Stream Of Consciousness First Person Narrative Essays

The short story „The Mark on the Wall“ by Virginia Woolf has just one main character: The first person narrator, who is unnamed and who could be Woolf herself or at least a female. As the speaker is part of the story, she is subjected and limited as a narrator. There is not much known about her except the fact that she is sitting in a chair and staring at a mark on the wall, philoso- phizing about the mark and what it could be as well as letting her mind wander around to several different things. This character has an opinion about the mark on the wall which changes throughout the story and which leads her to quite a few different thoughts and topics as for example the previous house owners, Shakespeare, God and even Charles I.. Therefore one can see, that the narrator jumps around from thought to thought - some seem to be more relevant than others - and returns to the mark on the wall from time to time. One can here identify the first person narrator’s stream-of-consciousness as the point of view of this story. This is “a continuous flow of ideas, thoughts, and feelings, as they are experienced by a person” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, “stream of consciousness”) and will be explained below with the help of examples throughout this essay. If one has a closer look at the short story, the speaker’s mind and thoughts seem to be an interior monologue, in which the thought and ideas are just loosely related impressions and not well-structured sequences of thoughts and emotions.

As the story is dealing with the thoughts and - infrequently - also the speech of the narrator, there is no true plot here. The stream-of-consciousness replaces the traditional plot in “The Mark on the Wall” as it is the main narra- tive technique. There is nothing really happening throughout the story other than the thoughts of the narrator, which are interrupted by the view of the mark on the wall and speculations about what it is for or why it is there. The follow- ing text passage shows the way of her thoughts in a distinct way, which recurs throughout the story.

The mark was a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece. How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way […]. If that mark was made by a nail, it can’t have been for a picture, it must have been for a miniature — the miniature of a lady with white pow- dered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations. A fraud of course, for the people who had this house before us would have chosen pictures in that way — an old picture for an old room.

That is the sort of people they were — very interesting people, and I think of them so often […].

It seems as Woolf’s style is more important than a plot for the understanding of the story, therefore there is no true plot. The partly long and partly short sentences work as a functional unity and are used for stylistic purposes and therefore replace the plot.

From there, one can see that the dark spot on the wall is the focus of the sto- ry. The narrator returns to it every now and then, so it seems, as the mark is the anchor to her stream-of-consciousness. Her thoughts revise around the black spot, which she discusses and then goes on tangents repeatedly. As the mark was “black upon the white wall”, the narrator’s thoughts uses contrasts to this dark color as she thinks about “purple and red light”. The colors ‘red’ and ‘white’ are mentioned as well in contrast to the mark: “the miniature of a lady with white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carna- tions.” In this context it is interesting that the flowers of the just mentioned simile are given a color, but the “three chrysanthemums in the round glass bowl” which stand on her mantelpiece are not given any color. This antago- nism could be a sign that her stream-of-consciousness - her thoughts and her mind - is more colorful and brighter to her than her real life. Throughout the story her perspective of the mark on the wall changes even though she never get up from her seat, as one can see in the following passages:

The mark was a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece. […] If that mark was made by a nail […].

But as for that mark, I’m not sure about it; I don’t believe it was made by a nail after all; it’s too big, too round, for that. I might get up, but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn’t be able to say for certain; because once a thing’s done, no one ever knows how it happened.

And yet that mark on the wall is not a hole at all. It may even be caused by some round black substance, such as a small rose leaf, left over from the summer […].

In certain lights that mark on the wall seems actually to project from the wall. Nor is it entirely circular. I cannot be sure, but it seems to cast a perceptible shadow, suggesting that if I ran my finger down that strip of the wall it would, at a certain point, mount and descend a small tumulus […].

At first she thinks, that the mark is in indentation, for example a hole in the

wall caused by a nail. As the story moved forward and she has been lost in her thoughts for a while, the narrator noticed that it could be a discoloration of the wall - maybe caused by a leaf. In the third part she conceived that is could be a protrusion, which you can touch and feel with your fingers.

The stream-of-consciousness is achieved in several ways: long versus short sentences, the repetition of words and events, and the use of punctuation. These all add up to the complexity of the sentence structure in Woolf’s short story. The long and short sentences appear throughout the text frequently. With help of punctuation - and in some cases even without it - Woolf has produced sev- eral sentences that were remarkably long, for example the following one.

