The Interior Monologue

The American psychologist William James, coined the expression stream of consciousness to define the chaotic sequence of thoughts of the conscious mind, a flow, which has no boundaries and cannot be stopped except by sleep. That is the truest, uncensored part of ourselves. When our thoughts become audible words, in fact, we use the filter of convenience and social convention, thus, wearing the mask of propriety, we become a “persona”, which was for modernist artists a less interesting  subject than that unconstrained current, as it lacked in authenticity. Virginia Woolf in her essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown says:

Mr. Bennett says that it is only if the characters are real that the novel has any chance of surviving. Otherwise, die it must. But, I ask myself, what is reality? And who are the judges of reality?

Reality, we could say, is, therefore, what hides under the many masks we wear. Behind a simple smile there could a great sorrow, desperation, fear, perplexity, but we cannot but stop at the surface of what we see: the smile. Virginia Woolf recognizes that if a writer aims at telling the truth, well, “the tools of one generation are useless to the next“, so William James along with Bergson and his theory of “la durée” provided modern writers with the theoretical basis from which new tools could take form.

Hence, if my target is to picture the complexity of human mind, without paying attention too much to its shell, I must bear in mind that that realm is dominated by the chaos of thought and the time which rules that chaos is no longer chronological, but subjective. In our mind past present and future, in fact, coexist randomly; time in our mind is infinite. The tool that modern writers created to put on paper the flow of thought was called ” the interior monologue”, of course, being true doesn’t always mean to be interesting or enjoyable, especially when the interior monologue technique is taken to its extreme in its direct form:

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 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 Jo 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. (Ulysses, chpt. XVIII)

These are the famous last lines of Molly Bloom’s monologue, which covers the last chapter of Ulysses. One chapter = 60 pages (about). Molly’s thoughts flow freely and, of course, while she thinks, she doesn’t care much about using the correct punctuation. It is a marvellous experiment, to be sure, but I would lie if I said that I enjoyed reading it, and I would lie if I said that I read it all ( I skipped some parts, I admit). Some years ago, a colleague of mine proudly told me that she had given as summer homework the read of Ulysses to her students. Poor lads, I thought, whether they did it or not I received no further information, but I have no doubts about it.

By the ways, if the narrator lets the character’s thoughts flow without control, but keeps a logical and grammatical organisation, the reading will be more accessible and even enjoyable, in this case we are talking about the Indirect Interior Monologue. Let’s see how it works. If we take Eveline, from Joyce’s Dubliners, as an example, we understand from the very beginning that the girl had been standing by the window for some times and that that night she would have done something that she perceives as an invasion, therefore, we imply, something negative:

“She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue” .

While she is lost in thoughts, she hears the sounds of some footsteps and when their “clacking” becomes “crunching“, she understands that the man has arrived to the red houses. The thought of the red houses leads to an association of ideas, hence, the images of the past and her youth related to those houses overlap for a while the present. Characters and events are introduced when they actually flow in her mind. For example, we had been left at the beginning with the impression that something unpleasant was to happen that night, but after a while we discover that it is nothing of the kind, as she was about to leave for Argentina with her lover to marry him:

But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been.
From this passage it seems that she wasn’t or didn’t feel much considered and that the marriage would have been a great opportunity for her so that “she would not be treated as her mother had been”. Had this short story belonged to the pre modernist-style, we would have been informed with detailed descriptions of episodes on how exactly her mother had been treated and who actually had behaved so, on the contrary, we are left to figure the situation. That is because she knows the facts, so there is no reason why she should tell them, she is not talking to us, we are just intruder in her mind, who are granted every now and of a little piece of information which might throw some light on the puzzle of her story. In fact, what follows is not the explanation of her mother’s ill treatments but the introduction to her relationship with her father who, from the very first appearance in the story with a blackthorn stick in his hands, seems to be a very violent man and therefore, very likely to be the cause of her mother’s sufferings. This is what we imply, but after a while she says:
“Her father was becoming old lately, she noticed; he would miss her. Sometimes he could be very nice. Not long before, when she had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mothers bonnet to make the children laugh.”
 He wasn’t that bad so. Reading the story we realize that his being good or evil depends on a process of Eveline’s mind, that is, she focuses on his negative aspects every time she needs more strength, one more reason to leave, but once she sets her mind about going, remorse and responsibility surface together with a milder version of her father. But, how old was her father? For a girl of 19,  a man of 40  is old, while for a woman of 60 he would be considered young. We don’t know anything about it. In an interior monologue physical descriptions and explanatory details are few and are given only if they appear in the flow of thoughts. In this short story only Eveline’s lover is partially described, his hair and his “face of bronze“, but not a word about the other members of the family or Eveline herself. They are left to our imagination. Only in the end and through the eyes of Frank, her lover, we are allowed to see her, but it is an image distorted by her sufferance and defeat, as she eventually decides to stay :
“He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”




The Mythical Method

painting-penelopeWhen you are a child, you look forward to growing up and time never goes by. The future adult life is seen with the eyes of innocence: a wonderful, festive, harmless carousel, whose protagonists can enjoy their hard gained independence at last. However, once you eventually  find yourself in the world of maturity, that initial thrill that usually freedom gives, gradually fades away as your perception of time changes. What was formerly felt eternally slow starts to accelerate, till you realize that all that time that could be joyfully wasted once is actually finite and you start to look at the world that surrounds you with the alarmed eyes of “experience”, as Blake would say. Your certainties gradually crumble, and the future becomes less appealing than it used to be and if you look back, you cannot but have the impression that the past was ,after all, something warm, tranquilizing, bright;in a word: happy.

JoyceUlysses2This comforting vision of the past, can be found in many writers and poets, particularly  at the beginning of the twentieth century. Two world wars had brought death and destruction, the present was just like a “heap of broken images” (The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot) which left no room for hope.  Modern artists tried to express the consequent sense of loss, fear and paralysis that had pervaded those tragic decades in their works stressing this fragmentation and the impossibility of a future rebirth. Hence, they manifested a certain nostalgia for a past, which was seen as glorious, because it was vital and expression of universal values, while the present was fragmented and sterile.

ulyssesThe mythical method allowed those artists to show that gap between present and past. In Ulysses, for example, Joyce employs Homer’s myth of the legendary Greek king of Ithaca Odysseus, as the principle of unity of his novel. The three main characters of his novel are supposed to be the modern counterpart of Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope, except that these great figures have lost the power of their symbolic value. Telemachus was the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who fought to have his family back. He stood up to his mother’s suitors during the long absence of his father, he sailed to inquire after his fate and he was by his side when he eventually came back to win his kingdom back. His equivalent Stephen Dedalus is the artist who has actually rejected his family. Molly Bloom , differently from  Penelope has put away her loom and is unfaithful, in fact she is having an affair after ten years of celibacy within the marriage. Odysseus is her husband Leopold Bloom, a middle-age Jewish advertising canvasser, who wanders around Dublin as Ulysses wandered around the Mediterranean sea on a series of inconclusive errands during which he meets the young writer Stephen Dedalus.

Once emptied of their symbolic meaning, the three characters show all their complexity and fragility. The fragments of their thoughts and experiences are included in the 18 chapters, which represent the 18  hours of the day the novel is set (16 th June 1904)  and 18 episodes of the Odyssey. Once again the myth helps the writer to give order to the chaos of thought. Each episode, in fact, seems like a drawer whose function is to keep together all the pieces of the characters’ soul. Hence, the past provides a semblance of unity but it cannot cure the wounds of the present, leaving those souls desperately broken.