Stream of Thought As Literary Device:The Novel as Case Study

posted in: A Writer's Life, Blog | 0

I watch a lot of films. A lot more than I read books. Because television shows rarely attract me, I have a very active Netflix account. I use it nearly every night, and I get to choose my gems as well as my junk.

Sometimes, a film adaptation of a book makes me curious enough to read the original that inspired it. That’s how I discovered Elizabeth Gaskell. But not Jane Austen. She’s an old friend from college days. I liked Austen and had read all her novels before I saw an excellent production of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. More recent films have appeared but, to my taste, none of them measures up to the Firth-Ehle performances. Even so, I still prefer Austen’s books to their film adaptations. For certain books, I think something is inevitably lost in translation to a purely visual medium.

I can’t say the same of Shakespeare plays which I laboriously read for classes before I saw them on film. But wonderful British productions—a few of them done by actor/director Kenneth Branagh—rekindled my interest in Shakespeare. Shakespearean language became more compelling. More dramatic. More beautiful. Maybe, Shakespeare needs to be performed by great actors to be fully appreciated.


I saw a film of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady years ago played, probably as well as she could by Nicole Kidman. She might have gotten good reviews for her performance but I only remembered the movie as dreary. She failed to make Isabel Archer live for me. Didn’t make me curious enough to read the novel. Not long ago, though, I gave James’s novel another try because Rich (the other) talked about a review of it.

I have to admit now that  the book intrigues me. As I read it, I realized The Portrait of a Lady would be quite challenging to translate successfully into film. There isn’t much action and not much overt conflict. Most of the intrigue occurs in the minds of characters. I don’t fault Henry James for this. In fact, I applaud him because I think that’s where most of our conflicts reside. But it would not make for a page-turner. So, I applaud him a second time for the audacity it took to put it out there to a judgmental reading public. Predictably, maybe, it didn’t do well. History, of course, has proven that public wrong. All too often, we can’t recognize great art until some influencer asserts it to be so decades/centuries later.

It was also easier to see why Nicole Kidman had trouble giving life to Isabel. How do you act out the stream of thought that constitutes your turmoil? Outward facial gestures can only go so far. Anyway, quite a number of them are ambiguous. A smile, for instance, can mean one is happy. Or embarrassed. Or putting on a face to mask a darker emotion. Many times the expressions in the eyes, cheeks, and mouth would cue you in on what a particular smile means. But those would still not fully convey an idea or a feeling.

Though pages and pages of introspection by characters would be boring, if not trying, for most modern readers, written words could communicate thoughts much better. They give us a deeper, clearer perception of character growth and, consequently, a more satisfying story.

Stream of thought moments are not the sole purview of Isabel Archer in James’s novel. Isabel’s cousin, Ralph Touchett, also reflect and brood a lot, particularly about things concerning Isabel.

Ralph seems to be the voice of Henry James in this story. The wise, forbearing character on the sidelines towards whom we feel inevitably sympathetic. He shares his inheritance with Isabel to help her realize her full potential. Later, at a crucial point in Isabel’s life, Ralph sees what intelligent, open, and lively Isabel doesn’t see or refuses to see. And, later still, it pains him to see himself proven right when Isabel puts up a front to deceive him about how unhappy she is.

Henry and William James

The Portrait of a Lady is more than 200, 000 words of a character study—done mainly by going into Isabel’s stream of thought (or consciousness) as well as that of other characters who help define who she is. When you know that Henry James was, in fact, the younger brother of philosopher/psychologist William James, then you see where Henry’s tendencies came from.

Older brother William is saddled with the distinction of being the father of American psychology, a rather formidable title he justified by writing Principles of Psychology.  The book, probably the first of its kind, has a permanent and enviable place in the history of psychology.  It has a chapter called  Stream of Thought.

Though he coined the term, William James didn’t invent the concept. Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, as Rich points out, is a stream of thought moment. Freud familiarized us with it when patients revealed their psyche via stream of thought sessions on a couch. Today, we casually use the phrase “stream of consciousness” to refer to a series of usually uncensored thoughts that flow freely, the second one from the first, the third from the second and so on.

As James narrates Isabel Archer’s stream of thought, he draws us into her inner life—like in a psychological case study. Some literary analysts have claimed The Portrait of a Lady is the first psychological novel ever written. Could Henry have consulted with William when he wrote his book?

How effective is the novel as a case study? That’s for clinical psychologists to answer. And how effective is this case study as a novel? That, on the other hand, depends on you, the individual reader. Here’s my take on Portrait of a Lady.

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