Session #4: Stream of Consciousness & Interior Monologue, March 4th, 2009
Two texts for today:
- Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf
- Ulysses by James Joyce
We read the first two paragraphs of “Mrs. Dalloway”, chosen to illustrate the “stream of consciousness“, and two short extracts from “Ulysses”, chosen to illustrate the “interior monologue” technique.
Both of these techniques allow the reader to “listen” directly to the thoughts of a character, without an intermediary explanation by an all-knowing narrator. The “stream of consciousness” is often mixed with the narrative voice, but the reader has to guess which is which.
The “stream of consciousness” technique was a development of an earlier technique called “free indirect style”, a technique used frequently by Jane Austen.
The “interior monologue” or “internal monologue” is more difficult to read: because there is no explanation or mediation by the narrator, and because the author is trying to give us the raw thoughts of a character. When we think, we know the context of our thoughts, we do not explain them. The lack of context makes it hard for the reader, though.
Here’s an extract from “Ulysses” to illustrate:
On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have.
The first sentence is the narrator’s voice. From the second sentence onwards we are “listening” to the thoughts of the character (Leopold Bloom, the “Ulysses” of the title). The verb is left out, as it often is in our own thoughts. The other sentences are also a kind of shorthand, but the reader can fill in the blanks. The final sentence, “Potato I have” is completely baffling, unless you know that Leopold habitually carries a potato in his pocket for good luck.
The second extract we read comes from later in the novel, and illustrates how one thought leads to another by a quick process of association. Stephen Dedalus watches two nuns/midwives walking on the beach. He recalls that one such midwife assisted at his own birth. He glimpses some knitting in her bag and imagines the strand of wool as a navel cord, and the knitting as a “misbirth” “hushed in ruddy wool”. The idea of a navel cord makes him think of the genetic links that connect all human beings, going back to our original “mother”, Eve. “Navel” reminds him of “navel gazing”, or meditation. His knowledge of Greek tells him the Greek word for navel, “omphalos” Somehow, the “cord” or cable, together with the idea of monks meditating in order to connect with God, gives Dedalus the hilarious idea of telephoning Eden: “Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.”
Reading this kind of text is very hard work, and requires either a great deal of knowledge, particularly of other languages and literature, or some kind of reference guide. But it can also be very satisfying. Joyce did not use this technique throughout his novel “Ulysses”: that would have been too much, for both reader and author.