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Stream Of Consciousness Narrative Example Essays

For other uses, see Stream of consciousness (disambiguation).

This article is about the literary device. For the prewriting technique, see Free writing.

In literary criticism, stream of consciousness is a narrative mode or method that attempts to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind.[1] The term was coined by William James in 1890 in his The Principles of Psychology, and in 1918 the novelist May Sinclair (1863–1946) first applied the term stream of consciousness, in a literary context, when discussing Dorothy Richardson's (1873–1957) novels. Pointed Roofs (1915), the first work in Richardson's series of 13 semi-autobiographical novels titled Pilgrimage,[2] is the first complete stream of consciousness novel published in English. However, in 1934, Richardson comments that "Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf & D.R. ... were all using 'the new method', though very differently, simultaneously".[3] There were, however, many earlier precursors and the technique is still used by contemporary writers.


Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that attempts to give the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue (see below), or in connection to his or her actions. Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative leaps in thought and lack of some or all punctuation.[4] Stream of consciousness and interior monologue are distinguished from dramatic monologue and soliloquy, where the speaker is addressing an audience or a third person, which are chiefly used in poetry or drama. In stream of consciousness the speaker's thought processes are more often depicted as overheard in the mind (or addressed to oneself); it is primarily a fictional device.

The term "stream of consciousness" was coined by philosopher and psychologistWilliam James in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits ... it is nothing joined; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let's call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.[5]

In the following example of stream of consciousness from James Joyce's Ulysses, Molly seeks sleep:

a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve 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 [6]

Interior monologue[edit]

While many sources use the terms stream of consciousness and interior monologue as synonyms, the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms suggests, that "they can also be distinguished psychologically and literarily. In a psychological sense, stream of consciousness is the subject‐matter, while interior monologue is the technique for presenting it". And for literature, "while an interior monologue always presents a character's thoughts 'directly', without the apparent intervention of a summarizing and selecting narrator, it does not necessarily mingle them with impressions and perceptions, nor does it necessarily violate the norms of grammar, or logic- but the stream‐of‐consciousness technique also does one or both of these things."[7] Similarly the Encyclopædia Britannica Online, while agreeing that these terms are "often used interchangeably", suggests, that "while an interior monologue may mirror all the half thoughts, impressions, and associations that impinge upon the character's consciousness, it may also be restricted to an organized presentation of that character's rational thoughts".[8]


Beginnings to 1900[edit]

While the use of the narrative technique of stream of consciousness is usually associated with modernist novelists in the first part of the twentieth-century, a number of precursors have been suggested, including Laurence Sterne's psychological novelTristram Shandy (1757).[9] It has been suggested that Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) foreshadows this literary technique in the nineteenth-century.[10] Poe's story is a first person narrative, told by an unnamed narrator who endeavors to convince the reader of his sanity, while describing a murder he committed. and it is often read as a dramatic monologue.[11] George R. Clay notes that Leo Tolstoy "when the occasion requires it ... applies Modernist stream of consciousness technique" in both War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878).[12] The short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) by another American author, Ambrose Bierce, also abandons strict linear time to record the internal consciousness of the protagonist.[13] Because of his renunciation of chronology in favor of free association, Édouard Dujardin's Les Lauriers sont coupés (1887) is also an important precursor. Indeed, the possibility of a direct influence is evoqued by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and having "picked up a copy of Dujardin's novel ... in Paris in 1903".[14]

There are also those who point to Anton Chekhov's short stories and plays (1881-1904)[15] and Knut Hamsun's Hunger (1890), and Mysteries (1892) as offering glimpses of the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative technique at the end of the nineteenth-century.[16] While Hunger is widely seen as a classic of world literature and a groundbreaking modernist novel, Mysteries is also considered a pioneer work. It has been claimed that Hamsun was way ahead of his time with the use of stream of consciousness in two chapters in particular of this novel.[17][18] British author Robert Ferguson said: “There’s a lot of dreamlike aspects of Mysteries. In that book ... it is ... two chapters, where he actually invents stream of consciousness writing, in the early 1890s. This was long before Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.” [18]Henry James has also been suggested as a significant precursor, in a work as early as Portrait of a Lady (1881).[19] It has been suggested that he influenced later stream of consciousness writers, including Virginia Woolf, who not only read some of his novels but also wrote essays about them.[20]

