Stream of consciousness is a popular trope predominantly used in the twentieth century fiction. It is essentially a narrative mode that pens down the protagonist’s thought processes either in the form of a monologue or by connecting with his or her actions. Scholars believe that stream of consciousness is a form of expression of internal monologue and is characterized by uncharacteristic alteration in grammar, punctuation, and syntax of sentences that increases difficulty to follow.
This style of narration developed mostly through the literary works of authors in the 1920s and few of the writers who were acclaimed for their use of this narration mode are James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, etc. Though the style was mostly adopted in prose narrative like novels and short stories, the use of the narrative mode in poems is not uncommon. This paper discusses two famous works of literature – James Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – and analyzes their use of stream of consciousness creating a typical representation of the 1920s literature.
Stream of consciousness is a psychological term coined by William James. The term is doubly metaphorical as it presents figurative words like ‘consciousness’ and ‘stream’ together creating an imprecise phrase. In literature, it is widely used to present the psychological facet of the character to the readers. In other words, this presents mental state of the characters of the fiction and helps painting the picture of the external and internal complications of the character. The internal voices of the characters are brought out in the narration in order to connect the readers with the mind of the protagonist.
TS Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1912. The poem relates, in monologue, the conscious experience of a man. Eliot uses stream of consciousness technique and presents the character of Prufrock in the poem. The character is presented as compulsive, neurotic, and anxious. The thoughts that fog up his mind and in a way he tries to escape his own thoughts. These are evident in the poem as Eliot shows the character, Pruforck, as one devoid of any poetic vision, which presumably has been silenced by modernity. Prufrock is the representation of modern man who is the man who lives a life in hell as represented by modern world.
Hence, the modern soul of Prufrock, deflected from religion, is directed back to himself (Cervo 208). Thus, Prufrock is in search of a sign to admonish his ego and self-pity. Thus, he deflects his self-malaise towards his environment. The prevalent use of sea during 1920s as the symbol of presence of supernatural – the singing “mermaids” – show the conflict between the mythic and the reality in Prufrock’s mind.
Prufrock is prejudiced towards everything around him. The conscience that speaks through Prufrock’s mind leaves readers unable to grasp the true character. His vision is abstract and incommunicable and whatever he speaks to the lady sums up to “That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all” (Eliot 134). Though he expresses his thoughts explicitly to the readers, Prufrock’s thoughts are opaque. It appears that Prufrock remains locked up in his room, unable to make up his mind, as he dwells in his solitude: “for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions, / Before the taking of a toast and tea” (Eliot 131).
On a little introspection it becomes clear that Pruforck was unable to leave at all, however hard he tried. His inability to remove himself from his thought was due to his attachment to his mind that had consumed his existence. His existence had become a mind of his mind and therefore a dream. The absence of the line drawn between Pruforck physical reality and his imagined reality, the poem essentially becomes a stream of consciousness that represents the internal thoughts of Pruforck, where he remains imprisoned. Thus, it becomes extremely difficult to judge the experiences he described to be real or imaginary.
The space where the readers assume the movement to be taking place is actually happening inside Prufrock’s mind. Pruforck defines time and space in the poem, as the realties are his consciousness that flow in a never-ending stream. Eliot emphasizes independent existence of time and space in the poem. Time constantly oscillates in the poem, and hence, readers find themselves amidst images that may exist in past, present, or future.
For instance, Pruforck initially talks of the lady whom he was about to visit but later on, he speaks of his failure to visit her as something that occurred long into the past: “And would it have been worth it, after all, / Would it have been worth while” (Eliot 134). Prufrock was trapped in his past. His repeated adherence to his past was similar to the recurrence of the line “n the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” (Eliot 130).
Thus, in his mind, he thinks of the pat incidents recurrently resulting in endless reappearances, of incidents that were foreknown. In this world only one mind exists, that of Prufrock and one that cannot disturb the natural movement of the world and within that mid no other action is possible. Thus, Prufrock’s infirmity is the modern man devoid of any interest towards movement of time or of space, transfixed on a single stage, a stage that he repeatedly plays in his mind, thus creating the beautiful recurring stream of consciousness in the poem.
Joseph Conrad presents a modernist psychosomatic approach in unraveling the true intent of man and the society he lives in the novel Heart of Darkness. The novel breaks the traditional structure of the nineteenth century novel and brings forth a new experimental style of narration of the plot. This form of narration eventually became popular in the modernist period of the early twentieth century.
The novel describes the horrifying tale of European colonization of Africa. Conrad employed stream of conscious as a narrative mode to present the chaotic confusion within the story thus leaving the readers to interpret the story according to their judgment. Hence, Conrad employed a modernist style of storytelling and narration wherein he leaves many sentences unfinished, leaving a deliberate gap for the readers to fill: “not a sentimental pretense but an idea; … something you can set up…and offer a sacrifice to…” (Conrad 3).
The modernist style of narration becomes apparent as multiple narrations are used through two separate voices, the first being an unnamed narrator and the second is Marlow. The theme of the novel is one that questions the necessity of European colonization in Africa and moves against authors like Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) who defended European imperialism.
Hence, instead of moralizing on the savagery of Africa, Conrad narrates the story in a deft journalistic style to present the visions, shapes, and shadows of the African natives (Pecora 994). Instead of moralizing, Conrad juxtaposes the occasional moralizing in the novel against the values discoursed in the Victorian era. Marlow, the second narrator is a sailor who relates the story to the readers, and avoids instructing the readers through he is presumably a teacher (Straus 124).
Thus, Conrad creates a teacher who does not believe in tautological discourse, but instead speaks of the incidents as he sees and feels and leaves it on the readers to interpret it. The description of the scenes in Africa as described by Marlow, especially when he travels on the rive road, Marlow describes his (internal) reality fading in the backdrop of (external) reality. However, unlike James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Conrad refuses to reject objective reality completely and hence creates a classical modernist tradition (Straus 133).
The stream of consciousness is a useful trope for the modern literature as it allows the authors to breath life into the characters, thus, creating a careful narration of the physical and mental attributes of the protagonists. This modernist technique helps in creating a clear picture of the distrust that the characters have towards the existing institutions and the world. The unreliability of the world to the modern man becomes clear as the readers are steered through the minds of the characters.
Conrad description of Africa and its natives shows his determination to find the internal truth of the age of imperialism. Thus, his novel is an internal investigation of the natives and society while it faced turmoil from the external environment. Similarly, Eliot describes Prufrock in a state of internal conflict in order to adjust himself to the changing in the external world, especially when his internal world remained static.
Cervo, Nathan A. “Eliot’s the love song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Explicator 60.4 (2002): 207-209. Print.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.
Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Poetry 6.3 (1915): 130-135. Print.
Pecora, Vincent. “Heart of Darkness and the Phenomenology of Voice.” ELH (1985): 993-1015. Print.
Straus, Nina Pelikan. “The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad’s” Heart of Darkness”.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction. 20.2 (1987): 123-137. Print.