelists, “Instead of concentration around a limited issue, show an eccentric tendency, a tendency to fly off in many different directions. Instead of continuity of action, they have a tendency to discontinuity.”

      A continuous action seems to them too unlike ordinary experience, with its freakish, accidental interruptions, its overlapping of time and circumstance. They feel that the sense of life is often best rendered by an abrupt passing from one series of events, one group of characters, one center of consciousness, to another. Moreover, they don’t particularly care about neatly finishing off a given action, following it through to the fall of the curtain. As the eye, from a line of spaced dots and dashes has the faculty of supplying what is not there and tracing an uninterrupted line, in the same way the imagination has the faculty of filling up the gaps in an action presented in fragments, of getting the impression of an entire life from a mere hint in indication of the high moments. Again, they feel that the imagination is stimulated and rendered more active, is actually exhilarated, by broken bits of information, as the nerves are stimulated by the discontinuity of an electric current. Thus their technique conforms more closely to the actual thought process, which is made up of a flux of sensations and impressions, than does a connected chain of logical reasoning.

      Mrs. Woolf's Contribution: The novelists of this school care a fig for a closed and compact plot. The result is that the novel in their hands is often incoherent and shapeless, and creates unsurmountable difficulties for the readers. The irrational and the chaotic in the human consciousness is rendered, and the readers get no guidance or help from the novelist. So they often find works like Ulysses unreadable, freakish and eccentric, and condemn them as stunt literature. In this connection, Mrs. Woolf’s contribution is of far-reaching significance. The credit of imparting form and discipline to the chaotic psychological novel, and making it acceptable, must go to her. Thus Mrs. Dalloway is a psychological novel par excellence, and yet it has a well marked form and pattern. There is a close confrontation of clock time and dinner time, and the transitions from the past to the present, and from one consciousness to another, are controlled by emotional or associational links. She has put up enough signposts for the guidance of her readers, despite her theory that life is, “not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged, but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope.”

      Characterization: Greater Realism: The stream of consciousness technique is a way of rendering the psyche or soul of the characters, accurately and realistically, and the soul, the inner reality, cannot be judged by what a character says or does. Words and deeds of a person are often conventional, fear of social censure represses the inner reality. Hence to know a character really and truthfully, we must know what is happening inside his mind, we must plunge into his pre-speech level of consciousness, and see what sensations and impressions are floating there, uncontrolled and unorganized. Besides this, we must know the characters not only as they are in the present, but also as they were in the past. We must see them at crucial moments in their lives, for it is such moments which shape and influence the present and the future. “Stream of consciousness technique provides a way of presenting character outside time and place, in the double sense that, first it separates the presentation of consciousness from the chronological sequence of events, and, secondly, it enables the quality of a given state of mind to be investigated so completely, by means of pursuing to their end the remote mental associations and suggestions, that we do not need to wait for me to make the potential actual, before we can see the whole” (David Daiches). The result is an enormous gain in immediately and intensity, a character so portrayed is more graphic, accurate and realistic.

      Skillful Manipulation of Time: This pre-occupation with the psyche, rather than with the externals of character, also accounts for the pre-occupation of this kind of hovel with time. The action moves backward and forwards freely in time; there is no chronological, forward movement, but a zig-zag, sinuous movement, from the past to the present, and from the present to the past. The remarks of David Daiches in this connection are interesting: “The Stream of Consciousness technique is a means of escape from the tyranny of the time dimension. It is not only in distinct memories that the past impinges on the present but also in much vaguer and more subtle ways, our mind floating off down some channel, superficially irrelevant but really having a definite starting-off place from the initial situation; so that in presenting the character’s reactions to events, the author will show us states of mind being modified by associations and recollections deriving from the present situation, but referring to a constantly shifting series of events in the past.” Mrs. Woolf has shown great skill in the manipulation of Time in Mrs. Dalloway. The clock time is merely a single day in the life of the heroine, but in the consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway we move freely in Time and Space, and in this way is built up a perfectly credible and rounded personality. “We either stand still in time and are led to contemplate diverse but contemporaneous events in space or we standstill in space and are allowed to move up and down in the consciousness of one individual. At one point, we are halted in a London street to take a peep into the consciousness of a variety of people who are all on the spot at the same moment in the same place, and at another, we are halted within the consciousness of one individual, moving up and down in time within the limits of one individual’s memory.”

      Its Future: The stream of consciousness novel arose to meet the needs of a new age. Pre-occupation with Time, subjectivity, inwardness, absence of action, plot and catastrophe, and the delineation of the sub-conscious, are some of the more important traits of this novel. The technique of using the interior monologue for presenting the human soul, is not an entirely new invention of the 20th century. As Robert Humphrey points out, it is foreshadowed in the novels of Richardson, Sterne, Smollett, George Eliot and many others. But as a conscious technique it was used on a large scale only under the impact of the teachings of modem psychologists. It enjoyed its heydey from 1915 to 1941, and some of the greatest and most original men of letters both in England and Europe and America were among its practitioners. Some critics think that this type of novel has only a limited future, because it is shapeless, and makes excessive demands upon the reader. However, the genre had been assimilated into the main current of English fiction, and serious fiction is never likely to return again to the older tradition.

      Lawrence’s Criticism of It: D.H. Lawrence is one of those writers who have strongly criticized the stream of consciousness novel. In one of his letters he wrote that the “Stream of Consciousness Novel” means the death of the serious novel. He charged Proust, James Joyce, and Dorothy Richardson with magnifying the trivial and writing novels which are unreadable. He said that such novels lack substantial action and plot, they are too much Water-Jelly, i.e. shapeless and formless, and that they require surgical operation, i.e. much pruning and excision to become novels in the real sense of the term.

      Lawrence and the psycho-analytical novel: Such vehement criticism would, quite naturally, make us think that D.H. Lawrence had nothing to do with the novel of subjectivity. But nothing can be farther from the truth. He could not remain uninfluenced by the psychological theories of Freud and his followers and Bergson’s conception of Time. He evinces keen interest in the study of the human consciousness, and in Freud’s theories of sex-repression, inhibition, and the consequent neurosis. Freud’s concept of the Oedipus Complex appealed to him, and he is the first writer of the psycho-analytical novel in the English language. His Sons and Lovers is the first English novel which depicts the harmful effects of mother-fixation.

      Writing many years before James Joyce, Lawrence uses impressionistic and symbolistic techniques to depict the human psyche. It is, “the shimmeriness of life”, thewery sensation of living, and not the dead outer crust, which he seeks to convey, and this makes him, says, J.W. Beach, before James Joyce, the most notable exemplar of the reaction against the well-made novel. As his powers matured, and he gained in self-confidence, he concentrated more and more on the rendering of the real, feel of things, rather than their dramatic shape, the hard stiff outer crust. He is more interested in the inner emotional and spiritual life of his characters, and his novel technique is aimed at depicting this inner world. There are traditional elements in his novels, the story moves forward chronologically, and the various events are linked up causally. But judged from the traditional standards, his novels seem loose and episodic in construction. This is so because the real links in his novels are emotional, and not logical or chronological. As in the psychological novel, the action moves from the consciousness of one character to another, from the present to the past, from the internal to the external, and vice-versa. In this way, his characters are emotionally connected with their past, with the other characters, and with the outer world. In this way, he conveys a complex of human relationships which he considers essential for individual fulfillment. The Life-stream flows from one character to another, this flow is the essence, the reality, and D.H. Lawrence depicts this flow by the use of impressionistic technique. In Sons and Lovers, a great many years in Paul Morel’s life are touched upon, but in terms of certain complex relationship which expand and contract, rather than change. In his novels, houses move, fields flow, flowers grow, trees wave, nature objects seem to have an existence of their own, and there is flow of life between the human and the non-human.

      Thus even those, who are critical of the new novel, have been considerably influenced by the new technologies and new theories. The new techniques may be modified but they would continue to influence and mold the novel-form in times to come.

      The Novelists of this Genre: Dorothy Richardson, Mary Sinclair, Virginia Woolf are all novelists of the ‘Stream of Consciousness Novel’ though Joyce is perhaps its most famous exponent. Dorothy Richardson flicks a delicate glove in the face of the reading public through her novels - Pointed Roofs, 1915, Backwater, 1916, Honey-comb 1917, The Tunnel, 1919 Interim, 1919, Dead-lock, 1921, Revolving Lights 1923, The Trap, 1925, Oberland, 1927, Dawn's Left Hand, 1931. All the ten novels constitute one series entitled Pilgrimage, and give us a number of spiritual adventures of a young English woman, Miriam Henderson, a schoolmistress in Hanover, through the medium of her own mind. Dorothy Richardson’s method admits no reflection upon experience, no molding of it into form. She is concerned not with describing consciousness, but with seeking words to embody it. There is no consecutive and connected story, and no selection of incident for the core of climax it may contain. Whatever happens derives its value from the mere fact of Miriam Henderson’s awareness and interest. “Her work with the novel”, in the words of a critic, “is a supreme illustration of the scepticism of modem life which denies significance to reality, form to experience, and asserts the principle of Heracleitus— ‘All is in flux, nothing remains fixed.’

