Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds and Methods of Rendering Consciousness in Ulysses
D. W. White
Literary Criticism || This essay was originally published in the Review of Uncontemporary Fiction
The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.—James Joyce, Ulysses
As one would expect for a book regularly placed atop the “greatest of all time” lists, there are nearly as many avenues to traipse down in discussing Ulysses’ importance, accomplishments, and legacy as there are people who’ve (actually) read it. In fact, the number of versions of the very opening sentence of this very essay, acknowledging just how many studies have come before, is itself surely an outrageously high figure. But preeminent reason for the continued importance of Joyce’s masterpiece (apologies to friends of Finnegan) is its place as the foundation stone of the revolution of the mind in fiction. Virginia Woolf famously talked about the luminous halo enveloping consciousness,1 and, a bit ironically given her initially limited interest in it, Ulysses stands as the greatest assemblage and demonstration of methods of rendering consciousness in fiction. Of course Woolf eventually came around, as did the rest of us, and now, 100 years after its publication,2 Ulysses remains unassailed by any serious challenger to its claim.
There have been innumerable books essays and articles writing about Joyce and Ulysses, a number that will perhaps be doubled this year alone as the literary world takes stock of the centenary. This contribution to the cacophony will attempt to keep things relatively simple: a small tour of how and why Joyce depicts the minds of his characters in Ulysses, considered through the narratologist lens of Dorrit Cohn’s analytical system for rendering consciousness, presented in her seminal study Transparent Minds.3 While the concepts themselves are not overly challenging, identifying and distinguishing them in text often can be, especially for a writer as gifted and a work as inventive as Joyce’s Ulysses. This essay will hopefully then serve as something of a field guide to spotting these brilliant analytical formations in the wild, both in Ulysses and beyond.
Cohn, in her system, regroups the technical-mechanical categorization of methods of presenting consciousness in third-person fiction into three modes: psycho-narration, quoted monologue, and narrated monologue (a fourth, autonomous monologue, is technically a first-person mode). These terms represent, respectively, the narrator discussing the character’s thoughts, the characters thoughts themselves, and the character’s thoughts presented in the narrator’s language.4 Each of these techniques, in addition to having their own mechanical demands and signals, offer different options to the writer of close-third-person fiction, and Joyce uses all three throughout Ulysses.
The technical-mechanical classification of methods of rendering conscious in fiction is a fascinating way of studying the craft, and a prime rejoinder to any who might contend creative writing its own art with its own tools. To narrow the focus — and to further illustrate Ulysses’ incredible complexity and energy — this essay will take a look at each of Cohn’s three third- person modes while considering three Joycean pages.5 Because Ulysses so often features psycho- narration and quoted monologue being used together in a given episode or scene, examinations of those methods will both come the opening of Episode 4,6 while for narrated monologue we are forced to look elsewhere and autonomous monologue is rather famously left for the end.
All Thought And No Action: Psycho-Narration
Psycho-narration is, in the history of the development of inner life in fiction, the swearing of the Tennis Court Oath at Versailles, or the 1905 uprising in Tsarist Russia—the revolution before the revolution. Although it is the most conventional of the methods studied in this essay, and may strike contemporary readers as rather unremarkable, at the turn of the previous century this was far from the case. As Cohn discusses, Victorian literature by and large leaves to dialogue and straight expositionary7 narration the work of illuminating what is going on in the minds of its characters. Flaubert and Henry James lead the shift at the end of the nineteenth century to plumbing the depths of their heroes’ and heroines’ thoughts, and Joyce, building on them, makes much use of the approach across his oeuvre. In Ulysses, he mainly uses what Cohn terms “consonant” psycho-narration, meaning a close relationship between narrative entity and character, one that sees the former follow around the latter and relate his thoughts and happenings in a manner influenced by his mood and environs.8 This is typical of a writer whose most notable trademark may be his fusing of creator and created.
Episode 4, “Calypso,” introduces Leopold Bloom and his amiable, freely-associative manner of thinking.9 Moving about the kitchen in the house he shares with his wife, Molly, he prepares breakfast and navigates both cat and cookery:10
Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.
