The Stream of Consciousness Technique of Virginia Woolf

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      Introduction: It is in the early part of the nineteenth century that ‘the stream-of-consciousness’ novel, a new literary genre, began to appear in the realm of English literature. It was William James who first used the phrase, ‘stream-of-consciousness’ in his Principles of Psychology in 1980 to denote the chaotic flow of impressions and sensations through the human consciousness. Then Freud’s writings began to appear in English translations shortly after 1910. The ideas of Bergson and William James also began to have their impact in England. According to William James, “Consciousness, in an amalgam of all that we have experienced and continue to experience. Every thought is a part of the personal consciousness: every thought is also unique and ever-changing. We seem to be selective in our thoughts, selectively attentive or inattentive focusing attention on certain objects and areas of experience, rejecting others, totally blocking others out. Experience is remolding us every moment and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a result of our experience of the whole world up to the moment”. And this is also true not only of ideas but also of sensory perception as consciousness registers them.

      Edwardians and Georgians: In fact the Edwardian writers saw people as simple, whole and definable, whereas the Georgians began to see them as complex, diverse and ineffable. The rise of this literary genre of the literary genre of ‘the stream-of-consciousness’ novel in the early twenties is but a reaction of the increasing inwardness of life consequent upon the breakdown accepted values with the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War accelerated this process. The Georgians realized that if they were to explore the new territories, they required new tools. The new perspective needed a new technique. Mrs. Dorothy, M. Richardson was no doubt, the pioneer in this field in England. But Virginia Woolf was the most important protagonist of this new literary genre. Of course this was not just confined to England. On the eve of the First World War, three novelists unknown to each other, began their epoch-making works destined to have enormous influence on the fiction of the century. In France Marcel Proust published the first two volumes of his Remembrance of This Past. And then in 1914 James Joyce, an Irishman, began publishing in serial form A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. And the third novelist was Miss Dorothy Richardson. So between 1913 and 1915 was born the new novel, the psychological novel or the novel of ‘the stream-of-consciousness’. And the great thing is that the three novelists turned fiction from the external to internal reality. All the three wrote from an acute need to pose inner problems and project their inner life before the world.

      Other Influences: We may now assert that modern psychological novel is ‘modern’ in that it reflects the deeper and more searching inwardness of our century. And, in fact, this turning inward was promoted by the writing of Bergson and Freud besides those of William James.

      Bergson and Theory of Time: The novelists of this new school were greatly influenced by Bergson who held that we all are remolded constantly by experience and our consciousness in a process of endless accretions as long as mind and sense are functioning. The continuation of an infinite past in the living present’ is always there. Bergson divided time into ‘Inner time’ or ‘Duree’; it may also be called psychological time. And the other is ‘Clock time’ or mechanical time. ‘Inner time’ is conceived as a flow, a continuous moving stream and hence the division into past, present and future as artificial and mechanical. In fact the past lives in the present, in memory and its consequences, and hence it also shapes the future. Hence in the psychological novels there is a preoccupation with time. So in this type of novel we find the action moving backward and forward freely in time. There is ho chronological forward movement which is a common feature of the traditional novel. There the movement is zig-zag, a sinuous movement from the past to the present, and from the present to the past. Thus we often find the novelists of this school making an hour seem like a week or a week he an hour. In this connection David Daiches’ comments are worth quoting: “The stream-of-consciousness technique is a means of escape from 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 reglly having a definite starting-off place from the initial situation, so that in presenting the character’s reaction 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”. And we find Mrs. Woolf showing great skill in the manipulation of time in her Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.

      Human Consciousness: Its Different Layers: The great psychologists like Freud, Adler and Jung probed deeper and deeper into the human consciousness. They studied it very carefully and conceived of it as nothing static or fixed. To them it was something in a state of flux, constantly changing and becoming different, in response to sensations and emotions received from outside. And then deeper probings and careful researches by them revealed that there were layers within layers in the human consciousness. Beneath the conscious, there is the sub-conscious, and then the unconscious. And the epoch-making revelation is that the past lives on in the subconscious and the unconscious and is brought up to the conscious level through memory and recollection. And the conscious is only a small part of the human psyche or soul. Hence human actions are bound to be determined more by the subconscious and the unconscious than by the conscious. Then Freud’s concepts like ‘mother-fixation’ or ‘father-fixation’ or ‘Oedipus complex’ have been freely exploited by the modern writers in their novels known as psycho-analytical novels. It may be noted that the stream-of-consciousness novel carries the impression of all these theories and the result of careful researches.

