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!

Top 10 Authors Who Ignored The Basic Rules of Punctuation

By May Huang

While the majority of sentences in published texts (including this article) depend on punctuation to make sense, the literary world is nonetheless no stranger to great writers who have famously forgone punctuation conventions and gotten away with it. Here are 10 writers whose usage of punctuation (or lack thereof) has both bewildered and impressed readers:

  1. E.E. Cummings

Both a Harvard graduate and World War I veteran, E.E. Cummings famously abandoned conventional syntax in nearly all his poems. For example, the standard rules of capitalization and punctuation find themselves ignored in Cummings’ “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” which at first read – or should I say ‘look’ – seems cryptic. The colons, commas and other punctuation marks are instead used to great visual effect, seeming more like embellishments than grammatical requisites.

However, that didn’t stop critics from hailing him as one of the most notable of 20th century American poets – Cummings received over 10 awards for his poems in his lifetime, including the Guggenheim Fellowship.

  1. James Joyce   

Born in Dublin in 1882, James Joyce is another punctuation-rule-defier whose works have been recognized as among the best of English literature. Ulysses, Joyce’s 256,000+ word long chef-d’oeuvre, is a difficult novel to digest, primarily due to its length, stream of consciousness style and – you know it –  its punctuation. Inconducive to one’s understanding of the novel is the inconvenient fact that out of the 24048 words in the novel’s final episode, Penelope (also known as Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy), only 2 full stops and 1 comma can be found.

Way to end a novel on an unforgettable note. Thankfully, countless study guides have been written to help struggling readers digest the tome.

  1. Cormac McCarthy

Long considered a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Cormac McCarthy, a reclusive yet Hollywood-recognized American novelist and screenwriter, is also not a fan of punctuation.  Quotation marks – “weird little marks,” as he puts it in an interview with Oprah – find themselves shunned in his works, which include No Country for Old Men (adapted into an Academy-award winning film) and the Pulitzer-Prize winning, post-apocalyptic novel The Road. “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it,” McCarthy told Oprah. “I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” With a slew of literary awards under his belt, Cormac McCarthy certainly is not one to challenge when it comes to defining “writing properly”.

  1. José Saramago

 

Portugal-born Nobel Prize winner José Saramago also adopts idiosyncratic punctuation in his writing, and is quoted by The Economist for having once remarked, “Punctuation … is like traffic signs, too much of it distracted you from the road on which you traveled.”

In fact, it seems that eschewing quotation marks is not so atypical anymore; the poor symbols are often the first to go when it comes to abandoning punctuation conventions. Without using so much as a line break during the characters’ dialog exchange in All the Names, Saramago relies on only a capital letter to signpost a switch in speaker:

“Then I’ll wait until things calm down, And then, I don’t know, I’ll think of something, You could resolve the matter right now, How, You could phone her parents …” (All The Names, p.65)

  1. Marcel Proust

20th century French writer Marcel Proust also defied standard punctuation conventions.

His masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), a 7-volume exploration of involuntary memory, is recognized as one of the defining works of French literature; however, it was rejected by many publishers due to Proust’s punctuation choices.  Lost time isn’t the only thing searched for in the novel –  so is a full stop in the 601-word long run-on sentence (847 words in the original French text) in the first volume, Swann’s Way.
The sentence, amongst many others in In Search of Lost Time, is indeed a stunning example of sophisticated, literary rambling; at least Proust used commas.

  1. William Faulkner

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949  and two Pulitzer Prizes over the course of his career, American writer William Faulkner is another writer whose punctuation choices did not hinder his critical success. “The Sound and the Fury”, considered to be one of the finest Southern Literature books (and soon to be adapted into a film by James Franco), is no doubt Faulkner’s masterpiece. Yet one will not get through it without coming across paragraphs that look a lot like this:

“My God the cigar what would your mother say if she found a blister on her mantel just in time too look here Quentin we’re about to do something we’ll both regret I like you liked you as soon as I saw you I says he must be …” (The Sound and the Fury, p.105)

Faulkner’s advice to tackling it? “Read it four times.”

  1. Samuel Beckett

The second French writer and fourth Nobel Prize laureate featured on this list, Irish writer Samuel Beckett is perhaps best remembered for writing Waiting for Godot, which – although originally written in French – was voted the best modern play in English in 1998 .Yet, unknown to many, Beckett also wrote a three-part monolog titled How It Is about a man’s journey through mud – a journey that Beckett chronicles in 147 pages with… zero punctuation marks. Zilch. However, considering how the protagonist spends the whole novel blundering through the tenebrous dark, the absence of punctuation – of solid sentence structure – is quite apt.

“I see me on my face close my eyes not the blue the others at the back and see me on my face the mouth opens the tongue comes out lolls in the mud and no questions of thirst either no question of dying of thirst either all this time vast stretch of time” (How It Is, page.8-9)

  1. Junot Díaz

Author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and current creative writing professor at MIT, Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz also finds no problem with abandoning certain punctuation marks from his writing. In fact, when confronted during an  interview  with a student from Harvard about omitting quotation marks in “Drown,” Díaz responded, “What happens when you get rid of them? I wanted to have parts where you can’t tell if somebody thinks or speaks. That’s the way memory is. I wanted to confuse that.” Moreover, the fact that Díaz is the 3rd Pulitzer Prize winning writer on this list just goes to show how keeping up punctuation norms isn’t a prerequisite for literary success.

  1. Gertrude Stein

 

A prominent figure from the Modernist Literature movement (along with Joyce, Cummings and Faulkner), Gertrude Stein was born in America but lived in France for most of her life with her partner, Alice Toklas. Stein didn’t like commas very much and made this quite clear in Lectures in America, in which she called the comma “a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.” Stein even went as far as to tell a reporter , “Punctuation is necessary only for the feeble-minded.” Ouch. Thus, the comma and other punctuation marks are mostly shunned in her works; Stein favored short sentences instead and even wrote a play in 1932 titled Short Sentences, consisting of around 600, roughly 5-word sentences.

  1. Timothy Dexter

Without the same literary acclaim that the preceding nine writers have gained, Massachusetts-born businessman and writer Timothy Dexter is perhaps best remembered for having (in)famously faked his own death. Nonetheless, 8 years before his (real) death, he published “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress,” an 8000+ word novel that is so poorly punctuated and misspelled that the original transcription is near-illegible.

Here is an excerpt from the book, on building bridges:

“No 3 fouder there is plenty of Complant of the diffulty of pasing those briges Now as it is troue if those giddy people have Liberty to bould A brigg it wont pay but three or four per sent at most then they must have one halfe the passing of my brigg as I call it A mad bisness” (from Folio 2 of Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress)