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A More Real Realism
Stream of Consciousness

A More Real Realism
  • The Principles of Psychology (by )
  • Ulysses (by )
  • To the Lighthouse (by )
  • Mrs. Dalloway (by )
  • Swann's Way (by )
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy... 
  • Hunger (by )
  • Pointed Roofs (by )
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At the turn of the 20th century, nearly all forms of expression opened their borders to experimentation. Literature was no exception. Most novels written prior represented human thought and interaction as straightforward, back-and-forth dialogue mixed with flat descriptions of place and people. This was reality on paper.

Those interested in pushing the boundaries thought reality should be represented otherwise. In 1890, psychologist William James marked this turn of thought in The Principles of Psychology:

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ' chain ' or ' train ' do not describe it fitly ... It is nothing jointed ; it flows. A ' river ' or a ' stream ' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described... let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life. (p. 239)

The expression of consciousness turned illusive, abstract, and staccato, full of chaotic billows and half-thoughts constantly bumping into one another, and all built upon a mishmash foundation of words, images, and cinematic reels. It mixed the self, the trained, physical senses, and the pure facts of the environment. Aware of this constantly changing cocktail of influences, James describes it as a stream: "No state of mind can recur and be identical with what it was before ... Not to have a succession of different feelings is to not be conscious at all." (p.230)
Modern literature found itself in the same stream. With the aim of portraying the entirety of the mind as it worked through one moment, James Joyce created one of the most well known stream of consciousness novels, Ulysses. In it, Joyce narrates a passage where Molly tries to sleep:

... a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose they’re just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus they’ve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early … (p. 576)

Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust—contemporaries and literary visionaries in their own rights—formed their own interpretations of the stream of consciousness style in To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and In Search of Lost Time. Joyce, Woolf, and Proust are generally credited as the first modern stream of consciousness writers, but critics note precursors of the style in books like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, and Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson.

By Thad Higa

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