The Waves

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The Waves




Virginia Woolf established herself as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century before her 1941 death by suicide. Although her early life was marked by tragedy and she struggled with bouts of debilitating depression, Woolf persevered and wrote prolifically. She was also one of the founders of the Bloomsbury group, an intellectual gathering of some of the top minds of the day.

After the publication of several novels, essays, and short stories, she began writing the books for which she is most famous. Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928) all received positive critical reviews and were also commercial successes. Thus, as she worked on a book she tentatively called The Moths, Woolf was at the height of her form. This new novel was to be a sort of autobiography, highly experimental, and abstract in form. Woolf envisioned a novel without a plot, but a novel that would reveal the rich interior lives of its six characters. When this strange, mystical novel was published in 1931, it was titled The Waves. For Woolf scholars and the general reader, The Waves is an endlessly fascinating book, one that leads to many interpretations. In its exploration of selfhood, identity, and death, The Waves remains Woolf's modernist masterpiece. A 2006 edition of The Waves, edited by Mark Hussey and introduced and annotated by Molly Hite, is available from Harcourt.


Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, in London, to Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson Duckworth Stephen. Her father was an eminent Victorian critic, writer, and essayist who founded the Dictionary of National Biography. His first marriage was to Minny Thackeray, the daughter of the famous novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray. When Minny died in 1875, she left Stephen with a daughter, Laura, who was insane. Julia Jackson Duckworth was a widow when she married Stephen, and she brought into the marriage three children, George, Gerald, and Stella. Together, the couple had an additional four children, Vanessa, Adrian, Thoby, and Virginia.

The family was highly literary and some of the best minds of the day were frequent visitors at the Stephen home. Woolf's godfather, for example, was the American poet James Russell Lowell, who was also the American ambassador in London. Although she never was able to attend university like her brothers, Woolf had the access of her father's library and she read extensively. While there were many advantages for the young woman in her father's home, there was also the disturbing reality of sexual abuse. Both Woolf and her sister Vanessa were troubled by the unwanted advances of their older half-brothers, George and Gerald. A number of biographers credit this early abuse with causing or exacerbating Woolf's recurring bouts of depression.

In 1895, Julia Stephen died. This tragic event led to Woolf's first mental collapse. Moreover, in 1897, Stella Duckworth, who had become a second mother to Woolf, also died. Seven years later, in 1904, her father died, triggering yet another breakdown for Woolf. By 1905, however, Woolf was well enough to live with her remaining family in the Bloomsbury section of London. Friends of her brother Thoby frequented the house for intellectual discussion, and ultimately became known as the Bloomsbury group. Thoby's death in 1906 was another deep tragedy for Woolf; her depiction of Percival in The Waves and Percival's death are based on her brother's death.

In 1912, the author married Leonard Woolf. He was supportive of her writing, and together they founded the Hogarth Press in 1917, a publishing endeavor that printed some of the most important texts of their day, including the 1922 edition of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. During the 1920s, Woolf published a series of novels and essays that contributed to her stature as an important writer. Most notable among these was Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). The latter book contained many autobiographical details, based on Woolf"s childhood experiences with her family during their summers in Cornwall, England, near the sea. Although she cycled between periods when she was emotionally ill and periods when she felt well, she continued to write. Around 1929, Woolf began work on the novel that would become The Waves (1931). The Waves achieved surprising commercial success, given its abstract and mystical format.

In the decade following the publication of The Waves, Woolf published another novel, The Years, and drafted an eighth novel, Between the Acts, as well as several important nonfiction essays and books. In 1941, increasingly fearful of war and aware that she was slipping into yet another period of depression, Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse.

Although her life was one filled with tragedy and struggle, Woolf maintained an active intellectual life, filled with devoted friends. Her work remains some of the most important of the twentieth century.


The Waves is by all accounts a difficult book for readers, particularly since the plot structure one expects to find in a novel is nearly absent. Prose poems set in italic font separate the nine chapters. Each of the prose poems describes a seascape, with waves breaking on the shore, and each is set at a different time of day, from very early morning until night. Following the prose poems are chapters in which the six characters, Bernard, Louis, Neville, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda, speak in monologues that reveal their inner thoughts and life experiences. The novel traces these characters from infancy to maturity, with the introductory prose poems symbolically signaling the stages of the characters' lives.

Chapter 1

The first prose poem in the book describes waves crashing on shore in the pre-dawn hours. Woolf sets the chapter at a school for young children. Each of the characters awakens into consciousness. Although their language is highly stylized and not that of young children at all, their perceptions reflect their maturity level. That is, they seem to be fully in the present, observing what is immediately before them, the way a child would. Each character perceives the world differently, although there is little to distinguish one voice from the other. The children each describe their experiences during lessons, and from this the reader can begin to discern their individual personalities and talents. Rhoda's experience with her mathematics lesson is excruciating: "Now Miss Hudson … has shut the book. Now the terror is beginning…. I cannot write. I see only figures. The others are handing in their answers, one by one. Now it is my turn. But I have no answer. The others are allowed to go. They slam the door…. I am left alone to find an answer."

There is also a significant sensory detail in their perceptions. For example, Bernard describes the experience of being bathed by their nurse: "Mrs. Constable, girt in a bath-towel, takes her lemon-colored sponge and soaks it in water; it turns chocolate brown; it drips; and, holding it high above me, shivering beneath her, she squeezes it. Water pours down the runnel of my spine. Bright arrows of sensation shoot on either side…. Now hot towels envelop me, and their roughness, as I rub my back, makes my blood purr."


  • An audiobook of The Waves, narrated by Frances Jeater, was produced by Naxos Audiobooks in 2005.

Chapter 2

The children are older in the second section of the book. The boys have gone to one boarding school and the girls to another. The headmaster, Dr. Crane, figures prominently in the boys' experience. Bernard, although he loves "tremendous and sonorous words" understands that Dr. Crane's words are not always true. Louis, on the other hand, loves Dr. Crane, while Neville hates him. In this section, the boy Percival is also introduced, and he becomes friends with each of the speaking characters, although he never speaks himself. It becomes clear that Neville is in love with Percival. In addition, the boys' personalities and ambitions begin to take form. In particular, Bernard continues to be the storyteller, and he speaks often of the novels he will write in the future. Neville seems destined for a life as an academic, while Louis continues to feel inferior to the other boys due to his Australian accent and his father's work as a banker.

The girls are also at a boarding school, although they have very different experiences from the boys. Susan is unhappy being away from her home in the country, and the reader can begin to associate Susan with the natural world. Jinny, on the other hand, loves the city and looks forward to the social life she will have as an adult. Rhoda, still dreamy and odd, demonstrates what will become a recurring theme for her, the insubstantiality of life and the fragmentation of her own identity: "I came to the puddle. I could not cross it. Identity failed me. We are nothing, I said, and fell."

Chapter 3

In this chapter, Bernard and Neville are at university and remain close friends. Percival is also at the same college, and the three see each other frequently. Neville is in love with Percival. Bernard identifies closely with the poet Lord Byron; and this leads to significant reflection on identity. Bernard considers how his relationships with the other characters have formed his personality and psyche. Louis, although he was the best student of the three male characters, has not been able to continue his education for financial reasons and finds himself working as a clerk in a shipping firm, although he continues to have literary ambitions. Susan has returned to her father's home and becomes ever more deeply identified with nature. Jinny and Rhoda live in London, but with very different attitudes toward their lives: Jinny loves the social whirl of parties and the bustling activity of a major city, while Rhoda lives in fear and terror much of the time. Increasingly, Rhoda feels herself to be disappearing.

Chapter 4

The characters have reached young adulthood. Percival has taken a job with the colonial government in India and is preparing to leave. Consequently, the characters have planned a farewell dinner for him. This is the first time that all six characters have been together since their early schooling, and they have some difficulty reconnecting. Ultimately, however, they feel themselves to be deeply connected:

"Now once more," said Louis, "As we are about to part … the circle in our blood, broken so often, so sharply, for we are so different, closes in a ring. Something is made."

In spite of this sense of communion, the members of the group part. Neville, closing the chapter, speaks of his agony over the departure of Percival.

Chapter 5

Only three voices speak in this middle chapter of the novel. Neville, who closed the last chapter in pain, opens the fifth chapter in even greater distress: "He is dead…. He fell. His horse tripped." Neville is, of course, speaking of Percival, dead in far off India. He cannot seem to square that life goes on without Percival in it. Bernard, on the other hand, is torn between joy and sorrow. He has just become a father, and although he mourns Percival, he also rejoices in the birth of his son. Rhoda, in her grief, imagines how each of the others will react to the news. For herself, Percival's death demonstrates once more that life is futile and meaningless. Rhoda seems lost in her own loneliness.

Chapter 6

This chapter opens some years after Percival's death with Louis's affirmation of himself: "I have signed my name … already twenty times. I, and again I, and again I." He has risen to a position of great importance in his company and seems to enjoy both the prestige and the power. At the same time, he finds himself drawn to the darkness of public houses and taverns when the day is done. In addition, readers learn that he and Rhoda, the two outsiders, have become lovers. Susan has married and lives on a farm with her husband and children. Susan, who once loved nothing more than walking in the fields, now finds her life shrunk to the inside of her house and to the responsibility of caring for her children: "Yet sometimes I am sick of natural happiness, and fruit growing, and children scattering the house with oars, guns, skulls, books won for prizes." Jinny has not settled down, and continues to move from lover to lover, as does Neville. For Neville, however, sexual relationships are a hollow echo of his first pure love for the now-dead Percival.

Chapter 7

All the characters, now in midlife, reflect on their own aging and the passing of time. It is as if the cold wind of mortality has begun to blow around them. This reflection comes to Bernard while traveling in Rome and seeing ancient ruins. He has begun to understand that stories do not substitute for reality, and that language has no way to fully re-create the reality it represents. Susan finds herself filled with conflicting emotions: deep contentment for all that she has produced and nurtured on her farm and regret for the lives she did not live elsewhere. Jinny senses herself aging, a particularly frightening reflection for a beautiful woman who has spent her time with various lovers. Neville, too, finds himself aging, with younger lovers moving through his life. Louis continues his fractured existence of success at his work, attempts at writing literature, and excursions into the seamy streets of London. Rhoda has left him; always in search of solitude, she travels to Spain. Overlooking the distant sea from a cliff, there is a moment when the reader wonders if Rhoda will throw herself over the edge. Yet she withdraws: "Putting my foot to the ground, I step gingerly and press my hand against the hard door of a Spanish inn."

Chapter 8

The friends meet once again for dinner, reminiscent of their meeting many years earlier to bid Percival farewell. This meeting, however, is not a light-hearted affair of young friends, but rather the gathering of aging people who know that their time is coming to a close. Bernard comments on both their closeness and their isolation: "Marriage, death, travel, friendship … town, and country; children and all that; a many-sided substance cut out of this dark; a many-faceted flower. Let us stop for a moment; let us behold what we have made. Let it blaze against the yew trees. One life. There. It is over. Gone out." There is a sense that not only will the characters themselves come to an end, but the "thing" that they made, their friendship, is also quickly drawing to a close.

Chapter 9

In the final chapter, only one voice speaks: Bernard has the task of summing up everything. The reader learns that Rhoda has killed herself, and learns about the fate of the other characters. Most of all, Bernard contemplates the role of language in the creation of reality, and understands the futility of words. "My book, stuffed with phrases, has dropped to the floor. It lies under the table to be swept up by the charwoman…. What is the phrase for the moon? And the phrase for love? By what name are we to call death? I do not know…. I need a howl; a cry…. I have done with phrases." In spite of his sense of isolation, in spite of his understanding of the unremitting passage of time, he vows at end to continue to fight: "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!"



Bernard is one of the male narrators. Although early on he shares the stage nearly equally with the other characters, by the end of the book, it is Bernard's voice that holds the story together. When the children are small, he creates for them an imaginary world where they play together. As they grow older, he continues to narrate the facts of all their lives. Early in the book, it becomes apparent that Bernard is fascinated by language. He keeps a notebook by his side at all times in which to note interesting words and phrases. By doing so, however, he also demonstrates the way that words can distance a person from reality. That is, by continually considering how a scene will play out in written form, the writer never fully experiences the event as it happens. Bernard, perhaps more than any of the other characters, questions the nature of selfhood. As a younger man, he imagines himself like the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley. As he grows older, he wonders if all the other characters are a part of himself, that together they are whole, but apart, merely facets of a human being. "And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know."

Bernard is also the most important character in the novel because he so often echoes Woolf's own preoccupation with language and the power of story. As time passes in the novel, Bernard becomes increasingly concerned over the ability of language to adequately describe lived experience. Although he has been the story teller and narrator throughout the novel, by the last pages, he says that he is "done with phrases." Molly Hite, in an introductory essay to The Waves, asserts that the character of Bernard draws both on Woolf, and on the critic and editor Desmond MacCarthy, one of Woolf's close friends. MacCarthy, although brilliant, never completed a novel, but often spoke of the novels he would write someday.


Jinny is one of the female narrators. She is a beautiful, sensual girl and woman. Early in the book, Jinny sees Louis lying under a bush. Fearing he is dead, she kisses him. This kiss resonates throughout the book, having a different effect on each of the characters. Jinny is fully in her body and does not enter into the kind of metaphysical reflection that dominates the monologues of many of the other characters. Like a graceful animal, Jinny is not self-conscious about her own body nor does she sense any dichotomy between body and soul. Rather, Jinny sees the world on a physical plane, and she interacts with the other characters on the physical plane. As she matures, she becomes sexually promiscuous, asserting her own strength and power through her ability to attract men. This is not a negative statement, however; Woolf presents Jinny as a woman who experiences the world directly, without the complications of language and thought. She is unashamed of her body, even as she senses that she is growing older. She is not concerned with creating something permanent that will last into the next generation but rather with the sensual experience of the present. Woolf does not seem to judge Jinny harshly, and there are critics such as Hite who argue that Jinny is a stand-in for Woolf, whose nickname as a young girl was Ginny.


Louis is one of the male narrators. Early on, the reader becomes aware that Louis understands himself to be an outsider. He is from Australia and so his accent does not match that of his wealthy English peers. In addition, his father is a banker who has made his own money, not inherited it. For these reasons, Louis does not feel himself to be the social equal of the other characters. Louis does not go to college with his friends due to financial constraints and instead becomes a clerk in a shipping firm, where his attention to detail and his fine work move him up the ladder of success. At the same time, he is devoted to poetry. Paradoxically, he also finds himself attracted to working class bars and greasy restaurants. Most critics commenting on The Waves, including Hite, recognize the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot in Louis's characterization. As an American, Eliot was also an outsider in elite English intellectual circles, and he worked successfully at a bank and later at Faber and Faber Publishing. He was a close friend of Woolf and her husband, and he published his poetry through their Hogarth Press. Indeed, Louis's journeys through dark, dingy streets is reminiscent of the wandering of Eliot's alter ego, J. Alfred Prufrock, in Eliot's first important poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." In this poem, and in his later masterpiece, The Wasteland, Eliot experiments with mixing the language of the streets with the elevated language of the classics, just as Louis attempts to do in his own poetry.


Neville is the third male narrator. He is a fussy, tidy child and man caught up in the ideal beauty of the masculine form. It becomes apparent early in the book that he is homosexual. He is not good at sports, but instead centers his life around art. His desire for order motivates him to subdue the chaos of life through careful application of artistic ideals. He falls deeply in love with Percival while still at school, a love that he continues throughout college. This relationship, however, does not appear to be mutual nor consummated. Of all the characters in the novel, Neville is the most successful as a writer, and he becomes well known for his poetry. He lives the life of an academic, on the faculty of a major university. The death of Percival in India devastates him; and he spends the rest of his life engaging in short affairs with young men who come in and out of his life. Indeed, his entire life seems to shrink to the room in which he lives, with his books, waiting for the next lover to arrive. Like Jinny, he does not look to future generations for meaning. Unlike Jinny, he sees in artistic creation the possibility of perfection and immortality.


Percival is a young man who attends the same school as the male narrators. Among the characters, he alone does not speak. Rather, he is spoken about by the others. They portray him as a beautiful young man, a fine athlete and a good friend. In one way or another, all of the other characters love him, most notably Neville, who never fully recovers from his death. Woolf draws the name Percival from the Arthurian legend. In many redactions of the legend, Percival is the Grail knight who heals the Fisher King and dies a virgin after achieving the Grail. Woolf is perhaps being ironic with her choice of name for the young man who goes to India on an imperialistic quest and dies in the process. This seems particularly likely as Percival does not achieve a heroic death at all, but rather an accidental one through a fall from a horse. Although Percival does not speak in the novel, his presence and later his absence are central to the work.


Rhoda is the second female narrator. Like Louis, she is an outsider. However, it is not the situation of her birth that makes her an outsider, but rather her own emotional and mental state. As a child, Rhoda does not achieve excellence in her studies and appears to be miserable most of the time she is at school. She does not have a firm hold on her own identity and often seems lost in her private thoughts. Unlike Jinny, she hates living in London because of the masses of humanity. She searches for solitude, and at times finds it within her own mind. She engages in a brief affair with Louis, also an outsider, in a vain attempt at intimacy. However, she breaks off with him because she cannot stand human contact. If Jinny lives wholly in her body, then Rhoda is her opposite, living entirely within the realm of her own mind. Bernard relates in the last chapter of the book that Rhoda commits suicide, although he does not expand on the statement. Certainly, in Chapter 7, there is a strong element of foreshadowing as she stands upon a cliff in Spain and looks out over the ocean waves far below. Given Woolf's choice of drowning for her own suicide several years after the publication of The Waves, it is certainly possible that she had a death by drowning in mind for Rhoda's suicide.


Susan is the third female narrator. Susan is a country girl who loves nature. When she goes away to school, she is miserably homesick and longs for the fresh sights and scents of the outdoors. As an adult, Susan chooses a life that includes marriage and children. She wishes to procreate, connecting herself to the vast circle of life that plays itself out so apparently in a place such as a farm. Among the narrators, she is the nurturer. She seeks meaning in life through growing plants, animals, and children. And yet, by the end of the novel, although Susan has chosen her own life, she seems regretful about what she has missed. She envies Jinny's freedom even while she sees Jinny's life as devoid of meaning. Many critics suggest that Susan is loosely based on Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell.


The Self and Others

In The Waves, Virginia Woolf returns to a subject she addresses in several of her earlier books, the relationship of the self to others. Put another way, through The Waves she explores both individual and group identity, attempting to determine if the individual exists independently or if the individual is actually the sum total of his or her interactions with others. That this is a thorny topic is evidenced by the number of critics who argue that the six characters are not individuals at all, but rather are just six facets of the same personality. Woolf, in writing what she called an autobiography, might have been trying to dramatize the different elements of her own individual personality by inventing the six voices to represent different parts of her own selfhood.


  • Research the French philosopher Henri Bergson and his notions of time. What differences does Bergson see between clock time and psychological time? How do these ideas influence the narrative of The Waves? Write an essay on the topic.
  • Give a multimedia presentation on the Bloomsbury group after writing short biographies of each member and finding images that illustrate each person's contribution to the intellectual milieu. How do the ideas of the Bloomsbury group find their way into The Waves?
  • Virginia Woolf claimed that The Waves is an autobiographical book. Read a biography of Woolf and determine what elements from Woolf's life are recognizable in The Waves. Write a report on your findings.
  • Research the life and work of poet T. S. Eliot, studying in particular his first major poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Write an essay in which you compare and contrast the character of Louis from The Waves and Prufrock from Eliot's poem.
  • During the early years of the twentieth century, art, music, and literature became increasingly abstract. Give a multimedia presentation with representative modern abstract art, music, and literature contrasted with Victorian art, music, and literature. What are the major changes? Why have such changes taken place?

As her treatment of selfhood illustrates, throughout The Waves Woolf rejects either/or logic, embracing instead the modernist (and postmodernist) rejection of such a limited way of looking at reality. While she inherited a Western philosophical system built around a logic that holds that two contradictory statements cannot both be true, Woolf nevertheless demonstrates throughout The Waves that two contradictory positions can be held simultaneously. Therefore, Woolf's answer to the question "Are the characters in The Waves individual identities, or are they part of some larger whole?" might very well be simply, "Yes."

David Trotter argues in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism that "the notably disjunctive The Waves sets in parallel series the reflections of six characters, in such a way as to suggest the permeability or friability of selfhood…. it is striking that while [Bernard] does speak of the dissipation or streaming away of identity, he also speaks of its accumulation, accretion, acceleration, augmentation and sedimentation." For Woolf, selfhood as a concept is both fluid and dynamic, sometimes solidly bounded and at others times flowing freely among others. Her characters, therefore, exist as both individuals and group, as single identities and unified society. While these may seem mutually exclusive positions, Woolf's treatment of the theme suggests that both positions are equally true.

Permanence and Impermanence

Another important theme in The Waves is that of permanence and impermanence. Throughout the novel, the characters struggle with the changes wrought by time. They move from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, aware that they are moving inexorably toward their own deaths. Each character deals with this knowledge in his or her own way. Susan and Bernard, for example, are both parents; although their individual identities will eventually be erased, they have created children who will take a part of their parents into the future. Rhoda, on the other hand, chooses to acknowledge her own mutability very early, and her response is to negate her own individuality through suicide. Jinny's attitude is one of carpe diem; because she knows she will eventually die, she chooses to grab all the life she can, one day at a time. Louis finds himself torn between success as a businessman and his attraction for the dark side of human existence. He, and Neville, for that matter, both believe that art is the only permanence a human being can achieve. Regardless of how each character deals with the knowledge of his or her mortality, their passage through time demonstrates the mutability of human existence.

Woolf's choice to front each chapter with a poetic interlude describing the breaking of waves on a seashore ironically emphasizes the smallness of human efforts against the great forces of implacable, impersonal nature. The waves were breaking against the shore before the characters awaken to their lives, and will break against the shore after their deaths, without thought, without consciousness. On a larger scale, however, the waves themselves demonstrate that permanence and impermanence are not mutually exclusive. As each wave move towards shore, its height, weight, appearance, and dissolution are unique to it; no other wave will ever be exactly like another. The wave itself is impermanent, its existence ended as it crashes on the shore. At the same time, the waves are constantly reconstituting themselves out of the permanence of the ocean. They are simultaneously short-lived and immortal.


Experimental Point of View

Point of view is the vantage point from which a narrative is told. First person point of view uses a character in the novel who tells everything from his or her perspective, and refers to himself or herself as "I." Third person point of view is of two kinds: in a third person limited point of view, the narrator can only reveal what he or she experiences and observes, while in a third person omniscient point of view, the narrator is all knowing and can reveal the thoughts of any characters at any time.

Woolf experiments with point of view in The Waves. While technically the novel is in third person point of view, signaled by the use of "he said" and "she said," the third person narrator has no other participation in the text. Rather, Woolf allows each of her characters to function as a serial first person narrator. The same events are narrated from the perspective of each character, offering a six-sided description of the event. This choice tampers with traditional literary structures such as setting, chronology, and characterization. The reader sees events and characters through six sets of eyes, creating ambiguity and uncertainty. In many ways, this literary experimentation mirrors experimentation in the visual arts where artists such as Pablo Picasso attempted to show a scene from multiple perspectives at one time.


An allusion is an indirect reference in a text to a person, character, or event from another literary text, popular culture, or history. For example, when a character in a movie says: "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," the character is alluding to the classic American film, The Wizard of Oz. A writer who chooses to use allusions assumes that his or her readers will have the necessary background and knowledge to both recognize and understand the allusion.

Woolf was an extraordinarily well-read person; consequently, her work is packed with allusions that many readers will miss on a first or even second read. Her characters in The Waves, for example, often quote the Romantic poets Percy Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron. One allusion that is fairly obvious is her choice of names for the young man Percival. Students of the legend of King Arthur will recognize the name Percival as one of Arthur's knights. Although the stories of Percival differ from one redaction to the next, there is a core group of stories that identify Percival as the knight who travels through the wasteland, heals the Fisher King, and finds the holy grail.

Woolf's use of the name Percival for the character who goes off to India as a member of the colonial government is ironic, and an indictment of the imperialist project. Percival believes that he is going on a quest, a quest of the magnitude of the search for the holy grail. In actuality, he is going to India as a member of a ruling class to impose the will of the British on indigenous people. This quest, Woolf seems to imply, is neither innocent or moral. Moreover, Percival does not die bravely in battle or in doing good deeds; he merely falls off his horse. Her use of the name suggests that heroism belongs to another age.

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique that presents the thoughts and sensory impressions of a character in a flow that mimics the inner workings of the human mind. Just as the mind moves from one thought to the next, often by association rather than by rational, step-by-step logic, a novel written in stream of consciousness will move from one impression to the next with very little guidance for the reader. Perhaps the most famous stream of consciousness novel is James Joyce's Ulysses, although Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway make extensive use of the technique as well. In The Waves, Woolf further experiments with the technique by offering six characters who speak in internal monologues, one after another. Unlike dialogue in a traditional novel, the inner monologues follow the internal workings of each mind. The free associations, sensory impressions, and jumbled chronology of each character's stream of consciousness give to The Waves a dreamy, fragmented and abstract quality, much different from the popular realist fiction of the day.


Europe between the Wars

By the time World War I ended in 1918, the combatant nations, including England, France, and their Allies against Germany, Austria and their allies, had fought for four bitter years across the face of Europe. A whole generation of young men were wounded or killed in this horrible conflagration and in the influenza epidemic that raged during 1918. In all, there were forty million casualties. In addition, the face of Europe was entirely changed with the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the creation of nations such as Czechoslovakia.

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles that finally brought peace to Europe were deeply punitive to the Germans; there are many scholars who argue that the seeds for World War II were planted at Versailles. Germany was stripped of its colonies and was forced to pay heavy war damages to the Allied nations. As a result, Germany entered a period of rampant inflation and severe economic turmoil.

In 1929, the crash of the American stock market sent shudders throughout the world. Europe, as well as the United States, entered a dark period of extreme economic depression. This climate led to the rise of fascist powers in both Germany and Italy, and increasingly led to a surge of nationalism in virtually every European state.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Western world experienced dramatic and tumultuous change. In virtually every field of endeavor, new ideas were being promulgated. Art and literature had already begun to change radically before World War I; however, the rate of change accelerated dramatically in the aftermath of the war. The damage to both the geographic and psychological landscape of Europe was unprecedented; the violence and death precipitated by the war led to a sense of loss, disillusionment, and fragmentation.

For members of the artistic community, the world seemed to have changed overnight. Ideas about time, physics, and psychology led intellectuals to see a world they once thought of as solid and governed by stable natural law as a fragmented wasteland. Some writers, such as T. S. Eliot, believed that art had the potential to reconstitute reality. Others, such as Samuel Beckett, came to see the world as essentially absurd.

In addition, the work of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud offered writers new ways to think about human identity. Before Freud, the human mind was considered a unified repository of the person's identity. Freud, however, demonstrated that the human mind operated at both the conscious and subconscious level. Consequently, writers could use this knowledge to build sophisticated and complicated characters. Furthermore, modernist writers, artists, dancers, musicians, and architects looked to art to repair the rupture in reality caused by rampant change and burgeoning technology.


  • 1930s: Modern writers such as T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce make a decisive break from the realistic fiction of the Victorian era.

    Today: Postmodern writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Umberto Eco continue to experiment with literary form and subject matter.

  • 1930s: Although World War I ended in 1918, the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy moves Europe inexorably toward another World War.

    Today: Nuclear weapons deter participation in multinational wars, although many individual nations continue to fight against terrorism.

  • 1930s: The work of Sigmund Freud is becoming known throughout the United States and England, although there is no effective diagnosis or treatment for depression of the kind Woolf suffered.

    Today: Advancements in the diagnosis of mental illness lead to medical definitions for conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and social anxiety disorder. Effective medical treatments for these illnesses are developed.

  • 1930s: Although feminists such as Virginia Woolf argue for the complete equality of men and women, few women work outside of the home, and virtually none are in political leadership positions.

    Today: Women work in all professions and serve in high-ranking political positions in both England and the United States. Nevertheless, they still do not hold an entirely equal footing in the professional realm.


The Waves is undoubtedly Virginia Woolf's most experimental and abstract book. From the time of its first publication, it has puzzled and fascinated readers and critics alike. Leonard Woolf believed that it was his wife's finest work, although he expressed some reservations about

how many readers would actually persevere in the reading of it, as Molly Hite reports in her introductory essay to The Waves. Indeed, reviewers have disagreed widely as to the literary merit of the novel. As Christine Froula summarizes in her book Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde: War, Civilization, Modernity:

Formally the most original, ambitious, and adventurous of Woolf's books, The Waves has been widely acclaimed a "masterpiece" … on the one hand; avoided, dismissed, judged an "aesthetic failure," a mere "warehouse," of materials and ideas, on the other.

Although the book originally sold quite well, its popularity declined through the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, James Naremore's critique, in his book The World without A Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel, is somewhat typical of the mid-century, masculine critical response to The Waves. Naremore recognizes the brilliance of the novel though he is not certain what to make of it. He asserts: "Certain passages in The Waves are extraordinarily beautiful; with the possible exception of the last chapter, however, the prose is rather stifling in effect—the reader almost drowns in the language."

In the latter part of the twentieth century, a new interest in the novel emerged. Susan Rubinow Gorsky, for example, writing in her 1978 book Virginia Woolf states: "Virginia Woolf's analysis of human feelings and relationships in The Waves is unusually fine, her sensitive understanding of man's attempts to find a way out of his loneliness and his confusion is superb." In more recent years, critics have found a wide variety of ways to read The Waves. In her article in Criticism, for example, Lisa Marie Lucenti considers The Waves in terms of individual identity and the way that identity falters when confronted with the nothingness of death. Likewise, Froula discusses identity and autobiography in The Waves, stating:

Loosed from objectivist notions of a singular, discrete individual, Woolf's self-portraiture abandons conventional ideas of resemblance between image and object (the subject as bounded identifiable entity; a recognizable body; its observable doings) to explore a more expansive and abstract concept of being.

Elicia Clements, on the other hand, in an article in the journal Narrative, suggests that music becomes increasingly important to Woolf in her writing. She argues: "From The Waves (1931) onward … Woolf deliberately attempts to reconstitute novelistic methods by looking to the ‘classical’ tradition of music as a potential model."

Given that Woolf was writing during the birth of modern psychology, and given that she was an early feminist, her work has also been reviewed through the lenses of psychoanalysis and feminist critique. Indeed, because The Waves is such a mysterious and oddly constructed novel, and because it refuses to stay within generic boundaries, it is likely that critics and scholars will continue to find the work worth additional discussion.


Diane Andrews Henningfeld

Henningfeld is a professor of English who writes widely for educational publishers. In the following essay, she argues that The Waves rewards readerswith a deeper and richer sense of what it means to be human.

Molly Hite, in an introductory essay to The Waves, writes that Leonard Woolf judged the novel to be his wife's best book. However, Leonard also added that he thought "the first 100 pages extremely difficult" and that it would be "doubtful how far any common reader" would follow. Later critics also found great value in the book, as well as great difficulty. As Mitchell A. Leaska asserts in his book The Novels of Virginia Woolf: From Beginning to End, "what The Waves means as a whole is a question of considerable difficulty." This sentiment is echoed by readers and critics alike.

Nonetheless, it is the very difficulty of the book that opens it to interpretation using a critical approach called reader response. While reader response critics use many different approaches in their analyses of literature, one tactic of the school is to examine the process of reading a given text. Reader response critics ask two important questions: first, what is the experience of the reader as he or she approaches this text; and second, how do readers and writers work collaboratively to produce meaning in a text?

The experience of reading The Waves can be disorienting and at times frustrating. Many readers will find themselves floundering, unsure of what they are reading or why. Considering what causes reader distress in the novel is the first step in understanding Woolf's project, and by extension, the novel itself.

Readers generally bring a whole tool kit of strategies with them when they begin reading a novel. They have developed these skills through practice and instruction. Anyone who has taken a high school literature class, for example, has probably learned about the various elements of a novel. Whether readers are aware of it or not, they use this learning to help them make sense of a text. Indeed, both instruction and experience will build for a reader what is known as a horizon of expectation. That is, experienced, educated readers bring to any given novel expectations and assumptions about what a novel is and is not. This is at the heart of the difficulty readers encounter with The Waves. As Hite remarks: "What is difficult about The Waves is its violation of certain narrative assumptions that are so ingrained we may not realize they are assumptions."


  • In her novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Woolf uses stream of consciousness to track one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I. The book is a precursor to the style and techniques used in The Waves.
  • In A Room of One's Own (1929), Woolf considers the challenges women face in attempting to forge a career in literature.
  • T. S. Eliot's epic poem The Waste Land (1922) is a prime example of modernist writing. It was first published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press.
  • Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative (1999), by Thomas Vargish and Delo E. Mook, is an interdisciplinary account of modernism that includes insights from physics, art, and literature, including the discussion of work by Virginia Woolf.

What are these assumptions? First, readers expect that a novel will be longer than a poem or a short story. Next, novels are written in prose, not poetry. In addition, novels will have a setting that defines time and place. Novels also have interacting characters who generally speak in dialogue. Most important for many readers, novels have plot. Readers learn to recognize such other features as point of view, conflict, rising action, falling action, climax, crisis, and denouement. More sophisticated readers will look for symbols, flashbacks, conflict, themes, and foreshadowing, among other details. Above all, readers know that novels are fiction, not fact; yet at the same time, they agree to enter the fictional world and regard it as real in order to participate in the events the writer provides.

Although novels vary greatly in how these assorted structural features are manifested, most readers can discern many of these features. Moreover, most readers expect to find these features. For example, someone who reads many murder mysteries will expect to find in such a text a setting; a protagonist whose job it is to solve the murder; an antagonist who has committed the murder; and a plot that provides suspense, conflict, danger, and eventually, resolution. By the end of a murder mystery, the protagonist has solved the crime. Readers work along with the protagonist to uncover clues and to analyze the crime. In a well-written mystery novel, readers will reach the same conclusion as the protagonist at about the same time. When the novel fails to follow these conventions and the protagonist demonstrates himself or herself to be particularly dense, for example, readers lose patience. Their horizons of expectation have not been met.

Thus, because Virginia Woolf, in writing The Waves, notoriously violates nearly every readerly expectation, the reader is not always sure what it is that he or she is reading nor is the reader sure how to read the book. In the case of Woolf, however, it is not because she is an unskilled writer who unwittingly violates generic conventions. Rather, she is a highly skilled author who breaks with convention in order to revitalize a genre she thinks has grown old and stale.

Woolf, and members of her generation, experienced radical shifts in their understanding of reality due to upheavals in science, art, music, mathematics, and psychology taking place in the early twentieth century. World War I also undermined many conventional ideas about morality and violence. As a modernist and a member of the Bloomsbury group, Woolf was intensely aware of the rapid change in perspective that the new physics and new technology manifested. Albert Einstein, for example, demonstrated that even time is not a stable function, and other physicists, theorizing at the quantum level, proved that solid objects only appear solid. Susan Dick, in her essay in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, argues that what makes The Waves "so difficult to write and makes it so demanding to read is this radical shift of perspectives."

Looking at the features of The Waves individually will help clarify this concept. First, although readers are able to intuit that in the first chapter the children are at some sort of school, Woolf does not supply any specific geographic or temporal setting. When the boys and girls go off to their separate schools, she again does not specify either place or time. The characters seem to move in an eternal present. Indeed, the only setting that corresponds to the "real" world is London. As a result, the characters seem to reside in something like a dream space and time, where events and memories blur together poetically. Readers are unable to fix coordinates for the characters in either time or space.

Further, readers encounter the six speaking voices of Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda. In a traditional novel, readers learn about individual characters through what they say, what others say about them, and by what the narrator says or implies. In the case of The Waves, there is no authorial or narrative voice that exists outside of the characters' monologues.

Likewise, the traditional novel will have a variety of major and minor characters. In The Waves, all six voices assume equal stature; one is not privileged over any of the others, or at least not until the final chapter when Bernard alone speaks. In addition, the voices are nearly indistinguishable one from another. Although the characters come from different backgrounds and are of both genders, their language is the same. They speak a highly educated, highly poetic language, all in the present tense. As Dick asserts: "The six speakers are not conventional characters…. They live in ordinary reality … but the point of view from which they perceive life and the ‘purebred prose’ they speak make even the most mundane activity seem latent with a larger significance … their features and their clothing are rarely described."

Because the characters use the same vocabulary, register, and sentence structure, readers are unable to distinguish one from another based on these. Instead, readers must attend to the specific detail in each of their statements to learn about Rhoda's preoccupation with solitude or Louis's sense of inferiority, for example.

In addition, the characters have a strange relationship with each other. Although they never engage in dialogue, they appear to communicate with each other. Their odd form of communication creates a community that is at once unified yet separate. Susan Rubinow Gorsky asserts in her book Virginia Woolf that "for all their strange unity and unusual communication, the characters are individuals too, and a tension between unity and separation is constantly maintained." Thus, the soliloquies of the individual characters become not only a structural device, but a thematic device as well, demonstrating the push and pull between individual and group identity. Mitchell Leaska in The Novels of Virginia Woolf: From Beginning to End, for example, argues that

The Waves suggests, first, that every human being is a distinct living unit while being simultaneously a part of every other unit of human life; that is, one is distinct from others because of the identity one has created for oneself by conscious or unconscious choices in life—choices determined by each individual's scale of values; and at the same time, one is a part of those people who have shared emotions and experiences in life.

Readers also encounter difficulty in trying to discern a plot in The Waves. Plot, however, is what Woolf wanted to avoid in her experimental novel. Gorsky cites a letter Woolf wrote to her friend and critic Lytton Strachey in which she stated baldly: "Plots don't matter." For Woolf and other modernists, the complexity and uncertainty of the modern world precluded traditional understandings of life or of plots. In life, events which previously might have been fraught with significance become merely a series of random happenings in the new world. Consequently, traditional plot movement with rising and falling action, hinging on particular actions or events, seemed no longer applicable to the modern novel. Thus, in The Waves, what is important is not what happens, but rather the interior meditations of the characters that reveal their feelings, their relationships, and their struggle for meaning in an often absurd world.

Again, as a modernist, Woolf felt deeply the fragmentation of contemporary life. The grand narratives of church and nationalism no longer held life together for the moderns, and they found themselves trying to use literature as a way to provide meaning and unity in the new reality. The push-and-pull of individual identity with group belonging substitutes for plot and provides the impetus for further reading.

Lisa Marie Lucenti summarizes the situation in Criticism. She writes: "Structurally, the ‘voices’ of this text have none of the traditional novelistic supports to sustain them—no descriptive setting, plot, or characterization beyond what they themselves say." Nevertheless, although Woolf takes away most of the familiar landmarks readers use to guide them through a novel, she extends her hand in collaboration to the intrepid reader trying to find meaning in The Waves.

Woolf does so in the poetic interludes that separate chapters. In her lovely descriptions of the breaking waves, she provides a symbolic pointer to the passage of time. In the first section, the sun has not yet risen. In the pre-dawn hours, the waves beat upon the shore. The children awaken to life in the early morning hours of their own existence. In each interlude, the sun grows higher in the sky and the characters become older. By the end of the novel, only Bernard remains to tell the story, and the sun slips below the horizon. This structure allows the reader to track outside events within the interior monologues and provide for themselves a kind of chronology for the story.

In addition, the periodic reference to the waves underscores Woolf's juxtaposition of the transience of life with the eternal pounding of water on shore. Bernard asks: "What has permanence?" Hite identifies this as one of the "one of the central questions of this novel and one of the ways in which the oceanic imagery is most effective." She further references a 1929 entry in Woolf's diary in which the writer asked: "Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever, will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world—this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves."

Rhoda, with her need for solitude and her vanishing sense of self, seems to be the least permanent of any of the characters. It is Rhoda, however, who most desires communion with the permanent. While standing over a cliff in Spain, she seems ready to be joined with the great nothingness of nonexistence: "The cliffs vanish. Rippling small, rippling grey, innumerable waves spread beneath us. I touch nothing. I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves…. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me." At the last moment she turns away from nature, choosing instead the humanly constructed (and therefore impermanent) "hard door of a Spanish inn." Her later suicide suggests that she finally reaches a different decision.

Bernard, likewise, wavers. On the last page of the book, while seeming to come to an understanding of "the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again," he suddenly veers away from abyss. He does not choose Rhoda's path. Rather than welcoming the nothingness of eternity, he vows to fight death: "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!"

For Woolf, the only way to adequately represent the human experience in the twentieth century is to first dismantle the conventional structures and themes of traditional literature. For Woolf, these conventions can no longer address the disorientation, alienation, or fragmentation of contemporary life. Likewise, readers must abandon their preconceived assumptions about literature (and about life, for that matter) to enter into the world of The Waves. Such a task, while at times difficult, will result in a new understanding of both literature, and the human condition.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on The Waves, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Herbert Marder

In the following excerpt, Marder connects the characters in The Waves to biographical details from Woolf's life.

… Like other modernist works, The Waves follows a model of spatial or organic form in a sense described more than a hundred years earlier by Schopenhauer. In his preface to The World as Will and Representation he declared that his book presents the elaboration of a single idea, a work in which all the parts are interdependent as in an organism, every part supporting the whole, and supported by it, so that though one encounters them in succession, they echo the unity of a living creature. Such works, he adds, should be read with the understanding that the end is already implicit in the beginning, forming "a connexion in which no part is first and no part is last … and even the smallest point cannot be fully understood until the whole has been first understood." Similarly, in its presentation of a single cosmic day in which the whole cycle of human life unfolds, The Waves places its characters against an ever-present, timeless reality.

The central idea grew out of Virginia's meditations on her brother Thoby's death, which had happened in 1906, when she was twenty-four. It had been a shockingly senseless death—a vigorous young man in the bloom of health, killed by typhoid fever, which the doctors failed to diagnose till it was too late. He had shown great promise. His friends had expected that he would be one of the leaders of his generation. He drank contaminated water while touring Greece, grew ill and died. A quarter of a century later Virginia returned to that event, seeking to come to terms with its apparent arbitrariness. It was part of an inexorable cycle, the "many mothers, like one wave succeeding another," she wrote in her first draft of The Waves, "wave after wave, endlessly sinking and falling." She observed the cycle through the eyes of six friends, all of whom had been shaken by the early death of Percival (her idealized image of Thoby). The novel implicitly asks how one can or should live in a world in which such things happen.

The six characters explain their experiences and themselves, beginning in childhood and bringing the life stories up to late middle age, when a spokesman for them all offers a summing up of their collective wisdom. The friends have known each other intimately since childhood, and sometimes feel that they are parts of one another, forming a single complex organism—as if the separate soliloquies in which they tell the novel's events all compose a larger collective consciousness. Framing the nine groups of soliloquies, each standing for a different stage of life, from childhood to the eve of death, Woolf placed italicized interludes that describe the play of light over a seaside landscape at nine moments during a single day, from an hour before the sun rises to after it sets.

The Waves is still less conventional in its form than this summary suggests. The alternating soliloquies that compose the novel are only secondarily about external events. Woolf's emphasis is on the elemental beings of the characters, or what she called on the original manuscript's title page "the life of anybody … life in general." The speakers anticipate the elusive or unknowable narrators of postmodern fiction since Samuel Beckett. Although there is a chronological order, these characters are outside time, speaking, even in childhood, with fully adult voices. Percival, the hero who dies, is associated with absence and negation, the void that is always there at the center and is too painful to be looked at directly. All memories imply this unspeakable thing and the speakers must make room, allow for this fact without allowing it to eclipse daily life.

We are are part of one another, Virginia Woolf believed, our selves overlap, and The Waves portrays six parts of Virginia, partly drawn from her friends, those intimate others closest to her, where they converged and their selves merged with hers. The novel was "autobiography" in this sense—a calling forth of her selves. Of all the complementary roles, Rhoda's was the most inward, mysterious and detached from mundane events, the image of a poetic visionary looking beyond society, which appalls her, toward ethereal pools "on the other side of the world … where the swallow dips her wings." The others were more attached to outer things, implicated in worldly affairs. Jinny was related to Leslie Stephen's "poor little Ginny," a love-name for Virginia. She was the girl child responding to a formidable father, and later the young woman entranced by her body's dance of desirability. Susan represented a domestic self whom Virginia identified with her sister, Vanessa—calm earthiness, enfolding close-held passions—a body leaning on a gate in sunlight, the weight in her side foretelling the children she would bear. The three women form a three-sided figure, each face looking in a different direction—Jinny within her billowing dress aware of her sexuality; Rhoda, longing to be faceless and bodiless; Susan absorbed in the routines of kitchen, farmyard, and nursery.

The male characters form a complementary triad. Louis derived many of his traits from her husband Leonard's austere and sensitive character. He was the thin-skinned outsider, surviving among strangers, seeking justice and haunted by deep racial memories—an innocent who felt shocked by his own sensuality, as by a blow on the nape of the neck. Neville was related to the homosexual Lytton Strachey, famous for his scathing wit—fastidious and lewd, part scholar and part sensualist. Finally, Bernard was the chronicler, a male story-telling self that Virginia Woolf the novelist associated with the literary tradition, a supple companion whose voice echoed the voices of Bloomsbury writers like Desmond MacCarthy and E.M. Forster. The male figures can be paired with members of the female triad: Bernard and Susan are absorbed in the natural world; Neville and Jinny are impelled by sensuality; and Louis and Rhoda pursue transcendental visions.

Taken together, the two three-sided figures describe a state of wholeness, "a six-sided flower," as Bernard calls it, "made of six lives." In their hexagram Virginia imagined "the complete human being whom we have failed to be, but at the same time, cannot forget."

The defensive quality of the Woolfs' marriage, their outsiders' alliance against the rest of the world, provides an important motif in The Waves. The novel describes their fictional counterparts, Rhoda and Louis, as "conspirators" who never can think and feel like other people, though they do their best to mask their singularities. Louis's severely critical attitude, his rational and businesslike manner, conceals his awareness of not fitting into English society and also his contempt for those who mindlessly conform. He is the son of a banker in Brisbane, his Australian accent corresponding to Leonard's Jewishness, which Virginia had once, at the beginning of their courtship, thought might come between them. "You seem so foreign," she had told him. Her account of Louis in The Waves stresses his racial memory, his insistence, even as a boy, that he has already lived many thousands of years and heard "rumors of wars [and] seen women carrying red pitchers to the banks of the Nile." All this, that his roots go down deep, and into such darkness, he conceals behind his methodical, businesslike exterior.