Alongside the iconic Joycean wordplay is a prime example of straight psycho-narration—he liked; were in his mind; made him feel. Psycho-narration sees the narrative entity relate the thoughts, feelings, and impressions of the character. This is done with the use of authorial flags (also called tags or signals), action verbs such as thought, felt, wanted, liked., etc. These are words that clearly demarcate the line between narrator and narrated and are a key determinative between psycho-narration and narrated monologue in Cohn’s system. We are accessibly told what is taking place in Bloom’s head, and what makes the technique so effective, especially in its Joycean consonant manifestation, is the careful use of impressionistic words: adjectives and adverbs. Although, as we shall see, these are truly in the domain of narrated monologue, they are nonetheless used here to help illustrate the narrative entity’s stage direction in line with the character’s way of seeing the world.11
Why does Joyce use psycho-narration here,12 as opposed to quoted monologue or narrated monologue, other ways of showing what is happening in Bloom’s mind? The use of authorial flags in the initial moments with Ulysses’ hero accomplishes a number of important tasks. Joyce is able to smoothy and clearly introduce Bloom; establish a readerly contract in the first lines of what will prove to be the most frequent perspective,13 create some ironic distance between the narration and character (always important in psychologically-driven modernist and contemporary fiction, but crucial in Ulysses, which derives much of its ethos from an ironic juxtaposition between Odysseus, heroic Greek warrior, and Bloom, potentially-cuckolded Dublin walkabout); and move briskly through a scene while still being tethered to the mind of the central character, more so than is possible in narrated monologue or especially quoted monologue.14
So we have a clear something doing the telling, and that something is not Leopold Bloom—in short, there is a gap between narrative entity and character. However, what marks this as psycho- narration (and marks psycho-narration as an (r)evolution from Victorian literature), is that Leopold’s impressions of the world—thoughts, opinions, beliefs, preferences—are prominently on display. Leopold likes his foodstuffs, and while it is the narrative entity that describes them, those descriptions are colorized by the character himself. In the age-old question of what to choose, of which details among the effectively limitless options present in a fictive room to describe—psycho-narration provides an answer by tapping into the worldview of its character. In this excerpt, too, we see the beginnings of a telephoto effect—starting a bit removed, mechanically, from Bloom before sliding down mechanical stairs to venture a toe into the stream of his consciousness. And in the next section, we will see the result of all that splashing.
I Speak Therefore I Am: Quoted Monologue
Proceeding through page 45 and Leopold’s breakfast, we encounter our next technique. Quoted monologue is perhaps the most fun, and certainly the most readily apparent, of Cohn’s triumverated system. To indulge again for a moment that complicated and confused term “stream-of-consciousness,” quoted monologue is where the narration leaps from the bank and throws itself into the water all together:
—O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.
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.
Here we see the technique’s defining feature in Cohnian construction: the movement in grammar and tense from the narrative entity’s past and third to the character’s present and first.15 Where in psycho-narration the narrative entity pulls from its hero’s mind to influence its own, still-intact stage direction, in quoted monologue we are fully shown the character’s language and diction. After conventional relation of an action, it is Bloom who is commenting on how the cat walks across the table, and it is Bloom (or perhaps the cat—although it seems most likely to be Leopold’s inner speech imagining what the cat might say) who purrs and longs for scratches. Put another way, quoted monologue is direct speech sans authorial tags and then airdropped into narrative description. The ‘monologue’, or character’s interior speech, is ‘quoted’ on either side by description and detail.16
The real beauty and effectiveness comes when interwoven with conventional third-person scenic narration:
—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.
Here we have authorial flagging around dialogue, which although is not psycho-narration,17 is nonetheless set up by the use of that a few lines up. We have slowed down for a moment while the narrative entity steps aside and documents via immersion Bloom’s free-associative thought. It is a burst of mundane, ordinary type of thinking that is universal to the human experience. The trove, while for Leopold this moment is a rather unremarkable one, for Ulysses as a crafted work of artistic expression, it is a prime example of the supreme verisimilitude achieved by modernist literature. The authorial flags at the top of the page, discussed in the previous section (which are examples of psycho-narration because they do refer to thoughts and feelings), now help ground the reader as the narrative entity moves freely between inner and outer worlds. That movement, having been explored at either pole, is now woven together in the most technically demanding and experientially rewarding of Cohn’s methods.
