Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a variation of what is called ‘interior monologue’.  If interior monologue is the presentation of a character’s thoughts completely  and logically without intervention by the narrator, stream of consciousness attempts to represent a character’s feelings and thoughts in a jumbled way, as if the reader were directly connected to the consciousness of the character.  This jumbled presentation tends to violate conventional rules of  logic, grammar and syntax.  In many cases it makes the prose more difficult to read and understand.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is largely written in stream of consciousness, and here is an excerpt from Episode 13: Nausicaa:

Better not stick here all night like a limpet. This weather makes you dull. Must be getting on for nine by the light. Go home. Too late for Leah, Lily of Killarney. No. Might be still up. Call to the hospital to see. Hope she’s over. Long day I’ve had. Martha, the bath, funeral, house of Keyes, museum with those goddesses, Dedalus’ song. Then that bawler in Barney Kiernan’s. Got my own back there. Drunken ranters what I said about his God made him wince. Mistake to hit back. Or? No. Ought to go home and laugh at themselves. Always want to be swilling in company. Afraid to be alone like a child of two. Suppose he hit me. Look at it other way round. Not so bad then. Perhaps not to hurt he meant. Three cheers for Israel. Three cheers for the sister-in-law he hawked about, three fangs in her mouth. Same style of beauty. Particularly nice old party for a cup of tea. The sister of the wife of the wild man of Borneo has just come to town. Imagine that in the early morning at close range. Everyone to his taste as Morris said when he kissed the cow. But Dignam’s put the boots on it. Houses of mourning so depressing because you never know. Anyhow she wants the money. Must call to those Scottish Widows as I promised. Strange name. Takes it for granted we’re going to pop off first. That widow on Monday was it outside Cramer’s that looked at me. Buried the poor husband but progressing favourably on the premium. Her widow’s mite. Well? What do you expect her to do? Must wheedle her way along. Widower I hate to see. Looks so forlorn. Poor man O’Connor wife and five children poisoned by mussels here. The sewage. Hopeless. Some good matronly woman in a porkpie hat to mother him. Take him in tow, platter face and a large apron. Ladies’ grey flannelette bloomers, three shillings a pair, astonishing bargain. Plain and loved, loved for ever, they say. Ugly: no woman thinks she is. Love, lie and be handsome for tomorrow we die. See him sometimes walking about trying to find out who played the trick. U. p: up. Fate that is. He, not me. Also a shop often noticed. Curse seems to dog it. Dreamt last night? Wait. Something confused. She had red slippers on. Turkish. Wore the breeches. Suppose she does? Would I like her in pyjamas? Damned hard to answer. Nannetti’s gone. Mailboat. Near Holyhead by now. Must nail that ad of Keyes’s. Work Hynes and Crawford. Petticoats for Molly. She has something to put in them. What’s that? Might be money.

The above paragraph is taken out of context, which makes it difficult to understand, and yet, there are so many seemingly random references in this paragraph to other characters, places, things and past events that I, for one, have to wonder about the effectiveness of this style of writing.  Certainly, it takes a creative genius (as Joyce undoubtedly was) to write a paragraph – let alone a whole novel – like  this.  But, I can’t help but wonder whether Joyce’s genius is fully appreciated by most well educated readers.  In other words, did Joyce try to take well educated readers to too high a level of sophistication?  For me, it’s a little bit like one of Heston Blumenthal’s exotic recipes: do I really appreciate the delicate concoction of carefully prepared foam that tops one of his desserts?

When I’m writing about a character’s thoughts, I try to keep the description of his/her thoughts clear, focused on what’s important, and brief.  Here is an excerpt from Sin & Contrition.  LaMarr has gone to Cleveland to console the family of his friend, Mason, who was killed in Vietnam:

With the help of the custodian, who looked up Mason’s name in the register, he found the grave.  It was in an open area punctuated by dozens of headstones.  Mason’s headstone was small: it said only ‘Mason Bailey DeWitt’, and in numerals there were his birth and death dates.  Nothing more.  LaMarr gazed at the stone, lost in recollections.  I hope you’re OK now, Mason.  You were a good friend, and you deserved something more.  He stood, and looked once more at the headstone and grave.  Good bye, Mason.  He found a taxi to take him to the central bus station for the rest of his leave in Pittsburgh.  He reflected: What a terrible waste!  His sister sitting there crying on the couch.  Two little ones trying to understand.  His mother lost, and Mason gone.  I guess I’m like the little ones.  I don’t understand, either.

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