I cannot be sure, but it seems to cast a perceptible shadow, sug- gesting that if I ran my finger down that strip of the wall it would, at a certain point, mount and descend a small tumulus, a smooth tumu- lus like those barrows on the South Downs which are, they say, ei- ther tombs or camps.

It is unfeasible to retain the stream-of-consciousness by shortening the long sentences, because thoughts are rarely formulated in short, perfectly fitting sentences to an audience. Due to the fact that reader is looking in on the narrator’s mind, they will have to work to understand it.

The long sentences are counterbalanced by very short sentences and even ungrammatical phrases. “But after life” is an example of this, because it is a fragment, not a sentence. But as these are the narrators thoughts and not her speech grammatical structure matters not that much. Woolf also combines short units to form a longer sentence, as in this example: “But for that mark, I'm not sure about it; I don't believe it was made by a nail after all; it's too big, too round, for that”. Fragments, or sequences of fragments, tend to occur at the beginning of paragraphs, in order that they present a new thought or a sudden jump from one thought to another or from a thought back to the mark on the wall.

There are two more ways that are used to shape the speaker’s stream-of- consciousness: repetition and punctuation. Repetition is attained by the recur- rence of certain objects and thoughts and also by the repetition of words. The most obvious repetition throughout the story is the mark on the wall, which is the title of the story as well and therefore the center of this story and represents the central object, which the narrator goes back to from time to time. This is remarkably as each and every thought is born from and returns to that one mark. But there are more motifs and themes that reiterate during the story, for example Whitaker and his Table of Precedency as well the keynote of nature, which are iterated throughout the story as well. These two motifs are chosen to show the difference between man-made reality as you see in Whitaker’s Table of Precedency, where a change can and should take place over time, and the true reality, which is envisioned in nature here and which will remain the same even after manhood is gone.

But after life. The slow pulling down of thick green stalks so that the cup of the flower, as it turns over, deluges one with purple and red light. Why, after all, should one not be born there as one is born here, helpless, speechless, unable to focus one’s eyesight, groping at the roots of the grass, at the toes of the Giants? As for saying which are trees, and which are men and women, or whether there are such things, that one won’t be in a condition to do for fifty years or so. There will be nothing but spaces of light and dark, intersected by thick stalks, and rather higher up perhaps, rose-shaped blots of an indistinct colour—dim pinks and blues—which will, as time goes on, become more definite, become—I don’t know what . . .

Punctuation in “The Mark on the Wall” is basically used to break off or to connect ideas and thoughts. In this short story the author uses dashes and ellipses to accomplish this goal. Dashes are usually used to disconnect one thought from another, to form a conclusion or to elaborate on another part of the sentence, as one may see in the following example.

To show how very little control of our possessions we have— what an accidental affair this living is after all our civilization—let me just count over a few of the things lost in one lifetime, beginning, for that seems always the most mysterious of losses—what cat would gnaw, what rat would nibble—three pale blue canisters of book-binding tools?

Dashes appear in the text oftentimes and so do ellipses. These are used when her thoughts are wandering off. The Ellipses are often used at the end of a paragraph in this story: “Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard . . .”. Dashes as well as ellipses are typically not used in stories on a regular basis, which is why it is important to mention them here. They underline the structure of the story and the stream-of-consciousness of the narrator.

To put it in a nutshell, one can say that Woolf accomplished the transition from a traditional first person narration to a steam-of-consciousness-narration in “The Mark on the Wall”. Due to the balance between long and short sentences and phrases as well as repetitions and a special punctuation usage, one can say that the story has no true plot but is just a internal monologue, which features the mark on the wall as a flash point for an exploration of the everactive mind of the first person narrator.

1921 words


Hornby, Albert Sidney, et al. Oxford Advanced Learner ’ s Dictionary of Current English. ed. Sally Wehmeier. Oxford: OUP, 2000.

Woolf, Virginia. “A Mark on the Wall."A Haunted House and other stories. Web edition. The University of Adelaide Library, University of Adelaide, South Australia 5005, 29 November 2015


For other uses, see Stream of consciousness (disambiguation).

This article is about the literary device. For the prewriting technique, see Free writing.

