History: first published in 1931, is Virginia Woolf's most experimental novel. It consists of soliloquies spoken by the book's six characters: Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis. Also important is Percival, the seventh character, though readers never hear him speak through his own voice. The monologues that span the characters' lives are broken up by nine brief third-person interludes detailing a coastal scene at varying stages in a day from sunrise to sunset.
The novel follows its six narrators from childhood through adulthood. Woolf's novel is concerned with the individual consciousness and the ways in which multiple consciousnesses can weave together. The difficulty of assigning genre to this novel is complicated by the fact that The Waves blurs distinctions between prose and poetry, allowing the novel to flow between six not dissimilar interior monologues. The book similarly breaks down boundaries between people, and Woolf herself wrote in her Diary that the six were not meant to be separate "characters" at all, but rather facets of consciousness illuminating a sense of continuity. Even the name "novel" may not accurately describe the complex form of The Waves. Woolf herself called it not a novel but a "playpoem."
Plot: As the six characters or "voices" alternately speak, Woolf explores concepts of individuality, self, and community. Each character is distinct, yet together they compose a gestalt about a silent central consciousness. Bernard is a story-teller, always seeking some elusive and apt phrase (some critics see Woolf's friend E. M. Forster as an inspiration); Louis is an outsider, who seeks acceptance and success (some critics see aspects of T. S. Eliot, whom Woolf knew well, in Louis); Neville (who may be partially based on another of Woolf's friends, Lytton Strachey) desires love, seeking out a series of men, each of whom become the present object of his transcendent love; Jinny is a socialite, whose Weltanschauung corresponds to her physical, corporeal beauty; Susan flees the city, in preference for the countryside, where she grapples with the thrills and doubts of motherhood; and Rhoda is riddled with self-doubt and anxiety, always rejecting and indicting human compromise, always seeking out solitude (as such, Rhoda echoes Shelley's poem "The Question"; paraphrased: I shall gather my flowers and present them--O! to whom?). Percival (partially based on Woolf's brother, Thoby Stephen) is the god-like but morally flawed hero of the other six, who dies midway through the novel on an imperialist quest in British-dominated colonial India. Although Percival never speaks through a monologue of his own in The Waves, readers learn about him in detail as the other six characters repeatedly describe and reflect on him throughout the book.
Review: I loved the “play-poem” form in which it’s written, where the dialogue and thoughts of each character are almost free verse.
I loved Rhoda’s horror of Math:
Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What is the answer? The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But 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. Miss Hudson goes. I am left alone to find an answer. The figures mean nothing now. (p. 21)
I loved Bernard, escaping to Rome after the death of Percival, and writing in his notebook little quotes which he can pull out later from their appropriate alphabetical heading:
These moments of escape are not to be despised. They come too seldom. Tahiti becomes possible. Leaning over this parapet I see far out a waste of water. A fin turns. This bare visual impression is unattached to any line of reason, it springs up as one might see the fin of a porpoise on the horizon. Visual impressions often communicate thus briefly statements that we shall in time to come uncover and coax into words. I note under F., therefore, ‘Fin in a waste of waters.’ I, who am perpetually making notes in the margin of my mind for some final statement, make this mark, waiting for some winter’s evening.” (p.189)
I loved the vocabulary, coming across words I don’t often see which hardly ever happens to me when I read authors of today:
-purlieus of the homestead
-oleaginous spots on the linoleum
-All here is false; all is meretricious.
-vinous, amorous light
-the tree was Byron’s tree, lachrymose
-they dive like guillemots
-a purple lady swelling, circumambient
-dancing like a flame, febrile
And, Catullus? The 1st century Roman poet is mentioned no less than five times before page 160 or so.
I loved the reference to waves preceding each chapter, a clue as to what we’ll find within:
The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. (p.7)
The wind rose. The waves drummed on the shore, like turbaned warriors, like turbaned men with poisoned assegais who, whirling their arms on high, advance upon the feeding flocks, the white sheep. (p. 75)
Like a long wave, like a roll of heavy waters, he went over me, his devastating presence-dragging me open, laying bare the pebbles on the shore of my soul. It was humiliating; I was turned to small stones. (Bernard, p. 89)
Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. The wave breaks. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room.” (Rhoda, p. 107)
The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping. (p. 150)
Now the news of Percival’s death has come upon them, and then we find:
The waves massed themselves, curved their backs and crashed. Up spurted stones and shingle. They swept round the rocks, and the spray, leaping high, spattered the walls of a cave that had been dry before, and left pools inland, where some fish, stranded, lashed its tail as the wave drew back. (p. 166)
The waves no longer visited the further pools or reached the dotted black line which lay irregularly marked upon the beach. The sand was pearl white, smoothed and shining. (p. 182)
Erratically rays of light flashed and wandered, like signals from sunken islands, or darts shot through laurel groves by shameless, laughing boys. But the waves, as they neared the shore, were robbed of light, and fell in one long concussion, like a wall falling, a wall of grey stone, unpierced by any chink of light. (p. 207)
As if there were waves of darkness in the air, darkness moved on, covering houses, hills, trees, as waves of water wash round the sides of some sunken ship. (p. 237)
At the conclusion of the book we find this:
“And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!"
Opening Line: “The sun had not risen.”
Closing Line: “The waves broke on the shore.”
Quotes: See above.