And the Stream of Consciousness Rolls Ever On

All right, so I know that in 1922 the stream of consciousness was the very Rubicon that marked the border with the future of literature; but lo these 88 years later, we’re reasonably familiar with the trick. I have a well-loved Mrs Dalloway in one of my boxes of books, and we most of us had to read The Sound and the Fury in high school, or repeatedly for pleasure, right? (And let’s not forget Ken Erdedy and Clenette Henderson.) It’s not a new game. But I’m surprised at how disorienting it is in Ulysses. I may just be rusty, but Joyce’s use of the technique—especially in “Proteus,” although of course that’s no accident—is more thorough and defamiliarizing than I expected.

I caught the switch between third person and first person that Judd notes, so it’s mostly clear when we’re dealing with “the narrator” and when we’re reading a character’s mind. What trips me up sometimes is the comprehensiveness of the stream-of-consciousness bits: In the same way that your thoughts to yourself generally don’t actually narrate your situation and actions, but only your impressions of them, conscious reactions to them, and mental processes that merely happen to take place among them, Stephen doesn’t tell us what he’s doing, only what he’s thinking about as he does it. This makes it difficult sometimes to keep up with the stage business of the story. Among other things, I think this is what makes “Proteus” such a challenge on the first try. Stephen is so wrapped up in his own head that he only notices some of what occurs around him, and what “the narrator” doesn’t explain for us, we often have to riddle out. For instance (to backtrack to “Telemachus”), that seal’s head is Malachi Mulligan, plump double dactyl, ’s, right? Instead of an actual seal’s, I mean.

Then again, it’s Stephen’s imagination and rambling associativeness that drives the most beautiful passages in the first three episodes. His memories that never happened of the milkwoman (1.397ff.) and of Mrs. Sargent’s mother-love (2.139ff.) are magical bits of imaginative creation, and the water-songs (1.242ff., 3.55ff., and 3.456ff.) are gorgeous poetry. I think the most impressive stretch of these first 40-ish pages is Stephen’s remembered dream of his mother at 1.102ff. For sheer psychological condensation, it rivals “My mother is a fish.”

The Ulysses “Seen” page for this passage does a fine job of showing the horror that Stephen attaches to the details of his dream’s dead mother—the smells, the physical wasting, the breath coming out of her mouth. The text then begins a remarkable layering process that demonstrates how overdetermined Stephen’s thoughts are, how everything reminds him of other things. He’s looking at his cuff, and remembers (among other things) his mother’s graveclothes; then, as he thinks of the “wetted ashes” smell of his mother’s breath, he sees beyond his cuff the sea, which Buck, quoting Swinburne, has called a mother. (Wetted ashes and the water and horrid breath congeal again at 3.150: “Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath, a pocket of seaweed smouldered in seafire under a midden of man’s ashes.”) “Clothes” and “wet” and “mother” lead from his own mother to the sea, where the bay is the edge of a bowl holding a “dull green mass of liquid” just like the white china bowl his mother hacked her bile into on her deathbed, and then “Buck Mulligan wiped again his razorblade,” which reactivates the bowl association to include the first sentence of the book, in which Buck’s shaving bowl parodies a solemn religious accoutrement (I don’t know Catholicism well enough to say which one) so that we remember again what we learned 15 lines ago, that Stephen refused to pray for his own dying mother.

As densely associative as this passage is—and I’m sure I’ve missed some of the connections; at the very least, I suspect there’s something in it of Stephen’s penury (the edge of his cuff is both “fraying” and “threadbare”) and of the contrast between Buck’s “wellfed” voice and the mother’s “loud groaning vomiting”—that’s how Stephen’s mind works. It’s a foretaste of the “Proteus” to come, in miniature and with context, to demonstrate how far we’re going to roam in this book from what we’re accustomed to. Yet it will seem familiar all the same, once we can learn the motions of it, because its abandonment of traditional technique is in the service of a psychological realism in which we can recognize some of the ways our minds work.

5 thoughts on “And the Stream of Consciousness Rolls Ever On

  1. Paul July 18, 2010 / 6:38 pm


    This is a great post. Thanks. I’m piecing together your ideas with the suggestion of just letting the language flow over you, and I think it works pretty well that way (avoiding the obvious Stream connection). But I find that on a first read anyhow, the less I worry about exactly what is being said, the more I feel the scene. Of course, one does have to re read it to get all of the connections and details, but the stream is a fun place to be.

  2. Chris Forster July 24, 2010 / 11:15 am

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this post all week.