However, it has also been argued that Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), in his short story '"Leutnant Gustl" ("None but the Brave", 1900), was in fact the first to make full use of the stream of consciousness technique.[21]

Early Twentieth century[edit]

But it is only in the twentieth-century that this technique is fully developed by modernists. Marcel Proust is often presented as an early example of a writer using the stream of consciousness technique in his novel sequence À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927) (In Search of Lost Time), but Robert Humphrey comments, that Proust "is concerned only with the reminiscent aspect of consciousness" and, that he "was deliberately recapturing the past for the purpose of communicating; hence he did not write a stream-of consciousness novel".[22] Novelist John Cowper Powys also argues that Proust did not use stream of consciousness: "while we are told what the hero thinks or what Swann thinks we are told this rather by the author than either by the 'I' of the story or by Charles Swann."[23]

The term was first applied in a literary context in The Egoist, April 1918, by May Sinclair, in relation to the early volumes of Dorothy Richardson's novel sequencePilgrimage. Richardson, however, describes the term as an 'lamentably ill-chosen metaphor".[24]

James Joyce was a major pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness. Some hints of this technique, are already present in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), along with interior monologue, and references to a character's psychic reality rather than to his external surroundings.[25] Joyce began writing A Portrait in 1907 and it was first serialised in the English literary magazine The Egoist in 1914 and 1915. Earlier in 1906 Joyce, when working on Dubliners, considered adding another story featuring a Jewish advertising canvasser called Leopold Bloom under the title Ulysses. Although he did not pursue the idea further at the time, he eventually commenced work on a novel using both the title and basic premise in 1914. The writing was completed in October 1921. Serial publication of Ulysses in the magazine The Little Review began in March 1918. Ulysses was finally published in 1922. In his final work Finnegans Wake (1939) Joyce's method of stream of consciousness, literary allusions and free dream associations was pushed to the limit in, which abandoned all conventions of plot and character construction and is written in a peculiar and obscure English, based mainly on complex multi-level puns.

Another early example is the use of interior monologue by T. S. Eliot in his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), a dramatic monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action,"[26] a work probably influenced by the narrative poetry of Robert Browning, including "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister".[27]

1923 to 2000[edit]

Prominent uses in the years that followed the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, include Italo Svevo, La coscienza di Zeno (1923),[28]Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929).[29] Though Randell Stevenson suggests, that "interior monologue, rather than stream of consciousness, is the appropriate term for the style in which [subjective experience] is recorded, both in The Waves and in Woolf's writing generally.[30] Throughout Mrs Dalloway Woolf blurs the distinction between direct and indirect speech, freely alternating her mode of narration between omniscient description, indirectinterior monologue, and soliloquy.[31]

Samuel Beckett, a friend of James Joyce, uses interior monologue in novels like Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies) and L'innommable (1953: The Unnamable). and the short story "From an Abandoned Work" (1957).[32]

The technique continued to be used into the 1970s in a novel such as Robert Anton Wilson/Robert Shea collaborative Illuminatus! (1975), with regard to which The Fortean Times warns readers, to "[b]e prepared for streams of consciousness in which not only identity but time and space no longer confine the narrative".[33]

Scottish writer James Kelman's novels are known for mixing stream of consciousness narrative with Glaswegian vernacular. Examples include The Busconductor Hines, A Disaffection and How Late It Was, How Late.[34]

With regard to Salman Rushdie one critic comments, that "[a]ll Rushdie's novels follow an Indian/Islamic storytelling style, a stream-of-consciousness narrative told by a loquacious young Indian man".[35]

Other writers who use this narrative device include Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar (1963)[36] and Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting (1993).[37]

Stream of consciousness continues to appear in contemporary literature. Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), according to one reviewer, "talks much as he writes – a forceful stream of consciousness, thoughts sprouting in all directions".[38] Novelist John Banville describes Roberto Bolaño's novel Amulet (1999), as written in "a fevered stream of consciousness".[39]

Twenty-first century[edit]