Whom Among Us?: Narrated Monologue
Narrative monologue is the gravitational force in the world of literature—omnipresent, rarely noticed, little understood. Although not a one-to-one analogue with free-indirect discourse, like that technique it is found in abundance in fiction of the last hundred-odd years, often times used without knowledge of reader or, sometimes, even writer. Fundamentally, the grammar and tense stay in line with that of the narrative entity, but with the authorial signals removed. At its best, which it often is in Ulysses, narrated monologue is the most powerful and effective of Cohn’s methods, and perhaps of all fictive techniques. To illustrate it, we leave our friend Leopold’s house and mind and move to the beach. In the opening pages of “Nausicaa,” Episode 13, the young Gerty MacDowell hangs around Sandymount Strand with her friends. Joyce moves into a remarkably sustained and incisive section of narrated monologue as the narrative entity introduces Gerty:
Gerty MacDowell who was seated near her companions, lost in thought, gazing far away into the distance was, in very truth, as fair a specimen of winsome Irish girlhood as one could wish to see. She was pronounced beautiful by all who knew her though, as folks often said, she was more a Giltrap than a MacDowell. Her figure was slight and graceful, inclining even to fragility but those iron jelloids she had been taking of late had done her a world of good much better than the Widow Welch’s female pills and she was much better of those discharges she used to get and that tired feeling.
Now it is the impressionistic language that is the engine—the character’s opinions of and way of talking about her surroundings, rather than simply shaping what the narrative entity discusses, as in psycho-narration, now shapes how the world is rendered. Grammatically, Joyce stays in third- person past, the ‘base’ narration. Ostensibly, it is simply a physical description of a young woman,18 the type that might be found in any Victorian or Edwardian novel. However it is clear from the first lines that there is a slant here, even if at first it is only the rather favorable opinion of Gerty that stands out. As we move through the scene, Joyce turns up the effect of the narrated monologue—bleeds more of the the character into the narration—through his precise prose:
Her hands were of finely veined alabaster with tapering fingers and as white as lemonjuice and queen of ointments could make them though it was not true that she used to wear kid gloves in bed or take a milk footbath either. Bertha Supple told that once to Edy Boardman, a deliberate lie, when she was black out at daggers drawn with Gerty (the girl chums had of course their little tiffs from time to time like the rest of mortals) and she told her not to let on whatever she did that it was her that told her or she’d never speak to her again. No. Honour where honour is due.
In a few lines now not only the worldview but also the idiom and diction is being filtered through something in a way that turns it ‘subjective’—filtered through Gerty herself, the very subject of the passage. It is Gerty who maintains that the rumors spread about her wearing gloves to bed were false, and it is Gerty who knows that Berha Supple told this lie ‘deliberately’. Notice, too, how as the sentences go on, the language becomes increasingly what one might expect from a young, perhaps rather vain, girl, as if the narrative entity, running out of breath at the end of the line, allows a bit more of its character’s speech to color its rendering. This is no accident.
One more example emphasizes the use of adjectives and adverbs in narrated monologue:
Gerty was dressed simply but with the instinctive taste of a votary of Dame Fashion for she felt that there was just a might that he might be out. A neat blouse of electric blue selftinted by dolly dyes (because it was expected in the Lady’s Pictorial that electric blue would be worn) with a smart vee opening down to the division and kerchief pocket (in which she always kept a piece of cottonwool scented with her favourite perfume because the handkerchief spoiled the sit) and a navy threequarter skirt cut to the stride showed off her slim graceful figure to perfection.
This is subtly and smoothly done. Once again it is Gerty who thinks of her clothes as simple, “neat”, and “smart”. We see here, too, the use of the parenthetical to provide extra information as it occurs to Gerty herself, as a sort of branching off her tree of thought. These impressionistic words create the bleeding effect intended by narrated monologue in an economy of effort, providing the reader a strong sense of Gerty MacDowell even if they are not fully aware how or why.
