Weekend Picks: Three Stream Of Consciousness Books To Start With

The term was coined in Principles of Psychology (1890) by the American scholar William James, which utilized the illustration of a stream to portray the stream of thoughts, ideas, sentiments, and memories that go through any individual's brain. Many authors in the mid twentieth century believed that they could get nearer to reality not by "telling" but rather by subjectively "showing" the stream of consciousness.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The novel is structured around the elements of a typical day for Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society lady in England, post-World War I. It is one of Virginia Woolf’s best-known books.

Made from Woolf’s two short stories, “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” and “The Prime Minister,” the novel tells the story of Clarissa’s arrangements for a gathering she will have that night. From an inside viewpoint, the story goes back and forth in time through the characters’ thoughts to build a picture of the social structure between the two wars, and Clarissa’s life.

“Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely? All this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?” 

“Mrs. Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.” 

Another significant part of Woolf’s book is her portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. This disorder was not recognized until the 1970s despite the fact that documentation of its symptoms existed as early as the 1940s, when World War II veterans were being treated for mental issues. The way Woolf dives into this subject, in 1925, is therefore quite significant. In those days, ‘shell shock’ implied that you were experiencing a type of “weariness,” as though veterans of the Great War were just having a rough week.

From this perspective, Septimus is a tragically defined character, a casualty of his time and place. His mental anguish appears to be reflected in the sufferings of the Mrs. Dalloway. Indeed, regardless of running into each other only in the most dynamic of ways, Clarissa and Septimus have a lot in common. They both battle to adjust their private lives to the requirements of social norms, they both disguise their feelings, and they both wind up making troublesome decisions.

“A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” 

At first glance, the novel might give the impression of being an exhausting record of an exhausting lady preparing for an exhausting gathering, with multiple intervals and individuals meandering around London over the span of the day, thinking a wide range of thoughts, ideas, and flashbacks. Each time you look at this novel to investigate it, something new about the novel strikes you, until you are fully confused on what happened when and where, what to take as a fact and what as an idea. But that’s when the real journey begins.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

The book follows the religious and scholarly rising of youthful Stephen Dedalus, the fictional conscience of Joyce himself, as an allusion to Greek folklore. Stephen rebels against and questions the Catholic and Irish traditions under which he has grown up, concluding with his exile from Ireland to Europe.

“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.” 

In Portrait, Joyce wanders inside the characters for which no dialect yet exists, examining the space between their individuality alone and the reader’s, examining the movement of our thoughts, the streams of our states of mind, and emotions as they form aimlessly along the lines of life.

“The soul … has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” 

Portrait is about a young man’s spirit, and what makes Joyce’s novel so supernatural, what makes it basically abstract, is that the victory of this individual alone — which is uncommon — is also a triumph of something which is in all of us.

“His heart danced upon her movements like a cork upon a tide. He heard what her eyes said to him from beneath their cowl and knew that in some dim past, whether in life or reverie, he had heard their tale before.”

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury shows the absolutes of the Compson family, like most critical characters in literature: delightful, defiant Caddy; manchild Benjy; neurotic, masochist Quentin; Jason, the fierce skeptic; and Dilsey, their black helper. Their lives divided and harrowed by history and inheritance, the character’s voices and activities work to make a great Faulkner masterpiece and one of the best books of the twentieth century.

“…I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” 

Getting yourself into The Sound and the Fury with no introduction resembles driving through a haze or into a blinding glare—you can’t exactly tell who will be who; male or female; second, or third relative; family or companion or outsider. However, continuously, before dissatisfaction has an opportunity to set in, the haze starts to burn off and the glare turns out to be less intimidating and far more interesting than you thought.

“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” 

Since the main segment happens on the day between the third and the fourth section, skimming through some of it again before reading the last part may be a good idea. You will be astonished by what you can gather from pieces that had at first appeared to be mysterious and fragmented. This is a book made for re-reading.

“It’s not when you realise that nothing can help you – religion, pride, anything – it’s when you realise that you don’t need any aid.” 

“I’d have wasted a lot of time and trouble before I learned that the best way to take all people, black or white, is to take them for what they think they are, then leave them alone.” 

Photo: Shutterstock

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