Stream of Consciousness in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


Written by, Syeda Areeba Fatima & Maida Anees

In literature, a stream of consciousness is a way of narrating happenings in the flow of thoughts in the characters' minds. A manner of writing that tries to achieve the natural flow of a character's elongated thought process, often by combining sensitive impressions, incomplete ideas, unusual syntax, and rough grammar. Another relevant term for this device is "interior monologuewhere the person thought processes of a character, connected to their movements, are represented in the form of a monologue that addresses nature itself.

Stream of consciousness seeks to portray the experience of thinking in all its disorder and distraction. Stream of consciousness is not just an attempt to relay a character's thoughts but to make the reader experience those thoughts the same way the surface is thinking them. It is often written in the first person and is less organized and seldom messier than an internal monologue, which is most often written in the third person and follows an insignificantly more structured flow of thoughts. Stream of consciousness is a style of writing developed by a group of writers at the beginning of the 20th century.

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William James initially used the phrase in his Principles of Psychology (1890) to describe the unbroken flow of thoughts and feelings in the waking mind. May Sinclair was the first person, in 1918, to use the definition of a stream of consciousness in literature. It has since been adopted to describe a narrative method in modern fiction. It includes a character's mental process, in which sense mingles with conscious and half-conscious thoughts, memories, expectations, and random connections.


Virginia Wolf and Stream of Consciousness

Virginia Woolf was interested in giving voice to the complicated inner world of feelings and memory and considered the human personality a constant shift of ideas and emotions. The events that traditionally made up a story were no longer relevant for her; the impression they made on the characters who experienced them mattered. In her novels, the omniscient narrator disappeared, and the point of view moved inside the characters' minds through flashbacks, associations of ideas, and instantly impressions presented as a constant flux.


Virginia Woolf, in her essay, Modern Fiction

        "Let us record the atom as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall; let us trace the pattern, however, disconnected and incoherent in appearances, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness." In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf tops in creating a suggestive effect through this method. This novel contains a great deal of straight, conventional narration and description.

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." (Woolf, 1919)


Elements of Stream of Consciousness into the Light House

Virginia Woolf in the novel "To the Lighthouse" employs the stream-of-consciousness technique in certain ways. These ways include using different grammatical and syntactic techniques, associative thought, the employment of repetitive ideas and consciousness, and opinions of the character through indirect interior monologue. 

 1. The Use of Different Grammatical and Syntactic Structures

The works incorporating the "Stream of Consciousness" have different grammatical and Syntactic structures because it use human thoughts as the base for writing fiction and human thoughts are rather unsymmetrical. In the first part of the novel "The Window," this technique is quite evident. She uses parenthetical phrases and sentences to introduce the characters and to give an insight into these characters.

The first chapter starts with Mrs. Ramsey promising James to take him to the lighthouse if the weather is fine. Mr. Ramsey, strolling nearby, shatters James's hope by declaring that the temperature "won't be fine." This highlights the contradictory personalities of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey. This difference in personalities echoes in the mind of little James, which is later parenthesized in chapter 7, where an omniscient narrator attributes the "fatal sterility of the male" to Mr. Ramsey and the image of the "fountain and spray of life" to Mrs. Ramsey.

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In the second part of the novel, "Time Passes," the subordinate sentences are in brackets, highlighting phenomena such as death and destruction. She uses frames to tell about the death of Prue and Andrew Ramsey.

In the last part of the novel, "The Lighthouse," the parentheses also act as a representative of perspective as depicted in the interaction between Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe, where the view of the narrator and Lily are differentiated: "They are very exhausting,' he said, looking, with a sickly look that nauseated her (he was acting, she felt, this great man was dramatizing himself)."


2. The Use of Repetition

The use of repetitive thoughts, ideas, and phrases is quite significant in the text, which employs the stream of consciousness. The stream of consciousness is directly related to the thought process and is, therefore, continuous and repetitive. This repetition of thoughts and ideas is quite evident in this novel. Mrs. Ramsey thought the novel is presented as a cohesive force that binds everything and everyone. She is given as the "center" and a coherent force binding everything together. In the novel's first part, her sitting at the window is symbolic. She is presented as the bidding force that connects the house with the outer world.

In the second part, "Time Passes," the repetitive imagery of death and darkness is presented, which took over the Ramsey family within ten years. 

Similarly, the last part of the novel incorporates an idea of harmony and completion depicted through the completion of the journey of Ramsey's and Lilly Briscoe's paintings.


3. Associative Thought 

The associative thought in the form of subjective experience and the intermingling of objective time with psychic time are dominant throughout the novel. This associative thought depends upon the senses, memory, and imagination. In other words, free association or associative thinking deals with the Freudian method of analysis, which focuses on the analogy drawn between two different things based on personal experience. In the first part of the novel, "The Window," Tansley draws a similarity between the picture of Queen Victoria and Mrs. Ramsey. Similarly, the first part's narration of the "Fisherman's Wife" is quite significant. While Mrs. Ramsey was narrating this tale to James, the exterior occurrences were freely associated with the story itself.

In the second part of the novel, "Time Passes," in chapter eight, free association is also used. Mrs. M'cNab, while cleaning the house, thinks about war, the garden, and the Ramsey family who decided to come to the summer house before.

In the third part of the novel, "The Lighthouse," another significant example of free association is in chapter twelve, where Lily, while drawing her paintings, freely thinks about different people, including Mr. Carmichael, Mr. Tansley, Mrs. Ramsey, Mr. Ramsey, and the children.


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4. Direct Interior Monologue     

Woolf employs the technique of the stream of consciousness through direct interior monologue, which highlights a character's consciousness, unconsciousness, and thought process. For instance, in the first part of the novel, "The Window," during the dinner party, every character's thoughts are described by the writer with great efficiency. The inner turmoil of Mrs. Ramsey is presented as follows: "She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything…Raising her eyebrows at the discrepancy, that was what she was thinking, this was what she was doing leading out soup – she felt, more and more strongly, outside that eddy".

The narrator then shifts focus from Mrs. Ramsey's inner turmoil to Lily Briscoe's thoughts, where she analyzes Mrs. Ramsey's character, the character of Tansley, and her work: "How old she looks, how worn she looks, and how remote." She thinks why Mrs. Ramsay pities William Bankes and realizes, "The life in her, her resolve to live again, had been stirred by pity." At the dinner party, each character's thoughts are presented through the direct interior monologue highlighting the inner consciousness of each character.

Similarly, in the second part of the novel, the death of members of the Ramsey family is introduced to the audience through a direct interior monologue where an omniscient narrator tells the audience about the death of Mrs. Ramsey, who died suddenly. 

In the last part, "The Lighthouse," the audience is introduced to the feelings of completeness and harmony that took over Lily while drawing the painting through this direct interior monologue.



In conclusion, one may say that the novel "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf is a masterpiece that incorporates the stream of consciousness and the different elements of this technique to give an insight into the consciousness of each character. "By blending people's inward feelings and keeping dialogue to a minimum, Woolf develops her many-dimensioned characters uniquely and memorably" (Rowland, 2011).

Woolf, in her essay Modern Fiction, points out the components of proper fiction in which the human consciousness and thought are the most important: "The proper stuff of fiction does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss."


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