Stream of Consciousness in Joyce’s and Conrad’s Works Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Feb 16th, 2021


One of the most distinctive traits of many literary masterpieces, published throughout the course of the early 20th century, is that these literary works’ semantic content often reflects what used to be the era’s predominant socio-philosophical discourse. In its turn, this discourse was largely concerned with the fact that, due to the rise of psychology as a legitimate science, more and more people were beginning to realize that it is specifically their deep-seated unconscious anxieties, which define the essence of their rational choices (Kessen and Cahan 640). This explains why it was through the earlier mentioned historical period that the literary technique of ‘stream of consciousness’ attained a strong popularity with intellectually advanced writers – by exposing readers to the flow of seemingly random semi-conscious thoughts, on the part of the featured characters, writers were able to make the plot-developments thoroughly plausible.

According to Sang, stream of consciousness is “composed of the continual activity of the characters’ consciousness and shower of impressions” (173). Stream of consciousness is associated with direct and indirect interior monologue. Direct interior monologue includes the character’s unuttered thoughts presented in a way that they are unregulated by the author’s language. The indirect interior monologue consists of the character’s thoughts as presented by the omniscient narrator. Stream of consciousness may also be characterized by a continuous flow of words that violate grammatical order, although this is not always the case.

Abram & Harpham suggest that a stream of consciousness may be used as an alternative to the omniscient perspective. When the story is not being narrated by an all-knowing figure, it gives “the readers the illusion of experiencing events evolving before their own eyes” (274). In this case, the reader can realize the difference between thoughts and actual events.

In this paper, I will discuss how the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique is being deployed in the story The Dead by James Joyce and the novel The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, while pointing out to what appear to be differences and similarities about how both authors went about taking a practical advantage of this particular technique. Specifically, I will accentuate the fact that; whereas, The Dead is narrated from a third-person point of view, The Heart of Darkness is narrated from a first-person point of view. I will also argue that; whereas, in The Heart of Darkness, the narrator’s vivid descriptions of people and places are closely related to his personal views of them, this is not the case in The Dead, as in this story the stream of the narrator’s consciousness is only partially perceptual.

The Dead

The Dead is narrated by an omniscient character – that is, the narrator presents the thoughts of Gabriel in an indirect interior monologue. It differs from The Heart of Darkness’s direct interior monologue. The syntax is presented in correct grammar because it is an indirect interior monologue. Gabriel‘s stream of consciousness after the conversation with Miss Ivors states, “How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk alone, first along the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of trees and forming a bright cap on top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper table!” (Joyce 8). In this part, the stream of consciousness is used to tap the emotions of the reader about the tour to the western part of Ireland. In reality, the tour is unlikely to take place. The reader is able to capture some images even though the real event did not take place. The stream of consciousness is presented as what would have happened if the real event took place. The author uses exclamation marks to capture the wonder of visiting a new place. It may give the reader the suspense of wanting Gabriel to visit the place as the story progresses. Visiting the Western part of Ireland is used in other conversations. It is the author’s means of capturing the reader’s attention on further discussions about the tour.

Joyce uses stream of consciousness on Gabriel after a conversation with her wife. The conversation resulted in the necessity to bring forth childhood memories. Gretta uses teenage memories of Michael Furey, who died when he was only seventeen years old. This prompted Gabriel to form mental images of himself in the past, “He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a penny-boy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror” (Joyce 20). The author is able to intensify the level of sympathy of readers through Gabriel. Chatman discusses that reader has a tendency to “rehearse and comment upon past events” (194). Joyce uses the stream to make the reader reflect upon the moment when Gabriel was wondering what would make a woman listen attentively to distant music. The reader may concur with Gabriel that it was unusual.

The syntax for this part is formed from short statements that are separated with commas. It indicates their perpetual flow. The images are formed in Gabriel’s mind one after another, “He (Gabriel) wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow” (Joyce 22). In this stream of consciousness, Gabriel is alone and he tries to link his wife’s behavior to a cause. On this part, the character stream of images strays from the motif. Chatman discusses that the style has no “externally motivated organization of the character’s thoughts nor can the narrator make a selection among them” (194). He was linking events (possible causes) to the effect (Gretta’s behavior). When he reaches at the image of Aunt Julia, he shifts from causes to pitying Aunt Julia. It shows that the stream of consciousness is almost unconscious (Sang 176). The stream of consciousness is presented as a fantasy. It captures past events that the reader was unaware of. The narrator captures the moment of their courtship that otherwise would not fit into the context. Gabriel was taken into a reflection that “A heliotrope envelope was lying besides his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain were shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness. They were standing…” (Joyce 17 & 18).

From the statement “he could not eat for happiness”, it indicates the characteristic of an indirect interior monologue where the author tampers with the order of the flow of ideas. The author uses the moment to explain to the reader Gabriel’s behavior after the presentations in the hall. There is a contrast of thoughts. His wife thinks about the skinny boy she had in childhood. On the other hand, Gabriel is thinking about the best moments they had together. The reader may pity either Gabriel or the dead boy.

