IN 1890, the American psychologist William James famously likened our conscious experience to the flow of a stream. “A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described,” he wrote. “In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.”

 It also refers to a certain 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.

On a lot of internet forums, reviewers are huffing at the works of authors such as James Joyce, William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf because of their use of this writing style.

In the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of ‘difficult’ reading is being challenged while the kidult boy-wizards-roman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health.


In our contemporary culture exists an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism. Ours is an age in which omnipresent threats of imminent extinction are also part of the background noise – nuclear annihilation, terrorism, climate change. So we can be blinkered when it comes to tectonic cultural shifts. The omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time – getting on, I would say, for a century – and so it’s become part of culture.

So why do I bother to write a column to encourage people to adventure themselves in this type of literature? Because one of the advantages of reading a text written in a stream-of-consciousness style is that it  stimulates the reader’s own thoughts and focus, leading to an individual construction of sense.

It seems trite to say, ‘Stream of consciousness tells me something about how my mind works.’ Isn’t that true of everyone?

Stream of Consciousness 2

9 thoughts on “Struggling with The Stream of Consciousness.

  1. Not gonna lie, I have never read a single stream of consciousness work. I was definitely aware of the type and excited by the thought, willing to try it even but I was never really motivated to go out of my way to make it happen, you know. But this post has definitely made me think and I think I just might look for a few of ‘em. I remember one of my friends fangirling over it in the comments but I forget the title.

    Which ones would you suggest?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In view of your previously demonstrated interests, I would recommend you to start with Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. It’s about 130 pages and doesn’t lay as much on your stomach as Ulysses by J. Joyce (although it’s probably inspired by it). This brilliant novel explores the hidden springs of thought and action in one day of a woman’s life. Direct and vivid in her account of the details of Clarissa Dalloway’s preparations for a party she is to give that evening, Woolf ultimately managed to reveal much more. For it is the feeling behind these daily events that gives Mrs. Dalloway its texture and richness and makes it so memorable.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ohhh?! I have been meaning to read Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf! And Mrd. Dalloway as well! I didnt know that it was a stream of consciousness work though! Will definitely read it! ❤️❤️ THANK YOU SOOO MUCH FOR SUCH A THOUGHTFUL RECOMMENDATION, Urban! 🌟🌟

        Liked by 1 person

  2. hehe I’ve been forced to read plenty of stream of consciousness and am no stranger to difficult books- sometimes not liking something is a matter of taste 😉 Yes, it can give an insight into a character’s mind- but the same is true of most first person/third person limited- stream of consciousness deliberately obfuscates meaning. And if people like that, it’s fine, but it can also be off-putting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As a rule books written in a Stream-of-Consciousness style require a larger attention span of the reader and a greater willingness to engage emphatically with the protagonists. And yes, especially Joyce was a master of making his prose difficult to access. Up to the point that I consider Finnegan’s Wake unreadable, while others hail it as a literary master piece. I must be either too dumb or too impatient. Or both.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. True that it can be unreadable- but I don’t personally think it makes anyone dumb or impatient not to like it 😉 I’d say that writing in an obscure way doesn’t insure complexity and it’s possible to write in a less obscure style and be more complex (not an author, but I’d say the writings of Nietzsche fall into this category. And on the literary side, there are writers like Shakespeare who write with absolute clarity, yet are endlessly complex)

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Good point, it reminds me of your post on pretentious writers 😉 There are stream of consciousness works that blow my mind, just as there are others that make me think, “ok, this is obviously a swirl of useless wordiness with the sole intent of making us dizzy.”

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a good definition of stream-of-consciousness, and an interesting take on why a lot of people avoid it. Would you mind if I linked to your blog in one my recent posts? (It’s about a more modern form of stream-of-consciousness than Woolf or Faulkner, but your points still apply) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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