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Home » » Write an essay on the 'Stream of Consciousness' novel of the Twentieth Century

The most important development in the technique of the modern novel is in the field of characterisation, where the novelist has devised the ‘stream of consciousness’ method. Should the personalities of characters in fiction emerge from a chronological account of a group of events and the characters' reaction to those events, or is it the duty of the novelist to take time off, as it were, in order to give a rounded description of the characters at the point when they are introduced into the story? Novelists have employed either of these two methods, and some have employed both at once. Sometimes the character as we see him first is a shadowy and indeterminate creature, but after his reactions to a chronological series of events have been presented we feel that he is now a living personality. In other novels we are given a descriptive portrait of the character first so that we know what to expect, and the resulting actions and reactions of the character provide a filling in and elaboration whose justness we can appreciate by comparison with the original poitrait. 

Partly as a result of increased speculation into the nature of states of consciousness, writers now have become dissatisfied with these traditional methods. They have realised that a psychologically accurate account of what a man is at any given moment can be given neither in terms of a static description of his character nor in terms of a group of chronologically arranged reactions to a series of circumstances. They have become interested in those aspects of consciousness which cannot be viewed as a progression of individual and self-existing moments, but which are essentially dynamic rather than static in nature and are independent of chronological sequence in a way that events arc not. Further, the quality of my experience of any new phenomenon (and hence my reaction to any new circumstances) is conditioned by a group of similar experiences scattered up and down through past time. the association of which with the present experience is what makes the present experience what it is. A novelist might try to indicate this by such digressions as, That reminded him of............. or There flashed through his brain a memory of........... ; or similar formulas. but modern writers have come to feel that this is too clumsy and artificial a way of expressing the mind's independence of chronological sequence. Some more fluid technique must be devised which will enable the author to utilise constantly those ever present contacts with the past which constitute the very stuff of consciousness. The static character sketch is, in the view of these writers, an arbitrary formalisation of the real facts, white, on the other hand, to make the presentation of states of mind dependent on the step-by-step relation of a sequence of events in time is to impose on the mental activity of men a servile dependence on chronology which is not in accordance with psychological fact. It was as a way out of this difficulty (arising from a new realisation of the complex and fluid nature of consciousness and the desire to utilise this realisation in the portrayal of character) that the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique was introduced into fiction. 

Looked at from one point of view, the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique is a means of escape from the tyranny of the time dimension. It is not only in distinct memories that the past impinges on the present, but also in much vaguer and more subtle ways, our mind floating off down some channel superficially irrelevant but really having a definite starting-off place from the initial situation; so that in presenting the characters’ reactions to events. the author will show us states of mind being modified by associations and recollections deriving from the present situation (in a sense creating the present situation) but referring to a constantly shifting series of events in the past. Now, if this presentation of a state of mind is done with care and skill, the author will be able to kill two birds with one stone: he will be able to indicate the precise nature of the present experience of his character and at the same time he will be giving, incidentally, facts about the characters’ life previous to this moment —previous, in all probability, to the moment at which the book opens; and thus though the chronological scheme of the novel may comprise only a very limited time, one day for example, the characters will emerge complete, both historically and psychologically.  This technique is an extension of more traditional memory digression. 

But a story which claims to unite in mutual progress the event and the characters’ reaction to the event, so that the mental picture is always dependent on the physical situation, can exploit the points in consciousness where the past impinges on, and indeed conditions. the present only as a digression, as an exception to the rule, which will become wearisome and disintegrating to the story if indulged in to any extent. What the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique enables the writer to do is to claim validity for these references and impingements, validity in their own right as it were, because it is through their means that the story is presented completely and welded into a unity. The new method ot describing state of mind becomes a new technique of story-telling. The ‘Stream of Consciousness’ technique is not simply a method of describing states of mind, because the method has implications for the whole technique of narrative and character drawing. If we ask ourselves why Joyce in ‘Ulysses’ is able while confining his chronological framework to the events of a single day, to relate so much more than merely the events of that single day and to make his hero perhaps the most complete and rounded character in all fiction, the answer lies in the potentialities—potentialities for narrative as well as for psychological analysis of this new method of describing mental attitudes. 

But the advantages for psychological analysis need not be minimised. The realisation, which this technique implies, of the fact that personality is in a constant states of unstable equilibrium, that a mood is never anything static but a fluid pattern, 'mixing memory with desire’, marks an important new development in the tradition of psychological fiction that has come down from Richardson. Richardson tried to present immediately the mood and thought of his characters by weaving his novels out of their letters. The defect here, from the modern standpoint, is that letters written to a given correspondent are bound to be subject to rigid formal limitations which prohibit the direct and adequate expression of states of mind. Only formalised aspects of an attitude can be expressed to any given audience (as every audience, even if the letter is a letter to the press, is a strictly denned and limited audience) however indefatigable a correspondent the character may be. The inhibiting effect of the audience would make the epistolary technique unacceptable to the modem psychological novelist. The diary would seem a more helpful device here than the letter but the author will always be at a loss to render convincing, the desire of the character to express completely and effectively his states of mind with reference to the given circumstances. Now, if the characters are not to be incredibly frank and self-conscious letter writer or continuously introverted egoists, the responsibility for putting the ‘stream of consciousness’ on to paper must not be laid on the characters but assumed - in full by the author. The technique of Dorothy Richardson or Virginia Woolf or James Joyce is in this respect no more 'real', than any other; it is a convention like other conventions, and it depends on our acceptance of the author's omniscience with no limitation whosoever; but, once the convention is accepted it makes possible the presentation of aspects of personality and of states of mind which were not possible in fiction utilising other techniques and other conventions.

That we are what we are in virtue of what we have been is an obvious platitude, but the full utilisation of the psychological aspects of this fact, to build up a new technique in fiction is a comparatively recent development in the history of literature. The wheel has come full circle since (he days when seventeenth century wits wrote characters’ types or eccentrics, Novelists who employ the ‘stream of consciousness , technique would deny that character portrayal is possible for the fiction writer at all; character is a process not a state, and the truth about men’s reactions to their environment~and what is & man's character but his reactions to environment, actual, and potential?—can be presented only through some attempt to show this process at work. An understanding of this view can help us to understand one of the main directive forces at work in contemporary fiction, 


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