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Research Papers

Stream of Consciousness as Mode of Narration-Shazia Cheema

  Stream of Consciousness as Mode of Narration

Table of content

Introduction…………………………………………………………………………1

Stream of Consciousness Mode of Narration……………………………………….3

Associative Techniques of Stream of Consciousness……………………………6

Conjunctive Techniques…………………………………………………………7

Recapitulation……………………………………………………………7

Modulation………………………………………………………………7

Counter Points……………………………………………………………9

Repeated and changing focus…………………………………………..10

Disjunctive Techniques…………………………………………………………12

Sensory Impression………………………………………………………12

Bridge Techniques………………………………………………………………13

Suspended Coherence……………………………………………………13

Reflection……………………………………………………………………………14

References…………………………………………………………………………..15

“Literature is a record of human consciousness, the richest and most comprehensive we have”

                                                                                                                                   (David Lodge)

  1. Introduction

Human meaning is a complex phenomenon which involves several domains, e.g. art, music, perception, language and so on. Language is one of the key domains in human meaning making and each domain has its special tools to make meaning. These tools can be divided on to basis, ontological and semiotic. Narrative is a sub-domain of language and narrative construction as domain require particular tools to get expected meaning. Narratives also can be examined on two aspects, ontological, what do narratives consist off or semiotics how and why narrative means what they mean.

It is possible to investigate narratives on the basis of, what semiotics function their ontological tools are presenting. That is called cognitive semiotics study of literary art. I have chosen Stream of Consciousness as tool and “The Physics of Sorrow” as a narrative to investigate what semiotics functions technique stream of consciousness is playing and how. I have selected Stream of consciousness, as it is deeply connected to narratology because narratives are built upon characters and character-sketch is the center of every narrative. No character can be fully presented without entering in its consciousness.

The novel The physics of Sorrow written by Georgi Gospondinov present zero-focalization in this novel, in this paper I will explain the whole procedure of stream of consciousness technique used in The Physics of Sorrow and will explain how it being used the way it is being used in this novel.

Georgi Gospondinov writes in the prologue to The Physics of Sorrow

I was born at the end of

 August 1913 as a human being of the male sex

I was born two hours before dawn like a fruit fly

I was born on January 1, 1968

I have always been born

I haven’t born yet

I was born on September 6. 1944..

I remember being born as a rose bush…”(Gospondinov, 2015)pg.9

Leaving aside the obvious case of distracted reading situation, and putting the reader in to the constant thinking mode. Each birth happens at a different time, and different place, but seemingly Gospondinov has not decided to write a linear story, and this technique makes the complicated novel even chaotic.

The reader gets distracted and feels strong urge to stop wandering. However, this novel is constructed as a maze, so at every new turn a different scene creates curiosity and forces the reader to keep on moving. Gospondinov without any discrimination, shifts from one thought to another, one charhacter to another, one form of subject to another and keeps running in the maze of his mind, expecting the reader to follow him. In order to create this effect, Gospondinov resorted to tools and related skills to write such a labyrinth, which I will explain hereafter.

Firstly, the stream of consciousness technique in The Physics of Sorrow is dominant throughout the bnarrative. The novel travels through different lands, minds and characters, sometimes it is hard to make connections, it feels tedious to keep track but at the same time curiosity pushes the reader’s imagination to pursue for what is coming next. The novel is woven in such a way that everything connects but the reader itself finds it hard to make all the connections. It gives a mosaic effect, where the reader finds himself time and again in a cinematic projection of actions as they are captured through camera’s eye. On occasions, reader feels strong sensory perceptions e.g. nausea, fear and blindness. This paper will try to find out that how the mode of narration called stream of consciousness makes The Physics of Sorrow, complicated yet understandable.

  • The Stream of Consciousness Mode of Narration

Stream of consciousness is one of the modes of narration, which are devoid of the well-defined classical rules for narrative writing. Classical narrative consists of a plot where events must have a timeline and actions must support the linearity of time. The start of 20th century was also start of new literary forms, modern writers like James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Virginia Woolf  startedexperimenting with presenting the human psychology. This was not similar to James psychological decoding or cataloging of human mind but presentation of consciousness free of associations, uncut and raw. According to the modern writer, the rule of classical narration limits the scope of projection of human mind, despite the idea of being logical and formatted they choose a form, which cannot be justified through conventional logic of literature but it advocates the ability of human mind can extend embodied experiences, in the form of thoughts and actions. That is where stylistic meet the cognitive sciences. Thoughts in human mind are not static, they continuously shift from one image schema to another which create a ripple like effects, narrating that thought process i.e., verbally uncommitted thoughts, is a tricky thing. In literary art this technique is called Stream of Consciousness and as the very name shows, it is a stream-like phenomenon in which events and ideas flows like a stream, any logical or spatio-temporal relation between them is not necessary.

By definition, stream of consciousness is a particular method of narration in which narrator produces full account of characters’ mental state and conscious and unconscious experiences along with sense perception. What is happening, in somebody’s mind and how that all effects everything around, how individual’s actions and emotions create ripples in course of life, can be projected through the technique of stream of consciousness. The term first explained by W James as function of knowing[1]

“There is a stream, a succession of state, or waves, or field of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life[2]”(James, 1899).

Russel Epstein (Epstein, 2000) has also elaborated the concept of James’s stream of consciousness with the example of the structure of a living cell which contains a nucleus and an outer membrane, Russel improvised it with nucleus of conscious / perceptual material and its membrane as “fringe[3] of embodiment” (Galin, 1994) which allows related thoughts and perception to be able to filter and enter in the nucleus and create coherence. It sounds like concept of image schema and frame. Image schemas are tiny units of concepts through embodied experience are able to create and understand novel concepts. W James further explains in The Principle of Psychology Ch. IX

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as “chains” or “trains” do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing joined; it flows. A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described”.)(James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890)pg.239

Russel (Epstein, 2000) states that thoughts inside the nucleus are stable in nature and can reappear time and again, these images are capable of formation of memories but limited in their capacity. He divided thought in to two categories depending upon their nature of occurrence.

  1. thoughts that occur inside the nucleus are “substantive” and they are subjective
  2. thoughts process happens at outer membrane are “illusive”, and they are transitory

Substantive thoughts are strongly imagistic because of their connection to sensory representation. Stream of consciousness technique of narrative writing also involves sensory perception to achieve the required effect which will be explained in detail later.

The part of consciousness described as “fringe” is borderline between conscious and unconscious. These types of thoughts play the role of glue or connecter between substantive thoughts. These illusive thoughts create ripple which give the metaphor STREAM- a profound meaning in this regard. Illusive thoughts are also schematic images which help to create new substantive thoughts. Russel Epstein (Epstein, 2000)explained that un-substantive or fringe of thought are capable of doing extremely important functions, such as expectation, the feeling of having a word, sense of familiarity, sense of connection, the urge to say something new based upon prior schema, aesthetic pleasure, sense of understanding and articulating more, sense of anticipation, and sense of correctness.

Narrating a character’s mental world, as it is can crate different linguistics problems. This can add to incoherence created by the selected mode of narration, specifically for the stream of consciousness. For example, improper or lack of punctuation can create enunciation problems also following with the stream of thoughts, narrator can make grammatical mistakes and cohesive errors that can make the whole narrative piece incoherent and chaotic. The narrative can feel bumpy or derailed as the course of events shifts abruptly or a new event occurs in an untimely fashion. If one conduct a simple practical exercise, that of recalling the past couple of hours of our mental and physical activity, it will be very evident that there is so much going on, instances not related and connected in that particular time and space but linked to another spatio-temporal modality, which could be coherent to the person, recalling it but will make little sense to others.

Thoughts are embodied and they are built up on image schemas. Image schemas are small conceptual packets which store abstract concepts in order to create and understand new ones. The journey from schematic image to a substantive reality can be defined as stream of consciousness.

