Stream of Consciousness in Heart of Darkness and the Love Song

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The 20th Century was considered the birth place of several modernist literary devices. Of these tools, stream-of-consciousness, simply known as interior monologue, was a misunderstood but widely growing concept used in many literary works. Authors Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot applied this tool in their novels Heart of Darkness and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. Stream-of-consciousness writing was a widely used technique because of its ability to provide readers with a deeper understanding of a character’s thoughts and to allow for personal interpretation.

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The stream-of-consciousness technique found itself in modernist literature at the turn of the 20th century when it was first introduced by William James. LiteraryDevices.net quotes James’ book, The Principles of Psychology, saying “… it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ is the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life” (“Stream of Consciousness”). In other words, stream-of-consciousness is the flow of one internal idea to the next. After coining this unique style in 1890, other authors began to take notice. However, most reviews carried a negative connotation as it was found to be choppy and faulty in novels. This was mainly due to the fact that stream-of-consciousness was a spontaneous thought that arose within monologues of the narrators. It can be closely equated to a written version of a character’s thought process as they progress through the story.

With the growing popularity of this concept, several works utilized the controversial tool. Author Joseph Conrad based one of his more popular works, Heart of Darkness, around the internal monologue of the main character, Marlow. Marlow is reminiscing of the story of his adventures within the Congo of Africa with his fellow passengers aboard the Nellie, a boat floating down the River Thames. Conrad used the stream-of-consciousness style to show the chaotic confusion that was Marlow’s tale. Multiple times Marlow moves from one choppy sentence to the next as his memory flows: “An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to….” (Norton 2410). Although Marlow himself does not intend to be spotty, Conrad leaves these holes within Marlow’s tale to allow reader interpretation and to show how the technique can also correlate with the spots of time that stand out in his memory.

Conrad continues to carefully weave the thoughts of Marlow throughout the story to provide the necessary feeling the reader needs to understand his journey. By doing so, he brings the reader further into the inner circle of Marlow’s tale. The focus on Marlow’s consciousness is largely apparent towards the end of the novella. When time comes for Marlow to speak with the fiancé of Mr. Kurtz about his death, he remembers his thoughts as he waits thinking:

He lived then before me; he lived as much as he had ever lived- a shadow insatiable of splendid appearances, of frightful realities… The visions seemed the enter the house with me- the stretcher, the phantom-bearers, the wild crowd of obedient worshippers, the gloom of the forests, the glitter of the reach between the murky bends, the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart- the heart of a conquering darkness (Norton 2461).

This inner monologue aids in solidifying the vivid memories that Marlow still has of his last encounter with Kurtz. Conrad shows how using the stream-of-consciousness technique draws the focus onto the inner thoughts of Marlow while blurring the outer world. The spotty memories seem to fade away as the concentration draws further into what he saw in the jungle.

Much like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock also follows a stream-of-consciousness layout. Prufrock is talking to himself about his concerns towards losing his youthful liveliness and happiness. As he created this silent monologue, his stream of ideas flow from one to the next, each new idea connecting to the previous. This associative thinking coincides with the stream-of-consciousness toward the end of his poem as he progresses through his thoughts:

I grow old… I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. / Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? / I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. / I have heard the mermaids, singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me (Norton 2712).

Prufrock’s consciousness is going over the idea of his ever-growing age. He explains how he will change his attire to something more age-appropriate. Furthermore, he recalls that while he walked on the beach he heard mermaids sing. As he ages, he doubts the mermaids will ever sing to him again.

Eliot continues to use the idea of stream-of-consciousness until the last line of his poem. Prufrock finds himself wandering from the beach into the sea by the mermaids that he once heard sing. He yearns for them to sing to him; however, their song still leads him to fall under the depths of their dream. With the last line of the poem, Prufrock finds himself awakened: “…Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (Norton 2713). For a moment, Prufrock gets away from the pouring river that is his conscious thought and finds himself within a dream. This dream has led him to the beach where the mermaids deny his return to reality. Within a moment, he wakes from the dream to find himself once again drowning under the sea of thought that arises from his flowing conscious. He is thrust back into the world where he worries for his age and happiness after having fell under the dream where they vanished.

The creation of the stream-of-consciousness technique for writing actually found its roots in the late 19th and early 20th century as a coined term used by psychologists. During this time, both the psychological and philosophical revolutions were beginning to find their way into the spot light. The idea behind stream-of-consciousness correlated with the roots of these revolutions as figures like Frederick Nietzsche encouraged people to develop and create their own values and ideas. He pushed to show that authors could reform the world in which they were living through their writing. The possibilities of thought and rationality inserted within writing were endless. As described by editors at Encyclopaedia Britannica on their website, “some writers attempted to capture the total flow of their characters’ consciousness, rather than limit themselves to rational thoughts” (Encyclopadeia Britannica). Authors could now weave the inner reality of their characters into the minds of readers. This would allow for more reader interpretation and personal opinions, or conversations, to be developed.

Literature would face a multitude of changes at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Techniques and devices were being developed, introduced, and applied to works of several renown authors of the time. Stream-of-consciousness, although heavily misunderstood, became the technique of choice for many novelists. Those such as Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot used the idea to draw readers further into their work. It would open a door into the flowing conscious of the characters they developed. This allowed the readers to not only further relate to those characters, but there was also room for personal interpretation, conversation, and value that was not originally intended by the author. Due to the growing popularity and potential it possessed, the use of stream-of-consciousness soon became a sought-after literary tool for writers of the Modernist era.

Works Cited:

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Stream of Consciousness.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Feb. 2019, www.britannica.com/art/stream-of-consciousness.

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Major Authors, by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 2405–2464.

Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Major Authors, by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 2709–2712.

“Stream of Consciousness – Examples and Definition.” Literary Devices, Literary Devices, 13 Jan. 2018, literarydevices.net/stream-of-consciousness/.

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Stream of Consciousness in Heart of Darkness and The Love Song. (2021, Jun 02). Retrieved December 1, 2022 , from
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