Stream of consciousness is a method of narrative representation of "random" thoughts which follow in a freely-flowing style.
Primarily associated with the modernist movement, stream of consciousness is a form of interior monologue which claims as its goal the representation of a lead consciousness in a narrative (typically fiction). This representation of consciousness can include perceptions or impressions, thoughts incited by outside sensory stimuli, and fragments of random, disconnected thoughts. Stream of consciousness writing often lacks "correct" punctuation or syntax, favoring a looser, more incomplete style.
The coining of the term has generally been credited to the American psychologist William James, older brother of novelist Henry James. It was used originally by psychologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to describe the personal awareness of one’s mental processes. In The Principles of Psychology, Chapter IX, The Stream of Thought, James provides a phenomenological description of this sense-ation of consciousness: “Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life” (239) [emphasis in the original]. It is helpful at the outset to distinguish stream of consciousness from free association.
Stream of consciousness, from a psychological perspective, describes metaphorically the phenomenon—the continuous and contiguous flow of sensations, impressions, images, memories and thoughts—experienced by each person, at all levels of consciousness, and which is generally associated with each person’s subjectivity, or sense of self. Free association, on the other hand, is a process in which apparently random data collected by a subject allow connections to be made from the unconscious, subconscious and preconscious mind(s) to the conscious mind of that subject. Translated and mapped to the space of narrative literatures, free association can be one textual element used to signify the stream of consciousness.
As a literary term, stream of consciousness appears in the early twentieth century at the intersection of three apparently disparate projects: the developing science of psychology (e.g., investigations of the forms and manifestations of consciousness, as elaborated by Freud, Jung, James, and others), the continuing speculations of western philosophy as to the nature of being (e.g., investigations of consciousness in time by Henri Bergson), and reactionary forces in the arts which were turning away from realism in the late nineteenth century in favor of exploration of a personal, self-conscious subjectivity. The psychological term was appropriated to describe a particular style of novel, or technique of characterization that was prevalent in some fictional works. This technique relied upon the mimetic (re)presentation of the mind of a character and dramatized the full range of the character’s consciousness by direct and apparently unmediated quotation of such mental processes as memories, thoughts, impressions, and sensations. Stream of consciousness, constituting as it did the ground of self-awareness, was consequently extended to describe those narratives and narrative strategies in which the overt presence of the author/narrator was suppressed in favor of presenting the story exclusively through the (un/sub/pre)conscious thought of one or more of the characters in the story. Although examples of stream of consciousness techniques can arguably be found in narratives written during the last several centuries, it is British writers who are generally most often cited as exemplars of the stream of consciousness technique associated with the high modern period of the early twentieth century; they are Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Dorothy Richardson.
Bearing in mind the origin of the term, it is easy to see why some Anglo-American literary critics and theorists have subsumed all textual manifestations of the mental activity of characters in a narrative under the overarching term stream of consciousness. While convenient, this tendency belies the rich range and depth of narrative methods for (re)presenting a character’s consciousness, often best described by the terms originally naming them. Consider, for example, the French term monologue intérieur, rendered obviously enough in English as interior monologue. In this instance, a running monologue—similar to those we all experience inside our own minds but, importantly, cannot experience in the minds of others except in fictional narrative—is textually rendered as the unmediated but articulated, logical thoughts of a fictional character. That this monologue is unmediated, presented to the reader without either authorial or narratorial intervention or the common textual signs associated with narrative speech (e.g., quotation marks or attributive verbs), is crucial to establishing in the reader the sense of access to the consciousness of the character. That it is logical and respects grammatical form and syntax, as opposed to appearing a random collection of disconnected thoughts and images, distinguishes it from another textual rendering of the stream of consciousness, that of sensory impression.
Sensory impression occurs as simple lists of a character’s sensations or impressions, sometimes with ellipses separating the elements or lists. These unconscious or preconscious sensory impressions (re)present the inarticulable thoughts, the image-inations of a character not experienced as words. To prevent free associations stemming from such sensory impressions running away with and destroying the flow and integrity of the narrative, a story must somehow be anchored within the stream of consciousness. One method is a recurring motif or theme. The motif appears on the surface of a character’s thoughts, then disappears among the flow of memories, sensations and impressions it initiates only to resurface some time later, perhaps in a different form, to pull the story back up into the consciousness of both the character and the reader. Consider, in particular, the example of Virginia’s Woolf’s short story “The Mark on the Wall.” The story begins as a meditation—which could easily be read as a spoken monologue—on a series of recollected events but quickly turns, through the motif of a mark seen by the narrator over a mantle piece on the wall, to a near random stream of loosely connected memories and impressions. As the story progresses, the mark and speculations as to its nature and origin appear and disappear as a thread running in and out of and binding the loose folds of the narrator’s recollections. The narrator’s stream of consciousness ranges widely over time and space whereas the narrator quite clearly remains bound to a particular place and time, anchored—seemingly—by the mark on the wall.
While not generally considered a textual manifestation of stream of consciousness in the conventional sense—in part because associated with third person rather than first person narration—another method of (re)presenting the consciousness of characters is free indirect discourse (in French, style indirect libre) or reported or experienced speech (from the German term, erlebte Rede). Consider the following, from the ending paragraphs of Joyce’s short story “The Dead”: “He wondered at his riot of emotions an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse” (222). The first sentence is clearly the narrator telling what the character, Gabriel, is thinking; but with the second sentence a transition in the form of a series of sensory impressions moves the reader to Gabriel’s own conscious thoughts. In the end, it is not the narrator who thinks, “Poor Aunt Julia!”
"Such fools we all are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can't be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."
-Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway