James Joyce and the stream of consciousness

Jan 2024

Famed poet and novelist James Joyce is considered one of Ireland's greatest literary figures. He was born on 2 February 1882 and died 13 January in 1941, aged 59.

Although he permanently emigrated to Europe in his early twenties, Joyce never lost sight of his Irish roots and chose to base his fiction in Dublin, with his characters inspired by family, friends, and acquaintances from the city. His collection of short stories The Dubliners is known for giving a thorough and realistic depiction of middle-class life in early 20th century Dublin.

Regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century, he championed a new style of writing based upon the stream of consciousness technique: when the written form attempts to mimic a character's immediate flow of thoughts and feelings, adding a heightened sense of realism and immedicay to his writing.

In practice, this is similar to Shakespeare's use of dramatic monologue, except rather than have the character directly addressing the audience, the reader is instead privy to the character's internal discussion - an interior monologue.

The technique aims to give readers the impression of being inside the mind of the character, offering them a window into their mental state, the complexities of their character, and a greater understanding of their motivations.

Below is an example of stream-of-consciousness writing taken from James Joyce's Ulysses, a novel which describes the wandering appointments and encounters of the middle-aged Dubliner Leopold Bloom on one day of his life, 16 June 1904. Bloom is thinking and reflecting here on his younger self:

"He is young Leopold, as in a retrospective arrangement, a mirror within a mirror (hey, presto!), he beholdeth himself. That young figure of then is seen, precious manly, walking on a nipping morning from the old house in Clambrassil to the high school, his book satchel on him bandolier wise, and in it a goodly hunk of wheaten loaf, a mother's thought."

As the style replicates the natural chaos of the mind, it is dominated by flighty and leaping thoughts and lack of punctuation.

Many authors have since adopted this style of writing; we have looked at a few examples, some of which feature on the Kumon Recommended Reading List:

On the Road - Jack Kerouac
On the Road is a modern example of stream-of-consciousness writing, having been published in 1957. Narrated by a fictionalised version of the author, the story is based upon Kerouac's own experiences travelling across North America with a friend.

Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf used the stream-of-consciousness technique to great effect in Mrs. Dalloway, where she is able to hook the reader into a narrative which, like Joyce's, is set on one day, a Wednesday in mid-June 1923. The novel is dominated by two seemingly unconnected storylines, vividly brought to life through the different minds, perspectives, and memories of the central characters involved. With the point of view often shifting in mere sentences she certainly keeps the reader on their toes!

The Catcher in the Rye - J D Salinger
Seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield tells his own story as if speaking aloud, and it is Holden's 'voice' on the page which drives the plot of The Catcher in the Rye. His seemingly random, unfiltered thoughts are his own reflections on the past which has led him to the psychiatric hospital that he narrates his story from.

If you've got some spare time this weekend, why not try the stream-of-consciousness writing style for yourself, and jot down those thoughts swimming around in your own head?