"What is Stream of Consciousness?": A Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is Stream of Consciousness? - Transcript (Spanish Subtitles Available)

By Liz Delf

Stream of consciousness is a narrative style that tries to capture a character’s thought process in a realistic way. It’s an interior monologue, but it’s also more than that. Because it’s mimicking the non-linear way our brains work, stream-of-consciousness narration includes a lot of free association, looping repetitions, sensory observations, and strange (or even nonexistent) punctuation and syntax—all of which helps us to better understand a character’s psychological state and worldview. It’s meant to feel like you have dipped into the stream of the character’s consciousness—or like you’re a fly on the wall of their mind.

Authors who use this technique are aiming for emotional and psychological truth: they want to show a snapshot of how the brain actually moves from one place to the next. Thought isn’t linear, these authors point out; we don’t really think in logical, well-organized, or even complete sentences.

For example, on my way to record this video, I didn’t think “Ah, now I am walking to the library. When I get there, I will say good morning to the videographer, and then begin recording. I hope it goes well.”

A more accurate representation might be more like this: “cold / bright / wish I had my sunglasses / walk faster / late again / always late / did I send my script? / should I have practiced more? / oh hi Dylan / which class was he in? / shoe’s untied / ooh colors trees red orange bright / faster / late late late / so bright”

That more realistic, stream-like, associative thought process is what authors are aiming for when they use stream of consciousness narration.

Here’s a literary example from Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf:

“For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? Over twenty,--one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”

This passage is about Clarissa Dalloway’s connection to the city, linking her own heartbeat to the clock’s chimes. But it’s also a good example of stream of consciousness: it has associative thoughts (moving from the clock chimes to her influenza), unusual syntax (all those semi-colons!), and sensory details (like sound, music, and the feeling of a heartbeat).

Virginia Woolf is particularly well known for this narrative technique, along with some other modernist heavy hitters like James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Marcel Proust. Those particular authors were writing in the 1920s and 30s, but stream-of-consciousness isn’t limited to a particular time period or literary movement. It’s unusual, but it has been used by authors like Ken Kesey and Sylvia Plath in the 1960s, as well as Irvine Welsh, George Saunders, and Jonathan Safran Foer in the last decade or so.

Here’s one more example, this one from Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved:

“the air is heavy / I am not dead / I am not / there is a house / there is what she whispered to me / I am where she told me / I am not dead / I sit / the sun closes my eyes / when I open them I see the face I lost / Sethe’s is the face that left me / Sethe sees me see her and I see the smile / her smiling face is the place for me / it is the face I lost / she is my face smiling at me”

This example is even more disjointed than the first, and that’s a key element of understanding this particular character. The speaker (Beloved) is childlike, ghostly, scared, and confused. Her agitated repetition of “I am not dead” makes it feel like she’s desperately holding onto life, and the many echoes of Sethe’s smiling face show the emotional resonance and importance that image carries for Beloved.

Association is also prominent in this example, moving from the house to the sun to the eyes to Sethe’s face. And how about that syntax?! This particular character’s thoughts are so fluid and stream-like that there is no punctuation at all. This adds to the urgency of the passage, the fear, and, finally, the hope.

Further Resources for Teachers

William Faulkner's "Barn Burning" offers a short glimpse into the young boy Sarty's "stream-of-consciousness" thought processes.  At the start of the story, he identifies the man who tries to prosecute his pyromaniac father as his "father's enemy" before thinking "our enemy...ourn! mine and hisn both!  He's my father!" Students might identify how the form of these thoughts mimics that described in the above video before shifting to a discussion of how this stream-of-consciousness might be analyzed.  What anxieties or tensions, for example, does this repetition reveal in Sarty's worldview, and how do these tensions foreshadow later elements in the plot?