The twenty-first century brought further exploration, including Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated (2002) and many of the short stories of American author Brendan Connell,[40][41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms. (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books,1984), pp. 660-1).
  2. ^Joanne Winning (2000). The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson. Univ of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-17034-9. 
  3. ^In a letter to the bookseller and publisher Sylvia BeachWindows of Modernism: Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson, ed. Gloria G. Fromm Athens, Georgia, University of Georgia Press, 1995, 282.
  4. ^For example, both Beckett and Joyce omitted full stops and paragraph breaks, but while Joyce also omitted apostrophes, Beckett left them in.
  5. ^(I, pp.239-43) quoted in Randall Stevenson, Modernist Fiction: An Introduction. (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky, 1992), p. 39.
  6. ^Joyce p. 642 (Bodley Head edition (1960), p. 930).
  7. ^ed. Chris Baldick, Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2009, p. 212.
  8. ^"interior monologue." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 24 Sep. 2012.
  9. ^J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 661
  10. ^"The Tell-Tale Heart - story by Poe". 
  11. ^"Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - The Life and Writings of Edgar Allan Poe". 
  12. ^The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, edited Donna Tussing Orwin. Cambridge University Press, 2002
  13. ^Khanom, Afruza. "Silence as Literary Device in Ambrose Bierce's 'The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.' Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. Spring 6.1 (2013): 45-52. Print.
  14. ^Randell StevensonJ Modernist Fiction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992, p. 227, fn 14; J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms, p. 661.
  15. ^James Wood, "Ramblings". London Review of Books. Vol.22, no. 11, 1 June 2000, pp. 36-7.
  16. ^James Wood. "Addicted to Unpredictability." November 26, 1998. London Review of Books. November 8, 2008
  17. ^"Martin Humpál: Hamsun's modernism - Hamsunsenteret - Hamsunsenteret". 
  18. ^ abInterview with Robert Ferguson in the second episode of the documentary television series Guddommelig galskap - Knut Hamsun
  19. ^M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), p. 299.
  20. ^Woolf (March 2003)A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Harcourt. pp. 33, 39–40, 58, 86, 215, 301, 351.
  21. ^"stream of consciousness - literature". 
  22. ^Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California, 1954), p. 4.
  23. ^"Proust". Enjoyment of Literature, New York: Simon and Schuster, , p. 498
  24. ^"Novels", Life and Letters, 56, March 1948, p. 189.
  25. ^Deming, p. 749.
  26. ^McCoy, Kathleen, and Harlan, Judith. English Literature From 1785 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 265–66. ISBN 006467150X
  27. ^William Harmon & C. Holman, A Handbook to Literature (7th edition). (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1996), p. 272.
  28. ^[untitled review], Beno Weiss, Italica, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), p. 395.
  29. ^Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p. 212.
  30. ^Modernist Fiction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992, p. 55; Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p. 212.
  31. ^Dowling, David (1991). Mrs Dalloway: Mapping Streams of Consciousness. Twayne Publishers. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-8057-9414-4. 
  32. ^Karine Germoni, '"From Joyce to Beckett: The Beckettian Dramatic Interior Monologue'". Journal of Beckett Studies, Spring 2004, Vol. 13, issue 2.
  33. ^The Fortean Times, issue 17 (August 1976), pp. 26–27.
  34. ^Giles Harvey, "Minds Are The Strangest Thing". The New Yorker, May 20, 2013.
  35. ^John C. Hawley, Encyclopedia Of Postcolonial Studies (Westport: Greenwood, 2001), p. 384.
  36. ^American Literature, Vol. 65, No. 2, Jun. 1993, p. 381.
  37. ^Sarah Keating, "Tales from the Other Side of the Track". Irish Times 3 May 2012.
  38. ^"The agony and the irony", Stephanie Merritt. The Observer, Sunday 14 May 2000.
  39. ^"Amulet by Roberto Bolaño", John Banville. The Guardian, Saturday 12 September 2009.
  40. ^"A nine-year-old and 9/11", Tim Adams The Observer, Sunday 29 May 2005
  41. ^Brendan Connell, The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children. Chomu Press, 2010.


  • Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, 1978.
  • Joyce, James. Ulysses, 1922; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
  • Friedman, Melvin. Stream of Consciousness: A Study in Literary Method, 1955.
  • Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel, 1954.
  • Randell, Stevenson. Modernist Fiction: An Introduction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992.
  • Sachs, Oliver. "In the River of Consciousness." New York Review of Books, 15 January 2004.
  • Shaffer, E.S. (1984). Comparative Criticism, Volume 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 119. Retrieved 12 Jan 2011. 
  • Tumanov, Vladimir. Mind Reading: Unframed Direct Interior Monologue in European Fiction. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1997. Googlebooks.
Cover of James Joyce's Ulysses (first edition, 1922), considered a prime example of stream of consciousness writing styles.

Stream of Consciousness Definition

In literature, stream of consciousness is a method of narration that describes happenings in the flow of thoughts in the minds of the characters.

The term was initially coined by psychologist William James in his research, The Principles of Psychology. He writes:

“… it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ is the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.”

Another appropriate term for this device is “interior monologue,” where the individual thought processes of a character, associated to his or her actions, are portrayed in the form of a monologue that addresses the character itself. Therefore, it is different from the “dramatic monologue” or “soliloquy,” where the speaker addresses the audience or the third person.

Examples of Stream of Consciousness in Literature

The stream of consciousness style of writing is marked by the sudden rise of thoughts and lack of punctuation. The use of this narration style is generally associated with the modern novelist and short story writers of the 20th century. Let us analyze a few examples of the stream of consciousness narrative technique in literature:

Example #1: Ulysses (By James Joyce)

James Joyce successfully employs the narrative mode in his novel Ulysses, which describes a day in the life of a middle-aged Jew, Mr. Leopold Broom, living in Dublin, Ireland. Read the following excerpt:

“He is young Leopold, as in a retrospective arrangement, a mirror within a mirror (hey, presto!), he beholdeth himself. That young figure of then is seen, precious manly, walking on a nipping morning from the old house in Clambrassil to the high school, his book satchel on him bandolier wise, and in it a goodly hunk of wheaten loaf, a mother’s thought.”

These lines reveal the thoughts of Bloom, as he thinks of the younger Bloom. The self-reflection is achieved by the flow of thoughts that takes him back to his past.

Example #2: Mrs. Dalloway (By Virginia Woolf)

Another 20th-century writer that followed James Joyce’s narrative method was Virginia Woolf. Let us read an excerpt from her novel Mrs. Dalloway:

“What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seemed to me when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which I can hear now, I burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as I then was) solemn, feeling as I did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen …”

By voicing her internal feelings, the Ms. Woolf gives freedom to the characters to travel back and forth in time. Mrs. Dalloway went out to buy flower for herself, and on the way her thoughts move through the past and present, giving us an insight into the complex nature of her character.

Example #3: The British Museum Is Falling Down (By David Lodge)

We notice the use of this technique in David Lodge’s novel The British Museum Is Falling Down. It is a comic novel that imitates the stream of consciousness narrative techniques of writers like Henry James, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of the novel:

“It partook, he thought, shifting his weight in the saddle, of metempsychosis, the way his humble life fell into moulds prepared by literature. Or was it, he wondered, picking his nose, the result of closely studying the sentence structure of the English novelists? One had resigned oneself to having no private language any more, but one had clung wistfully to the illusion of a personal property of events. A find and fruitless illusion, it seemed, for here, inevitably came the limousine, with its Very Important Personage, or Personages, dimly visible in the interior. The policeman saluted, and the crowd pressed forward, murmuring ‘Philip’, ‘Tony’, ‘Margaret’, ‘Prince Andrew’.”

We see the imitation of the typical structure of the stream-of-conscious narrative technique of Virginia Woolf. We notice the integration of the outer and inner realities in the passage that is so typical of Virginia Woolf, especially the induction of the reporting clauses “he thought,” and “he wondered,” in the middle of the reported clauses.

Function of Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a style of writing developed by a group of writers at the beginning of the 20th century. It aimed at expressing in words the flow of characters’ thoughts and feelings in their minds. The technique aspires to give readers the impression of being inside the minds of the characters. Therefore, the internal view of the minds of the characters sheds light on plot and motivation in the novel.