The stream of consciousness as mode of narration is also explored by Borgeson Jr (Paul W. Borgeson, 1979). Borgeson particularly used stream of consciousness as an umbrella term that covers the associative techniques. These associative techniques serve the purpose of ordering and disordering effects in a narrative, because the techniques were considered to be part of stream of consciousness e.g. internal monologue or soliloquy is not sufficient to present a holistic narrative. Borgeson Jr examines the use of these associative techniques with the help of Rolfo[4]’s narratives.

 There are no set associative techniques to apply stream of consciousness on a narrative but writers with their personal literary style use, invent and improvise them. Borgeson Jr (Paul W. Borgeson, 1979)divided them in to three major categories, conjunctive, disjunctive and bridge techniques. Russel’s cognitive model of stream of conscious combined with Borgeson’s notion of stream of consciousness is summarized as follow: stream of consciousness technique can be applied in speech and thought both, stream of consciousness is not one method of narration but a multitude of techniques can be applied to portray multiple effects in a narrative piece. Stream of consciousness techniques requires the author to give a direct account of psychological aspects which are fragmented in nature somewhat coherently, but also keeping the element of chaos intact.

The novel The Physics of Sorrow written by Georgi Gospondinov, from very first glance, presents all the qualities, which a narrative based on stream of consciousness technique, should present. It is chaotic, derailed and fragmented. From a critical point of view Georgi used conjunctive, disjunctive and bridge techniques simultaneously to achieve the desired flow of thoughts, it does not seem he has a specific patron to use these techniques; he uses them whenever and wherever they are required to continue the flow, and not the order. As it will be further explained the use of these techniques maintains order and chaos simultaneously, which is the real essence of the narrative, based on projection of raw thoughts.

  • [1] Juan Rolfu (1917-1986) a Mexican writer, screen writer and photographer. His collection of short stories El LianoenIllamas 1953, later translated in to English and published as “The Burning Planes and other Stories”.
  • Conjunctive techniques of stream of consciousness

These conjunctive techniques are also known as recurrent techniques and they provide order and coherence. They are further divided into;

  • Recapitulation
  • Modulation
  • Counter point
  • Repeated and changing focus

Conjunctive techniques are frequent in the The Physics of Sorrow, how the reader keeps balance while travelling on a bumpy path, can be explained through conjunctive techniques of stream of consciousness. Let us start with recapitulation which provides understanding of events that occur previously unexplained and fragmented. Georgi Gospodinov uses recapitulation to make certain points clear such is the prologue which explains page by page and adds understanding.

3.1 Modulation in stream of consciousness

Modulation is a technique used in stream of consciousness, through which an image reappears in different contexts but having some connected elements with a previous one; Gospondinov uses tunnel, corridor, marked, labyrinth and being abandoned repeatedly and interchangeably. The reader finds it fascinating how well-crafted the author, Georgi Gospondinov uses different terms as concepts and creates meanings in between the lines. The following examples will explain his use of modulation in stream of consciousness to get the aforementioned effect.

  1. Bread wine water thank you beautiful farewell pp

The combination of words represents the understanding between two people without understanding each other. The first time the combination is used creates confusion for the reader but second time use of the same concept (bundle of random words), the text is coherent and the reader easily understands it.

  • “Marked child”“abandoned”“basement”.“A child who will soon be abandoned (sent to the basement)”. pp.67
  • “Most likely Minos needed time, months, even a year or two, to decide what to do, how to hide this marked child from the world”. pp.67

The connected elements in this example are being different and become victim of that difference. The protagonist is reflecting on the mythical story of a bull-headed boy born by a woman and fathered by a bull, and later imprisoned in an underground series of tunnels to be banished for good. He used the term “basement” and “living in a basement” several time in the novel where it substitutes the abundance and isolation but in very different scenes, like living in a basement apartment, basement of thoughts etc. At times, the reader finds it fragmented as novel presents one basement after another, one maze then again another, metaphorical and physical realms simultaneously-it is only the technique of modulation that makes connections and adds understanding. Gospondinov could not get the effect of order without presenting the same concept with different meaning and bridging the gap between both. On the other hand, presentation of continuous stream of thought could have only created chaos, which is not the writer’s purpose. His purpose as a story teller is to present chaos but with a certain level of order as well.

e.g., Abandoned and devour used interchangeably (pp.67-68)

e.g., Tunnel of oohh (pp.74)

I knew that I would never again free myself from the tunnel of that Ooooooooohh. The howl would peruse me throughout the years with varying doggedness”.

In the abovementioned example Georgy Gospondinov presents a metaphorical tunnel but on other occasion he physically described a tunnel. The later use of the same idea is to make it clear to the reader what exactly a metaphorical tunnel of oooohh could feel like. 

I knew that howling-bellowing -crying thing was now settled in there for good. In the very center, in the cave of the skull, from there to the tympanic membrane, the hammer and the envail, in the very labyrinth of the inner ear, as the doctor put it.”(pp.74)

The anatomical shapes and metaphorical projection of memory of fear is a stylistic example of modulation.

 e.g., Corridors of screams (pp. 74)

e.g., “a corridor would open and sucks that sucks me inside”.(pp.75)

In this example the “corridors of scream” later projected as a labyrinth and an inner ear. The first portrait, means a pathway where scream is traveling and the second has the same connected projection but in a different context. The writer uses corridors, tunnels and labyrinth to enter inside other people’s thoughts and then without disrupting the second person stream of consciousness, he turns it into 1st person’s narration. Throughout the novel, the writer shifts from narrator to protagonist with the use of modulation then shifts back without interrupting the flow. However continuous flow of thought creates the phenomena of suspended coherence.

e.g., “just as in epilepsy, he said, we never know where the persons wander when he is in such a fit”.   (pp75)

The writer explains the chaos in the protagonist’s thinking when he used the term “wander” again in this example, as he is making a point that this wandering is not futile, which he later modulates with the;

 “the collection of emptiness and abandonment” (pp. 83)

Interestingly, at this moment he is referring to the physical collection of matchboxes, newspaper cuttings, leaves, straws etc

e.g.  “bomb shelters” “basement” (pp. 85)

The world basement is frequently used in the novel, though every time with a different connotation. Here basement is used as a protection but with the connected meaning of fear and abandonment

“Labyrinth”(pp. 90)

Here labyrinth is not used as a maze in which a minotaur was abandoned but a maze of actions and events where the reader can find misery connected between both.

3.2 Counter points in stream of consciousness

The second most powerful technique Georgi Gospondinov uses in The Physics of Sorrow to justify stream of consciousness is counter points. While using these technique events that would happen in different time and space, occur simultaneously or some time overlapping each other. This technique facilitates stream of consciousness by eliminating spatio-temporal elements from a narration, allowing flow of thoughts with strange continuity. In The Physics of Sorrow this is achieved by the narrator’s entry into other people’s thoughts e.g. when he enters into his father and grandfathers mind the event expanding on a century seems to occur simultaneously for the reader. Gearogi Gospondinov skill fully presents events that happened in different time and places side by side throughout the novel. Complete and unprecedented entry in characters’ thought is called zero-focalization. Which itself is a very complex and chaotic scenario.

When the writer was being born, the narrator describes in two separate scenes ; what the womb experience is like when fetus comes out and the fetus’s perception of coming out in the world. There is another incident in which the write portrays his experience of being abandoned and simultaneously the minotaur’s and his father’s experience of abandonment; the incident happens in different times but narrator presents them overlapping each other. The incident with sorcerers also presents two generation having the same childhood experience overlapping each other. The entire novel is woven like one string of thread from 19th century and other from an ancient myth yet another from 20thcentury.