      More Interested in the Inner than in the Outer Life: The modern novelist of the new school is more interested in the inner than in the outer life of a character. And the aim of these writers is to render the soul or ‘psyche’ truthfully and realistically and hence they use the stream-of-consciousness technique. They know and so they want to show that the human psyche is not a simple entity functioning logically and rationally, in a predictable manner. Hence, in their novels, in place of external action and violent deeds, there is the interior monologue and there are the fluid mental states. The novelist creates a world of his own with its own laws. Hardly any climax or a turning point is to be found in the story. It is the penumbra of the mind which becomes important. Hence the modern novelists of this new school are spiritual, as opposed to the Edwardian novelists. Hence these type of novels have mainly as their essential subject-matter the consciousness of one or more characters. The depicted consciousness serves as a screen on which the material in these novels is presented. There is very little of external action. But in its place we get the interior monologue an the fluid mental states-existing simultaneously at a number of points in a person’s total experience.

      Interior Monologue: The interior monologue is, in fact, an integral part of the novels of this new literary genre. This internal or interior monologue is the silent speech of a given character, designed to introduce us directly into the internal life of the character without the author’s intervention to explain or to comment. A well-known French novelist 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 an expression of the most intimate thoughts, those which he 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 fulfils the same requirement as we make today for poetry. Thus we may say that this is a new technical device that enables the reader to enter the inner life of a character straight away and to watch the flow of sensations and impressions as they rise without any logical organization.

      Plot and Character: In the psychological novel there is hardly any plot or story. Both plot and character in the conventional sense have decayed in the, novels of this new genre. There is no set description of characters as in the older novel; there is a shift from the externals to the inner self of various personages. And then there is no plot-construction in the sense of a logical arrangement of incidents and events, leading chronologically to a catastrophe or denouement. And according to Virginia Woolf herself, in the novel of subjectivity there is no plot, no character, no tragedy, no comedy, and no love-interest as in the traditional novel. That is why she abandoned the convention of story for the same reason that she abandoned the convention of character drawing; neither of them could be made to express life as she saw it. She ceased to draw characters in outline, she ceased to sum up men and women or to give her reader the illusion that they could be covered with a formula, or that their identity was constant or definable. As in her conception of human personality, so in her conception of human experience, continuity and fluidity is emphasized rather than boundary or definition. To the writers of this school a continuous action seems too unlike ordinary experience, with its freakish accidental interruptions, its overlapping of time and circumstance. According to them 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. Hence they don’t particularly care about neatly finishing off a given action, following it through to the fall of the curtain. They also 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 the technique of these writers 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. In addition, their purpose is to turn the reader into an author by removing themselves from the scene. It was for achieving a full measure of realism that the novelist left the characters alone to put forth their mind. It was an attempt to document the whole world of the sense in a minute and to catch fugitive thoughts in their progress through the mind-catch them as Joyce did in Ulysses in their movement or flux. For the first time these writers were trying to find words that would convey elusive and evanescent thought. They were seeking to express, moreover, the images of the inner world of fantasy, fusing with sounds and smell, the world of perceptual experience. So it must be carefully noted that the stream-of-consciousness technique is a way of rendering the ‘psyche’ or the soul of the characters, accurately and realistically. And to know a character really or 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.

      Mrs. Woolf and The Stream of Consciousness Novel: Undoubtedly Dorothy Richardson is the English writer who is the pioneer in this field and who presents stream-of-consciousness writing at its purest. But among the stream of conspicuous novelists in England, Virginia Woolf is the most important name. Mrs. Richardson’s work is in fact unbearably diffuse and an average reader finds her almost unbearable. In contrast with her Mrs. Woolf can tightly organize a novel. She realized that the tools and established conventions of the Edwardian novelists would mean sure ruin for the novelists of the new generation and hence she made continued experiments with the form of the novel. Her chief purpose was to record what life like to living beings and then to communicate the impression made by one individual upon another. She also aimed at revealing the human personality partly through its own self-consciousness and partly through the picture projected by it on other minds. But she knew that art implies selection and ordering of materials. Hence she did not follow her theory in every detail in her great novels like Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse. There is definitely some form or pattern and some inner unity in these novels. Most of the novelists of this school hardly cared for a closed and compact plot. As a result the novel in their hand became very often incoherent and shapeless and made unbearable for most of the readers. That is why they find even great works like Ulysses unreadable, freakish and eccentric. But the credit of imparting form and discipline to the chaotic novel of this genre and making it acceptable to the average reader must go to Virginia Woolf whose contribution in this field is of far-reaching consequence. Of course the influence of Joyce and Bergson is considerable. But she is by no means a blind imitator of the great masters of the new technique or the psychologists who furnished the theoretical framework for the stream-of-consciousness novel. Her essential method is her own. That is why we find that the novelist is playing the role of a central intelligence in her outstanding novels and is constantly busy, organizing the material and illuminating it by frequent comments. In fact Virginia Woolf was a great experimenter. She experimented with many methods and gave to ‘the stream-of-consciousness’ technique so many twists and turns and finally achieved her complete success in Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Unquestionably she was a professional, evolving new form of fiction and creating a masterpiece in it. Thus, for all her brilliant achievements in this literary, genre of the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novel Virginia Woolf is the most important name among the novelists of the new school. And that is why Virginia Woolf belongs to literature and Miss Dorothy Richardson along with many other writers of this genre to the history of literature.

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