Conquering Stream of Consciousness Narrative -Katie Toomb

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Last year I took several classes focused on Southern literature and struggled the most to keep up with the books we read by Faulkner.  His use of run-on sentences and lengthy descriptions kept me scrambling to remember what the subject of the sentence had been.  These sentences were additionally made difficult by the stream of consciousness method he is perhaps most famous for using in The Sound and the Fury (1929).  Faulkner was the first author I had read who had used the stream of consciousness method, also referred to as interior monologue, in which the thoughts and thought processes of a character are extensively detailed and written to give the reader perspective into of character’s mind. Having finished last year feeling comfortable with the most difficult literature I had ever experienced, I was not prepared to face the difficulty of an author preceding Faulkner who had also used stream of consciousness in a novel.

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This term, I am taking a class called Studies in British Fiction Since 1900.  With two books under my belt, Elizabeth Bowen’s Heat of the Day (1948) and Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907), I came into my third week of school ready to tackle Virginia Woolf’s acclaimed novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925).  I had been forewarned that Woolf used the stream of consciousness technique but I wasn’t worried.  After all, hadn’t I just spent an entire year studying Faulkner, a frequent employer of the method?  I’ve got to say, Virginia, I didn’t see you coming.

Upon opening Mrs. Dalloway, I immediately realized that it is brimming with interior monologue.  Woolf deftly jumps from the mind of character to character, some of which never even cross paths in the novel.  In a scene describing an airplane writing an advertisement for toffee in the sky, Woolf gives the reader insight into the minds of at least three different people witnessing the same event from various places around the Westminster area of London.  I was prepared for this.  Reading Faulkner had taught me to pay close attention to the subject of every sentence, and I found myself able to track these mind-jumps rather well, although I did occasionally have to look back to the beginning of some sentences to reestablish whose perspective I was currently in.

What makes Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway so difficult to read is not this constant changing of character perspectives, but rather the lack of definitive breaks.  Within the book, which is around 190 pages depending on the edition and formatting, Woolf never breaks up the plot with chapters.  While Faulkner is difficult, he at least adheres to some sort of structure, often creating different sections for each individual character.  Woolf is not so kind.  The book reads from beginning to end with no obvious breaking point, as if the entire novel is abiding by the stream of consciousness technique and continuing on without stopping.  In a way, it is almost as if Mrs. Dalloway has a mind of its own. Unknown

Regardless of the challenge involved, Mrs. Dalloway is a wonderful example of how an author can utilize stream of consciousness to give the reader an intimate look into the lives of the characters involved.  While I never thought I would pick up a book that would stylistically challenge me more than a book by William Faulkner, I’ve got to hand it to Virginia Woolf, she has Faulkner beat.

– Katie Toomb

About Ann Persons

Annie Persons is currently the managing editor for Shenandoah. She is a junior English major and Creative Writing minor at Washington and Lee University. Her favorite pastimes are reading and writing, and she hopes to continue engaging with literature for the rest of her life.

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5 Responses to Conquering Stream of Consciousness Narrative -Katie Toomb

  1. Ann Persons says:

    According to Professor Adams, Faulkner knew that his own work was difficult, and wanted to publish The Sound and the Fury with a color-code that would specify whether a character was recalling a past event or thinking in the present moment. But his publishers wouldn’t let him. I wonder what Virginia Woolf would have thought about that idea?

  2. R.T. Smith says:

    Now that you’ve outlined the difficulties of Mrs. D, what are the rewards? Is she accomplishing something concerning plot, character or atmosphere with this technique which could not be achieved through more conventional narrative? It’s been forty years since I read the book, so I’ struggling to remember.

  3. ktoomb says:

    By using stream of consciousness, Virginia Woolf gives us an intimate look into the minds of the characters she creates, making them much more realistic and sympathetic. While readers are more easily able to identify an individual character’s flaws with such an all-encompassing look into his mind, these flaws are humanizing. In addition, with stream-of-consciousness, the reader is getting not only the “important” thoughts of a character, the thoughts that are directly related to the plot, but also is able to examine the more fleeting mundane thoughts of the character. These seemingly uninteresting thoughts give the reader even more clues about the psychology of a character, and therefore, they can read the book with a more well rounded perspective.

  4. Madeline Thorpe says:

    I believe novel Mrs. Dalloway encapsulates both the mind and the woman. As the reader, we peer into her mind, her pain, her activities- all bound in the perimeters of a single day and book. I feel as though the stream of consciousness style gives a unique glimpse into the multi-faceted and sometimes nonsensical musings of the mind. I first encountered this style in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness years ago. While Mrs. Dalloway indeed presents quite the challenge, I believe the blend of psychology and literature is fascinating and ultimately an admirable feat.

  5. Taylor McPherson says:

    I appreciate the stream of consciousness narration a lot more here than in any Joyce I’ve read, mostly because Clarissa Dalloway is so sassy. She makes a lot of witty and snarky comments on society that I think are hilarious, and it’s almost masked by the stream of consciousness to make it sound more formal. If she had just been talking out loud to her maid or something it would be very different!

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