The name “stream of consciousness” was devised by William James; the thing itself is no doubt as old as the conscious brain. How and when did it achieve literary representation? Vladimir Nabokov claims that this “method of expression … a kind of record of a character’s mind running on and on, switching from one image or idea to another without any comment or explanation on the part of the author,” was invented by Tolstoy for the occasion of Anna Karenina’s last afternoon. There the device is in “rudimentary form,” whereas James Joyce will advance it “to an extreme stage of objective record” (Lectures on Russian Literature). But do we regard it as essential that the artist present the stream as inward? There seems no good reason to, since however disorderly the phenomenon inadequately called a “stream” may be, its presentation has in any case the linearity of speech. Abandoning this requirement, we can easily discover the “record of a mind” before Tolstoy. Dickens has it in Nicholas Nickleby.

‘Kate, my dear,’ said Mrs. Nickleby; ‘I don’t know how it is, but a fine warm summer day like this, with the birds singing in every direction, always puts me in mind of roast pig, with sage and onion sauce, and made gravy.’

‘That’s a curious association of ideas, is it not, mama?’

‘Upon my word, my dear, I don’t know,’ replied Mrs. Nickleby. ‘Roast pig; let me see. On the day five weeks after you were christened, we had a roast—no, that couldn’t have been a pig, either, because I recollect there were a pair of them to carve, and your poor papa and I could never have thought of sitting down to two pigs—they must have been partridges. Roast pig! I hardly think we ever could have had one, now I come to remember, for your papa could never bear the sight of them in the shops, and used to say that they always put him in mind of very little babies, only the pigs had much fairer complexions; and he had a horror of little babies, too, because he couldn’t very well afford any increase to his family, and had a natural dislike to the subject. It’s very odd now, what can have put that in my head! I recollect dining once at Mrs Bevan’s, in that broad street round the corner by the coachmaker’s, where the tipsy man fell through the cellar-flap of an empty house nearly a week before the quarter-day, and wasn’t found till the new tenant went in—and we had roast pig there. It must be that, I think, that reminds me of it, especially as there was a little bird in the room that would keep on singing all the time of dinner—at least, not a little bird, for it was a parrot, and he didn’t sing exactly, for he talked and swore dreadfully: but I think it must be that. Indeed I am sure it must. Shouldn’t you say so, my dear?’

Since inconsequence may be near allied to madness, it is fitting that “the gentleman in the small-clothes” is attracted to Mrs. Nickleby. —She has a predecessor in Austen’s Emma.

[Emma:] “I hope Mrs. Bates and Miss Fairfax are—”

[Miss Bates:] “Very well, I am much obliged to you. My mother is delightfully well; and Jane caught no cold last night. How is Mr. Woodhouse?—I am so glad to hear such a good account. Mrs. Weston told me you were here.—Oh! then, said I, I must run across, I am sure Miss Woodhouse will allow me just to run across and entreat her to come in; my mother will be so very happy to see her—and now we are such a nice party, she cannot refuse.—‘Aye, pray do,’ said Mr. Frank Churchill, ‘Miss Woodhouse’s opinion of the instrument will be worth having.’—But, said I, I shall be more sure of succeeding if one of you will go with me.—‘Oh,’ said he, ‘wait half a minute, till I have finished my job;’—For, would you believe it, Miss Woodhouse, there he is, in the most obliging manner in the world, fastening in the rivet of my mother’s spectacles.—The rivet came out, you know, this morning.—So very obliging!—For my mother had no use of her spectacles—could not put them on. And, by the bye, every body ought to have two pair of spectacles; they should indeed. Jane said so. I meant to take them over to John Saunders the first thing I did, but something or other hindered me all the morning; first one thing, then another, there is no saying what, you know. At one time Patty came to say she thought the kitchen chimney wanted sweeping. Oh, said I, Patty do not come with your bad news to me. Here is the rivet of your mistress’s spectacles out. Then the baked apples came home, Mrs. Wallis sent them by her boy; they are extremely civil and obliging to us, the Wallises, always—I have heard some people say that Mrs. Wallis can be uncivil and give a very rude answer, but we have never known any thing but the greatest attention from them. And it cannot be for the value of our custom now, for what is our consumption of bread, you know? Only three of us—besides dear Jane at present—and she really eats nothing—makes such a shocking breakfast, you would be quite frightened if you saw it. I dare not let my mother know how little she eats—so I say one thing and then I say another, and it passes off. But about the middle of the day she gets hungry, and there is nothing she likes so well as these baked apples, and they are extremely wholesome, for I took the opportunity the other day of asking Mr. Perry; I happened to meet him in the street. Not that I had any doubt before—I have so often heard Mr. Woodhouse recommend a baked apple. I believe it is the only way that Mr. Woodhouse thinks the fruit thoroughly wholesome. We have apple-dumplings, however, very often. Patty makes an excellent apple-dumpling. Well, Mrs. Weston, you have prevailed, I hope, and these ladies will oblige us.”