      May Sinclair is the champion of the novel of psycho-analysis. An eclectic novelist, her novels reflect the changing social attitudes and technical resources of the new century. The Divine Fire, 1904, The Helpmate, 1907, The Judgment of Eve, 1908, The Combined Maze, 1913, The Three Sisters, 1914, The Tree of Heaven, 1917, The Romantic, 1920, Mr. Waddington to Wyck, 1921, Anne Severn and the Fieldings, 1922, Arnold Waterlow, 1924, The Rector of Wyck 1925, and The Allinghams, 1927,—all present society as suffering from neuroses similar to those of its members, and reacting miserably upon the individual. “As a whole, Miss Sinclair novels represent the revolt against the Victorian conception of the family, against the egoism of fatherhood and motherhood, against the religious sections and ideals of renunciation which destroy the individual.” Her technique is the result of many influences, the Freudian method of psycho-analysis being the most important. Approaching the normal through the abnormal, she builds up her situations on complexes, unfulfilled desires, compensations, frustrations, wish fulfillments, and dreams. Mrs. Virginia Woolf, author of The Voyage Out (1915), Night and Day (1919), Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925) To The Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931) The Years (1936), has poetry and subtlety as her characteristics. And both these are the result of sensibilities which connect the inner life with external manifestations, especially the manifestations of impersonal nature. In the words of Dorothy M. Hoare (in her Some Studies in the Modern Novel, 1938), — “in Virginia Woolf’s work there is both a critical intelligence sufficiently in control to order the multiplicity of impressions into an artistic unity. The advantage of her subtle method is that it comes closer to the actual experience; the danger is that it may, as I think it does in The Waves, cause
the experience to assume more significance than it actually holds. There is also the danger of completion. For once this method is perfected, there only remains to record, and the record of anyone person, however sensitive, must be limited to the consciousness of his consciousness.” Mrs. Woolf does not believe in ‘life-like’ novels, nor in the tyrant plot, nor in the conventional comedy, tragedy and love interest of fiction. Is life like this?—Must novels be like this?— she asks in her essay on Modern Fiction, and answers: “Look within, and life, it seems, is very far from being 'like this' ...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. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumcised spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff for fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.” This is a clever but partisan argument. Her own novels contain the courage and sincerity she pleads for. But as her deviation from convention is too drastic, her doom is the coterie—though she may have the reward of a satisfied conscience.

      Not the above named novelists, however, but James Joyce it is that is the biggest noise in modem English fiction. The sensation he has created in novel-dom is similar to the one that an enraged bull creates in a china shop. His admirers have acclaimed him as the apostle of a new type of fiction, while his critics have denounced him as a pretentious tomfool. Joyce’s Ulysses has been hailed by his friends as a monumental work, as an epoch-making novel; others, have called it a dustbin into which are thrown pell-mell—scrap-ends of language, philosophy, psychology, religion, magic, history, symbolism and whatnot. Gerald Gould calls it — “a book almost exactly like the London Telephone Directory in size and weight, and only slightly less monotonous in style.” Finnegans Wake (1939), the last novel of James Joyce, is characterized by Robert Lynd as an “extraordinary philological fantasia— fantastic festival of word-collisions and memory-crashes.” I for Ivans, reviewing this novel in the Manchester Guardian confessed that it did not admit of review, and concluded by observing that Joyce alone could explain his book and that he alone could review it.

      An Irishman by birth, Joyce knew eighteen foreign languages in all. He published his first novel A Portrait of an Artist as a Young man, largely autobiographical, in 1916. His second novel Ulysses, which took him seven years to write, was published in Paris in 1922. It was banned in Great Britain and the United States, and became sensationally popular. It is said that he spent seventeen years in completing his last novel Finnegans Wake. This book is the nonplus ultra of the Joycean method in fiction. The novel contains Joyce’s vision of life with all its thrilling spectacle, its utter sordidness, its restless emotionalism and its somnambulant absurdity. Eschewing the traditional literary methods; Joyce adopts the Crocean method of expressionism—in clarifying to himself his own impressions of life and in shaping intuitively his stream of ideas into a whole, and afterward in translating the inner expressions into words. Impressionism, Expressionism, Imagism, Realism, Surrealism, Psycho-analysis, the stream-of-consciousness method—all are made use of by Joyce in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. One may not very much quarrel with Joyce for the material he chooses or the methods he adopts. But what about his experiments with language; itself? His last novel is not written in English, or in any other known language, but in a mixture of languages. Take this random example: Margaritomaney! Hyacinthus pervasiveness! Flowers. A cloud. But Bruto and Cassio are ware only of trifid tongues the whispered wilfulness (’tis demonal’) and shadows shadows multiplicating (il folsoletto nel falsoletto col fazzolotto dal fuzzolezzo) tokens, quotients, they tackle their quarrel.” What is one to make out of a passage like this?— and almost the whole novel is written in this manner. Ulysses attempts to reveal a day’s life of Leopold Bloom, a Dublin advertisement canvasser. Finnegans Wake is the story of an Irish contractor who fell and was stretched out for dead. When his friends toasted him he rose at the word ‘whisky’ and drank with them! But what a tortuous method! Plot, action coherence, Time and Space - are all annihilated. Thought and technique are tormented; ideas and words are twisted. The novel form itself is violently wrenched and stretched into a strange shape. The work of Joyce has experimental value, as gigantic efforts “to gather within the confines of the novel form the manifold and divergent aspects of life today, the content of human knowledge and content of the human mind, the interaction of one upon the other and the interactions of personalities - the lumber and elixir of contemporary life.

Previous Post Next Post