Review: The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves published in 1931 is Virginia Woolf’s “play-poem” as she called it; a colloquy of six voices, experimenting through the lives of Bernard, Jinny, Louis, Neville, Rhoda and Susan as they evolve, grow and debate with their identities, thoughts and attempts to say “I am this, I am that”. The Waves represents, in a career filled with bold experiments, Woolf’s most audacious explorations of the possibilities of the novel form- in abandoning traditional structure and plot it favours a lyrical, almost dreamlike incantation of character. 

Woolf was born in 1882 into an already distinguished literary and artistic family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was one of the most notable intellectuals of his day and her sister, Vanessa was a well-regarded painter. She became one of the leading figures in the Bloomsbury Group, an informal circle of writers and artists who formed one of the most well-known branches of the literary avant-garde of the early 20th century. It stood for a moderately left-wing political stance, a refined critical and aesthetic sensibility, and an intensely inward focus on the way the mind translates experience into language and meaning. By redefining the beliefs of the Victorian majority, they hoped to discover a new artistic method. Woolf herself epitomises such a modern writer, leaving behind the conventional structures of the novel in order to pursue a more poetic, character-based narrative. 

Wool herself

She wrote the book over a gruelling 19 months, between 1929-1931, making several revisions throughout the spring and summer. The writing process of The Waves was difficult for Woolf as the subject matter forced her to relive the death of her brother Thoby and many other painful aspects of her life. 

Despite its focus on character and its poetic interludes, there is an almost conventional narrative arc, tracing their intertwined lives from children, adolescence, middle age and later life. The six children and voices meet, part, become lovers, parents, age, and mourn. The death of their friend Percival plays a pivotal role in their ability to respond to grief, through the obsession of language, nature and a purely physical existence; Woolf presents her characters internal monologues, as she builds her characters from the inside out. One of the concerns of the novel is the way individual personalities and sensibilities are shaped by relationships with others. The novel is bound together by rhythms and images that recur across all six voices, a fin, far out to sea; bubbles rising; silver fish; images of circles and of bars, the collective and the “I…I..” that resounds throughout, echoing the waves as they rise from the ocean and smash against the shore. 

“The sun fell in sharp wedges inside the room. Whatever the light touched became dowered with a fanatical existence. A plate like a white lake. A knife looked like a dagger of ice.”

“The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore.”

“I, I, I; not Bryon, Shelley, Dostoevsky…”

With such a focus on character, the six voices of Bernard, Jinny, Louis, Neville, Rhoda and Susan all explore such different aspects of humanity and understanding of the world – that for me, (it being my first time reading it) was confusing. The constant change of direction of their individual identities provides an interesting introspection into character, but there are few moments of shared identity and unity, which helps to build a mental map of these characters interconnected lives. 

Bernard’s loquacity and obsession with language is one of his first apparent traits, by exploring such a vast concept makes him a compound character, influenced by the people who surround him. His dissatisfaction with language and traditional narrative echoes many of Woolf’s own concerns and perhaps offers an insight into the reason behind her boldness when composing the novel. Woolf has spoken of “moments of being” in which she gains a direct perception of reality, apart from the complexities of language, and such echoes of this can be seen in Bernard.

Neville has a desire for order and beauty, as a homosexual scholar, he is described by Louis as the son of a gentleman. When reading such an influential, experimental and in parts confusing work such as The Waves, it is helpful to research the context in order to gain a wider understanding of Woolf’s process. John Maynard Keynes, economist and prolific writer on economics, and Lytton Strachey, hailed as an intellectual and known homosexual, have been suggested as sources for Neville’s character. 

(Caricature of Lytton Strachey.)

Louis’s deepest sense of himself is that he does not fit in, as he is Australian. His life is defined by the need to overcome the sense of inferiority his nationality gives him. He becomes an ambitious striver, eager to make his mark and to shed his status as an outsider- which he eventually achieves. Critics have suggested that there is a probable connection between Louis and T.S. Eliot as Woolf uses the same adjectives to describe them, as “pale” and “marmoreal”. He discovers poetry and sees the tradition of literature as a way to gain admittance. 

(T.S. Eliot, drawing by Wyndham Lewis, 1938)

Jinny lives her life utterly apart from concerns of the soul, she embodies a purely physical existence. She thinks of herself as a body, first and foremost – as she describes herself as a creature of motion, surface and physicality. Her attitude therefore is carpe diem – seize the day, and live while you can. 

“But look — there is my body in that looking glass. How solitary, how shrunk, how aged! I am no longer young.”

“But my imagination is the bodies. I can imagine nothing beyond the circle cast by my body. My body goes before me, like a lantern down a dark lane, bringing one thing after another out of darkness into a ring of light.”

Susan to me is the most ‘normal’ character in the novel, or at least the easiest to understand on the surface. She is a representation of the maternal “instinct”. Throughout life, she is closely associated with the natural and domestic world: marrying a farmer, living in the country and protective of her children. Several critics identify traits of Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell in the characterisation of Susan, as she was “exalted, in the most tragic way…full of power and responsibility”. 

(Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell)

Rhoda embodies a dreamlike abstraction from ordinary life, nothing comes easily to her and everything seems foreign. She is terrified of human contact, terrified of being judged and criticised and her deep sense of alienation from others is a feeling which can still be felt in today’s society. 

The Waves, although confusing and thought provoking due to its poetic qualities and lack of clear plot, deals with many themes which are deep rooted within our society. It deals with essence of selfhood, the desire for order and meaning and most prominently the aspect and influence of death. To me, it feels like the sort of novel I will have to return to and re-read, in order to gain a better understanding and be able to extract more complexity and detail. But nevertheless, a book worth a read if only to explore something different, like a novel you’ve never experienced before. 

References:

2 thoughts on “Review: The Waves by Virginia Woolf

    1. I haven’t read too much of Woolf’s work, but ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is another interesting read & a it’s a little easier to understand & would be a great place to start. Hope this helps! 🙂

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