What Joyce Got Wrong (about the Interior Monologue); An Interlude in the Language and Thought Series

by David J. Lobina

The evil Gabler edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Keep your friends close, pater says.

A testy title for an article about James Joyce in this centenary year of the publication of Ulysses, but all the more pertinent for that, especially in the context of this series on Language and Thought (and I don’t really mean that he was wrong, actually). After all, last month I brought up the role of “talking to ourselves” in reasoning and decision-making – to think – and the narrative technique of interior monologue, amply used in Ulysses, is precisely meant to depict the phenomenon I was dealing with – inner speech, in the parlance of philosophers and psychologists. Not to be confused with the stream-of-consciousness technique, though they are related, the interior-monologue technique is a linguistic rendering of a character’s thoughts, whereas a stream of consciousness may include the character’s perceptions and impressions (visual, aural, what have you) in addition to their inner speech, and it typically comes from the pen of a narrator rather than directly from the mind of a character as is the case in inner speech.[i]

As a case in point:

—Is it your view, then, that she was not faithful to the poet?

Alarmed face asks me. Why did he come? Courtesy or an inward light?

—Where there is a reconciliation, Stephen said, there must have been first a sundering.

At first sight the presence of interior monologue in this exchange (signposted by my italics, here and henceforth), as imagined by Joyce in the Ulysses, seems a plausible rendering of the thoughts Stephen Dedalus was having at the time. Is it psychologically plausible, though? I don’t mean whether Stephen was really having such thoughts – he did, Joyce wrote so. What I mean is whether Stephen was actually verbalising these thoughts to himself in inner speech as he was having them.

There are, I think, two types of inner speech. The first kind is one I engage in quite often when I go for a walk by myself, though I am only aware of doing it after the fact – or after I notice passers-by staring at me and smiling. What I do is imagine conversations I would like to take part in, and as I do so, I can’t help but articulate my own interventions, which I guess is what makes other people smile (thankfully this parlar da soli is not treated as a pathology any more). Once I realise what I was doing, I have two seemingly incompatible feelings about it: that I was producing what felt like normal speaking (overt or outer speech), and at the same time that I was the only person capable of “hearing” this speech.

I’m not describing the experience of talking to ourselves in a very low voice, which clearly isn’t a case of inner speech. In fact, if I set out to imagine these conversations consciously, it is unquestionable that I can articulate speech without producing any sound, and yet I can “hear” my own speech as clearly as in the more unconscious case (that is, I’m gesticulating with my face, and perhaps in a similar way to what signers do when interpreting for the deaf and hard of hearing on TV).

The second kind is the most intriguing and undoubtedly the paradigm example of what is usually meant by inner speech – and the sort Stephen would have engaged in opposite his interlocutor, lest he be regarded unstable. This is the experience of talking to ourselves without carrying out any articulation of any kind, even though here too we can “hear” our own speech. The two types of inner speech might differ in more ways than one, but what they have in common is that in both cases we are exclusively privy to this inner voice.

The question I have posed regarding Stephen’s train of thoughts is, of course, a rather subjective one, for interior monologues are private events. As I mentioned last month, I am quite sure that during my waking life I am constantly having thoughts, and that most of these thoughts are unconscious in that they are not verbalised or produced in any format. Recall the (perhaps too simple) example I mentioned in the last post, the act of crossing a street, which must involve a number of inferences if one is to avoid getting run over – e.g., if I cross the street now I will be run over by the incoming car and there is enough space between this car and the next, therefore… – none of which need be put into words, aloud or not.

Something rather different must be at play in some of the most famous bouts of inner speech in literature, such as Molly’s interior monologue at the end of Ulysses or the self-soliloquy of Tolstoy’s protagonist in part 7 of his Anna Karenina. More a method for a writer to describe the richness of a character’s thoughts and feelings than the accurate reporting of a literal event in inner speaking, the result is two monologues that are far too extensive, sophisticated, and detailed to be typical examples of inner speech. Streams of consciousness but possibly not actual streams of thought, these two examples feel (and read) like essays, in the case of Anna Karenina’s a well-argued one, in the case of Molly a supposedly more ordinary example of inner speech.[ii] These examples are certainly a world apart from my own experience of imagining future conversations, reimagining past ones, or rehearsing sentences for an article I am working on. Indeed, Molly’s bout of interior monologue is almost 25,000 words long; Bloom would have been fast asleep by the time she came to reminisce saying Yes.

The introspective feeling that talking to ourselves is to actually be thinking is quite widespread, however, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence around. I can certainly confirm that it is common for bilingual speakers to be asked what language we think in, by which it is really meant what language we use to talk to ourselves. It has to be one apparently, and if that doesn’t quite settle it, the next question is often what language we dream in (what language we use to count is also common). The sentiment seems to be present in certain strands of Buddhism too, where practitioners actively seek to block their inner speech in order to stop the process of thinking, thereby allowing them to perceive the world as it really is by so doing, unfiltered by sentence-thoughts. To not inner speak is to not think.

It is a feeling that many ancient philosophers have had too. Plato may have been alluding to inner speech when he described thinking as ‘a talk which the soul has with itself’ in the Thaetetus, whilst in the Philebus he talks of how we can use an interior dialogue to form opinions by formulating questions and answers to ourselves. Maybe; Molly and Anna Karenina certainly come to various conclusions during their long soliloquies, but there’s plenty of serendipity and suddenness in each of their realisations.

The 20th century saw psychologists bring scientific ways to the study of inner speech. The behaviourist John Watson straightforwardly defined thought as ‘subvocal talking’, which seems to have been a reference to inner speech properly, and the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the father of inner speech studies, saw the interior monologue as a condensed and fragmented type of speech, typically without grammatical subjects and often exhibiting idiosyncratic meanings. There are many examples of such a kind of inner speech in Ulysses, in fact, but it is unclear whether Vygotsky was really onto something. I would say that the following examples are the result more of artistic licence than a realistic portrayal of actual inner speaking:

None nought said nothing (Leopold Bloom)

Hates sewing. Might take an objection (Bloom)

I’m almosting it (Stephen)

In any case, last month I argued that we should abandon the idea that inner or outer speech plays a central role in reasoning and problem-solving, as the evidence from the modern study of psychology is very weak in this respect. It might be counter-intuitive to state that inner/outer speech plays no central role in formulating any or most plans of action, for the feeling that we think, and reflect about what we think, in our own language is both vivid and apparently obvious. After all, it is always possible to come up with detailed examples of the dialogues, questionings, and promptings that seem to appropriately underlie many instances of our own reasoning. Here’s Joyce imagining Stephen answering a question to himself in the middle of an exchange:

—I paid my way. I never borrowed a shilling in my life. Can you feel that? I owe nothing. Can you?

Mulligan, nine pounds, three pairs of socks, one pair brogues, ties. Curran, ten guineas. McCann, one guinea. Fred Ryan, two shillings. Temple, two lunches. Russell, one guinea, Cousins, ten shillings, Bob Reynolds, half a guinea, Koehler, three guineas, Mrs MacKernan, five weeks’ board. The lump I have is useless.

—For the moment, no, Stephen answered.

This particular inner speech event would have been rather unlikely to occur in the middle of a conversation – there is certainly no time for so much content to be expressed in a situation like this – and would Stephen have been so exhaustive at that very moment, anyway?

I think the issue here is that most writers find themselves in a bit of a conundrum when using the interior monologue technique. Apart from the obvious point that in literature you must use language to describe thoughts and feelings, and that these thoughts and feelings most probably weren’t actually had in language, the written medium in itself confers a level of detail and attention, a richness and creativity – a tsunami of possibilities – that can very easily far exceed the content of what is supposed to chronicle (in this case, inner speech).

I have no doubt that the inner life of any one person is far richer than what it looks like from the outside (well, maybe), but I would also point out that a person’s inner thoughts, feelings, and impressions may not always be expressible, in language or in any other medium (or indeed at all). And what may be expressible might be a lot more austere than what one might expect; if I were to put on my “philosophy of mind” hat, for instance, I could run the whole gamut of common-sense psychology to show how it provides a good-enough account of people’s behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires, but the result would disappoint more than one person. To wit, say that Lenù desires to have children and believes David to be available and interested, well, this might well lead her to the conclusion that she ought to proposition him to that effect (and he would probably accept). This might be enough to a philosopher of mind, and they might even think that it is in fact more accurate to provide a picture of people’s thoughts in such terms than what literature offers, nuance and substance be damned, though this is obviously a quite impoverished account from the perspective of a writer. I am most certainly not aware of any work of literature in which a narrator takes a philosophy-of-mind stance and describes mental events in terms of propositional attitudes (beliefs and desires, for that is what the philosopher calls them) and the relevant propositions these attitudes attend to, these propositions perhaps to be cashed out in terms of predicates and arguments (and Polish notation), a favourite approach of philosophers and logicians – i.e., no narrator would write things such as ‘wants (Lenù, marriage)’, ‘interested-in (David, Lenù)’, e così via.

