Thursday, July 2, 2015

Stream-of-Consciousness in Bontemps and Toomer

Last post, I wrote about a stylistic element in Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder (1936) that I found interesting and similar to Gaines's description of the arrival of Gruesome Gertie into Bayonne in chapter 30 of A Lesson before Dying. Today, I want to briefly continue with that discussion by looking at a couple of section from Bontemps's novel where the third person narrator gives way to a stream-of-consciousness narration. This move, in many ways, reminds me of parts of Jean Toomer's Cane (1923) where we see inside the characters's heads. These sections occur mostly in the second and third sections of Toomer's novel and are punctuated like drama, providing the character's name then a period.


During the torrential storm that ultimately thwarts Gabriel's rebellion, Ben sits in the house with Marse Sheppard and thinks about their relationship, how much they understand one another and how satisfied they are together. All of this in the third person; until he begins to think about his freedom and what that means.
Then suddenly another thought shouted in his head.
Licking his spit because he done fed you, hunh? Fine nigger you is. Good old Marse Sheppard, hunh? Is he ever said anything about setting you free? He wasn't too good to sell them two gal young-uns down the river soon's they's old enough to know the sight of a cotton-chopping hoe. How'd he treat yo' old woman befo' she died? And you love it, hunh? Anything what's equal –
"Get the toddy bowl, Ben."
"Yes, suh." (94)
Here, the narration moves into Ben's head as he considers his relationship with Marse Sheppard and whether or not he should even think about freedom. Bontemps moves seamlessly from the third person narrator into Ben's head for a stream-of-consciousness section. Ben begins by asking himself questions regarding Sheppard's respect for him then moves into the past thinking about the way Sheppard treated his family, selling them when they were old enough to work in the fields. Ben's thoughts, however, get interrupted when Sheppard asks him for the "toddy bowl," and the narrator returns to third person, providing an overview of the action. Bontemps does this periodically throughout the novel, delving into the thoughts of multiple characters as he tells the story of Gabriel Prosser's failed insurrection.

In "Bona and Paul," Toomer incorporates interior monologue, delving into the character's thoughts to illuminate the action taking place. At the very beginning of the story, Bona watches Paul dance dance during class.
Bona: He is a candle that daces in a grove swung with pale balloons.
Columns of the drillers thud towards her. He is in the front row. He is in no row at all. Bona can look close at him. His red-brown face —
Bona: He is a harvest moon. He is an autumn leaf. He is a nigger. Bona! But dont all the dorm girls say so? And dont you, when you are sane, say so? That's why I love — Oh, nonsense. You have never loved a man who didnt first love you. Besides — (70)
The excerpt above shows a small sample of what Toomer does with stream-of-consciousness narration. Bona thinks about the way that Paul looks as he dances in front of her, and as she contemplates his appearance in relation to the moon and a leaf, she begins to drift back in to what others say about him. Her thoughts go from a metaphorical image of Paul to a depiction that hinges on what others say, and that tension can be seen in her thoughts. She abruptly stops twice, as indicated by the em-dashes. Bona moves from abstract, metaphorical images of Paul to examining him in relation to how her fellow dorm girls view him to wondering whether or not she actually loves him. This is just a brief example of stream-of-consciousness in Toomer's novel, there are more throughout the work.

What are some other novels that employ this technique? What is its purpose? How does this technique relate to modernism, which both authors were a part of? Let me know in the comments below.

Bontemps, Arna. Black Thunder. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968. Print.
Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Liveright, 1975, Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment