Unborn thought, gestating in the womb, at swim in the mind—coiling, constricting, startling, unfurling, self-soothing, self-sabotaging—such is the epicenter of the human soul, the seedbed from which all emotion, intellect, and action finds its roots.
Interior life defines our external experience as we become intimate with a world of our perceptions. From each inner world shines a light, however distorted, muted, or colored, on exterior events, illuminating them with a bias as unique as our fingerprints.
The inner life, then, cannot be overlooked in fiction. From our characters’ interior worlds, story acquires depth, meaning, significance, and develops an understanding of action instigated by our people and the events that occur around them.
Internal monologue—the expression of the interior life—is a valuable medium to express the tumult of emotion. As writers, we’re able to crack open the human psyche and show a mind at work, inviting readers past barriers inherent to life and allowing them to eavesdrop on the inchoate, fragmented, and undisclosed thoughts of another—to listen as though we had equipped them with headphones plugged into the heads of our heroes.
Be a warm day I fancy. Specially in these black clothes feel it more. Black conducts, reflects (refracts is it?) the heat. James Joyce, Ulysses
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seemed to me when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which I can hear now, I burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as I then was) solemn, feeling as I did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
In Woolf’s example, Mrs. Dalloway goes out to buy flowers—while mentally traveling through time and giving readers a sense of her complexity and the suspicion that something foreboding looms ahead of her.
Much of Mrs. Dalloway consists of reminiscences of characters, the interior life not only of major characters like Clarissa, Peter, and Lucrezia but also of those who bear little relationship to the protagonists. This dipping into consciousnesses of passers-by blends with the sights and sounds of the city—the buses, Big Ben, the skywriting airplane—to convey the abruptness and motion of city life. When Clarissa returns home, she mulls over the past—her youth at Bourton and her later relationship with Peter. Thirty years or so years elapse in moments of thought. The novel, in a sense, is a celebration of reminiscence. Interior life is the principal narrative activity. The narrative doesn’t oscillation between summary and scene, but is a rhythm of scene alone, a passing of the story’s relay baton from character to character.
Virginia Woolf’s literary priorities by this stage in her career had shifted. She demoted events that had been central to fiction and elevated this inner realm where shards of memory, ideas, and sensations swirl in a kaleidoscopic knowledge that catalyzes motive and prophesies destiny. Retiring the omniscient third-person narrator, readers now entered Woolf’s stories from a point of view emerging from her characters’ minds.
In an essay entitled Modern Fiction, she defended this artistic choice—
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came to here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style… Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning to the end.
Both Woolf and Joyce made extensive use of internal monologue—the tangle of fugitive thoughts, memories, questions, fears, and desires in response to, for the most part, sensory triggers—to show their characters, to make them human and thereby show us ourselves.
Much of our own interior lives pass unnoticed. We’re so familiar with ourselves, with the way our minds work, that we think without actually hearing. Or maybe we don’t hear ourselves objectively and don’t realize the sometimes outrageous ways we think. Writers like Woolf and Joyce depicted these mental processes common to us and revealed a somewhat universal drama—the perpetual undercurrent of emotions, the inner compulsions and divisions, moments of self-analysis and self-scrutiny, of self-identification, the inner cry, the sensory perceptions of our worlds—our barely conscious selves.
As thought in its formative state, internal monologue lies close to the subconscious, which gives it its random, somewhat incoherent tenor. Dostoevsky is another writer who exemplified this technique in his work.
When we open Crime and Punishment we meet Raskolnikov through his thoughts-in-process. To kill or not to kill is his question, and the impulse disturbs him.
“I want to attempt a thing like that and am frightened by these trifles,” he thought, with an odd smile. “Hm … yes, all is in a man’s hands and he lets it all slip from cowardice, that’s an axiom. It would be interesting to know what it is men are most afraid of. Taking a new step, uttering a new word is what they fear most.… But I am talking too much. It’s because I chatter that I do nothing. Or perhaps it is that I chatter that I do nothing. I’ve learned to chatter this last month, lying for days together in my den thinking … of Jack the Giant-killer. Why am I going there now? Am I capable of that? Is that serious? It is not serious at all. It’s simply a fantasy to amuse myself; a plaything! Yes, maybe it is a plaything.”
“I knew it,” he muttered in confusion, “I thought so! That’s the worst of all! Why, a stupid thing like this, the most trivial detail might spoil the whole plan. Yes, my hat is too noticeable.… It looks absurd and that makes it noticeable.… With my rags I ought to wear a cap, any sort of old pancake, but not this grotesque thing. Nobody wears such a hat, it would be noticed a mile off, it would be remembered.… What matters is that people would remember it, and that would give them a clue. For this business one should be as little conspicuous as possible.… Trifles, trifles are what matter! Why, it’s just such trifles that always ruin everything.…”
This narration is written as if witnessed by an invisible person, from the omniscient point of view. Dostoevsky had written the novel’s opening in first person but decided on the third person to portray Raskolnikov with both intimacy and objectivity. Interior monologue gives readers access to his secrets, while the third person point of view presents them from a distance that allows readers to absorb them without condemnation.
Internal monologue differs from traditional narration, not in degree of intimacy but in penetration of the character’s mind—without perceived intervention by the author and without logical or critical organization. An element of incoherence is typical, but with order in the seeming disorder. Interior monologue might be likened to the psychoanalyst’s couch as the mind of the character is allowed to wander among associations.
Psychologist William James, brother of writer Henry James, wrote in his principles of psychology–
Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly… It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of the subject of life.
But internal monologue doesn’t flow onto the page as spontaneously as it reads. Like all writing, it involves editing and control. Internal monologue involves selection, condensation, and stylization. With intent, the writer produces the illusion that nothing has been censored. In some situations, of course, it might have the quality of speech–coherent, but of a nature that the character refrains from disclosing to others.
Three Characteristics of Internal Monologue:
- It is written in the first person.
- It is not addressed to the reader.
- It is thought-speech in its raw state.
Internal Monologue Versus Stream of Consciousness
Without splitting hairs, as the distinction is largely irrelevant, stream of consciousness refers to a category of techniques that includes internal monologue. It also includes indirect internal monologue written in the third person, as seen in Dostoevsky’s example, as well as variations and combinations of these.
Stream of consciousness is also a genre where a novel’s action takes place predominately in the protagonist’s mind. Such novels emphasize the inner reactions to the external actions, dramatizing the inner life through their self-conscious characters. The most famous novel of this kind is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which might be considered a textbook on exacting the interior world.
While Steven Dedalus walks along the beach in Dublin, readers track his thoughts. Objective description is mixed with the monologue, without transitions. There are no quotation marks or guideposts to remind us of the narrator’s presence. And it’s confusing. We wonder what’s happening, where we are, what is significant and what’s not. Once we catch on, though, we recognize the genius.
Leopold Bloom, who “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” gets up to prepare breakfast for his wife, Molly, who likes to have her breakfast served in bed. He has kidneys on his mind. He puts the tea kettle on the fire, talks to the cat in the kitchen.
The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writingtable. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.
Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.
Milk for the pussens, he said.
Mrkgnao! the cat cried.
They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.
Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.
Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it.
Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.
She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. He watched the dark eyeslits narrowing with greed till her eyes were green stones. Then he went to the dresser, took the jug Hanlon’s milkman had just filled for him, poured warm bubbled milk on a saucer and set it slowly on the floor.
Gurrhr! she cried, running to lap.
He watched the bristles shining wirily in the weak light as she tipped three times and licked lightly. Wonder is it true if you clip them they can’t mouse after. Why? They shine in the dark, perhaps, the tips. Or kind of feelers in the dark, perhaps.
He listened to her licking lap. Ham and eggs, no. No good eggs with this drouth. Want pure fresh water. Thursday: not a good day either for a mutton kidney at Buckley’s. Fried with butter, a shake of pepper. Better a pork kidney at Dlugacz’s. While the kettle is boiling. She lapped slower, then licking the saucer clean. Why are their tongues so rough? To lap better, all porous holes. Nothing she can eat? He glanced round him. No.
On quietly creaky boots he went up the staircase to the hall, paused by the bedroom door. She might like something tasty. Thin bread and butter she likes in the morning. Still perhaps: once in a way.
He said softly in the bare hall:
I’m going round the corner. Be back in a minute.
On his way to the butcher shop, Bloom thinks about a Zionist settlement in Palestine. It has no connection with buying kidneys, but he’s been reading Zionist literature and the sun in Dublin reminds him of the sun in that far-off land of his ancestors. Much of the novel is built on free associations interspersed with descriptive passages in third person.
The sun was nearing the steeple of George’s church. Be a warm day I fancy. Specially in these black clothes feel it more. Black conducts, reflects, (refracts is it?), the heat. But I couldn’t go in that light suit. Make a picnic of it. His eyelids sank quietly often as he walked in happy warmth. Boland’s breadvan delivering with trays our daily but she prefers yesterday’s loaves turnovers crisp crowns hot. Makes you feel young. Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn. Travel round in front of the sun, steal a day’s march on him. Keep it up for ever never grow a day older technically. Walk along a strand, strange land, come to a city gate, sentry there, old ranker too, old Tweedy’s big moustaches, leaning on a long kind of a spear. Wander through awned streets. Turbaned faces going by. Dark caves of carpet shops, big man, Turko the terrible, seated crosslegged, smoking a coiled pipe. Cries of sellers in the streets. Drink water scented with fennel, sherbet. Dander along all day. Might meet a robber or two. Well, meet him. Getting on to sundown. The shadows of the mosques among the pillars: priest with a scroll rolled up. A shiver of the trees, signal, the evening wind. I pass on. Fading gold sky. A mother watches me from her doorway. She calls her children home in their dark language. High wall: beyond strings twanged. Night sky, moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. Listen. A girl playing one of those instruments what do you call them: dulcimers. I pass. Probably not a bit like it really. Kind of stuff you read: in the track of the sun. Sunburst on the titlepage. He smiled.
While Ulysses has no unity of action, it’s more than an eruption of the irrational. Alluding to Homer’s work, Leopold Bloom is a type of Ulysses, and Stephen Dedalus is Telemachus. Its underlying theme, the search for a father and the search for a son, is woven through lesser themes in a web that holds its parts together. It’s a human comedy, a combination of realism and surrealism, myth, drama, epic, history, opera, reportage—a picture of Western society at the beginning of the 20th century.
All the same, readers must work to infer the characters’ situations from the flow of perceptions and reflections. Often in novels categorized as stream of consciousness, the major crises facing their characters are merely alluded to through this type of mental activity.
In the last chapter of the novel, Molly Bloom’s celebrated monologue, all description is in third person with paragraphing and punctuation removed.
…and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
So ends the monologue, with “Yes,” as Molly remembers how Leopold proposed to her. Her latest lover, Blazes Boylan, has paid her another visit. We aren’t privy to Boylan’s inner world, but we can imagine it. Her husband knows Molly is unfaithful but can do nothing about it. When an intoxicated Leopold returns home from a brothel with Stephen Dedalus, Molly awakens.
Among other things, interior monologue can reveal the character’s longings—what he would be ashamed to admit to himself, what he hides behind the mask he wears. In some fashion, it’s an expression of his deepest, unsatisfied wishes and the hopes, fears, and memories they generate.
All Sound and Fury
Quentin, in Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, is a tragic figure whose monologue reveals the storm raging in him. The first three of its four chapters are written in monologues. The fourth chapter is objective narrative in third person from a single point of view. Like Ulysses, this is a complex and difficult book, confusing in its chronology. The sentences are long and elaborate—brilliant nonetheless—and Quentin’s monologues give it its heart and power.
Faulkner creates the disorder and confusion of Quentin’s more emotional obsessions by leaving some sentences unfinished, dropping one train of thought and picking up another, eliminating punctuation, and through use of italics, private symbols, and various other devices. Charged emotions are conveyed in breathless prose that reads at a pitch.
did he make you then he made you do it let him he was stronger than you and he tomorrow Ill kill him I swear I will father neednt know until afterward and then you and I nobody need ever know we can take my school money we can cancel my matriculation Caddy you hate him don’t you don’t you
The primitive language establishes Quentin’s mental state, particularly when juxtaposed against his saner perceptions written at a level one would expect of a Harvard student. Quentin’s thoughts turn poetic in the same monologue, and we come upon passages such as—
I stood in the belly of my shadow and listened to the strokes spaced and tranquil along the sunlight, among the still, little leaves. Spaced and peaceful and serene, with that quality of autumn always in bells even in the month of brides.
Interior monologue, used to any degree, characterizes while moving the plot forward and surfacing an understated theme.
Internal Monologue for Modern Readers
The literary world will almost certainly see the equivalent of another Joyce. It’s doubtful, though, that another Ulysses will find its way to modern bookshelves. It’s doubtful that many modern readers have cracked open Ulysses and attempted to digest Joyce’s most acclaimed work. The classics have much to teach writers, but the classics should not be viewed as a repository of style to emulate. Times have changed. Media has changed— and changed culture.
The modern novel has to complete with the bombardment of images and, to be blunt, easy entertainment. Most readers won’t bother to navigate the rapids seething through the gray matter of Leopold Bloom or Quentin Compson. But that shouldn’t deter writers from studying these works and learning their techniques. My point here is to clarify that I’m not advocating the stream of consciousness novel—I’m advocating the method.
And the two methods, direct and indirect, in first person and third, can be used in the same story, even in the same paragraph, like direct and indirect dialogue. As well, internal monologue can be used in stories written in past tense, provided the writer makes it clear that the interior landscape occurred when the events did. If the story is framed in a present tense narration or present tense story, the character’s thoughts might vacillate between the time periods, while the interior monologue of the primary past tense story reflects on its past.
The writer might choose to have his hero indulge in mantras, reveries, uncontrollable hallucinations, argue with himself… or he might make only minor adjustments to his spoken speech patterns through shorter sentences, unfinished phrases and words, quoting songs and poems, making private references, repeating words charged with emotion, removing punctuation, using italics, etc.
Fiction is art and, as art, will remain malleable and organic, forever open to as many techniques and effects as there are writers. Internal monologue, one such device, has been played with, honed, and made for a field of experimentation. The generations following its debut have reeled in the technique, and today’s writers opt for an economy to match the market.
But even a few lines or paragraphs capturing the inner flow can create a psychological dimension. Fiction says, This is how life is, this is the reality and mystery and wonder of it. Meted out deftly, internal monologue is unmatched in its potential to convey range and immediacy.
Novels showcasing interior monologue include: Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury, Samuel Beckett in Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting, and Terry McMillan in How Stella Got Her Groove Back.