Narrated monologue is the true fusion of narrator and narrated, or, as Cohn puts it, “a character’s mental discourse in the guise of the narrator’s discourse.”19 The bleeding together of these two figures’ diction, language, idiom, and beliefs allows for extraordinary flexibility and range—the third-person narration retains all the tools usually available to it (knowledge of the fictive world, geo-temporal awareness, plot authority), while being able to filter the moment through the sensory makeup of a character. At its core, narrated monologue is the splicing of the objective reporting of a third-person narrator with the subjective impressions of the character in a given scene, the principle method for establishing the dialogic relationships so essential to the modernist novel.20 It is therefore in many ways the culmination of the novelistic revolution that Ulysses helped to secure, and an extremely important tool in the drawer of the twentieth and twenty-first century writer, but by no means the most fascinating or arresting one. For that, we must leave our comfortable third-person environs and slip into the underworld, where grammar is dead and the mind never sleeps.
A Word About Molly: Autonomous Monologue
In Episode 18 of Ulysses, famously, Joyce departs the world of men and plunges into the head of Molly Bloom as she lays awake in her bedroom. Just shy of forty pages in the Gabler, “Penelope” allows full access to her mind, broken into eight rather long sentences, an approach Cohn styles “autonomous monologue”. While it is a challenging section to excerpt, the opening is as representative as any:
Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting for that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathingsuits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear them I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope Ill never be like her—
Present here are the hallmarks of the technique: ungrammatical style and freely-associative thoughts that leap through space and time at will.21 The authorial presence is effectively gone from the page, and the stream-of-consciousness has become a river twisting through riptide and rock. Autonomous monologue is, put simply, pure consciousness, unadulterated and unabridged.
Joyce uses it to fill in many of the narrative gaps that come up throughout the Ulyssean day, information held by and about Molly that only she—or more accurately the unrestrained running of her thoughts—can provide. That it’s rendered in this incredible manner, as opposed to a letter, a dialogue or conventional monologue, or even simple authorial commentary, is both in furtherance of Ulysses’ thematic concerns and in keeping with its stylistic ones.
Like the quoted monologue discussed above, autonomous monologue sheds the person and tense of the base narration, moving to a first person present that can best capture the immediacy of the concern. Where it differs, though (and where it crossed over into the domain of Cohn’s first- person techniques) is, largely, in sheer volume. It is the sustained access to the mind, completely unconcerned with grammar or temporal cohesion, that defines autonomous monologue, and which marks it as providing the most fidelity in representing mental activity. In that way, for all the challenges confronted by the reader, autonomous monologue allows for a more complete portrait of a character. Joyce’s use of the technique, at the close of his colossus, provides the access to Molly Bloom that has made her a fixture of Modernist literature for a century. Along with the fitting juxtaposition created by the extreme contrast between her fervent mental activity and supine physical state, autonomous monologue provides so unfettered a look at Molly’s mind that, by Episode 18’s affirmative close, the reader in many ways knows her better than Bloom or Stephen Daedalus. As the anchor to Ulysses’ monumental day (as as Joycean foreshadow into the subconscious underworld of Finnegans Wake), autonomous monologue keeps nothing in reserve, pushing to then-unknown depths the ability of the novel to portray the mind, and of fiction to capture life.
The temporal fluidity allowed by the free association of thought and memory give this technique remarkable dexterity, and while it may present challenges to the reader, offers the highest degree of verisimilitude in rendering the true nature of an active mind as is possible with the printed word. Autonomous monologue is full immersion into consciousness, and if for the audience the plunge into the water somewhat shocks the blood, it is all the better for the pulse. Joyce’s most exuberant and forceful display in all of Ulysses, “Penelope,” with its hammer blow style, wields autonomous monologue to break down the last vestiges of Victorian novelistic convention. A century later, the episodes stands as a true superlative in form and apposite conclusion the language’s greatest work of literature.
—Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978.
—Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York, New York: Vintage, 1986.
—Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In McNeille, Andrew, Ed. The Essays of Virginia Woolf: Volume 4: 1925 to 1928. London: The Hogarth Press, 1984.
1 Woolf, “Modern Fiction”, 1925.
2 As well as, fittingly if strangely enough, 140 after both their births and 81 after their deaths.
3 It should be noted here that, perhaps rather obviously, Cohn herself relies heavily on Joyce and Ulysses to make her study. This essay, then, is intended as something of a primer to both Cohn and Joycean methods of rendering consciousness, in addition to making a survey of the intersection of the two.
