Virginia Woolf: “The Waves”


The Waves unfolds over 9 episodes corresponding to the time of day, from sunrise to night: 1) childhood, 2) adolescence, 3) young adulthood, 4) adulthood (dinner/voices blend), 5) adulthood (Percival falls from his horse and dies, solace in baby for Bernard, art for Rhoda), 6) maturity, 7) midlife (crisis), 8) old age (dinner/common experience) 9) old age (Bernard alone speaks – language as a fight against death, experience moving beyond language to the direct). (One could also think of this as 9 months of gestation, a womanly cycle of reproduction.) It is loosely constructed, much more than by plot, by the voices of the 6 central characters:

Bernardlanguage & loquaciousness, sees personality constructed by others, not snobby (Forster?)
Nevilleorder & beauty, artistic, gay, classics scholar, in love with Percival
Louisinsecurity & ambition, depressive “T. S. Eliot” figure, Australian, becomes seamy, has affair with Rhoda
Jinny physicality & beauty, dancer, free, sexual
Susan – intensity & attachment, in touch with Nature (farm), maternal, classical figure of femininity
Rhoda – dreamlike abstraction, depressive, split from ordinary life, “Woolfian” suicide

There are also 2 main peripheral characters:
Percival – the “popular boy” the others are friends with, representing monolithic, white, paternal, phallic, British, colonial masculinity and power, the book is at once an elegy to him and an exploration of nostalgia for something one never should have loved. Percival speaks only once, to say “No.”
Old /Dr. Crane – the boys’ headmaster. compare to Mr. Keasey in Ulysses? (Also “service for man who was drowned” – 78).  Perceived as a Kantian negative pleasure, like a tooth removed when he leaves the room (50), pontificating on literature (58).

Woolf herself wrote in her diary that the “playpoem” was not meant to be read as a novel with distinct characters so much as pseudocharacters enacting multiplicity or demonstrating collectivity, representing facets of human experience and thought before they are made into types, characters, or performances. Bernard writes,

“I wish then after this somnolence to sparkle, many-faceted under the light of my friends’ faces. I have been traversing the sunless territory of non-identity… With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness… I see Louis, stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet. These are fantastic pictures, these are figments… Yet they drum me alive” 117.

I read this novel as a meditation on language as a surface and a representation that nonetheless orders and constitutes experience.

Bernard: “we are not single, we are one… I have little aptitude for reflection. I require the concrete in everything. It is so only that I lay hands up on the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence” (68).

Woolf begins with the image of the sea,

“indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it… the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually” (7).

She goes on to call it “a thin veil,” “the green surface,” and a “surface” on the same page. When, after the sunrise interlude, the characters speak for the first time, Bernard sees a ring, Susan sees a slab of pale yellow, Rhoda hears a chirp, Neville sees a globe, Jinny sees a crimson tassel, and Louis hears stamping. Interestingly, the two “depressive” characters hear, seemingly a more spiritual connection with their surroundings (Re: Kant on how we hear reason speaking to us), whereas the other four see, and the girls see in color (Re: Kant on how we see the beautiful, and especially the sublime, and how the beautiful is more about the bounded outline, whereas color is merely an accessory – see 85).

Bernard and Susan often mirror/repeat each other as ideal types of British masculinity and femininity? Rhoda and Louis are more antisocial and demonstrate the artist’s tendency. Finally, Jinny and Neville both buck gender stereotypes, queering the possibilities of performance (dance, sex, criticism) that they engage in. Percival, who does not speak, seems to represent a sort of Althusserian ISA – a patriarchy or power never seen, but always present and part of one’s self-awareness or self-policing. At the end of the novel, Bernard thinks,

“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. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome… Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan’s tears. 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” 289.

This picks up on Clarissa’s faceting and her sympathetic experience of Septimus’ death in Mrs. Dalloway. Bernard’s final thoughts of his being are wonderfully feminizing: “Immeasurably receptive, holding everything, trembling with fullness, yet clear, contained – so my being seems, now that desire urges it no more out and away… now that he is dead, the man I called ‘Bernard'” 291. The book ends with Bernard having to confront materiality again and heading out “like Percival,” as a youth against death, to write. The last line is The waves broke on the shore 297. If the other six are one, Percival is the troublesome mirror they all look into: a kind of national ideology, sometimes lovely and leading, sometimes violent and brutish.

The characters emphasize divergent subjectivity but similar diction and expression. Their perceptions unfold as the idea from Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction” of recording atomized experience in the order in which it occurs. I would like to compare their 6 similar but separated voices to the 6 parts of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, all parts or forms of one Anna or the 6 different voices of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (who speak differently, but may all be the same psyche).

The female body itself as a surface: Jinny after kissing Louis:

“Now I smell geraniums; I smell earth mould. I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you” (13).

Louis on Rhoda: “Her shoulderblades meet across her back like the wings of a small butterfly” (22), like when he thinks “they skim the butterflies from the nodding tops of the flowers. They brush the surface of the world” (12).

Bernard: “rich and heavy sensations form on the roof of my mind; down showers the day” (26)/ “drop that forms on the roof of the soul in the evening is round, many-coloured” (80).


Susan: “I saw her kiss him… She danced in flecked with diamonds light as dust… Jinny’s eyes break into a thousand lights” (15).

Louis: “From discord, from hatred… my shattered mind is pieced together by some sudden perception” (39).

Bernard: “I am not one and simple, but complex and many… I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight. Underneath, and, at the moment when I am most disparate, I am also integrated” (76-7), see also 80.

