The Stream of Consciousness– An Insight into the Human Mind

Watershed development in the advancement of the modern novel manifested itself in the 20th century, owing to the part-invention-part-discovery of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. The phrase which was initially coined by William James, finds mention in his work, ‘The Principles of Psychology’. To him, it denoted the flow of almost chaotic sensations in the human consciousness. The purpose of this type of novel is to visualize life and character in its most basic sense. It sets down the thoughts that preoccupy the protagonist’s mind, especially those of a daily nature to which one pays little attention.

It was the symbolism in the works of many French poets which served as a precedent to the stream of consciousness technique. Some important figures who had influenced this kind of technique included Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, William James and Henry Bergson. This type of novel does not portray human character in its traditional sense, but renders it a psychologically active man, dealing with the idea of what a man is at a given moment. It achieves this neither by using a static delineation of character nor by chronologically defining reactions. There is a preponderance of dynamic moments i.e. there are fluctuating aspects of the character. With respect to this idea, William James figuratively defines every thought in terms of a flowing water body. The mind is a stream and the thoughts are dyed in the free water that flows in it. Consciousness, bearing this form does not possess a dignified order and arranged sequence. Instead, it exudes random and haphazard nature guided by the “halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it.”

The idea of continuity of consciousness is in consonance with Henry Bergson’s theory of time. Leon Edel opines that much like Bergson’s precepts avowing the constant remoulding of man by experience consciousness is a process of endless accretion. So long as the senses are fully functional, consciousness is a continuation of the indefinite past to the moment of living present. Bergson’s teachings about time have another aspect that can be explored. Time may be objective but consciousness can prolong an hour into a day or make a day seem like an hour. So, in the novel, in the process of setting down the thoughts as they pass through the mind of the character, the novelist catches and records the “present moment and no other.”

The Stream of Consciousness brings the reader into direct contact with the minutest of details concerning the human mind. There is this idea that reality rests in the consciousness, and our consciousness does not exhibit logical progression, except for certain periods of practical need. Therefore, the coherence achieved is in the pursuit of attaining inner or psychological reality.

Dorothy Richardson’s (1873 – 1957) first novel, Painted Roofs is the earliest recorded use of the stream of consciousness technique. Richardson presents a character, a woman called Miriam Henderson. The readers are made to follow her thoughts closely, and as a result are greeted with many moments that illuminate her character. Purveying “life at first hand”, Painted Roofs is a study of human psychology par excellence.

James Joyce (1882 – 1941) is the most eminent personality in the cult of the stream of consciousness technique. His work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an autobiographical novel navigated by the character of Stephen Dedalus. Joyce dissects through objective detachment, the spiritual life of the protagonist. Ulysses, Joyce’s masterpiece is an outstanding psychological study which Leopold and Mrs. Bloom conducted in a single day. Ulysses represents and reconstructs Dublin life in all its sordid realism. Joyce’s exposition finds full completion in experimenting with this technique. It is undoubtedly James Joyce, who with his incomparable mastery over words, anchors himself in the atmosphere of the mind and reveals the many mysteries.

The psychological character of the Stream of Consciousness requires an undertaking of a minimum plot. It makes no space for florid prose, for the simple reason that consciousness prevails as a mode of narrative modeling. The Steam of Consciousness can be therefore, be seen as a piece of work in which the reader is directly involved in the mental experience of the character. Ultimately, the chief aim of such a work is not to create memorable characters, but to find out exactly how people are like.

Picture Courtesy- Estudent-corner

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