Representation of Consciousness

Rather more intricate than representations of speech in direct or indirect mode are representations of thought, which can be conceptualised as a kind of silent speech or inner speech (see Bonheim 1982: 53). Obviously, it is possible simply to represent thought, just like speech, using direct or indirect discourse:

"What horrible weather they have here," he thought. (direct discourse)

He thought that the weather in these parts was really horrible. (indirect discourse)

But there are other ways of representing thought or consciousness. The advantage that narrative prose has over drama, for instance, is that it can tell the reader about a character's mental processes and emotions without having that character burst into speech (as in a soliloquy in drama for instance). The reader is allowed to look into a character's head, though of course in the narrative the character continues to act like most people do and keeps his thoughts to himself. It is worth noting that with the representation of a character's consciousness in narrative prose a realistic effect is achieved – the reader feels he receives firsthand and inside knowledge of the character – through really rather unrealistic means which has nonetheless become a convention. In reality, of course, we cannot look into other people's heads; the only thought processes we will ever get to know intimately are our own (Käte Hamburger, 1973, points this out, see also Cohn 1978: 7f).

Three major methods of thought representation have been identified, depending on the level of noticeable narrator interference (taking up Cohn's distinctions):

• interior monologue,
• psychonarration
• narrated monologue or free indirect discourse.

Interior Monologue

Interior monologue is the direct presentation of thought as in direct speech. One does not speak of a monologue unless the utterance has a certain length. Interior monologue is thus a longish passage of uninterrupted thought.

Consider an excerpt from Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The situation is as follows: The spaceship is being attacked by two missiles. Only at the last moment does Arthur turn on the Improbability Drive and the two missiles are turned into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias. The passage describes the thoughts of the sperm whale who has suddenly come into existence in free space and is trying to come to terms with his identity:

Er, excuse me, who am I?
Why am I here? What's my purpose in life?
What do I mean by who am I?
Calm down, get a grip now ... oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it? It's a sort of ... yawning, tingling sensation in my ... my ... well I suppose I'd better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway [...] so let's call it my stomach.
And hey, what about this whistling roaring sound going past what I'm suddenly going to call my head? Perhaps I can call that ... wind! Is that a good name? It'll do [...] Now - have I built up any coherent picture of things yet?
Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, [...] Hey! What's this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like ... ow ... ound ... round ... ground! That's it! That's a good name - ground!
I wonder if it will be friends with me?
And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence. (ch. 18)

Apart from the last sentence, which is clearly a remark by a heterodiegetic narrator, this passage attempts to recreate what passes through the whale's consciousness apparently without any interference from an agency that tries to put it into well-turned English. The thoughts are presented in the first person, several thoughts run into each other as perceptions of different things crowd into the whale's consciousness, syntax and punctuation are not those of conventional written language, but try to imitate spoken (or thought) language. This technique of presentation is now most commonly called interior monologue and it is intended to present a character's thoughts directly, imitating as much as possible the way this character might 'actually' have thought his thoughts.

One of the most famous examples for interior monologue, cited again and again, is James Joyce's last chapter in Ulysses (1922). Page after page this section presents Molly Bloom's consciousness to the reader entirely in interior monologue:

[...] if his nose bleeds youd thing it was O tragic and that dyinglooking one off the south circular when he sprained his foot at the choir party at the sugarloaf Mountain the day I wore that dress Miss Stack bringing him flowers the worst old ones she could find at the bottom of the basket anything at all to get into a mans bedroom with her old maids voice trying to imagine he was dying on account of her to sever see thy face again though he looked more like a man with his beard a bit grown in the bed father was the same besides I hate bandaging and dosing when he cut his toe with the razor paring his corns afraid hed get blood poisoning [...] (Joyce, Ulysses, 'Penelope')

Here, in contrast to the sperm whale's last thoughts, there is no punctuation and the current of thought is depicted as associative rather than strictly logical and coherent. The notion that one's thoughts are not in fact orderly and well-formulated but more of a jumbled-up sequence of associations, gained currency with a concept developed in psychology, called stream of consciousness. This term was coined by William James, the brother of the novelist Henry James (see James 1892). It is important to note, however, that for William James the stream of consciousness was not necessarily verbal but also included other sensual perceptions, especially visual representations. Interior monologue is one narrative technique – necessarily limited to verbal representation – that tries to reproduce non-orderly and associative patterns of thought. It is also possible to reproduce the stream of consciousness in narrated monologue (see further on). The term stream of consciousness thus refers to the way cognitive processes take place, it is not itself a narrative technique. Unfortunately, many critics use the term to denote a narrative technique, which confuses the issue.


Obviously, interior monologue is a technique that puts a certain amount of strain on the reader. Thus, it is more common (outside avantgard fiction) to learn about a character's consciousness from the narrator, who takes it upon him- or herself, to report the character's thoughts to the reader. In the following passage our previous example of the whale has been rewritten as psychonarration:

The little sperm whale, suddenly finding himself in existence and in a place that did not seem entirely congenial to his faculties, was trying very hard to determine his place in life and in the universe, as others under more favourable circumstances had done before him. With increasing urgency he faced questions of his own identity and his relation to his surroundings. Despite his mounting confusion he also felt a growing excitement welling up inside him and irrepressible joy when he thought about the things to come. All this was cut tragically short when he hit the ground with a wet thud and ceased to think or feel at all.

In psychonarration the heterodiegetic narrator remains in the foreground throughout, even adds some general observations not originating in the character ("as others [...] had done before him"). While we certainly learn about the whale's thoughts and feelings, we hear it entirely in the narrator's voice, syntax and vocabulary. We do not hear the voice of the whale as in the rendering above in interior monologue (compare previous quotation). The difference in effect is quite marked, the reader remains much more distant from the character's consciousness and the level of mediation remains noticeable in the foreground.


 • consciousness
 • psychonarration
 • narrated monologue
 • interior monologue
 • stream of      consciousness