Stream of Consciousness
Have you ever felt like you wish you could be a fly on the wall of a character’s mind? Like a scenario where you could get inside their mind and really know their thoughts, see what they see, understand the reasons behind their actions? Well then, reading a stream of consciousness is for you!
A stream of consciousness is a literary technique where the author takes the reader inside the mind of a character. It can be understood as the psychological quality of the text that is responsible for making you privy to the character’s interior monologue. This technique helps the author give the reader a glimpse of what lies beneath the character’s surface by revealing their psychic being. A character’s consciousness can also be used as the screen on which the reader is presented with the other details of the text.
A deconstructed narration of thoughts is known as free association. It can be understood as the opposite of ‘thinking with a purpose’. Free association is a non-linear, spontaneous narrative, which does not necessarily have a logical connection. It mimics the way our mind freely drifts, it is therefore, illogical, non-linear, and sometimes even incomplete. To illustrate these snapshots of the character’s thoughts, writers often use techniques such as repetition, sensory observations, and strange punctuations. These help the reader map the character’s thoughts and understand their psychological state along with their world view.
Typical characteristics of such writing includes – a narration of the character’s feelings and thoughts as they experience them; long and continuous pieces of texts that do not follow any organisational or structural format.
Krapp’s Last Tape, 1958
Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-act play written by the English playwright Samuel Beckett. It premiered in October 1958. It is one of Beckett’s most frequently performed plays and is often referred to as one of his best. This highly unsettling play does not follow any rules of standard theatre, there is minimal lighting and the play is without any plot.
The protagonist, Krapp, is listening to recordings of his younger self as he is sitting in a room alone, celebrating his sixty-ninth birthday. The play has prolonged scenes of silence or background noise. Beckett does not just let us peek into Krapp’s consciousness through his words, but also through his actions. The audience is able to witness Krapp fumble with keys, open drawers, eat a banana, search for the relevant tape, and consume alcohol. Through these actions, Krapp lets the audience have a voyeuristic thrill as they watch him perform mundane tasks absent-mindedly.
In the play, Krapp, as an aspiring writer, reflects on his younger self, the decisions that he took then, and their impact on his older self. Krapp’s consciousness is Beckett’s protagonist and time is his antagonist. Through the recordings he stimulates Krapp’s voluntary as well as involuntary memory and in an almost unsettling, morbid experience, lets the audience into these memories with Krapp. Krapp relives the episode of his mother’s death and his reaction to it. He also reflects on how he denied himself the love of a woman because he had an artistic inspiration to write his magnum opus, which eventually sold only seventeen copies.
The play provides the audience with an insight into the mind of a disturbed and unfulfilled man. Nevertheless, the audience is unable to sympathise with him and is often left with a feeling of disgust. In a brilliantly written play, Beckett, invites the audience to see the Krapp in their own life.
Break It Down, 1986
Break It Down is a short story published by Lydia Davis in 1986. It is part of a short story collection also titled Break It Down. In addition to the McArthur Fellowship, Davis is the 2013 winner of the Man Booker Prize, along with many other awards. She is considered to be one of the greatest minds of contemporary American fiction.
The short story Break It Down is the stream of consciousness of an unnamed protagonist as he calculates the economic and emotional cost of the time he spent with a woman. He calculates the money spent for the motel, the ticket, the food, and compares its benefits with regards to the emotional gain of being with the woman. The juxtaposition of the cold, hard mathematical calculations alongside the memories of the warm, soft moments spent with his lover, make the story funny and earnest for the reader. The reader is given an insight into the protagonist’s stream of consciousness as he describes his conflicting narrative and balances economics and emotions.
Throughout the text, the reader understands the protagonist’s yearning for his lover. However, towards the end, when the two have to separate, is when the reader is able to understand the protagonist’s calculative and pragmatic approach towards his lover. In a heartfelt, albeit brief narrative, Davis gives the reader an insight into the mind of her protagonist, while ultimately leaving the reader sympathetic to him.
Mrs Dalloway, 1925
First published in 1925, Mrs Dalloway is an exploration of a post-war London through the eyes of a high-society protagonist, Clarrisa Dalloway. The novella which has won numerous accolades, including being on the Times list of the 100 best English language novels, is still being printed, and has also been adapted into a film.
In an intricately woven and layered narrative, Woolf’s novella travels back and forth in time and in and out of her protagonist’s mind. Through her paragraph-long, poetic sentences, Woolf describes Clarrisa’s thoughts, her actions, and her surroundings to the reader rendering them with the familiarity of living Clarissa’s life and experiencing her surroundings. Woolf further goes on to imbricate Clarrisa’s personal life against a setting of post-war London, further deepening the reader’s understanding of Clarissa’s thoughts.
The plotless novella does not just focus on Clarrisa’s stream of consciousness but gives the reader a peek into all its characters through their stream of consciousness. Woolf narrates the same incidences through the eyes of different characters, thereby giving the reader a well-rounded account of the incident as well as highlighting the importance of perception. In a narrative of multiple, interwoven stories, Woolf’s characters provide their subjective accounts and give the reader an understanding of the nature of time and perception of space.
With her beautifully constructed novella, Woolf’s language draws the reader in and leaves them with a heartfelt empathy towards the characters.
Good Old Neon, 2001
David Foster Wallace
Good Old Neon is a short story written by David Foster Wallace in 2001. It was later published as part of his short story collection titled Oblivion in 2004. The story was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 2002. Wallace, of Infinite Jest fame, committed suicide in 2004, making Oblivion his last piece of work.
Often referred to as a brilliant and indisputable masterpiece, in Good Old Neon, Wallace narrates the stream of consciousness of a young advertising executive, Neal. Neal is a disturbed character who gives the reader in-depth accounts of his conversations with his therapist where he repeatedly refers to himself as a manipulative, fraudulent, failure. Neal, tired of his self-deception, eventually commits suicide by crashing his car. The story’s narrative is Neal re-telling his story from beyond the grave, after his death. Despite its unsettling premise, Wallace writes a heart-breaking narrative detailing his protagonist’s psychological sufferings. The authenticity and extent of Neal’s sufferings were studied in a different light after Wallace himself committed suicide, thereby adding an additional layer to the narrative.
The reader is able to understand that Neal’s justifications for his fraudulent or manipulative behaviour are nothing other than the ordinary course of action for an advertising executive. We understand that Neal should not be put on trial as his actions do not have such grave consequences. Neal exaggerates his behaviour and is unable to reason with himself due to his disturbed psychological state. Neal constantly compares the subjective experience of his behaviour to an idealised non-existent idea of a guileless state. Neal’s self-consciousness is unable to view reality from an objective point of view, which is the cause of his anxious mental state.
Through an overwhelming narrative, Wallace gives the reader a peek into his own disturbed state and through an overly simplified and jargon free language, he presents us with an earnest, helpless, innocent protagonist.