The Heart of Darkness

In The Death, the utilization of stream of consciousness technique serves primarily the function of emphasizing the plot’s plausibility. The application of the same technique in Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness appears to serve the function ensuring the structural validity of the narration.

The author uses stream of consciousness much the same as in The Dead. It is used to capture the wonders of the unknown. Marlow brainstorms that “Imagine him here – the very end of the world, a sea the color of lead, a sky the color of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina – and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, – precious little to eat fit for a civilized man…” (Conrad 8).

Conrad’s stream of consciousness technique is used more often than in The Dead. They are short statements separated by commas to indicate a free flow of images. They are presented from the direct interior monologue. In that case, the author has little influence on the outcome and arrangement of words (Sang 173).

Readers have a hard time shifting from descriptions and explanations given by Marlow to his stream of consciousness. The thoughts are derived from his past experience, which he uses to form his expectations of the new places he visits. The following quotation illustrates the statement’s legitimacy, “The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once -somewhere – far away – in another existence perhaps…” (Conrad 67). Conrad’s use of stream of consciousness is similar to its use in The Dead where Gabriel gives a description of the western part of Ireland. It generates suspense because the reader develops a longing for the character to visit these places.

Conrad uses the narrator’s stream of consciousness to allow readers to gain knowledge about his past and the kind of person he is. Self-reflecting individuals appear as those who are overwhelmed by their deep-seated irrational fears. As a result of this, their expression of reality is distorted. Marlow expresses his uncertainty about reality by the statement, “The reality – the reality, I tell you – fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily” (Conrad 11). From his massive self-reflections, he doubts what he sees from what actually exists.

The reader learns about the character of Kurtz even before they are introduced to him. This is because they have been provided with bits of information about the character from Marlow’s stream of consciousness. The use of the technique here is similar to its use in The Dead. It creates a longing for the reader to meet the character and the narrator to visit the places he describes. Readers become eager to see the narrator in the actual place.

Conrad uses the narrator’s stream of consciousness to tell the readers about his fondness with the sea. From the short stream, Marlow muses, “there it is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘Come and find out’ (Conrad 23). By showing that Marlow interprets what the wind says, the reader can see the character of a seaman. It would be less effective if the author would allow the narrator to describe himself. People rarely see themselves as other people would. The reader can recognize his familiarity with the sea when he interprets the wind.

In the middle part of the novel, Marlow engages in a prolonged stream of consciousness that tends to justify his behavior of reflection and flow of images. The reflection is almost a page long. The Dead uses stream of consciousness technique of shorter lengths.

Marlow starts his flow with a conviction about truth that, “the mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future” (Conrad 73). From this perspective, the author assures the reader that Marlow is not completely irrational. He has reasoning and justification. Marlow thinks that, “… Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags – rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish row – is there? Very well; I hear; I admit, but I have a voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced…” (Conrad 73).

Marlow seems to justify his reasons for someone within himself. Sang discusses the importance of the semicolon in ensuring the continuity of the stream in an ungrammatical order (175). The words are almost repetitive. For example, Marlow thinks, “I hear; I admit, but I have a voice, too” (Conrad 73). ‘I hear, I admit’ are almost related. They are short statements that can be mistaken for childish talk.

The technique using short related statements is also used in the narrators thought about the slaves. Marlow sympathizes that “… They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation…” (Conrad 31). From this illustration, ‘nothing’ is repeated almost immediately. Enemies and criminals are words that contrast. Following the two statements with “they were nothing earthly now” shows a shift from the motif of criminals or enemies. It is similar to Gabriel’s shift from Gretta’s cause of reflection to pitying Aunt Julia (Joyce 22).


Cahir discusses that the technique uses concepts, symbols and images, which are the center of the character’s contemplation or meditation (53). It is evident in Marlow’s stream of consciousness about natural environment and Gabriel’s obsession with Miss Ivor’s tour suggestions. Conrad uses short phrases more commonly than Joyce. Joyce almost uses complete sentences to form the technique. The technique is recognized through the flow of short phrases separated by commas or semi-colon. Cahir suggests that the stream of consciousness “assembles words through an association of images, ideas, and emotions rather the continuity of a story” (53). In most cases, ideas are initialized by past images or future expectations

Works Cited

Abram, Mabie & Geoffrey Harpham. A Glossary of Terms. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

Cahir, Linda. Literature into Film: Theory and Practical Approaches. Jefferson: McFarland, 2006. Print.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. New York: Cornell University Press, 1978. Print.

Conrad, Joseph 1899, Heart of Darkness. PDF. Web.

Joyce, James 1914, The Dead. PDF file. Web.

Sang, Yanxia. “An Analysis of the Stream of Consciousness Technique in To The Lighthouse.” Asian Social Science. 6.9 (2010):173-179. Web.

Kessen, William and Emily Cahan. “A Century of Psychology: From Subject to Object to Agent.” American Scientist 74.6 (1986): 640-649. Print.

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