Stream of Consciousness in To the Lighthouse

Updated June 6, 2002
by Christie Lamon-Burney and Srirupa Dhar

In Erich Auerbach’s influential essay, "The Brown Stocking," Virginia Woolf’s distinguishing technical features of stream of consciousness are examined in relation to devices used by many contemporary writers. Auerbach states that terms such as, "erlebte Rede, stream of consciousness, and monologue interieur" have been employed, but reflect the "author’s attitude toward the reality of the world he represents." Woolf’s uniqueness begins with an "attempt to render the flow and the play of consciousness adrift in the current of changing impressions." Auerbach states that Woolf’s technique is achieved through "[t]he design of a close approach to objective reality by means of numerous subjective impressions received by various individuals (and at various times)is important in the modern technique." Woolf’s use of the "multipersonal representation of consciousness" is unique through its combination with "treatment of time." This relation is not new to modern literature; however, narration is not devoted to an external occurrence, rather internal processes. "In Virginia Woolf’s case the external events have lost their hegemony, they serve to release and interpret inner events, whereas before her time… inner movements preponderantly function to prepare and motivate significant external happenings." Although there is no temporal relation between external framing and internal impressions, each share a common element. The important aspect to remember regarding the uniqueness of Woolf’s representation of consciousness is that "insignificant external occurrence releases ideas and chains of ideas which cut loose from the present of the external occurrence and range freely through the depths of time" (Auerbach 45-50).

After reading an excerpt from the work of Henri Bergson, we conclude that Woolf’s technique appears consistent with modern writings in psychology. Bergson explains that the conscious is never in a "state." Instead, the consciousness is constantly changing due to present impressions integrating with past experiences (68-71). Woolf’s characters seem to be constantly reminded of the past through their present experiences. For example, the passage, which Auerbach examines in To the Lighthouse, discusses the impression that the worn furniture has on Mrs. Ramsay as her eyes fall onto it (Woolf 26). Therefore, the term stream of consciousness may be too general when describing Woolf’s work.

Woolf’s probing into the human consciousness in TTL is not so simplistic that it can be attributed to any particular narrative technique. What really distinguishes her novel is the aesthetic effect of her exploration of the minds of her characters. Only an artist of Woolf’s stature can present the mental worlds of her characters with an unprecedented depth and intensity. By virtue of her depth and intensity, Woolf creates a novel both with an unconventional "plot", and an unconventional prose. In fact, the imaginative power of her language tunneling the minds of her characters translates her novel to the level of poetry. Therefore, TTL emerges not as a typical prosaic presentation of events. The subtle suggestiveness in the novel has the charisma of poetry. An anonymous critic writing in 1927 sees TTL from this perspective:

"There is an elusive quality in Mrs. Woolf’s work which is so different from anything else in literature as to be quite indefinable. If she must be labeled it should be rather a lyrical poet than as a novelist. Her new novel has no plot, and its free, rambling style, with none of the firmness and conclusion of prose, yet has a rhythm which makes it more akin to poetry, and particularly to modern poetry. She enters completely into her characters, one by one, and traces their thoughts and actions with free lyrical expression. Noticing the most trivial detail she invests it with significance. But it is always her significance which it assumes in the mind of the character; Mrs. Woolf never for a moment becomes the detached observer of the world which she is creating; therefore her people are entirely real without ever being tangible." (Anonymous. "Lyrical Fiction". The Glasgow Harold. (1927):4.

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