3.3 Changing Focus in stream of consciousness

Repeated and changing focus is reappearance of the same scene under different circumstances or by different narrator/character. The Physics of Sorrow is replete with such examples.

“And then a sorceress grab the cap off my head, stuck his finger straight through it and a make a hole about yea big… I started bawling, how could I go home with my cap torn like that? He laughed, blew on it, and marvel of marvels, it was good as new. Now that’s one mighty powerful sorcerous. (pp.10)

“My grandfather in me cannot decide. So that’s where I get the indecisiveness that will constantly torment me. I see myself sitting there, scrawny, lanky with a skinned knee, in the cap that will soon be punctured by the sorcerous ……. I step yet further aside, see myself from a bird’s eye view, everyone is screwing around me, I’m standing there, and my grandfather is standing there, the two of us in one body”.(pp.10)

The rest of the scene is repeating the focus by mixing the grandfather’s childhood incident when in the fair his cap was pinched by sorceress and hole get vanished by the same sorceress but when protagonist shift from grandson who is experiencing the same incident but sorceress instead of mending the cap just pinch on the lips and protagonist get mute, and protagonist as grandson protagonist as grandfather turn in antagonist which is Minotaur.

“Come on grandpa, that was a magician, I hear myself say.

Back then there were sorcerers, my grandfather says, later they become magician.

But I am already there, twelve years old, the year must be 1925. There is the fiver I’m clutching in my hand, sweaty, I can feel its edge. For the first time I am alone in the fair with the money in the boot”. (pp.10)

At page 7, the minotaur, the audience and the author experience the same incident

At page 11,a sudden change from he to I as same subject occurs, the narrator is describing a fear of the protagonist but he suddenly acquires the role of protagonist himself

e.g. “I run inside the mill”

Minotaur’s moo and the writer’s use of the word moomy instead of mommy is repetition of the focal point being mute, having no voice for one self. This is connected to being banished without any self-defense. It connects the event of the minotaur being mute, the protagonist’s father being abandoned as a child and unable to cry, a soldier during the war in Hungary unable to say anything due to the lack of language and many other scenes. Gospondinov repeated that he was being voice less many times but of course in different scenes and in different kinds of muteness in reference to the context.

Moomy? The first cry, its not even a cry, it end in a question mark..Mooomy

Mooommy?….Mooooooomy(pp 15)

It is the same concept of being abandoned with repeated focus on a different character.

The narrator is describing a fear of the protagonist but suddenly acquires the role of protagonist

 “abandon is the word he did not yet know I did not yet know”(pp.21)

It is not reflecting or seeing and telling but narrator playing the protagonist role simultaneously, it happens few time when shift from the narrator to the protagonist or any other character is extremely jerky. The reader finds himself/herself in complete ignorance in regard to who is who. The narrator also tells his father name was Goeorgi which is the writer’s name too, and at this point writer also seem as character in the novel.

On page 28 the repetition of focus seems to take a strange turn when same incident happens to the slug and to grandfathers, first an event is described by the father’s perspective then the slug’s perspective.

  What he used to do with ants he repeated it by focusing on himself (pp.31)

“…suddenly a giant finger, whose nail alone was as bid as cliff, thumped down and began circling around them. And as it wasn’t terrifying enough that this finger could crush them at any second, just like that, out of carelessness, it also reeked toxically to boot”.

Page 33 is another example of repetition of the concept of basement “one basement to another basement”

We can see him focusing the idea of basement yet another way on page 42 “he came out of the basement but basement remains inside him”

The two apocalypses__ his grandmother’s and school’s official one__ didn’t coincide precisely, which only made matter worse….”

Above example is description of a concept by same narrator in different way and on pg. 79 description of same scene but different with different narrator, Pg 94 shows another example of changing perspective when protagonist as child help to feed swallow by killing ants, it is seen as pray and being prayed perspective which narrator termed as (playing God), this playing god concept was also repeated when ants try to be god and encircled protagonist in his dream and also family member decided to kept the news of grandfather alive from the public by putting him in basement and declaring him dead publically.

