So this is the last week of the English Lit. since 1800 course, and I’ve actually really liked it. Getting ready to start American Lit until 1865, so hopefully that’ll be good, too. For my last post, I’m putting my final essay on stream of consciousness as used by Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway. It was probably one of my favorite books that we read in this course. Of course, I’ve liked all the things I’ve read by Virginia Woolf. So, anyway, here’s this:
Stream of Consciousness as a Technique
The stream of consciousness technique is often used as a writing exercise, but finding lengthy works of fiction written in this style is rare, perhaps because it is often difficult to read. While reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, the reader can expect moments of confusion as to whose thoughts are being recorded and what events are actually occurring as opposed to what the character is musing. However, it is also a delightful read in many ways not only because there are many insights into the thought patterns of both “sane” and “insane” persons, but also because an otherwise dull stroll through an average English day in London becomes a menagerie of interesting moments. For these reasons, stream of consciousness as a technique for longer fiction can be both discouraged and applauded.
First, the cons of this technique are readily apparent. Frequently while reading Mrs. Dalloway or any other novel written in this style, the reader can expect headaches during long reading sessions, and it is possible that there will be moments of altered perception after setting the book aside. Winding through a character’s thoughts—while wonderful for the writer to gain a deeper understanding of their creation as an exercise—can become tedious for the reader who can often feel as though they are missing large pieces of the story. In fact, it is possible to come away from the work feeling as though one knows less about the characters than in the beginning of the novel. Another detriment to the technique is the uncertainty of actual events versus imagined ones. In cinema, this is often used purposely to show some horrific event, only to have the character awaken and it turns out to have been a dream. With Woolf’s novel, there are many instances where something terrible seems to be happening, but then it becomes clear that this was actually only in the character’s imagination. This most often happens with the character Septimus, who appears to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, sometimes the events are not cleared up at all, and it remains uncertain what has actually occurred. This issue, particularly concerning Septimus, brings up another topic of condemnation for the technique: it makes the characters unreliable narrators. As their thoughts meander and events that they imagine do not turn out to be fact consistently, the reader begins to distrust them, which in turn leads to distrust of the author.
Although the previous paragraph details many unfortunate side effects of the stream of consciousness technique, there are many other things to recommend it as a style of writing for longer fiction. For instance, one of the main reasons people read fiction at all is to get inside another person’s head. This technique, more than any other, lends itself to that purpose because that is all it is: a look at the flow of a person’s (or multiple persons’) thoughts. Despite the confusion and the uncertainty of events, the reader comes away feeling as though they know the character intimately; whether the reader could actually tell you anything concrete about the character or not. Also, the stream of consciousness technique has the uncanny ability to turn a story lacking in plot into an interesting read anyway. Most American stories today are completely plot driven, and that is what most modern readers expect. However, it is possible to become deeply immersed in a story such as Mrs. Dalloway, in which arguably nothing happens, even for modern readers. The alien quality of the writing style distracts from the boring storyline.
The whole point of the stream of consciousness technique, as it appears to this reader, is to gain deeper insight into the psychological processes of other people, even though fictitious. A balance must be struck. When handled properly, as with Mrs. Dalloway, the technique becomes an intriguing walk through a day in the life colored by all the thoughts accompanying that day. However, if mishandled, the technique can make the characters more opaque rather than better understood and any story at all hopelessly confusing. Of course, this relies largely on the skill of the writer at using the technique rather than the stream of consciousness method itself. Yet, that would seem to be a debate of semantics and is not the point of this paper. This reader merely maintains that it is impossible to either fully discredit or fully embrace the technique used in Mrs. Dalloway and many other stories by Virginia Woolf.