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How James Joyce Developed His Stream-of-Consciousness Novels

Andrew has been writing for decades, publishing articles online and in print. His many interests include literature, the arts, and nature.

James Joyce photographed by C.Ruf in 1918

James Joyce photographed by C.Ruf in 1918

James Joyce, Edouard Dujardin, and the Stream of Consciousness

In 1922, Irish novelist and writer James Joyce published one of the most influential and difficult novels of modern times, Ulysses. He used a relatively new narrative technique known as stream of consciousness: going inside the characters' minds to reveal innermost thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

Joyce acknowledged that the idea for his controversial technique came from a French novelist, Edouard Dujardin; in particular from a short novel he'd written that appeared in serial form in a Paris magazine, La Revue Wagnerienne, in 1887. These chapters were collected into a book and published in 1888.

One day, Joyce reportedly bought the book at a French railway bookstall, and that Dujardin's book, Les lauriers sont coupés (the laurels have been cut), sparked Joyce's interest.

Dujardin's story follows a young Frenchman, Daniel Prince, as he strolls through Paris streets for six hours thinking about his affection for an actress named Leah.

As an introduction to stream of consciousness, I recommend that you read James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which marks the author's first journey into stream-of-consciousness narration. But who was it who first coined this now well-known phrase?

Who First Coined the Phrase "Stream of Consciousness"?

It was the brother of writer Henry James, psychologist William James, who first wrote about stream of consciousness in his The Principles of Psychology, published in several volumes between1878 and 1890 and collected in one book in 1890, the culmination of his work on the theory of mind. His was one of the first attempts to acknowledge the inner life of the mental processes.

In the first recorded mention of the term, William James wrote: "A river or stream is the metaphor by which it (consciousness) is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life."

From Psychological Theory to Literary Device

The Principles of Psychology (1890) proved to be a groundbreaking work, one that opened the door to a brand new understanding of interior mental worlds.

Aspiring young writers, keen to sharpen their techniques and ride the modernist wave, began to experiment in prose. For some novelists, doing what William James suggested—"looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover" and expressing the contents of a character's mind without interruption or mediation—became all-important.

This was a radical turn away from conventional narrative prose. In the US, William James was the first to give university lessons in psychology. The birth of the interior monologue had begun.

Fiction Writers and the Novel

Fiction writers and novelists before Dujardin and Joyce had used conventional techniques to help the reader get into the minds, hearts, and souls of their characters. This shift allowed readers to enter the river of the mind and follow the flow of the character's feelings, thoughts, ideas, associations, and subconscious perceptions.

Which Novelists Were the First to Use Stream of Consciousness?

  • Edouard Dujardin (1861–1949) pioneered the technique of opening up and displaying mental processes directly to the reader.
  • Dorothy Richardson (1873–1959) used the technique in Pilgrimage, 1915.
  • James Joyce (1882–1941) used it in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) and took the technique to the extreme in his later novels.
  • Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) used it in Mrs Dalloway, 1925.
  • William Faulkner (1897–1962) in As I Lay Dying, 1930.
  • Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) in his trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies, and The Unnameable.
  • Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) in On the Road in 1957.

Who Likes Reading Interior Monologues and Streams of Consciousness?

Stream-of-consciousness narration isn't for everyone. Some writers are not convinced of the technique's effectiveness, saying it distracts from the plot and puts the reader off.

There's no doubt that some of Joyce's work is perplexing to read; innovative it may be but the average reader might liken it to a form of mental torture! Personally, I think books like Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake are best approached as poetry: You have to alter your mindset before taking them on. Do not expect a straightforward read!

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What Is So Different About the Stream-of-Consciousness Technique?

Stream of consciousness differs from other narrative styles in that the author lays out for the reader the unbroken and unedited flow of a character's mind. As a technique, it can involve improper grammar, unusual punctuation, abrupt changes of theme, and random sentence structures.

What a writer offers when using this technique is a character's private mindscape in which sensory perceptions co-exist with half-formed ideas and raw thoughts and feelings. The writer is essentially digging deep into the character's psyche and airing out the subconscious material that exists in the head, heart, and soul.

Stream-of-consciousness novels and stories began to appear steadily, from various authors, from about 1914 and continue to this day. Although Dujardin and Richardson did it first, James Joyce is generally considered the king of the genre. His books Ulysses (published in 1922) and Finnegan's Wake (1939) are excellent examples and are looked upon as masterpieces of the genre.

Les Lauriers Sont Coupes, Edouard Dujardin's Breakthrough Novel

The short novel Les lauriers sont coupes was translated into English and published in 1938 as We'll to the Woods No More. This innocent-sounding title comes from a French poem "Nous n'irons plus au bois, les lauriers sont coupes" (the laurels are cut down). Les lauriers is seen as the first serious attempt by a novelist to use the interior monologue throughout.

Joyce then made this stream of consciousness technique his own, and it has become one of the most important tools of the modern fiction writer.

Stream of consciousness is a literary style in which a character's thoughts, feelings, and reactions are shown in a continuous, uninterrupted flow, like a river.

Stream of consciousness is a literary style in which a character's thoughts, feelings, and reactions are shown in a continuous, uninterrupted flow, like a river.

Examples of Stream-of-Consciousness Writing

An Excerpt From Edouard Dujardin's Novel:

and, with these hands, with my hands and my arms and my heart, steam, a tremor, a warmth, a poignance, it rises to my eyes ; I almost faint; oh,I want you; no formalities; the humble love, the beautiful projects, with late loves prepared so long, departures, renunciation, too bad the renunciation, my lover, if I want you; and I look at her pale flesh, harbinger of foolish joys, the one I would give to a dream. Our hands pull and push; I am back two steps; she comes to me; she puts her hands on my shoulders; and, dreamlike, she intoxicates me with her fairytale voice.

