2

Anton Chekhov was a famous Russian short story writer and dramatist. Early in his career, he mastered the form of the one-act play and produced several masterpieces of this genre.

I remember I borrowed a book from one of my friends (it was a miscellaneous book of proses and poetries) and in that book it was written something like

He [Anton Chekhov] was the earliest to use the stream-of-consciousness technique in his works.

I want to know if it true. Is it possible in literature to attribute someone as ‘the earliest’ of some technique?

2

Simon Karlinksy notes in an edition of Checkhov's letters that the short story Gusev, published in December 1890, uses "the device of subtly intermingling the soldier's speech patterns and his stream of consciousness with the authorial voice" (page 183).

J. A. Cuddon writes that the term "stream of consciousness" was

coined by William James in Principles of Psychology (1890) to denote the flow of inner experiences.

Cuddon adds that something resembing stream of consciousness or interior monologue

is discernible in Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760–67), and long self-communing passages to be found in some 19th c. novels (e.g. those of Dostoievski) are also akin to interior monologue.

However, according to Cuddon and several other sources,

it seems that it was a minor French novelist, Edouard Dujardin, who first used the technique (in a way which was to prove immensely influential) in Les Lauriers sont coupés (1888). James Joyce, who is believed to have known this work, exploited the possibilities and took the technique almost to a point ne plus ultra in Ulysses (1922) (...).

Cuddon also cites Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage (1915–67) and Marcel Prousts's A la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27) as examples that showed an interest in the technique and concludes,

So it seems that several original minds had been working, independently, towards a new method of writing fiction.

Cuddon does not mention Checkhov. Whether Sterne's technique can be called stream of consciousness is debatable. A. D. Nuttall writes (pages 59–60),

Of course, according to the basic sense of the words, he [Sterne] very nearly is just this [i.e. a stream of consciousness writer]. In so far as we can claim that the second-by-second ticking over of the mind is as much a matter of ratiocinative windings, associative caprice, of flashback and prolepsis, as it is of imagery and impressions, so far might we extend the description 'stream of consciousness' to Tristram Shandy. The trouble is that the course of literary history has given the phrase a technical meaning, (...). I believe my own mind rattles on in a manner more aking to Tristram Shandy than to Ulysses. But James Joyce and Virginia Woolf have been allowed to define the terms. They have achieved a more-than-Baconian receptivity to the flow of images and impressions only by the very un-Baconian exclusion of the ordering intellect. (...) The stream of consciousness novelist (in thise sense) must begin his quest for the truly open mind by locking up the intellect, (...). There is a higher pathos in the would-be coherent incoherence of Tristram Shandy than in the licensed flux of Ulysses. Our question has now answered itself. Sterne is not a stream of consciousness novelist because he admists the stream of ratiocination.

Baldick points out that the term "interior monologue" is often loosely used as a synonym for "stream of consciousness" (which is what Cuddon seems to do), while other critics try to make a distiction. Baldick identifies two types of distinctions:

  1. taking "stream of consciousness as the larger category, embracing all representations of intermingled thoughts and perceptions, within which interior monologue is a special case of 'direct' presentation";
  2. taking "interior monologue as the larger category, within which stream of consciousness is a special technique emphasizing continuous 'flow' by abandoning strict logic, syntax, and punctuation".

Based on the latter definition, even Robert Browning's Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister (1842) can be seen as an early example. However, the term usually refers to prose passages such as the last chapter of James Joyce's novel Ulysses. (Baldick adds that "Joyce acknowledged Édouard Dujardin's novel Les Lauriers sont coupées (1888) as a precedent in the use of interior monologue".) Based on the first definition, Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu is about the stream of consciousness (i.e. the subject matter) but does not use the technique of interior monologue. dbnl's lexicon of literary terms defines stream of consciousness as the actual content and the monologue intérieur as a technique for representing it.

Conclusion: it seems that Anton Chekhov's short story "Gusev" was not the first to use a stream-of-consciousness technique since Dujardin's novel Les Lauriers sont coupées predates it by two years. Below is an example from the first chapter of Dujardin's novel, which shows that he went much further in the direct representation of a character's thoughts than Chekhov:

… Et c’est l’heure ; l’heure ? six heures ; à cette horloge six heures, l’heure attendue. La maison où je dois entrer : où je trouverai quelqu’un ; la maison ; le vestibule ; entrons. Le soir tombe ; l’air est bon ; il y a une gaîté en l’air. L’escalier ; les premières marches. Ce garçon sera encore chez soi ; si, par un hasard, il était sorti avant l’heure ? ce lui arrive quelques fois ; je veux pourtant lui conter ma journée d’aujourd’hui.


References:

  • Baldick, Chris: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Second edition. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich: Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary. Translated from the Russian by Michael Henry Heim in collaboration with Simon Karlinksy. Selection, introduction, and commentary by Simon Karlinksy. Northwestern University Press, 1973, 1997.
  • Cuddon, J. A.: The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Third edition. Penguin 1992.
  • dbnl: Algemeen letterkundig lexicon (containing 4,600 terms, in Dutch).
  • Nuttal, A. D.: A Common Sky: Philosophy and the Literary Imagination. University of California Press, 2021. (Originally published in 1974.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.