Rhoda's singularity, on the other hand, is immediately apparent. Ordinary existence shocks and disorients her. Although she performs the expected social rituals, meets her friends and frequents drawing rooms, she is always turning toward the window with eyes fixed on something beyond the visible horizon.

The novel's two "conspirators" know the violence lurking near the surface of daily life and are attracted and repelled by it, feeling, like the heroine of Mrs. Dalloway, that it is "very, very dangerous to live even one day." Their speeches invoke elemental forces. Plain, uneventful days open into chaos for them; habit and routine conceal something monstrous. "I see wild birds," says Louis, "and impulses wilder than the wildest birds strike from my wild heart … I hear always the sullen thud of the waves; and the chained beast stamps on the beach. It stamps and stamps." Rhoda's inner language, the tale she tells herself, reflects a similar sense of wild, uncontrollable energy, some monstrous form of life that "emerges heaving its dark crest from the sea. It is to this we are attached; it is to this we are bound, as bodies to wild horses." Louis and Rhoda's language, their vision of wildness and a rough beast from the sea, echoes the tone of the Romantic poets, from Shelley worshiping the west wind to Yeats declaring that great writers own "nothing but their blind stupefied hearts."

The Waves, in accord with the Romantic tradition, shows that artworks enable one to live in a world where Percival's death has happened. This knowledge is elaborated by Rhoda in an episode that progresses from Swiftian rage to aesthetic release. Having learned that Percival died after being thrown by his horse in India, she goes out walking along crowded Oxford Street, where she finds that "the human face is hideous" and that roaring motorcars "hunt us to death like bloodhounds." This knowledge of destructiveness is a "gift," she reflects, a shock of extreme reality. After a while Rhoda turns aside and buys a ticket for an afternoon concert. In the concert hall she merges with the sleek crowd, who have gorged themselves on beef and pudding enough to sustain them for a week and now "cluster like maggots," seeking to appease a different hunger, swarming "on the back of something that will carry us on." The music begins. She hears it differently than ever before. Percival's death is the gift, enabling her to delve beneath mere semblances, to feel, while the music lasts, the permanence and clarity of pure forms and know their geometric rigor. "There is a square; there is an oblong. The players take the square and place it upon the oblong. They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling-place. Very little is left outside. The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here stated; we are not so various or so mean; we have made oblongs and stood them upon squares. This is our triumph; this is our consolation." Rhoda leaves the concert hall and throws a bunch of violets into the Thames as an "offering" to her dead friend, a romantic gesture, inspired by Shelley's poem "The Question," that invokes the consolation of art.

These scenes suggest a basic premise governing the novel's form. Its soliloquies do not render the characters' speech or even thought but represent neo-Romantic artworks, formal and stylized compositions, like Rhoda's "perfect dwelling-place." The selves of the speakers are conceived as artistic creations in their own right, each one a summing up, a fusion of indispensable elements. The Waves is a complaint against indifferent nature, as represented by the italicized progress of the primal day, an appeal for an aesthetically ordered world. Like the Romantic poetry it echoes, the novel encloses intensely personal feelings within patterned forms.

Destructive impulses can be temporarily checked, as Rhoda found in her lament for Percival. But the novel's interludes reflect the inevitable cycle of growth and decay, the putrefaction that follows all blossoming. From a panoramic view of the seashore, the narrator brings us down to ground level, observing oozing matter from rotten fruit and yellow excretions exuded by slugs. The corruption is coupled with glimpses of beauty. "The gold-eyed birds darting in between the leaves observed that purulence, that wetness, quizzically. Now and then they plunged the tips of their beaks savagely into the sticky mixture." The mood of formal elegance and romantic desolation climaxes with Rhoda's suicide, an event seen only indirectly, and tersely, almost casually, reported by Bernard. He ponders her extreme loneliness and constant search for "some pillar in the desert, to find which she had gone; she had killed herself." That is all, except for an equally terse suggestion that she had stepped in front of an oncoming vehicle in the street. Bernard's self-identification with Rhoda and his implicit approval of her act admit no special emphasis or explanation.

Virginia presented her idea of the composite self most fully in a long monologue spoken by Bernard at the novel's end. Shaping his memories into a complete artwork, he becomes a medium through whom all the other voices speak. In his summing up he is no longer certain whether he is a man or woman, poet or businessman. He has charted all the stages of despair, absorbed all the nihilism that flowed from Percival's death. He has lived through Rhoda's suicide and that too has entered the composite self. He cannot separate himself from his friends—living and dead. "Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know … There is no division between me and them … Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell … I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt." Bernard resists the extremes of cynicism and nostalgia, returning us, in the heightened language of his final soliloquy, to the ordered space where players place an oblong upon a square. He strikes a final romantic pose, makes a last ironically self-conscious gesture—that of the solitary horseman riding out to defy death, the lance-bearing champion (Percival's double) who does all he can, knowing it is not enough, but constructing out of inevitable defeat some shelter, some accommodation in the "perfect dwelling-place" of art …

Source: Herbert Marder, "Lady Rosebery's Party," in The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf's Last Years, Cornell University Press, 2000, pp. 43-62.

Julie Vandivere

In the following essay, Vandivere links grammatical constructions in The Waves to issues of gender and social class.

While scholars have for some time pointed out Woolf's concern with subject construction and the construction of the world, they have not analyzed how this interest appears on grammatical, rhetorical, syntactic, and figural levels. Accordingly, I want to explore The Waves, where, I suggest, Woolf's investigation of subject construction manifests itself primarily in linguistic terms, leading her to use constructs of language in such a way as to critique traditional assumptions about unified selves and patriarchal systems.

This concern with the relation between the grammatical and the ontological emerges most clearly when Louis claims, "‘I know my cases and my genders; I could know everything in the world if I wished.’" Louis's optative assertion that knowing cases and genders would enable him to know the world materializes in several registers, most significantly through puns on the words "gender" as both sex and grammatical classification, and "case" as both "circumstance" and grammatical category. Since "gender" carries this dual implication, Louis is in part claiming that if he can make sexual distinctions, he can know the world.

Epistemological composition based on gender dichotomies is that of traditional society; patriarchy is built upon the ability to distinguish between male and female. Yet, as Woolf makes clear with her second pun, that on "case" as "circumstance" or "situation," gender is not the sole marker of social position. By linking "gender" to "case," Louis's statement suggests that gender distinctions are inseparable from the "case" in which they appear, and, consequently, that knowledge of gender must also be accompanied by knowledge of the circumstance within which that gender functions: class, education, social status.

Louis's claim to knowing genders and cases statement also suggests a more subtle and interesting reading of the link between the world's grammar and its construction. It may be taken to imply that neither the world nor language is a priori: that reality does not mimic grammar, nor grammar, reality. Such a relation is symbiotic. In making grammatical systems, one makes the world, and in making the world, one makes grammar.

Following Louis's avowal, we find an even more directly metalinguistic scene, as Woolf goes on to speculate about relationships between language and existence:

"Those are white words," said Susan, "like stones one picks up by the seashore."

"They flick their tails right and left as I speak them," said Bernard. "They wag their tails; they flick their tails; they move through the air in flocks, now this way, now that way, moving all together, now dividing, now coming together."

"Those are yellow words, those are fiery words," said Jinny. "I should like a fiery dress, a yellow dress, a fulvous dress to wear in the evening."

"Each tense," said Neville, "means differently. There is an order in this world, upon whose verge I step. For this is only a beginning."

This passage relies on grammatical structures to reveal the flux between the abstract and the concrete in the process of self-definition. The first lines that follow Louis's claim about knowing the world include Susan's comparison of words to stones, a simile that gives Louis's words additional weight and substance. Susan's analogy implies that words are material things that can mark reality, and, more, that they are especially solid and weighty objects—are stones—that each is, in fact, a petrus, a rock, an object upon which patriarchy and its religious systems are ultimately rounded.

However, the image of words as quintessentially concrete objects, as stones, gives way quickly to one of words as fluid, animate, mutable things which "flick their tails." Thus, Susan's analogy is not followed by a reinforcement of the concreteness of words, a move that would substantiate Louis's claim for the ordering power of words and strengthen his argument for a concrete reality. Instead, the discussion of words moves in free association to Bernard's comparison of words to capricious flying beings. No longer stones upon which to construct the world, the words now take on life as they metamorphose into some not-quite-identifiable beings who demonstrate in movement, ascension, even ethereality, the words' impossibility, their unpredictability, their groundlessness, their refusal to establish the concrete that Louis is trying to claim. The next line moves even more hopelessly away from the concrete, as words are described in even less solid terms—as "yellow" and "fiery." Words ultimately, then, become shimmering substances of color and heat, elements that could not be more poorly suited to serve as the building blocks of self or reality.

The grammar of the passage replicates the instability of these "words," as Woolf couches each assessment of language (as either concrete or abstract) in language that demonstrates its claim. For instance, in the structure of her verbs, Woolf plays with implications of the indicative and subjunctive moods. The indicative, of course, refers to the concrete, empirical world of definition and fact, the subjunctive, to the abstract, the speculative, the non-objective. The parallels between grammatical moods and Woolf's construction of reality are straightforward. The indicative signals the myth of the concrete world wherein one can theoretically construct a sense of self, while the subjunctive signals a refusal of this myth, and acknowledges that the sense of self is rootless, grounded only in relations and transient images.

If the indicative points to the concrete and the subjunctive to its refusal, Louis's indicative declaration that "I know my cases and genders" asserts first that there is an indicative world, and second, that this world values the ability to distinguish between classes and genders. But Louis's next proclamation, "‘I could know everything in the world if I wished,’" does not assert itself with the same empirical power. Had the statement been "I can know everything in the world," its grammar would have been consistent with the indicative case of the first half of the sentence and would then simultaneously posit the feasibility of Louis's second claim and augment the feasibility of his first. However, the phrase reads "I could know," thus pushing the possibility of knowing into the subjunctive optative: a mood of the wistful, the speculative, the noumenal. In the contiguity of these two sentences ("‘I know my cases and my genders; I could know everything in the world if I wished’"), Louis speculates on the possibility of constructing a factual, objective world of the indicative from his position in the non-factual, the non-objective world of the subjunctive. The linguistic structure points to a contradiction inherent in Louis's assertion; the claim that one can construct a reality in the concrete can only ever be made from the hypothetical register of the abstract.

Throughout The Waves, the sorts of grammatical and figural complexities that I have been exploring are a primary manifestation of the text's recurrent doubts about the stability of any linguistic or ontological assertion. Neville's statement that "‘There is an order in this world, upon whose verge I step,’" points to the impossibility of grounding in either the concrete or the abstract, the indicative or the subjunctive, the male or the female, and undermines any assumption that one may make such distinctions. A forging of the world and of selves within it rests on the thetic contradiction of living, we might say, enslaved by the ideal of the indicative, but perpetually drifting into the flight of the subjunctive. Ultimately, Woolf's language in The Waves suggests that there is no choice but to live straddling the aporia between inevitably opposing constructions embodied within grammatical ambiguities.

Source: Julie Vandivere, "Woolf's The Waves," in Explicator, Vol. 53, No. 1, Fall 1994, 3 pp.

Dorothy Brewster

In the following excerpt, Brewster analyzes each of the six characters in The Waves.

… Consider the Six as aspects of a multiple personality: Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda; Bernard, Neville, and Louis. Jinny lives in the body, with the body's imagination; she is at home in the ballroom, treading naturally on thick carpets, sliding easily over smooth polished floors, responding to radiance like a fern unfurling its curled leaves, riding like a gull on the wave, "dealing her looks adroitly here and there," with no time to sort out all the impressions she has gathered. But as she grows older she becomes more curious about the people she sees in the crowded rooms: "The door goes on opening. The room fills and fills with knowledge, anguish, many kinds of ambition, much indifference, some despair … The common fund of experience is very deep … In one way or another we make this day, this Friday, some by going to the Law Courts; others to the City; others to the nursery; others by marching and forming fours … The activity is endless. And tomorrow it begins again … Some will never come into this room again. One may die tonight. Another will beget a child. From us every sort of building, policy, venture, picture, poem, child, factory, will spring. Life comes; life goes; we make life." Active herself, it is human activity that excites her occasional wonder.

Rhoda, who appears to move in the same social circles as Jinny, is alien and lost in the crowd. When a door opens, "the tiger leaps"—an image for her constant fear of the person, the experience, coming to her. She escapes; imagery of marble columns and pools on the other side of the world suggests her dream life; she is mistress of nothing but her dreams, as, when a child, she rocked her ships of rose petals in a basin of water and was mistress of her fleet. She is always seeking something she can touch, and "so draw myself across the enormous gulf into my body safely," else "I shall be blown down the eternal corridors for ever." She wonders about the knowledge Jinny has when she dances, and about the assurance Susan has, when, stooping quietly beneath the lamplight, she draws the white cotton through the eye of the needle. "They say, Yes; they say, No … But I doubt; I tremble; I see the wild thorntree shake its shadow in the desert."

Susan knows exactly what she is and what she wants. She is rooted, not blown about. She is homesick in her girls' school and later among the snows and pines of Switzerland for the country vicarage, and she is happy, after her marriage, on the farm. She likes the stare of shepherds and of gypsy women beside a cart in the ditch, and before her marriage, she knows that her lover will come, and "to his one word I shall answer my one word. What has formed in me I shall give him. I shall have children; I shall have maids in aprons; men with pitchforks; a kitchen where they bring the ailing lambs to warm in baskets, where the hams hang and the onions glisten. I shall be like my mother, silent in a blue apron, locking up the cupboards." Yet Susan is not placid. Her emotions are simple but violent; she can hate as well as love, as, when a child, she hated Jinny whom she saw kissing Louis.

Louis is the youngest and weakest among the children; the one left behind when the others troop off to breakfast; the one who has a curious sense of identity with those roots in the garden that go into the depths of the earth; down there, his eyes are the lidless eyes of a stone figure in a desert by the Nile. (It is scarcely necessary to say that no child could have put these strange intuitions into words.) Later it is the dark backward of time that fascinates his imagination: the history and the traditions of the human race. It is Louis among the boys at school who is aware that the stone flags in the chapel are worn by the feet of six hundred years, and who is grateful for the safeguards of tradition, because he has wild impulses—hears the sullen thud of the waves and the "chained beast" stamping on the beach. (That, at least, is one's guess at the meaning of the stamping beast.) Louis in maturity is of those who through the centuries have been the seekers and the builders of civilization; as he grows older, his sense of the continuity of human experience and of himself as part of it grows stronger; he watches "the eternal procession of women going with their attaché cases down the Strand as they went once with pitchers to the Nile." Louis and Rhoda both feel their separateness. They become lovers for a while. Bernard thinks of them as the "authentics," who exist most completely in solitude.

Louis, the best scholar of the three, does not go on to the university, being destined to retrieve in the City the failure of his father. But Bernard, both at the university and in later years, often thinks what a malevolent but searching light Louis would have thrown upon the university, and upon his own poses as a Byronic or a Tolstoyan young man. He often feels Louis's eye upon them all, "adding us up like insignificant items in some grand total … And one day, taking a fine pen and dipping it in red ink, the addition will be complete; our total will be known; but it will not be enough." Bernard, the phrasemaker, curious about other people, always making up stories about them, needs an audience—himself, if no other is present. He is plagued, or blest, with that double consciousness of the artist, who both sees and feels and thinks and at the same time watches himself seeing and feeling and thinking; who in the very act of taking part watches himself taking part.

Neville, unlike Louis who seeks to reduce chaos to order, sees an order already existing in the world—to be discovered, not imposed. He is a precise scholar. At Cambridge he is in love with life, and with the beauty of young men especially; and he is close to Bernard at this stage, both of them seeking an identity—who among these selves am I? They try to read each other. Neville sees through Bernard's poses and Bernard is aware of the rent in his defenses made by Neville's "astonishing fine rapier." Neville will always slip into cushioned firelit rooms, with many books and one friend. He sees himself becoming a don and going with schoolmasters to Greece and lecturing on the ruins of the Parthenon; and with a flash of repugnance—or of insight—"it would be better," he thinks, "to breed horses and live in one of those red villas than to run in and out of the skulls of Sophocles and Euripides like a maggot." (He remains a scholar, but does not—though his story is a little vague here—become a don.)

All these Six, different yet complementary, look to their friend Perceval [sic, et al.], feel his fascination, and love him in their individual ways. What he is comes to us only through them. He dies young, joining Rachel and Jacob in the company of those whose promise is unfulfilled and who leave behind them the question—what did the world lose when they died? Perceval had grace of body, the courage that goes with it, unself-consciousness; he possessed the irresistible attraction that one who seems at ease with life has for those who are plagued by doubt and inner conflict.

The moment in The Waves when Inner and Outer fuse, creating harmony and radiance, rounding the globe, comes with the farewell dinner to Perceval on the eve of his departure for India. They have all gone different ways after their shared school and university years, but they are still only on the threshold of life. When they meet and wait for Perceval, and after he comes, fragments of their childhood experiences keep slipping into their reveries, almost as if it were a group mind remembering. The monologues are here close to dialogue—yet not spoken. "From these close-furled balls of string we draw now every filament (said Louis) remembering, when we meet." They have come together to make one thing—not enduring, for what endures?—but seen by many eyes simultaneously. Yet each of the Six asserts himself; their self-realization is at its youthful peak. The roar of London around them isolates them—as Louis perceives: "Motorcars, vans, omnibuses pass and repass continuously. All are merged in one turning wheel of single sound. All separate sounds—wheels, bells, the cries of drunkards, of merry-makers—are churned into one sound, steel blue, circular. Then a siren hoots. At that shores slip away, chimneys flatten themselves, the ship makes for the open sea."

"But India lies outside," thinks Neville. And Bernard imagines Perceval's life in India. The others see different visions, but their thoughts are focused on Perceval, and on their own promise as well. They experience the youthful sense of infinite time and open choice before them. It is Susan who perceives that something irrevocable has happened; the little heaps of sugar, the peelings of fruit, the plush rims of the looking-glasses in the restaurant, look strange, as if she had not seen them before; everything is fixed—"a circle has been cast on the waters; a chain is imposed. We shall never flow freely again." Let us hold this moment, thinks Jinny, "love, hatred, by whatever name we call it, this globe whose walls are made of Perceval, of youth and beauty, and something so deep sunk within us that we shall perhaps never make this moment out of one man again." Bernard sees them as creators, who have made "something that will join the innumerable congregations of past time. We too, as we put on our hats and push open the door, stride not into chaos, but into a world that our own force can subjugate and make part of the illumined and everlasting road."

