The Waves by Virginia Woolf

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Reviewed by Stefanie Hollmichel

Oxford World Classics has produced a terrific reissue of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves. There are helpful endnotes, biographical information, a selected bibliography and an introduction. But don’t read the introduction first. This is not because the introduction spoils anything, The Waves has no plot to spoil. Nor is it a badly written introduction, in fact it is quite good.

Don’t read the introduction first because it will color the way you read the novel. It will scare you by telling you how difficult The Waves is. It will tell you the book is Woolf’s most anti-colonial novel and you will spend far too much energy looking for clues for this. It will explain characters to you before you even meet them, which will cause you, when you do meet them, to have preconceived opinions. It will try to pin down into reality much of what Woolf works so hard to leave open and ambiguous. Read the introduction, but read it afterwards, after you have been tossed and tumbled about by The Waves and finally washed up on the shore bruised, glassy-eyed and gasping for breath.

The Waves was published in 1931 and is the novel that follows the delightful romp that is Orlando. The Waves is considered Woolf’s most experimental novel and Woolf herself worried that it was ‘fundamentally unreadable.’ In it Woolf aims to abandon realist narrative and write a new kind of book, one made of rhythm not of plot. The title is indicative of the rhythm and the prose often reads like poetry. It is difficult book, not because it is hard to follow but because of its unrelenting intensity.

The novel is structured with nine italicized interludes each followed by nine episodes. The interludes appear to have nothing to do with the episodes. They describe the ocean and a garden, the same scene in each interlude but at different times of the day beginning just before dawn and concluding with nightfall.

The episodes follow the lives of Bernard, Jinny, Susan, Louis, Neville and Rhoda from nursery school to old age. The time of day in each interlude turns out to match the time of life in each episode from childhood at dawn to old age and death at nightfall.

The novel is entirely interior. There is no dialogue except for a couple of declarative outbursts. We move from mind to mind of each character, their thoughts, their feelings, hopes and fears. There is no “this happened” then “that happened” structure yet in the end we are left with a sense of lives lived without ever having much of the details.

We know that Bernard tells stories, carries a notebook collecting phrases that he plans to use to write a novel filled with truth if only he knew what was true. He is easy-going, loves to be in crowds, longs for connection and is defeated by loneliness. He marries and has children, leads a domestic and conventional life.

Jinny is all body, always moving, never still. She does not want to be tied down to anyone or anything. She is a flame, commanding, a woman who can lift her hand and expect that a man will follow her.

Susan bows to convention, marries, has children, is filled to bursting with ‘natural happiness’ and sometimes wishes she didn’t have so much of it. She lives on a farm, is earthy and rooted, spends her days caring for her family, cooking and cleaning.

Neville loves Latin, is entranced by Roman classics. He becomes a don at Cambridge. He loved Percival, a friend all six of them knew who went off to India and died at the age of twenty-five. In spite of Neville’s success, he lives his entire life with a Percival-sized hole in it.

Louis, whose father is a banker in Brisbane, always feels like everyone looks down on him. He works hard to lose his accent, works even harder to become successful in business, and strives always for order and to prove that he is better than everyone.

Finally delicate Rhoda. She is afraid of everything and everyone. She sneaks around in the shadows, dreaming of dark pools in the desert where swallows come to drink. She says repeatedly that she has no face.

The narrative moves like a wave between each of the six characters. We are never left wondering who is ‘talking’ because Woolf indicates each shift with ‘Bernard said,’ or ‘Susan said’ even though there is no actual ‘saying’ of anything.

The final episode of the novel belongs entirely to Bernard, old and grey. He is having dinner with a stranger, someone he once met on a train. We can imagine the stranger might be us since there is never a name, only ‘you.’ In this last episode Bernard is given the task to sum up his life and the lives of his friends, but words and stories fail because stories never tell the truth. To tell the story of a life requires us to ‘pretend that life is a solid substance’ and proceeds in a logical and orderly manner. It isn’t and it doesn’t. To believe otherwise is a mistake, a convenience, a lie.

Throughout the novel the six friends meet and disperse, meet and disperse. They long to be together and desire to be apart. They want to be one indistinguishable whole, one melded body, not singular. Sometimes they achieve this. More often then not they grate upon each other, remain separate and alone. Yet they are friends, care what the others think, make the effort to meet all together.

The Waves is a beautiful, rich novel that cannot be completely grasped in one reading. It begs to be read again and again. When I finished it I was surprised by how emotionally charged and churned up I was. I felt abandoned on the shore as the tide went out, left to wait for its return, for a wave to grab me and pull me back out to sea.

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Stefanie blogs at So Many Books and believes no one should be afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves (Oxford World Classics: Oxford, 2015) 978-0199642922, 256pp., paperback.

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