  • Disjunctive techniques in stream of consciousness

Sensory impression

The term sensory impression was first used by Lawrence Bowling in 1948 & 1950. He explains it as writer’s use of sense perception to narrate a character’s reaction. This technique is frequently used in The Physics of Sorrow and serves different purposes. The display of bull head boy on page14gives a creepy sensation to the reader. The description of his day-to-day life involves the reader in a strong sense of helplessness and nausea.

On page 15 written word mooomy, moooommyymooooommy are clearly seen by the reader in connection to the minotaur’s signature sound, written as “mooo, moo”. The first three “moomy” are the sounds made by the young boy while trying to utter the word mommy and second is the moo moo is the sound of the Minotaur. The reader clearly catches the signaling between the written words, which is a clever use of sense perception.

On page 15 write goes for “blindness” because the reader finds themselves blind as they cannot visually perceive what is happening.

On page 19, it is written in detail as perceived by perceptions (fear) the incident of grandfather coming from war without fighting, instead he just spends his time in a basement in Hungary and after a year his family makes him live in the basement upon his return home. The fear that someone might someone find out that he is not a martyr but still alive in his house. Reader find himself in utter dark while reading how narrator’s father gets blind by living continuously in dark and that darkness is so visible to the reader.

The detailed description on page 28 swallowing the slug gives nausea to the reader, it involves how grandfather’s throat feels the journey of slug because, the details evoke sensations and the reader can feel the experience himself/herself.

On page 69 sending a baby shower card, which features a picture of freshly backed child in a tray coming right out of oven gives the reader nausea and a creepy feeling. Disgust is in the detail with which entire scene is written, the detail of a baby, detail of oven, the terms of freshly baked and coming right from the oven arouse sensations. Details are presented as by camera’s eye make it more lifelike.

On page 75, _ “corridor that sucks me inside…. dark galleries of unspoken” _. Both types of darkness show nothing to reader keeping him completely blind until narrator wants to reveal and he does that in an untimely manner which leaves the reader in blindness. While reading The Physics of Sorrow the reader experienced a continuous play of sensory data. The novel gives a mosaic effect which can only be projected with sense perception

  • Bridge techniques

Suspended coherence

Term bridge technique introduced by Robert Humphrey (Humphrey, 1962). Bridge techniques create a fictional world. Without using this technique, their left so many unanswered questions, frequent loop holes, unexplained ideas, untold incidents. Writer bridge these gaps by provide answers and make connections between incidents. Sometimes connection can be seen after few paragraphs but other times piece of the puzzle found after several pages. The mare documentation by zero-focalization can not a become a story, there must be something related to something else in-order to make associations.

“The associations are not explained at the time the process is indicated. The explanation may lie hidden several hundred pages separate from the associations”(Humphrey, 1962) pp.66

 Suspension of free thoughts gives the aesthetic pleasure to reader, which is the whole essence of reading narrative. As human being we are very sensitive to regularities in patrons but non-generic point of view grabs our attention more quickly. Hidden clues, unidentified thoughts and free associations seem more challenging to a reader yet explore able.

  • Reflection

Stream of Consciousness techniques provide zero focalization in The Physics of Sorrow by giving narrator unrestricted access to all the characters conscious and unconscious thoughts which gives immediate meaning effect. Stream of Consciousness technique in The Physics of Sorrow is an example of showing semiotic functions of an ontological component. Stream of Consciousness technique  facilitate both “state” and “events”.


[4] Juan Rolfu (1917-1986) a Mexican writer, screen writer and photographer. His collection of short stories El LianoenIllamas 1953, later translated in to English and published as “The Burning Planes and other Stories”.

 Assistant Professor Shazia Cheema is a researcher, newspaper article write and media analyst, her main research area is “media, film and theater semiotics.  She has done MPhil in Cognitive Semiotics from Aarhus University Denmark and She is a PhD Scholar of Semiotics and Philosophy of Communication in Charles University Prague

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