Joyce published Dubliners, which includes fifteen short stories about Dublin characters, in 1914. Two stories in particular stick out as early trials of stream of consciousness technique, "Araby" and "Eveline."

An Excerpt From James Joyce's "Araby":

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs' cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O'Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

An Excerpt From Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Her heart simple and wilful as a bird's heart? Towards dawn he awoke. what sweet music ! His soul was all dewy wet. Over his limbs in sleep pale cool waves of light had passed. He lay still, as if his soul lay amid cool waters, conscious of faint sweet music. His mind was waking slowly to a tremulous morning knowledge, a morning inspiration. A spirit filled him, pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music. But how faintly it was inbreathed, how passionlessly, as if the seraphim themselves were breathing upon him ! His soul was waking slowly, fearing to awake wholly. It was that windless hour of dawn when madness wakes and strange plants open to the light and the moth flies forth silently. An enchantment of the heart! The night had been enchanted. In a dream or vision he had known the ecstasy of seraphic life. Was it an instant of enchant- ment only or long hours and years and ages ?

In Joyce's Ulysses, the Narrative Becomes More Extreme

In Ulysses, Joyce takes the idea of consciousness as a stream and runs with it! His narrative becomes increasingly manic and ends with large, dense paragraphs of unpunctuated thoughts from the mind of Molly Bloom, wife of Leopold, the lead character.

Excerpts From Ulysses:

His heart astir he pushed in the door of the Burton restaurant. Stink gripped his trembling breath: pungent meatjuice, slush of greens. See the animals feed.

Men, men, men.

Perched on high stools by the bar, hats shoved back, at the tables calling for more bread no charge, swilling, wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food, their eyes bulging, wiping wetted moustaches. A pallid suetfaced young man polished his tumbler knife fork and spoon with his napkin. New set of microbes. A man with an infant's saucestained napkin tucked round him shovelled gurgling soup down his gullet. A man spitting back on his plate: halfmasticated gristle: gums: no teeth to chewchewchew it. Chump chop from the grill. Bolting to get it over. Sad booser's eyes. Bitten off more than he can chew. Am I like that? See ourselves as others see us. Hungry man is an angry man. Working tooth and jaw. Don't! O! A bone! That last pagan king of Ireland Cormac in the schoolpoem choked himself at Sletty southward of the Boyne. Wonder what he was eating. Something galoptious. Saint Patrick converted him to Christianity. Couldn't swallow it all however.

Another Excerpt:

the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Joyce's Finnegans Wake

This novel has been described as "a beast of a book," "the ultimate Modernist work of fiction," and "A great riddle or maze. An amalgamation of gods. Obscure pun-drenched birdtongue, strangest little song you’ll ever damn hear."

Joyce worked his way towards this novel, digging into his psyche to produce a book some claim the internet was created for! It has a cult status. Some say that only an Irishman (or woman) can truly get the gist of Finnegan's Wake by wringing it out loud in a thick brogue at 3 a.m.

Don't expect a straightforward journey if you decide to read this book. It is a mountain under the sea, at night, with a storm overhead; wriggling, alien-like creatures float into your mind, into your ears, out of your eyes, and back again. If there is refuge on this mountain, it could take decades to find, and even then, it could be an illusion.

If you want to read this incredible book you can find it here.

Excerpt From Finnegans Wake:

Sniffer of carrion, premature gravedigger, seeker of the nest of evil in the bosom of a good word, you, who sleep at our vigil and fast for our feast, you with your dislocated reason, have cutely foretold, a jophet in your own absence, by blind poring upon your many scalds and burns and blisters, impetiginous sore and pustules, by the auspices of that raven cloud, your shade, and by the auguries of rooks in parlament, death with every disaster, the dynamitisation of colleagues, the reducing of records to ashes, the levelling of all customs by blazes, the return of a lot of sweetempered gunpowdered didst unto dudst but it never stphruck your mudhead’s obtundity (O hell, here comes our funeral! O pest, I’ll miss the post!) that the more carrots you chop, the more turnips you slit, the more murphies you peel, the more onions you cry over, the more bullbeef you butch, the more mutton you crackerhack, the more potherbs you pound, the fiercer the fire and the longer your spoon and the harder you gruel with more grease to your elbow the merrier fumes your new Irish stew.

The Progression of Stream of Consciousness in Joyce's Work

Comparing Dubliners with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, one can see Joyce's progress as he experimented with the stream-of-consciousness mode. Each new book becomes more challenging for the reader.

Ulysses for example has lots of dialogue interspersed with Leopold Bloom's inner thoughts. Towards the end of the book, lengthy paragraphs become the norm. These long, slippery chains of monologue are hard to get through for most readers.

Finnegans Wake is the ultimate: an extremely difficult book that I've only ever dipped into on the odd occasion when I'm feeling brave or tormented by the world.

If you haven't read any Joyce I'd recommend starting with Dubliners. These are approachable stories, well worth the read.

For those who want to delve further into the world of Joyce here is an excellent link that will take you to plays, music and poetry, all inspired by Finnegans Wake, his magnum opus.

Sources

The novels and short stories of James Joyce; Manuscript drafts of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce - The British Library (bl.uk)

Robinson, K. E. “The Stream of Consciousness Technique and the Structure of Joyce's ‘Portrait.’” James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1, 1971, pp. 63–84. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25486944. Accessed 12 June 2021


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Andrew Spacey

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