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Stream of Consciousness is a literary technique which was pioneered by Dorthy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Stream of consciousness is characterized by a flow of thoughts and images, which may not always appear to have a coherent structure or cohesion. The plot line may weave in and out of time and place, carrying the reader through the life span of a character or further along a timeline to incorporate the lives (and thoughts)of characters from other time periods.
Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative leaps in syntax and punctuation that can make the prose difficult to follow. Stream of consciousness and interior monologue are distinguished from dramatic monologue, where the speaker is addressing an audience or a third person, and is used chiefly 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 was introduced to the field of literary studies from that of psychology, where it was coined by philosopher and psychologist William James.
Dorothy Miller Richardson (17 May 1873 – 17 June 1957) was the first writer to publish an English-language novel using what was to become known as the stream-of-consciousness technique. Her thirteen novel sequence Pilgrimage is one of the great 20th century works of modernist and feminist literature in English.
Throughout her career, Richardson published large numbers of essays, poems, short stories, sketches and other pieces of journalism. However, her reputation as a writer rests firmly on the Pilgrimage sequence. The first of the Pilgrimage novels, Pointed Roofs (1915) was the first complete stream of consciousness novel in English (Joyce had already started writing Ulysses), although Richardson herself disliked the term (May Sinclair’s import), preferring to call her way of writing interior monologues. The development of this technique is usually credited to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The failure to recognise Richardson’s role is partly due to the critical neglect of Richardson’s writing during her lifetime. The fact that Pointed Roofs displayed the writer’s admiration for German culture at a time when Britain and Germany were at war may also have contributed to the general lack of recognition of the book’s radical importance.
Richardson can also be read as a feminist writer, not because she overtly calls for equal rights for women but because her work quite simply assumes the validity and importance of female experiences as a subject for literature. The central character in Pilgrimage, Miriam, is a woman in search of her own full identity, which she knows quite clearly cannot be defined in male terms of reference. Richardson’s wariness of the conventions of language, her bending to near breaking point of the normal rules of punctuation, sentence length, and so on, are means towards what she termed feminine prose, which she clearly saw as necessary for the expression of this female experience.
Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style was influenced by, and responded to, the work of the French thinker Henri Bergson and the novelists Marcel Proust and James Joyce.
This style allows the subjective mental processes of Woolf’s characters to determine the objective content of her narrative. In To the Lighthouse (1927), one of her most experimental works, the passage of time, for example, is modulated by the consciousness of the characters rather than by the clock. The events of a single afternoon constitute over half the book, while the events of the following ten years are compressed into a few dozen pages. Many readers of To the Lighthouse, especially those who are not versed in the traditions of modernist fiction, find the novel strange and difficult. Its language is dense and the structure amorphous. Compared with the plot-driven Victorian novels that came before it, To the Lighthouse seems to have little in the way of action. Indeed, almost all of the events take place in the characters’ minds.
James Joyce is celebrated as one of the great literary pioneers of the twentieth century. He was one of the first writers to make extensive and convincing use of stream of consciousness, a stylistic form in which written prose seeks to represent the characters’ stream of inner thoughts and perceptions rather than render these characters from an objective, external perspective. This technique, used in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man mostly during the opening sections and in Chapter 5, sometimes makes for difficult reading. With effort, however, the seemingly jumbled perceptions of stream of consciousness can crystallize into a coherent and sophisticated portrayal of a character’s experience.
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