    I think you’ve put your finger on one of the most fascinating challenges of these early chapters: how Joyce represents consciousness. The term “stream of consciousness,” as a description of what goes on in these early chapters, is slippery indeed. I tried to find an easy way to distinguish these episodes from writers like Woolf or Faulker. Joyce is more interested in the immediate/passing moment, and is therefore less narrative than the Faulker of As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury. Woolf’s narration (and I’m think of Mrs. Dalloway and the party scene in particular) is more promiscuous than Joyce’s, less wedded to any single character. But upon reflection I’m skeptical that either of those generalizations really stands.

    I think the “stream of consciousness” question raises two related questions. One is simply how character is constructed and represented in the novel. There is a sort of vogue for connecting literature and neuroscience / cognitive science at the moment: I’m thinking primarily of works like Proust was a Neuroscientist and the work of Lisa Zunshine (discussed in a recent NYT story). I don’t know whether any of these folks have pursued these sorts of questions in Joyce (or Woolf, or Faulkner…)

    After Bloom rips up the envelope from Martha’s letter in episode 5 (a little before 5.300 in Gabler) we find him frequently wondering whether he has ripped it up. The effect is a sort of dramatic irony in the theater of Bloom’s consciousness, where we (presumably because we are untroubled by the anxiety which afflicts Bloom w/r/t this epistolary romance) know more about the character than he does–we witness his repeated checking as repetition (a compulsion?) even as he cannot. In this instance, albeit in a limited way, we understand more about a character’s thoughts and actions than they themselves do.

    At other times, of course, actions seem to pass unremarked by the narration and we are forced to fill them in. I’ve heard that Hugh Kenner (I think) once remarked that we never see characters in Ulysses avoiding horse dung. But of course in the Dublin of 1904 horse manure would litter the streets. Kenner’s point (or whoever related this anecdote’s point) was that certain actions which characters perform are not narrated b/c they are habitual.

    The second question raised is to what extent we should take the project of Ulysses “stream of consciousness” as all. Is the representation of consciousness an end or a means? (What is style and what is substance?) Later chapters adopt other modes. And for that matter the larger structures which the novels uses (the Homeric parallels, the stylistic parodies, etc) seem in tension with the realisitic representation of the operations of the perceiving mind. (Though someone like Joseph Campbell, mentioned on this blog a few times already, would no doubt insist that the strong contrast between individual, daily life and myth that I seem to assume is utterly wrong-headed.)

  3. Ezekiel Crago July 25, 2010 / 2:33 pm

    On my first reading of this novel, I identified with Ulysses because Joyce’s style left me lost in a sea of words. I was a ship tossed about in a storm. On my second reading I was struck by the way the perception-rambling passages resembled my own inner voice, unedited and free. This free flowing of thought seems almost intentionally disorienting within the text. What makes these passage wondrous to me is the way that Joyce makes thems seem so genuine. His description of the flow of a character’s consciousness is an invention, a series of linguistic choices that Joyce made, and therefore not the free stream that it appears. Because of this, I also find myself wondering how much of this is style and how much substance. We can never know Joyce’s intention, but I study his writing to try and understand his Method. Joyce has much to teach and I am willing to learn. I liken this knowledge to the home that I, the reader, lost in language, try to find my way back to, but I suspect that this home may be illusory and that fact may be one of the points that Joyce is making. This text uses descriptions of knowing, remembering, and being to examine those very features of existence. How much is fact, how much fiction, and what is the difference.

  4. Jeff Anderson July 25, 2010 / 11:04 pm

    Thanks, guys, for the comments! They’ve really given me some things to think about. Chris, with regard to the other novelists, I think you may be generally correct, although like you I’m chary of standing by the notion without a lot more research. Woolf’s narration at least, though, certainly follows the invisible baton more than Joyce’s. (I’m thinking of Regent’s Park, but the party also, you’re right.)

    I read that NYT article—and now I wish I hadn’t, because they had to go and bring in ev psych, which I just don’t have the patience for. But the question of how Joyce constructs and represents character is an interesting one. I wonder whether his technique in that respect is much different from “traditional” fiction. Our impressions of the characters’ characters are still based on their thoughts and actions, which are typically available in third-person omniscient narration. It’s just that in this case we get much more access to the thoughts. I don’t know; it feels different, but I wonder whether it’s a question of degree more than of kind.

    And I reserve comment on your second section until I’ve reread some of the less “realistic” episodes again, except to say this: It seems to me they often have much less to do with character consciousness, but they may well be more concerned with reader consciousness, with activating various modes of understanding, in which case I feel prompted to look back at how maybe the earlier episodes are doing that same thing. That is, maybe how the consciousnesses of the characters are represented is never the point; maybe it’s always about different ways of cleansing the doors of perception for the reader.

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