I think the gap between the inner thoughts and feelings of any one person and the expansive accounts the written medium allows for is a real one, and is true of both well-composed interior monologues – say, Anna Karenina’s – as well as prima facie not so well-composed – say, Molly’s, with its implausible long sentences and little punctuation (though the latter issue is neither here nor there, I think, but certainly a gimmick if used as a marker for genuine examples of inner speech). What I think writers are really onto in their descriptions of a character’s internal thoughts relates to Chomsky’s point about linguistic behaviour – namely, the claim, explained last month, that language production is effectively stimulus independent, as there is no way to work out what one person will say at any one moment, or in any one situation. It is precisely the nature of the written medium that makes writers say too much, show too much of a character’s inner life – nay, create too much of this inner life, provide too many reasons, beliefs and desires, and paint people much more linguistically expressive than they really are; in a nutshell, write interior monologue episodes as if the philosophers were right about inner speech, when it is the linguist who should be attended to (though the linguist is always ignored, here as elsewhere).

Naturally, Chomsky’s original point was about outer speech, but it is even more compelling for inner speech, and hence the extensive and expansive cases of interior monologue that we find in literature – who can control their interior monologues, after all (in the plural, if you catch my drift)? Not the author of Stephen Hero. Here’s Stephen trying to drown out his family’s chatter in his quest for mental solitude, this time from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

I am Stephen Dedalus. I am walking beside my father whose name is Simon Dedalus. We are in Cork, in Ireland. Cork is a city. Our room is in the Victoria Hotel. Victoria and Stephen and Simon. Simon and Stephen and Victoria. Names.

Chomsky has often suggested that we may only find significant insight into some aspects of human nature, such as linguistic creativity, in works of literature, writers being better judges of such things. I suspect this is very much tongue-in-cheek; in the case of inner speech, literature has given us numerous, stunning examples of interior monologues describing life-defining and -affirming epiphanies, but I very much doubt that any writer has provided a psychologically plausible example of an actual inner speech episode. And I also very much doubt that inner speech will ever be amenable to scientific study, though it is certainly a crucial feature of human cognition and surely one of the main windows into our inner lives, perhaps even the conduit of epiphanies in some cases. Did Saul have his in inner speech, I wonder.

(Next week, I shall come back to the topic of Language and Thought more directly, when I shall provide, as a colophon to the series, a primer (my primer) of a theory of The Language of Thought. In subsequent posts, however, I will aim to focus on more topical issues in linguistics, psychology, and philosophy, one at a time, possibly starting with the Kiev/Kyiv distinction so current these days.)


[i] I ought to make it clear that I shall employ the expressions “inner speech” and “interior monologue” pretty much interchangeably here, but I don’t think anything of substance is lost by doing so, except when I talk about the narrative technique to describe one’s inner speech rather than about the phenomenon of inner speech per se, and in such cases I will try to be more specific.

[ii] And it can get worse. In Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 novel, Ducks, Newburyport, the main character apparently engages in a sentence-long bout of inner speech over 1000 pages of text, including dozens of acronyms (the book even includes a glossary for the acronyms; talk about psychologically unreal interior monologues!). Who she, anyway? Richard Ellmann’s offspring, for one thing, a well-known biographer of James Joyce, to keep with the theme. From a linguistic point of view, in any case, it may be doubted whether this interior monologue is literally a single sentence, as has been claimed (the book itself is clearly not one single sentence, given that there are conventional paragraphs interspersed within the soliloquy, for instance). The putative single sentence of the monologue appears to have the following structure: ‘The fact that X, the fact that Y,…, doesn’t bear thinking about.’, where X and Y stand for sentences or phrases, sometimes rather long ones in the form of lists, each new ‘the fact that’ phrase is introduced after a comma, the ellipsis indicates the many thousands of ‘the fact that (variable)’ phrases in the text, and the verbal phrase ‘doesn’t bear thinking about’ is the overall sentence’s main verb and appears at the very end of the book (hence, the final stop included within the quotation marks). This is not the typical embedded sentence linguists have often used when discussing the possibility of an open-ended sentence, though this kind of sentence could be a candidate for such arguments too (as can some others); instead, the sentence is more of the concatenative kind, effectively a very long list of items. A more common, and certainly unremarkable, version of the sentence would be something along these lines:

‘It doesn’t bear thinking about: a) the fact that X; b) the fact that Y;…; the fact that [final sentence/phrase here].’

It might be worth coming back to this in a future post, but I think this take is more or less correct (also, whether we conclude that the monologue is, indeed, one-sentence-long may well depend on whether we accept the idiosyncratic use of punctuation, but a linguist never should, for then the monologue would become truly a one-sentence-long text simply by fiat).