Such speeches go some way towards turning Hume’s flux of perceptions (from his Treatise of Human Nature) into language.

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one upon serious and unprejudic’d reflexion, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him….


But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.

There are probably 18th-century examples—Fielding? Sheridan? Not Sterne, I suspect, for all his apparent wandering.

I don’t see why there may not be occasional instances of purely random sequences of ideas, although it seems that, as a rule, either thoughts are aroused by outer stimuli or else one thought leads to another. In Molière’s Dom Juan the linkage is made as in a word game.

Sganarelle:
… Faites-moi tout ce qu’il vous plaira, battez-moi, assommez-moi de coups, tuez-moi, si vous voulez: il faut que je décharge mon cœur, et qu’en valet fidèle je vous dise ce que je dois. Sachez, Monsieur, que tant va la cruche à l’eau, qu’enfin elle se brise; et comme dit fort bien cet auteur que je ne connais pas, l’homme est en ce monde ainsi que l’oiseau sur la branche; la branche est attachée à l’arbre; qui s’attache à l’arbre, suit de bons préceptes; les bons préceptes valent mieux que les belles paroles; les belles paroles se trouvent à la cour; à la cour sont les courtisans; les courtisans suivent la mode; la mode vient de la fantaisie; la fantaisie est une faculté de l’âme; l’âme est ce qui nous donne la vie; la vie finit par la mort; la mort nous fait penser au Ciel; le ciel est au-dessus de la terre; la terre n’est point la mer; la mer est sujette aux orages; les orages tourmentent les vaisseaux; les vaisseaux ont besoin d’un bon pilote; un bon pilote a de la prudence; la prudence n’est point dans les jeunes gens; les jeunes gens doivent obéissance aux vieux; les vieux aiment les richesses; les richesses font les riches; les riches ne sont pas pauvres; les pauvres ont de la nécessité; nécessité n’a point de loi; qui n’a point de loi vit en bête brute; et, par conséquent, vous serez damné à tous les diables.

Dom Juan:
Ô le beau raisonnement!

Sganarelle:

… Do what you like with me, beat me, rain blows on me, kill me, if you wish: I must unburden my heart and, as a faithful valet, say to you what I ought. Know, Sir, that the pitcher that goes too often to the well is broken at last; and as that author I’m not familiar with says so well, man is in this world as the bird on the branch; the branch clings to the tree; who clings to the tree follows good precepts; good precepts are better than fine words; fine words are found at court; at court are courtiers; courtiers follow fashion; fashion comes from imagination; imagination is a faculty of the soul; the soul is what gives us life; life ends in death; death makes us think of Heaven; the heaven is above the earth; the earth is not the sea; the sea is subject to storms; storms toss ships; ships need a good pilot; a good pilot has prudence; prudence is not in the young; the young owe obedience to the old; the old love wealth; wealth makes the rich; the rich are not poor; the poor suffer necessity; necessity has no law; who has no law lives like a brute beast; and consequently, you will be damned to all the devils.

Don Juan:

O, what fine reasoning!