In literary criticism, stream of consciousness is a narrative mode or method that attempts to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind.[1] The term was coined by William James in 1890 in his The Principles of Psychology, and in 1918 the novelist May Sinclair (1863–1946) first applied the term stream of consciousness, in a literary context, when discussing Dorothy Richardson's (1873–1957) novels. Pointed Roofs (1915), the first work in Richardson's series of 13 semi-autobiographical novels titled Pilgrimage,[2] is the first complete stream of consciousness novel published in English. However, in 1934, Richardson comments that "Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf & D.R. ... were all using 'the new method', though very differently, simultaneously".[3] There were, however, many earlier precursors and the technique is still used by contemporary writers.


Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that attempts to give the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue (see below), or in connection to his or her actions. Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative leaps in thought and lack of some or all punctuation.[4] Stream of consciousness and interior monologue are distinguished from dramatic monologue and soliloquy, where the speaker is addressing an audience or a third person, which are chiefly used in poetry or drama. In stream of consciousness the speaker's thought processes are more often depicted as overheard in the mind (or addressed to oneself); it is primarily a fictional device.

The term "stream of consciousness" was coined by philosopher and psychologistWilliam James in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits ... it is nothing joined; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let's call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.[5]

In the following example of stream of consciousness from James Joyce's Ulysses, Molly seeks sleep:

a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early [6]

Interior monologue[edit]

While many sources use the terms stream of consciousness and interior monologue as synonyms, the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms suggests, that "they can also be distinguished psychologically and literarily. In a psychological sense, stream of consciousness is the subject‐matter, while interior monologue is the technique for presenting it". And for literature, "while an interior monologue always presents a character's thoughts 'directly', without the apparent intervention of a summarizing and selecting narrator, it does not necessarily mingle them with impressions and perceptions, nor does it necessarily violate the norms of grammar, or logic- but the stream‐of‐consciousness technique also does one or both of these things."[7] Similarly the Encyclopædia Britannica Online, while agreeing that these terms are "often used interchangeably", suggests, that "while an interior monologue may mirror all the half thoughts, impressions, and associations that impinge upon the character's consciousness, it may also be restricted to an organized presentation of that character's rational thoughts".[8]


Beginnings to 1900[edit]

While the use of the narrative technique of stream of consciousness is usually associated with modernist novelists in the first part of the twentieth-century, a number of precursors have been suggested, including Laurence Sterne's psychological novelTristram Shandy (1757).[9] It has been suggested that Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) foreshadows this literary technique in the nineteenth-century.[10] Poe's story is a first person narrative, told by an unnamed narrator who endeavors to convince the reader of his sanity, while describing a murder he committed. and it is often read as a dramatic monologue.[11] George R. Clay notes that Leo Tolstoy "when the occasion requires it ... applies Modernist stream of consciousness technique" in both War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878).[12] The short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) by another American author, Ambrose Bierce, also abandons strict linear time to record the internal consciousness of the protagonist.[13] Because of his renunciation of chronology in favor of free association, Édouard Dujardin's Les Lauriers sont coupés (1887) is also an important precursor. Indeed, the possibility of a direct influence is evoqued by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and having "picked up a copy of Dujardin's novel ... in Paris in 1903".[14]

There are also those who point to Anton Chekhov's short stories and plays (1881-1904)[15] and Knut Hamsun's Hunger (1890), and Mysteries (1892) as offering glimpses of the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative technique at the end of the nineteenth-century.[16] While Hunger is widely seen as a classic of world literature and a groundbreaking modernist novel, Mysteries is also considered a pioneer work. It has been claimed that Hamsun was way ahead of his time with the use of stream of consciousness in two chapters in particular of this novel.[17][18] British author Robert Ferguson said: “There’s a lot of dreamlike aspects of Mysteries. In that book ... it is ... two chapters, where he actually invents stream of consciousness writing, in the early 1890s. This was long before Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.” [18]Henry James has also been suggested as a significant precursor, in a work as early as Portrait of a Lady (1881).[19] It has been suggested that he influenced later stream of consciousness writers, including Virginia Woolf, who not only read some of his novels but also wrote essays about them.[20]

However, it has also been argued that Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), in his short story '"Leutnant Gustl" ("None but the Brave", 1900), was in fact the first to make full use of the stream of consciousness technique.[21]

Early Twentieth century[edit]

But it is only in the twentieth-century that this technique is fully developed by modernists. Marcel Proust is often presented as an early example of a writer using the stream of consciousness technique in his novel sequence À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927) (In Search of Lost Time), but Robert Humphrey comments, that Proust "is concerned only with the reminiscent aspect of consciousness" and, that he "was deliberately recapturing the past for the purpose of communicating; hence he did not write a stream-of consciousness novel".[22] Novelist John Cowper Powys also argues that Proust did not use stream of consciousness: "while we are told what the hero thinks or what Swann thinks we are told this rather by the author than either by the 'I' of the story or by Charles Swann."[23]

The term was first applied in a literary context in The Egoist, April 1918, by May Sinclair, in relation to the early volumes of Dorothy Richardson's novel sequencePilgrimage. Richardson, however, describes the term as an 'lamentably ill-chosen metaphor".[24]

James Joyce was a major pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness. Some hints of this technique, are already present in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), along with interior monologue, and references to a character's psychic reality rather than to his external surroundings.[25] Joyce began writing A Portrait in 1907 and it was first serialised in the English literary magazine The Egoist in 1914 and 1915. Earlier in 1906 Joyce, when working on Dubliners, considered adding another story featuring a Jewish advertising canvasser called Leopold Bloom under the title Ulysses. Although he did not pursue the idea further at the time, he eventually commenced work on a novel using both the title and basic premise in 1914. The writing was completed in October 1921. Serial publication of Ulysses in the magazine The Little Review began in March 1918. Ulysses was finally published in 1922. In his final work Finnegans Wake (1939) Joyce's method of stream of consciousness, literary allusions and free dream associations was pushed to the limit in, which abandoned all conventions of plot and character construction and is written in a peculiar and obscure English, based mainly on complex multi-level puns.

Another early example is the use of interior monologue by T. S. Eliot in his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), a dramatic monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action,"[26] a work probably influenced by the narrative poetry of Robert Browning, including "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister".[27]

1923 to 2000[edit]

Prominent uses in the years that followed the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, include Italo Svevo, La coscienza di Zeno (1923),[28]Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929).[29] Though Randell Stevenson suggests, that "interior monologue, rather than stream of consciousness, is the appropriate term for the style in which [subjective experience] is recorded, both in The Waves and in Woolf's writing generally.[30] Throughout Mrs Dalloway Woolf blurs the distinction between direct and indirect speech, freely alternating her mode of narration between omniscient description, indirectinterior monologue, and soliloquy.[31]

Samuel Beckett, a friend of James Joyce, uses interior monologue in novels like Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies) and L'innommable (1953: The Unnamable). and the short story "From an Abandoned Work" (1957).[32]

The technique continued to be used into the 1970s in a novel such as Robert Anton Wilson/Robert Shea collaborative Illuminatus! (1975), with regard to which The Fortean Times warns readers, to "[b]e prepared for streams of consciousness in which not only identity but time and space no longer confine the narrative".[33]

Scottish writer James Kelman's novels are known for mixing stream of consciousness narrative with Glaswegian vernacular. Examples include The Busconductor Hines, A Disaffection and How Late It Was, How Late.[34]

With regard to Salman Rushdie one critic comments, that "[a]ll Rushdie's novels follow an Indian/Islamic storytelling style, a stream-of-consciousness narrative told by a loquacious young Indian man".[35]

Other writers who use this narrative device include Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar (1963)[36] and Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting (1993).[37]

Stream of consciousness continues to appear in contemporary literature. Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), according to one reviewer, "talks much as he writes – a forceful stream of consciousness, thoughts sprouting in all directions".[38] Novelist John Banville describes Roberto Bolaño's novel Amulet (1999), as written in "a fevered stream of consciousness".[39]

Twenty-first century[edit]

The twenty-first century brought further exploration, including Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated (2002) and many of the short stories of American author Brendan Connell,[40][41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms. (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books,1984), pp. 660-1).
  2. ^Joanne Winning (2000). The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson. Univ of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-17034-9. 
  3. ^In a letter to the bookseller and publisher Sylvia BeachWindows of Modernism: Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson, ed. Gloria G. Fromm Athens, Georgia, University of Georgia Press, 1995, 282.
  4. ^For example, both Beckett and Joyce omitted full stops and paragraph breaks, but while Joyce also omitted apostrophes, Beckett left them in.
  5. ^(I, pp.239-43) quoted in Randall Stevenson, Modernist Fiction: An Introduction. (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky, 1992), p. 39.
  6. ^Joyce p. 642 (Bodley Head edition (1960), p. 930).
  7. ^ed. Chris Baldick, Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2009, p. 212.
  8. ^"interior monologue." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 24 Sep. 2012.
  9. ^J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 661
  10. ^"The Tell-Tale Heart - story by Poe". 
  11. ^"Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - The Life and Writings of Edgar Allan Poe". 
  12. ^The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, edited Donna Tussing Orwin. Cambridge University Press, 2002
  13. ^Khanom, Afruza. "Silence as Literary Device in Ambrose Bierce's 'The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.' Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. Spring 6.1 (2013): 45-52. Print.
  14. ^Randell StevensonJ Modernist Fiction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992, p. 227, fn 14; J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms, p. 661.
  15. ^James Wood, "Ramblings". London Review of Books. Vol.22, no. 11, 1 June 2000, pp. 36-7.
  16. ^James Wood. "Addicted to Unpredictability." November 26, 1998. London Review of Books. November 8, 2008
  17. ^"Martin Humpál: Hamsun's modernism - Hamsunsenteret - Hamsunsenteret". 
  18. ^ abInterview with Robert Ferguson in the second episode of the documentary television series Guddommelig galskap - Knut Hamsun
  19. ^M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), p. 299.
  20. ^Woolf (March 2003)A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Harcourt. pp. 33, 39–40, 58, 86, 215, 301, 351.
  21. ^"stream of consciousness - literature". 
  22. ^Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California, 1954), p. 4.
  23. ^"Proust". Enjoyment of Literature, New York: Simon and Schuster, , p. 498
  24. ^"Novels", Life and Letters, 56, March 1948, p. 189.
  25. ^Deming, p. 749.
  26. ^McCoy, Kathleen, and Harlan, Judith. English Literature From 1785 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 265–66. ISBN 006467150X
  27. ^William Harmon & C. Holman, A Handbook to Literature (7th edition). (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1996), p. 272.
  28. ^[untitled review], Beno Weiss, Italica, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), p. 395.
  29. ^Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p. 212.
  30. ^Modernist Fiction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992, p. 55; Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p. 212.
  31. ^Dowling, David (1991). Mrs Dalloway: Mapping Streams of Consciousness. Twayne Publishers. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-8057-9414-4. 
  32. ^Karine Germoni, '"From Joyce to Beckett: The Beckettian Dramatic Interior Monologue'". Journal of Beckett Studies, Spring 2004, Vol. 13, issue 2.
  33. ^The Fortean Times, issue 17 (August 1976), pp. 26–27.
  34. ^Giles Harvey, "Minds Are The Strangest Thing". The New Yorker, May 20, 2013.
  35. ^John C. Hawley, Encyclopedia Of Postcolonial Studies (Westport: Greenwood, 2001), p. 384.
  36. ^American Literature, Vol. 65, No. 2, Jun. 1993, p. 381.
  37. ^Sarah Keating, "Tales from the Other Side of the Track". Irish Times 3 May 2012.
  38. ^"The agony and the irony", Stephanie Merritt. The Observer, Sunday 14 May 2000.
  39. ^"Amulet by Roberto Bolaño", John Banville. The Guardian, Saturday 12 September 2009.
  40. ^"A nine-year-old and 9/11", Tim Adams The Observer, Sunday 29 May 2005
  41. ^Brendan Connell, The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children. Chomu Press, 2010.


  • Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, 1978.
  • Joyce, James. Ulysses, 1922; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
  • Friedman, Melvin. Stream of Consciousness: A Study in Literary Method, 1955.
  • Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel, 1954.
  • Randell, Stevenson. Modernist Fiction: An Introduction. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1992.
  • Sachs, Oliver. "In the River of Consciousness." New York Review of Books, 15 January 2004.
  • Shaffer, E.S. (1984). Comparative Criticism, Volume 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 119. Retrieved 12 Jan 2011. 
  • Tumanov, Vladimir. Mind Reading: Unframed Direct Interior Monologue in European Fiction. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1997. Googlebooks.
Cover of James Joyce's Ulysses (first edition, 1922), considered a prime example of stream of consciousness writing styles.

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