Perceval is thrown from his horse in India and killed.

What is it like, when someone loved is suddenly gone? Each of the friends experiences this loss differently and is never quite the same again. Bernard hears of Perceval's death on the same day that his son is born. "Such is the complexity of things that as I descend the staircase I do not know which is sorrow, which is joy … I need silence, and to be alone and to go out, and to save one hour to consider what has happened to my world, what death has done to my world." So he goes out into the streets and looks at the details of a world Perceval no longer sees. He feels the rhythm, the throb, but for the moment he is outside the machine of living. He thinks of what the world has lost in Perceval, who was "borne on by a natural sense of the fitting, was indeed a great master of the art of living so that he seems to have lived long, and to have spread calm around him, indifference one might almost say, certainly to his own advancement, save that he also had great compassion." He goes into the National Gallery, seeking some answer from the paintings, but "the perpetual solicitation of the eye" weighs upon him. "Arrows of sensation strike from my spine, but without order." Something lies just beyond his grasp; perhaps in some moment of revelation after a long lifetime he may lay hands upon it. "Ideas break a thousand times for once that they globe themselves entire." Although bodies soon look ordinary again, what is behind them differs—the perspective. Bernard begins to want life around him again, and wishes to remember Perceval with someone Perceval was at ease with and liked "(not Susan whom he loved, but Jinny rather)."

Rhoda, after hearing that Perceval has been killed, goes to a concert, and, more successful than Bernard, finds consolation in a perception of order beneath all the sensations: "There is a square; there is an oblong. The players take the square and place it upon the oblong. They place it very accurately … Very little is left outside; the structure is now visible." But this perception of meaning will never, for Rhoda, be enough to release her from her dream of escape.

The reunion with Perceval at the dinner marks the high tide, the hot sunshine, of the progress through the day, through life. His death forces reflection, readjustment, reassessment. To cover the declining day, two sections follow, preceding the Hampton Court reunion and the final summing-up by Bernard. The essential personality of each becomes more strongly marked as the choices before them narrow. Here is Louis: "My shoulder is to the wheel; I roll the dark before me, spreading commerce where there was chaos in the far parts of the world … If I press on, I shall inherit a chair and a rug; a place in Surrey with glasshouses, and some rare conifer, melon or flowering tree which other merchants will envy. Yet I still keep my attic room … There I watch the rain glisten on the tiles till they shine like a policeman's waterproof; there I see the broken windows in poor people's houses; the lean cats; some slattern squinting in a cracked looking-glass as she arranges her face for the street corner; there Rhoda sometimes comes. For we are lovers." Susan is completely absorbed in her children and her household: "Whether it is summer, whether it is winter, I no longer know by the moor grass, and the heath flower; only by the steam on the window-pane, or the frost on the window-pane." There will be more children, "more baskets in the kitchen and hams ripening; and onions glistening; and more beds of lettuce and potatoes." But she sometimes wishes the weight of the sleeping house would lift from her shoulders, sometimes hears broken voices and laughter, and Jinny's voice as the door opens, calling "Come!" Neville lives over some of the past as he sits waiting, in front of the fire, for the one friend he must have—in spite of the meetings, the partings, that finally destroy us. There must be someone so in tune with oneself that one can point at something for the other to look at and share without talking: "to follow the dark paths of the mind and enter the past, to visit books, to brush aside their branches and break off some fruit." With all his seeking after perfection, he is not disinterested; there is always the color of some personal emotion staining the page; it is someone's voice speaking the poem—Perceval's or another's. "There is no end to the folly of the human heart—seek another, find another, you." Bernard is not of those who find satisfaction in one person; the private room bores him: "My being only glitters when all its facets are exposed to many people." He knows at the onset of middle age that he has outlived many desires, but not the desire for the ultimate answers. "Let a man get up and say, ‘Behold, this is the truth,’ and instantly I perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say."

A dinner at Hampton Court brings the six middle-aged men and women together again, to remember Perceval, to wonder what each has made of life. Each is measured against the others, each wishes to impress one of the others. They all share the realization that choice is no longer possible. "Before, when we met in a restaurant with Perceval, all simmered and shook; we could have been anything. We have chosen now, or sometimes it seems the choice was made for us—a pair of tongs pinched us between the shoulders." Susan compares herself with Neville; her body had been used daily, like a tool by a good workman, all over; "seen through your pale and yielding flesh, even apples and bunches of fruit must have a filmed look, as if they stood under glass." Bernard, knowing that he, with sons and daughters, is wedged into his place in the puzzle, yet cherishes the illusion that it is only his body that is fixed; his mind is more capable than when he was young of disinterested thought: "I throw my mind out in the air as a man throws seeds in great fan-lights, falling through the purple sunset." The dinner is steeped in the atmosphere of subconscious thought, never rising to the surface to become close to spoken dialogue as it did during the earlier dinner.

After they have dined well—for they do dine—"the sharp tooth of egotism" is blunted, anxiety for the moment is at rest, life is stayed here and now, and in the silence they seem to pass beyond life. But they are soon back on shore. They go out into the darkening gardens, where lovers in the shadow of the trees are scarcely to be distinguished from the ghosts of the past—King William on his horse; court ladies sweeping the turf with their silks and satins. A disembodied mood is upon them. They pair off, Rhoda and Louis, Bernard and Susan, Neville and Jinny, and disappear along the great avenues, among the trees, in the twilight and then the moonlight. It is all a dissolving dream. And it comes with something of a shock when we join Bernard and Susan, pacing the terrace by the river, and come back to life in general—watching the lights coming on in the bedrooms of small shopkeepers on the other side of the river, and imagining with Bernard the stories of the lives of all these people, who are going to sleep, thinking perhaps of their Sunday dinner (the rabbit in its hutch in the garden), or of the chance of winning the football competition. We are back to the knock, knock of one event following another, of the must of life—must go, must catch the train, must walk to the station; and we leave Bernard clasping the return half of his ticket to Waterloo—that, at least, life had taught him to hold on to.

To compare the two dinners as "moments," this seems to be a moment manqué. And this impression is strengthened by Bernard's recollection of it years later. He sees them all under the seduction of the wine, ceasing to measure themselves against each other, feeling around them "the huge blackness of what is outside us, of what we are not. The wind, the rush of wheels became the roar of time … We were extinguished for a moment, went out like sparks in burnt paper and the blackness roared. Past time, past history we went." Then they become again six people at a table and rise and walk together down the avenue. Bernard sees them, against the gateway, against some cedar tree, burning there triumphant in their own identity. Then as a wave breaks, they burst asunder, surrender, draw apart, "consumed in the darkness of the trees." This is not the perfect globe. The globe of Bernard's imagining has walls of thinnest air, and, pressed, will burst.

In the final section Bernard, a rather heavy elderly man, gray at the temples, sits in a restaurant with a chance companion, for, like the Ancient Mariner, he must have an audience for his tale. "In the beginning, there was the nursery, windows opening on a garden, and beyond that the sea …" We already know the story, from six different viewpoints. Now we have it subtly modified from the one viewpoint, with the different lights and shadows and meanings that advancing years and altered perspectives have brought to the storyteller. "On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points." Bernard is not that observant fellow, but he is one who looks where the finger points—"beyond and outside our own predicament; to that which is symbolic, and thus perhaps permanent, if there is any permanence in our sleeping, eating, breathing, so animal, so spiritual and tumultuous lives." We learn to order life, to fill up the little compartments of our engagement book, but always deep below this orderly progress, even when we arrive punctually at the appointed time, there is "a rushing stream of broken dreams, nursery rhymes, street cries, half-finished sentences and sights … that rise and sink even as we hand a lady down to dinner." The pageant of existence has never ceased to fascinate Bernard; he seems to himself to have lived many lives: "I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville … I do not always know if I am man or woman … so strange is the contact of one with another." There are moments of ebb tide, when no fin "breaks the waste of this immeasurable sea"; moments when everything is drained of color, of life, when the earth dies, withers. "How then does light return to the world after the eclipse of the sun? Miraculously … The earth absorbs color like a sponge drinking water." The chance companion leaves, and the elderly Bernard must take himself off and catch some last train. There is the usual street, there is a stir of dawn. "Dawn is some sort of whitening of the sky; some sort of renewal … The stars draw back and are extinguished. The bars deepen themselves between the waves." And in the elderly man, too, the wave rises, a new desire, a new determination to meet the advancing enemy. And who could that be now, but Death? …

Source: Dorothy Brewster, "Fiction: Shaping the Globe," in Virginia Woolf, New York University Press, 1962, pp. 79-161.


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The Modernist movement radically changed how people viewed literature and culture. This book provides a comprehensive introduction to the movement.

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This book offers a history of the critical reception of both To the Lighthouse and The Waves. Goldman presents the criticism as it relates to three theoretical positions: postmodernism, modernism, and feminism.

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The editors of this book have pulled together excerpts from the essential literary, historical, political, and philosophical texts of the modernist era.

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Lee provides the definitive biography of Virginia Woolf in this well-written and carefully researched volume.

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Marder's biography tells the story of Woolf's final ten years of life, beginning with her composition of The Waves and ending with her suicide in 1941.