It may be from Sancho Panza that Sganarelle learned to string sayings together, although Sancho’s, while numerous, are much more to the point than his. Sancho can also tell a story as digressively as Mrs. Nickleby or Miss Bates. (Ellipses in brackets indicate omitted interruptions by others.)

Y el cuento que quiero decir es este: convidó a un hidalgo de mi pueblo, muy rico y principal, porque venía de los Álamos de Medina del Campo, que casó con doña Mencía de Quiñones, que fue hija de don Alonso de Marañón, caballero del hábito de Santiago, que se ahogó en la Herradura, por quien hubo aquella pendencia años ha en nuestro lugar, que a lo que entiendo mi señor don Quijote se halló en ella, de donde salió herido Tomasillo el Travieso, el hijo de Balbastro el herrero… ¿No es verdad todo esto, señor nuestro amo? […] —Digo, pues, señores míos —prosiguió Sancho—, que este tal hidalgo, que yo conozco como a mis manos, porque no hay de mi casa a la suya un tiro de ballesta, convidó un labrador pobre, pero honrado. […] Y, así, digo que llegando el tal labrador a casa del dicho hidalgo convidador, que buen poso haya su ánima, que ya es muerto, y por más señas dicen que hizo una muerte de un ángel, que yo no me hallé presente, que había ido por aquel tiempo a segar a Tembleque […] —Es, pues, el caso —replicó Sancho— que estando los dos para sentarse a la mesa, que parece que ahora los veo más que nunca […] —Digo, así —dijo Sancho—, que estando, como he dicho, los dos para sentarse a la mesa, el labrador porfiaba con el hidalgo que tomase la cabecera de la mesa, y el hidalgo porfiaba también que el labrador la tomase, porque en su casa se había de hacer lo que él mandase; pero el labrador, que presumía de cortés y bien criado, jamás quiso, hasta que el hidalgo, mohíno, poniéndole ambas manos sobre los hombros, le hizo sentar por fuerza, diciéndole: «Sentaos, majagranzas, que adondequiera que yo me siente será vuestra cabecera». Y este es el cuento, y en verdad que creo que no ha sido aquí traído fuera de propósito.


“And the story I want to tell is this. A gentleman of my village invited—a very rich gentleman, and of quality, for he came of the Alamos of Medina del Campo, and married Donã Mencía de Quiñones, the daughter of Don Alonso de Marañón, knight of the Order of Santiago, who drowned at Herradura, about whom there was that quarrel years ago in our village, which as I understand it my master Don Quixote was mixed up in, from which little Tomás the scapegrace came away with a wound, the son of Balbastro the blacksmith he was… Isn’t all this true, my master, sir? […] Well then, I say, good sirs,” continued Sancho, “that this said gentleman, whom I know like my own hands, because from my house to his it isn’t a crossbow shot, invited a poor but respectable laborer. […] And so, I say, this laborer, arriving at the house of the said gentleman, the inviter, rest his soul, for he’s now dead, and, to be precise, they say that he died the death of an angel, although I wasn’t there, since at that time I’d gone to reap at Tembleque. […] Well, it so happened,” Sancho went on, “that as the two were about to sit down at the table—it seems to me I can see them now, clearer than ever. […] I say, then,” said Sancho, “that the two of them being, as I said, about to sit down at the table, the laborer insisted that the gentleman should take the head of the table, and the gentleman likewise insisted that the laborer should take it, because in his own house the other should do as he ordered; but the laborer, who prided himself on his manners and his good upbringing, wouldn’t have it, until the gentleman, exasperated, put both hands on his guest’s shoulders and forced him to sit down, saying: ‘Sit down, you stupid ass, for wherever I sit is the head of the table to you.’ And that’s the story, and I really think it isn’t out of place here.”

Sancho differs from Miss Bates and the others if, as I think likely, his digressions are calculated to serve his purpose.

From such examples we may go further back to the rambling essays of Montaigne, the lists of Rabelais, and Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas, which promises so ill that the Host suppresses it, a fitting punishment for tedious digressiveness, a flow that goes on and on without excuse, its causes hidden in the mind of the perpetrator, rather like this post…