4 This essay relies on Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. This very brief rundown is a major simplification, and the interested reader is encouraged to read Cohn herself, who does (among other accomplishments) a fine job presenting her concepts in an accessible manner. An easy if imperfect way of thinking about Cohn’s three-part system is to analogize it the better-known indirect discourse—direct discourse—free-indirect discourse schema.
5 Excepting the brief foray into autonomous monologue, from which neither essay nor essayist found himself able to refrain. There is a strong argument that no author has more effectively explored consciousness in fiction as Joyce, and no critic has studied it as well as Cohn.
6 All Ulysses quotes and page numbers come from the Gabler Edition, Vintage, 1986, pp. 45; 285-6; 287; 608.
7 While Merriam-Webster would have it “expository”, expositionary more fully captures the meaning of turning-to-the-reader exposition in fiction.
8 This makes Joycean psycho-narration difficult to distinguish from narrated monologue, where the minds of narrator and character fully bleed together. Cohn’s other form of psycho-narration, dissonant, features a much clearer separation between the two, as exemplified by Henry James.
9 A benefit of this essay concentrating on the opening pages of Episode 4 is Leopold’s much more navigable inner life and diction than that of Stephen.
10 This essay will assume the reader has some knowledge of Ulysses, and thus leave off extended table setting. In any event, not much is needed for our purposes—for this section and the next, Leopold is preparing breakfast to bring to his wife, Molly, laying upstairs in bed. One quite fun thing for the technically-inclined reader to do is observe the point-of-view zooming in on Bloom’s mind like a camera lens as it proceeds down page 45.
11 In psycho-narration impressionistic words are more accurately understood as indicia of the narrative entity’s focus on the worldview of the character, rather than as having the dispositive centrality they do in narrated monologue.
12 Clearly, Joyce does not ‘use’ psycho-narration or either of the other methods, either here or anywhere in Ulysses. Cohn’s formulation comes decades after Joyce’s death; instead we use her system to identify, distinguish, and analyze the ways in which Ulysses is composed.
13 Essentially, establish the manner in which Bloom will appear in the book, and provide the basic ground rules for the narration.
14 Typically, the closer one gets to the mind of a character, the slower the fictive time moves.
15 It is important to note that Cohn’s system discussed here is applied to, and was built around, conventional third-person past tense fiction. The ‘base’ language for all three methods discussed, in other words, is third-person past; the rise of present tense fiction, being in some respects a recent sensation, is outside the scope, as is first-person (for which she offers other methods of analysis).
16 Of course quoted monologue does not refer to ‘actual’, or external speech by the character saying what he is thinking; that is simply dialogue. It is the inner thought referred to here.
17 It can be easy to forget that this system only analyzes the rendering of consciousness in fiction— dialogue, physical description, character movement and narrative summary are outside the bounds.
18 Rather cleverly, in a very Joycean move, a young woman introduced as being “lost in thought”.
19 Cohn, Transparent Minds, 14.
20 Given its ability to move so freely between narrator and character(s), narrated monologue is a prime technique for exploiting Bakhtian heteroglossia into the novel, the multitudinous existence of language of which Cohn’s work offers so useful a system of inquiry.
21 Cohn, writing in 1978, calls “Penelope” the locus classicus, the most perfect iteration, of the technique, as well as commenting on its extreme rarity. While the former point is uncontested, there have since been other uses. The most notable is Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, from 2019, a marvelous, wildly energetic book that essentially asks the question: what if Molly Boom were transformed into an Ohio housewife in the early twenty-first century and simply kept thinking?
D. W. White writes consciousness-forward fiction and criticism. A graduate of the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at Otis College in Los Angeles and Stony Brook University’s BookEnds Fellowship, he serves as Founding Editor for L’Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in Florida Review, 3:AM Another Chicago Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among several other publications. A Chicago ex-pat, he now lives in Long Beach, California, where he teaches at Otis College and frequents the beach to hide from writer’s block.
One response to “An Ordinary Mind on an Ordinary Day”
A very helpful read for anyone wanting a better understanding of Ulysses. For that alone I definitely recommend reading it. Although I’m still left with my unanswered question—How did Joyce’s alcoholism (and possible syphilis) effect his writing.