The term ‘consciousness’ is used to describe a person’s perception or awareness of something else, and as an English literature student, exploring the conscious mind of a character is how one truly gets to know them. By exploring their innermost fears, desires and loves, the true nature of a character’s personality can be revealed. The writer provides the consciousness of the character, and then the conscious reader will have to be susceptible enough to make good use of it. It is also important as a reader to be conscious of symbols and motifs in novels, so that we can understand the text in full. These motifs and symbols could be anything from colours to Biblical references.
The conscious reader would be able to recognise Thomas Hardy’s use of colour in his 1891 novel ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles,’ as the title character’s frequent association with the colours of red and white is clearly a reference to her dual personality as whore and chaste virgin. Red represents sexuality, and white represents purity. The conscious reader would develop this further, perhaps in reference to Freud’s ‘Madonna-whore complex,’ a dichotomy that explores the two personas that a woman could conform to. For more on that, follow the footnote!
For example, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel ‘Frankenstein,’ the Monster refers to himself as Adam. The conscious student will recognise that this is a reference to the first man placed on Earth, Adam, placing Frankenstein as God the creator, and the Monster as his first human creation. This analysis aids our understanding of the story as a whole, and the mentality of the Monster as he considers himself to be the first and only member of his own kind in existence.
The above two examples demonstrate the importance of being a conscious reader, and what a conscious reader will be able to find when interrogating a text. The above example of Frankenstein can be used to bridge the gap between the conscious reader and the consciousness of a character. Shelley provides an insight into the consciousness of the Monster by allowing him to refer to himself as Adam, and the conscious reader will then pick this up, explore it and end up with a better understanding of the Monster. Still following?
Another text that utilises the idea of consciousness in order to allow the audience to understand the characters involved more fully, is Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy ‘Hamlet.’ Hamlet’s own psyche and consciousness is explored through his seven soliloquies; seven speeches that the character delivers when he is alone on stage, explaining his inner thoughts, feelings and struggles. These seven speeches revolving around the consciousness of Hamlet provide plenty of material for the conscious reader to scrutinise.
Hamlet is set on a revenge mission to kill his uncle king Claudius, who had previously murdered Hamlet’s father and former king. Shakespeare draws inspiration from traditional revenge tragedies in the writing of the play, but also uses Hamlet’s own consciousness to break such conventions.
In traditional Greek tragedy, the act of revenge would occur quickly within the narrative, thus prompting the end of the play. Hamlet deliberates for five acts, and keeps the audience updated on the goings on within his mind via his seven soliloquies. This allows the play to develop on the traditional idea of Greek tragedy and address bigger questions.
The play itself is not just about the act of revenge but is more about the inner workings of Hamlet’s mind. His famous declaration of ‘to be or not to be’ is proof of this, as Hamlet explains to the audience that he is contemplating suicide. Without such insights into the characters mind, our understanding of the play would be greatly affected. Shakespeare utilises the idea, and literary technique, of ‘consciousness’ within the play to offer a tragedy that is of greater psychological complexity than the tragedies that have gone before.
Shakespeare is given this merit through the deployment of the seven soliloquies, and insight into the consciousness of Hamlet. Through the addition of these seven speeches, Shakespeare ensures that the audience can fully understand the character of Hamlet and his inner turmoil, thus reinventing the idea of a Greek tragedy. This is a clever move from Shakespeare, as the technique he deploys is one that gives the play greater depth.
‘Hamlet’ is widely praised for its complexity, and Shakespeare’s active interest into the conscious mind of his characters explains why. Hamlet is conscious of the fact that he has been asked to commit murder, and that he cannot carry this out without sufficient evidence. It is this struggle that he disseminates to the audience via his soliloquies.
Hamlet’s reputation as a great philosopher, and his tendency to contemplate the larger questions in life, stem from his soliloquies, which stemmed from Shakespeare’s desire to create a revenge tragedy that explored and interrogated the consciousness of its characters.
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