10 Writers Who Use Stream of Consciousness Better than Anybody Else

By May Huang

A narrative technique that has perplexed and fascinated readers for centuries, the stream of consciousness technique has been used by many writers to trace the seamless (and oft erratic) musings of characters such as Mrs. Dalloway and Stephen Dedalus. Below are 10 writers whose works – ranked amongst the finest in English literature – feature the stream of consciousness technique.

Okay, but what is Stream of Consciousness?

Stream of Consciousness is a type of writing that originated with the works of psychologist William James (Brother of Novelist Emeritus Henry James). Basically, its purpose is to emulate the passage of thought through your mind without any inhibitors. For that reason, sentences become longer, less organized and more sporadic in style. Its lack of structure is not for everybody, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any order. Stream of consciousness permits deeper patterns of order to emerge, ones based on the genuine movement of information in your brain. It also permits writers to simulate different forms of consciousness, such as dreams, comas, drug use and hallucinatory seances.

  1. Dorothy Richardson

Considered the pioneer of the stream-of-consciousness technique, 20th century British author Dorothy Richardson was the first author to publish a full length stream-of-consciousness novel: Pointed Roofs. In fact, it was in reviewing Pointed Roofs that British author May Sinclaire first coined the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’ in April 1918.

On one side was the little grey river, on the other long wet grass repelling and depressing. Not far ahead was the roadway which led, she supposed to the farm where they were to drink new milk. She would have to walk with someone when they came to the road, and talk. She wondered whether this early morning walk would come, now, every day. Her heart sank at the thought.” from Pointed Roofs

  1. William Faulkner

Recipient of both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, American author William Faulkner used the stream of consciousness technique to great effect in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, exploring the depths of different characters’ inner conflict through disjointed, unpunctuated narrative. In one short paragraph, the reader is at once exposed to different smells, sounds and movement:

Nonsense you look like a girl you are lots younger than Candace color in your cheeks like a girl A face reproachful tearful an odor of camphor and of tears a voice weeping steadily and softly beyond the twilit door the twilight-colored smell of honey suckle. Bringing empty trunks down the attic stairs they sounded like coffins […]” – from As I Lay Dying

  1. James Joyce

Dublin born writer James Joyce employed the stream-of-consciousness style in all of his novels, including Finnegans Wake, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and of course – the 1000-page, 265,000-word long Ulysses. It is easy to get lost in any paragraph in the novel, as the protagonist Stephen Dedalus guides us quickly – and disjointedly – through his thoughts and surroundings. One moment he is asking himself, “Would you go back to then?” and the next he is on Grafton street, pondering whether to buy a pincushion while the “jingle of harnesses” sounds in his ears. Then, out of the blue, he answers himself and concludes that it would be “useless to go back.” Next thing you know, he’s moved on to Duke Street and we’re not quite sure how he – or we – got there.

  1. Virginia Woolf

 

Recognized as the most important feminist writer (and perhaps one of the most important writers in general) of all time, Virginia Woolf used the stream-of-consciousness technique to great significance in her work. Paying scrupulous attention to detail and describing even “the footman’s hand,” “parcels and umbrellas.” Woolf takes readers through different minds, perspectives and surroundings in Mrs. Dalloway. She makes us wonder who is speaking – and about what.

  1. Marcel Proust

French writer Marcel Proust also used the stream-of-consciousness style in his works, notably in the seven-volume long Remembrance of Things Past, in which even the simple childhood memory of eating a petite madeleine plunges one into the “vast structure of recollection.” Reading Proust, one is caught up in the taste and smell of the pastry, “the water-lilies on the Vivonne” and “Sunday mornings at Combray” – all of which are memories that converge in the narrator’s stream of consciousness.

  1. Jack Kerouac

American writer Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is now remembered as one of the defining novels of the Beat Generation – as well as a modern example of stream-of-consciousness writing. Originally written over a course of 3 weeks on one scroll of paper (deemed the ‘original scroll’), On the Road is based on Kerouac’s road trip across America, a journey at times vividly recounted in continuous stream-of-consciousness prose, fusing both description of land and memory:

The brown hills led off towards Nevada; to the South was my legendary Hollywood; to the North the mysterious Shasta country. Down below was everything: the barracks where we stole our tiny box of condiments, where Dostioffski’s tiny face had glared at us […]” from On the Road

  1. José Saramago

Portuguese Nobel Prize Laureate Jose Saramago, like Woolf, also liked to alternative between narratives and use stream-of-consciousness in his writing. In Blindness, Saramago uses long sentences and eschews quotation marks to enhance the seamlessness of his prose, allowing the stream-of-consciousness to run free of interruption:

The very air in the ward seemed to have become heavier, emitting strong lingering odours, with sudden wafts that were simply nauseating, What will this place be like within a week, he asked himself, and it horrified him to think that in a week’s time, they would still be confined here, Assuming there won’t be any problems with food supplies, and who can be sure there isn’t already a shortage, I doubt, for example, whether those outside have any idea from one minute to the next…” – from Blindness

  1. Samuel Backett

The second French writer on this list, Samuel Beckett used the stream of consciousness technique in his Three Novels (Molloy, Malone Dies and the Unnamable) to deliver a stream of observations and musings on time and existence. In fact, Molloy defies conventional grammar and tense rules in order to emphasize the continuity of the narrator’s non-stop train of thought:

What shall I do? What shall I do? now low, a murmur, now precise as the headwaiter’s And to follow? and often rising to a scream. And in the end, or almost, to be abroad alone, by unknown ways, in the gathering night, with a stick.” – from Molloy

  1. Fyodor Dostoevsky

Although Crime and Punishment is Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s best-known work, his 1864 novella Notes from Underground also sits amongst the classics of Russian literature. Throughout the novel, the ‘Underground Man’ expresses his continuous train of thought through long, comma-filled sentences (even in brackets).

If you take, for instance, the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of acute consciousness, who has come, of course, not out of the lap of nature but out of a retort (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen, but I suspect this, too), this retort-made man is sometimes so nonplussed in the presence of his antithesis that with all his exaggerated consciousness he genuinely thinks of himself as a mouse and not a man. It may be an acutely conscious mouse, yet it is a mouse, while the other is a man, and therefore, et caetera, et caetera.” from Notes from Underground

  1. Toni Morrison

83 year old African American author Toni Morrison published several books on slavery, the most compelling of which is undoubtedly Beloved. The story of a ‘ghost baby’ who returns to her family in the form of a grown woman, Beloved is both a harrowing tale about the horrors of slavery as it is a testament to the unrelenting power of memory. Morrison uses stream of consciousness in one of the final chapters to reveal the intermingling of three characters’ thoughts:

Beloved

You are my sister

You are my daughter

You are my face; you are me

I have found you again; you have come back to me

You are my Beloved

You are mine

You are mine

You are mine

I have your milk

I have your smile

I will take care of you

You are my face; I am you. Why did you leave me

who am you?” – from Beloved

Let us know what you think of our selection!

Theater of the Absurd: 15 Essential Plays

The Theater of the Absurd emerged out of the ashes of the destructive first-half of the Twentieth Century. Combining the growing claustrophobia of the modern age with the oppressive bureaucracy of fascistic police-states, playwrights like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Vaclav Havel staged the absurdity of living in strife. Not only did they adopt a whole new type of rhythmic dialogue, but they challenged the theatrical status-quo by defying the chief tenets of portrayal and narrative. By briefly turning the medium on its head, they inspired playwrights all over the world to confront the social, psychological and political climate of their home countries. In this article, we trace the genre from its obscure origins to its peak in continental Europe during the 1950’s and 60’s.
1. Thornton Wilder – The Long Christmas Dinner (1931)
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Wilder did not quite kickstart the theater of the absurd, but several of the novel elements of this one-act play would go on to influence some of the movement’s most significant recurrences.  The setting is a Christmas Dinner that takes place over 90 years, its characters erratically changing clothing to catch up with time. And eventually, when death occurs, they will exit stage right through a portal. Wilder crafts a play where time becomes so volatile that its characters–as well those performing them–will have trouble keeping up.
2. Jean Tardieu – Underground Lovers (1934)
Tardieu’s Les Amants du Metro was way ahead of its time. Subtitled “a comic ballet without dance and without music”, the experimental playwright employed melodic and rhythmic patterns to the dialogue, including a scene where two loves fight by merely mentioning the names of different women. The associative power of such dialogue would go on to influence Samuel Beckett, among others.
3. Jean-Paul Sartre – No Exit (1944)
Sartre, along with Anouilh and Camus, would define the post-war era with their unique brand of existentialist drama. Nevertheless, No Exit induces its audience with a sense of claustrophobia and absurdity when the realization that “Hell is other people” becomes an inescapable mantra for the three trapped in the Inferno’s waiting room.
4. Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot (1953)
Samuel Beckett is without a doubt the father of the absurd. Not only did his prolific career as a playwright and novelist cement his reputation as the most prominent voice of the genre, but he also helped popularize the movement’s oft-challenging vision. Waiting for Godot centers around two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, as they wait for a mysterious figure name Godot (pronounced God-oh) and pass the time by desperately breaking the silence with shrewd, quick-witted dialogue.
5. Max Frisch – The Firebugs (1953)
Frisch was one of the most prominent German voices of the absurd, using his plays to extract evil from the actions of everyday life. The Firebugs centers around a man who must deal with local arsonists who trick themselves into entering people’s homes to such an extent that it makes the homeowners complicit in their own failure. Written in the wake of Fascism and Nazism, evil permeates over the banality and comedy of the dialogue.
6. Ezio D’Errico – The Anthill and Time of the Locusts (1954) 
D’Errico is little known in literary circles outside of Italy, but his two most important plays, The Anthill and Time of the Locusts, meditate upon the haunting aura of brazen destruction that ravaged Italy during wartime. While The Anthill turns the conventional heroic tale upside down by deteriorating the hero with tortuous insistence, Time of the Locusts is about an Italian-American who is murdered by young thugs, and the community that faces the absurd and inexplicable consequences thereof.
7. Arthur Adamov – Ping-Pong (1955)
The Theater of the Absurd often portrays its characters in closed systems that they cannot escape. Ping-Pong pits two characters within a pinball machine with a mind of it own, and it literally takes over their lives. Not only is their conversation limited to talking about the machine, but the very breadth of their love and despair cannot transcend it, either.
8. Jean Genet –  The Balcony – (1955)
Genet’s Balcony is a Dante-like journey to the depths of power, and how such a force enlivens and destroys certain people. Set in a brothel during a revolutionary uprising, the setting acts as a microcosm for the absurdity of social importance and oppression. Instead of being an enterprise of sexual pleasures, the brothel becomes a hub for society’s most bacchanalian pursuit: To hold power over others.
9. Eugene Ionesco – Rhinoceros (1959)
The Theater of the Absurd has time and again dealt with the pressures that society impinges on individuals to conform. Citing the destructive fascism and communism that plagued Europe during the mid-twentieth century, Ionesco portrays the ravage and ruin that occurs after the inhabitants of a small French town turn into rhinoceros. The only iconoclast, Berenger, struggles to stand his ground as all of his peers metamorphose before his eyes.
10. Manuel De Pedrolo – Cruma (1957)
You have probably not heard of Pedrolo because he is a distinctly Catalonian writer, but that doesn’t demerit his biting satire, imaginative symbolism and meditations upon isolation. Set in a mysterious apartment, two men to measure a room with numberless rulers, meet ghostly apparitions, and ponder upon the nature of the outside world. The play demands answers to a troubling question: Can we maintain our authentic selves without isolation, or must we give in to deception for the sake of social interaction?
11. Fernando Arrabal – The Automobile Graveyard (1958)
The combined influences of Beckett and Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” are evident in this play about a nightmarish junkyard hosting a colorful but remorseless cast of characters. Parodying the Biblical account of Christ, it juxtaposes the myth with modern deprivation and the wasteful rot of excessive materialism.
12. Boris Vian – The Empire Builders (1959)
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Boris Vian was more known for his magnanimous presence in the Parisian haunts of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, but his posthumously-performed opus The Empire Builders portrayed a lucid and troubling world haunted by death. Set in an increasingly-shrinking room, a man and his family try to escape an awful noise coming from outside, only to split apart for the sake of staying alive.
13. Harold Pinter – The Dumbwaiter (1960)
Harold Pinter is one of most critically-acclaimed playwrights in British Literature, and The Dumb Waiter is his wonderful take on the Absurd. About two hitmen awaiting their next assignment in a dingy basement, the tension builds between the characters as their banter gets interrupted by a dumb waiter (a food elevator) demanding filled orders.
14. Edward Albee – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962)
Albee’s uniquely American take on the Absurd is not quite as mind-bending or irrational as some of the other selections on this list, but it uses the dialogic techniques of Beckett and Tardieu to capture a professor’s troubled relationship with his wife. Set during a late night in a small college town, George and Martha host two young upstarts, causing the clash of generations, as well as the revelation of secrets too painful to hide.
Vaclav Havel – The Memorandum (1965)

 

Long before he lead the Czech Republic away from the Iron Curtain as the nation’s president, Havel was a prolific playwright who had garnered fame locally and abroad. The Memorandum is about a man forced to learn a fictional language to fill out an audit form sent to him by the government. Bland and without emotion vigor, learning the language slowly drives him crazy. The influence of Franz Kafka is without a doubt present, but Havel is also speaking to the repressive culture of Communist bureaucracy that troubled Central and Eastern Europe at the time.