The Art of Narrative: Stream of Consciousness
[A repeat of a popular article which appeared some years ago in this blog.]
* for American readers, the ‘football’ to which this article refers is the original English game, which you know as ‘soccer’ - though the principles described herein apply to just about any later variation of the game.
A few years ago, I was pleased to be able to fulfil one of my life’s dreams which was to be attend a professional Premier League football game.
A former student of mine had arranged tickets, and we sat high up in the stands, from where I was able to soak up the atmosphere of the place and the game — and quite an atmosphere it was. Noise surged around the stadium like an invisible living thing; gangs of fans, careful separated from each other by a highly visible police force, stared each other down over barricades with looks of tribal hatred I have never seen elsewhere. But there was joy too — elation when shots were made on the goals at either end, admiration at the levels of skill being demonstrated, and camaraderie amongst the attending spectators, people of all ages and dispositions, drawn together by their common support of a particular team.
Now it just so happened that, in this clash between the legendary Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs, there was a moment when the ball was fired toward the goal and was deflected by the keeper, but not before it bounced right on the goal line before flying away. And it just so happened that we were seated directly in alignment with that goal line — high up in the stands, but with a clear view of what had occurred. We knew for a fact that when the opposing crowd roared that a goal had been scored, the referee was quite correct in disallowing it — in the face of the almost tangible rage and protest which met his decision from the crowds who were not so well-placed to see the event. A few feet either way, and we would not have been able to see that the ball hadn’t crossed the line either, so the protests were understandable.
The rage eventually died down as the game went on — ending in an anti-climactic goalless draw, as it happened. Amongst my many memories of the occasion were the appalling fish and chips served from the vans just outside — not really food at all, but tasting like wet cardboard that had been recycled twice.
However, the point of this article is not simply to reminisce about a football match. I wanted to use the football game as an analogy to try to bring to life what we mean by ‘narrative viewpoint’ in fiction, and so help you, perhaps, to decide how best to present a story that you might be thinking about.
To give you an idea what I mean, let’s take a look at a game of football from the viewpoint of the ball. From the moment that the opening whistle blows, the ball is kicked and is bounced literally all over the place — high in the air, along the ground, being passed with precision or not between players, aimed at the goal, shot into the sky, and occasionally headed. If you were to attach a camera to it, the resulting film would be chaotic: images whirling around in quick succession, up and down losing all meaning, with no stable point from which to gain any kind of perspective. The ninety minutes of the game would be a mass of compressed motions, with barely a moment of rest.
Some pieces of narrative can be like this — breathless, random, swift and without any apparent order. Stream of consciousness, that style or technique of writing that attempts to capture the natural flow of a character's thinking process, can seem like this. Sensory impressions, incomplete ideas, jarring or unusual syntax, changed grammar are tools used by this kind of writing to enable readers to ‘listen in’ on a character's thoughts. Language is used in unconventional ways to try to replicate the complicated pathways of thinking as it bounces around in the mind. The term ‘stream of consciousness’ originated with psychologists in the 19th century, as a term to describe the constant flow of subjective thoughts, feelings, memories, and observations of human experience. In the early 20th century, literary critics began to use it to describe a narrative technique pioneered by writers like Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, writers who were interested in describing the characters’ thoughts, ideas, and internal development rather than the action of the plot. Unlike an interior monologue, stream of consciousness tries to make the reader experience the internal thoughts of a character in the same way that the character is thinking them.
For example, in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, the author lets the reader into the character's thoughts by using long sentences with semicolons showing a slow drift of ideas and the transitions between thoughts:
She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fraulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.
We watch as Mrs. Dalloway's mind moves from observations about things she is observing to reflections on life, to memories of childhood, then back to the taxi cabs and Peter, managing to convey not only the content but the process of Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts. From a reader’s perspective, though, the thing that is challenged is perspective — there is very little distance through which a reader can measure what is occurring or its relationship to anything else in the narrative. Like the football, the reader is ‘kicked around’ or rolled along very much at the ‘effect’ point of the writer, with no clear view as to where the story is heading or indeed what it may be about. It is not possible, to use the analogy, to see whether balls have crossed goal lines in the same way as in a traditionally told story. The communion might be achieved with the inner life of a character, but that is both its success and its limitation.
In William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying, the character Jewel expresses his feelings about the fact that, as his mother is dying, his half-brother is noisily building her coffin just outside her window:
Because I said If you wouldn't keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn't get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell's arm. I said if you'd just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you're tired you cant breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the county coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.
The repetition of the phrase ‘one lick less’ indicates the repetitive noises made by the saw and the adze outside the window. The sentences in the passage wander unexpectedly and the reader is left with an overall sense of the meandering thoughts and emotions Jewel experiences as he visits his dying mother, but the quality is also somewhat like drowning, losing one’s bearings, or being kicked around like a football.
What if a narrative were to take a step back, as it were, from the football, and take on the viewpoint of a single player?