Thinking room and thought streams in Henry and William James

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Often in modernism, minds are rooms. In Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Isabel Archer resides between the ‘four walls’ of her husband's mind. In what is perhaps that novel's most crucial chapter, Isabel sits solitarily in a room, thinking alone and only thinking. What the episode also illustrates, therefore, is that minds in modernism are also often streams: stream of consciousness is a familiar term within modernist literary criticism. Fittingly, the term originates in the work of Henry's brother, William James, in the chapter of The Principles of Psychology (1890) titled ‘The Stream of Thought’. What are we to make of these seemingly incongruous expressions of mind, the room static and stationary, the stream immersed in continual flux? Proceeding via close readings of both The Portrait and The Principles and tracing especially William's portrayal of the airy gaseousness of consciousness and his suspicion that the stream of thought is really a stream of breath, this article finally arrives at a figure for interiority borrowed from the philosopher Michel Serres: a ‘syrrhesis’, a flowing together, a knotting of the torrent even as it streams. In such a figure, room and rivulet finally combine.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)871-89
JournalTextual Practice
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • Room
  • Stream
  • Consciousness
  • Henry James
  • William James


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