The Contemporary Implications of Stream-Of-Consciousness

Though Faulkner was far from the first author to utilize the stream of consciousness technique, it is impossible to read As I Lay Dying without confronting the form as a hinge for the ambiguity and complexity of As I Lay Dying. Defined as “a method of narration that describes happenings in the flow of thoughts in the minds of characters,” the formal technique was initially created by psychologist William James in his research on the psychological consciousness. The literary version of this phenomenon arose during the 20th century, coinciding with the rise of modernist writers and literature. Most famously, it appears in classic novels of the United Kingdom such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in the 1910’s and 1920’s.

Only a few years later, Faulkner begins to utilize the method in two of his most popular novels, The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930). While Faulkner wasn’t the first author to utilize it, history seems to indicate that he was the first American author who wrote it successfully and as a central narrative device for his pieces. Some suggest that F. Scott Fitzgerald attempts it first in The Great Gatsby, but it most famously aligns itself with Faulkner’s work based on the sheer modern, experimental nature of his stream-of-consciousness method. Though stream-of-consciousness may range from interior monologues to the expansive internal “stream” of thoughts which Faulkner’s characters demonstrate, the aftereffects of his work with the form are still reflected in contemporary American literature. Jonathan Safran Foer is a prominent modern author who uses it often in his own fiction, most noticeably in his novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close while Toni Morrison uses it in parts of  Beloved where the titular character flows freely through her thoughts as seen below:

I am alone I want to be the two of us I want the join I come out of blue water after the bottoms of my feet swim away from me I come up I need to find a place to be the air is heavy I am not dead I am not there is a house there is what she whispered to me I am where she told me I am not dead I sit the sun closes my eyes when I open them I see the face I lost Sethe’s is the face that left me Sethe sees me see her and I see the smile her smiling face is the place for me it is the face I lost she is my face smiling at me

Perhaps this is why the narrative method lies at the center of so many classroom discussions surrounding As I Lay Dying as well as Faulkner’s other works. Initially, I intended to recount the fanfiction – most of which is generated from creative assignments in classrooms – that this novel had inspired, but found that many of the pieces focused on the central and critical form Faulkner executes throughout the novel. I found significantly more work than I expected, but wasn’t surprised to see that most pieces were published after creation in classroom settings. Many of the students tried to execute Faulkner’s distinct stream-of-consciousness narrative, and a variation of the characters they chose or were assigned to emulate, including Darl, Jewel, and Dewey Dell. However, the piece I found to be most successful in its imitation came from Archive Of Our Own. Entitled “Fireproof,” the piece emulates stream-of-consciousness from the perspectives of Vardaman, Cash, Dewey Dell, and Darl. Set three months after Addie’s death and on the day that would have been her birthday, it takes place in the post-canon space with each character’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts focusing around Jewel, unquestionably one of the most affected Bundrens by Addie’s death and the chaos that follows. Some of the passages deviate a bit from the true, punctuation-less paragraphs of Faulkner’s; Dewey Dell’s section feels the most like a true narrative, though the moments of free-flowing consciousness peek through, while Darl and Vardaman have uncannily similar stream-of-consciousness narratives that seem to reflect that free confusion flowing through their thoughts. I also like that this piece essentially denies Jewel a voice, telling his suffering and confusion only through the vehicle of the other character’s voices. Ultimately, this piece and the history of stream-of-consciousness really seem to demonstrate how powerful Faulkner’s work with the narrative method has been in our literary history, and how significantly it impacted contemporary American literature and allows more experimental narratives to surface. Regardless of how it may confuse the reader, the technique takes a lot of skill and attention to detail, and Faulkner’s use of it has dramatically changed the way we think of our narratives and literature as the contemporary literature evolves.

One Response to The Contemporary Implications of Stream-Of-Consciousness

  1. Prof VZ March 4, 2018 at 10:51 pm #

    I like the piece you linked to as well — especially how they tied it to some key points in the novel (Anse’s teeth, the gramophone, etc.). The one big slip for me was beginning Darl’s section with “In my mind’s eye.” Darl’s visions tend to come upon us all at once rather than so deliberately. Still, the author capture the distinct voice of each narrator quite admirably.

    I also like your broader reflection on how Faulkner’s adaptation of this narrative method has become something of a pedagogical standard in the literary classroom. One can perhaps best understand Faulkner by trying to get inside the kind of decisions one must bake when navigating multiple, overlapping private psyches.

    And I appreciate the not to how this method lives one–not surprisingly in authors such as Morrison, who wrote a thesis on Faulkner in graduate school. The method, once one gets over its obvious difficulties, carries an uncanny force with it–a sense of intimacy with individual characters that is harder to achieve through other methods.

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