As in other Woolf, the images around waves and water seem to concern solitude and drowning (often Rhoda). On the flip side, plants, leaves, and trees seem to connote connectedness – rootedness but also striving (see Louis, 11-12).


Though the shifting perspectives are represented as things characters have “said,” much is internal, some is aloud. Importance of direct speech, vs. free indirect discourse? Stream of consciousness as a kind of speech (Woolf sees mind processing world, at least consciously, via language?). Bernard’s speech is imagined as a continually unfolding story (69).

Bernard: “we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory” (16).

Susan: Rhoda dreams, Louis regards, Bernard moulds, Neville finished, Jinny spins, I am not afraid (25-6).

“Bernard says there is always a story. I am a story. Louis is a story” (37)/ “Among the tortures and devastations of life is this then – our friends are not able to finish their stories” (39).

Neville: “I shall be a clinger to the outsides of words all my life” (48). His elision of language around homosexuality (51).

Bernard: “My charm and flow of language, unexpected and spontaneous as it is delights me too. I am astonished, as I draw the veil off things with words, how much, how infinitely more I can say I have observed… images and images” (84).


As sources of misreading (30) – faces of people (affect) and clocks (time).


Bernard on shopgirls (86)/ Kracauer.

Virginia Woolf: “Modern Fiction”


Virginia Woolf takes a similar position as Eliot in “Tradition & the Individual Talent”: that art is not a teleologically improving process over time.

Their masterpieces certainly have a strange air of simplicity. And yet the analogy between literature and the process, to choose an example, of making motor cars scarcely holds good beyond the first glance. It is doubtful whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much about making machines, we have learnt anything about making literature. We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that, but with a circular tendency should the whole course of the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle.

Our quarrel, then, is not with the classics, and if we speak of quarrelling with Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy, it is partly that by the mere fact of their existence in the flesh their work has a living, breathing, everyday imperfection which bids us take what liberties with it we choose. But it is also true that, while we thank them for a thousand gifts, we reserve our unconditional gratitude for Mr. Hardy, for Mr. Conrad, and in a much lesser degree for the Mr. Hudson of The Purple Land, Green Mansions, and Far Away and Long Ago.

In the end, it is not the classics Woolf critiques, but the over-determined, ‘materialist’ realist novels of Wells, Galsworthy, and Bennett:

If we fasten, then, one label on all these books, on which is one word materialists, we mean by it that they write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.

Life escapes; and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while. It is a confession of vagueness to have to make use of such a figure as this, but we scarcely better the matter by speaking, as critics are prone to do, of reality…. Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide… So much of the enormous labour of proving the solidity, the likeness to life, of the story is not merely labour thrown away but labour misplaced to the extent of obscuring and blotting out the light of the conception.

Woolf’s novels remain incredibly interested in the material object, but in her work, it is an occasion for memory or the leaping of subjectivity, rather than mere world-building, which she thinks these novelists overdo:

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.

Any one who has read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses, now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature as to Mr. Joyce’s intention. On our part, with such a fragment before us, it is hazarded rather than affirmed; but whatever the intention of the whole, there can be no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, is undeniably important. In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see. The scene in the cemetery, for instance, with its brilliancy, its sordidity, its incoherence, its sudden lightning flashes of significance, does undoubtedly come so close to the quick of the mind that, on a first reading at any rate, it is difficult not to acclaim a masterpiece.

But it is possible to press a little further and wonder whether we may not refer our sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation imposed by the method as well as by the mind. Is it the method that inhibits the creative power? Is it due to the method that we feel neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centred in a self which, in spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates what is outside itself and beyond? Does the emphasis laid, perhaps didactically, upon indecency, contribute to the effect of something angular and isolated? Or is it merely that in any effort of such originality it is much easier, for contemporaries especially, to feel what it lacks than to name what it gives? In any case it is a mistake to stand outside examining “methods”. Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist’s intention if we are readers.

However this may be, the problem before the novelist at present, as we suppose it to have been in the past, is to contrive means of being free to set down what he chooses. He has to have the courage to say that what interests him is no longer “this” but “that”: out of “that” alone must he construct his work. For the moderns “that”, the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology. At once, therefore, the accent falls a little differently; the emphasis is upon something hitherto ignored; at once a different outline of form becomes necessary, difficult for us to grasp, incomprehensible to our predecessors.

The contemporary novelist must have the courage to write what moves him, not a formula for success (again, think of Eliot’s essay in comparison). Woolf claims Russian influence on English modernism; cites Chekov story “Gusev”:

But it is impossible to say “this is comic”, or “that is tragic”, nor are we certain, since short stories, we have been taught, should be brief and conclusive, whether this, which is vague and inconclusive, should be called a short story at all.

If we are sick of our own materialism the least considerable of their novelists has by right of birth a natural reverence for the human spirit. “Learn to make yourself akin to people. . . . But let this sympathy be not with the mind — for it is easy with the mind — but with the heart, with love towards them.” In every great Russian writer we seem to discern the features of a saint, if sympathy for the sufferings of others, love towards them, endeavour to reach some goal worthy of the most exacting demands of the spirit constitute saintliness. It is the saint in them which confounds us with a feeling of our own irreligious triviality, and turns so many of our famous novels to tinsel and trickery.

English fiction from Sterne to Meredith bears witness to our natural delight in humour and comedy, in the beauty of earth, in the activities of the intellect, and in the splendour of the body. But any deductions that we may draw from the comparison of two fictions so immeasurably far apart are futile save indeed as they flood us with a view of the infinite possibilities of the art and remind us that there is no limit to the horizon, and that nothing — no “method”, no experiment, even of the wildest — is forbidden, but only falsity and pretence. “The proper stuff of fiction” does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.