The Waves


The Waves is one of the only Woolf novels for which I feel more detached appreciation than visceral enjoyment. This experiment in abstract character study, tracing the inner lives of six friends from childhood to death through the use of extended inner monologues intercut with third-person descriptions of the sun rising and setting over an ocean vista, is certainly fascinating, but it doesn't set my heart soaring like Mrs. Dalloway, nor does it tickle me like Orlando. It's a dense, quiet read, a sort of book-length expansion of the "Time Passes" section in To the Lighthouse, which implies through its narrative technique that people, along with sun and sea, are part of the continual ebb and flow of the natural world, however much they may tell themselves otherwise.

And whereas my favorite Woolf books often celebrate the transcendent moments of communion between people—difficult, fleeting, imperfect as they often are—it always strikes me that The Waves dwells instead on the ways in which we are all separate, remote. For despite the author's chosen narrative method—long inner soliloquies that begin "'.....,' said Bernard," or "'.....,' said Rhoda"—the characters almost never reply or react to one another. They are "saying" these things in some semi- or sub-conscious level of their beings, a level to which none of their friends have access, and couldn't, perhaps, understand, even if they did. They are "saying" them into the void. A far cry, this, from the ease with which Clarissa and Peter move in and out of each others' thoughts in Mrs. Dalloway. With Bernard (the phrase-making extrovert), Susan (the solitary naturalist), Rhoda (the depressive fantasist), Neville (the intellectual purist), Louis (the snobbish mogul), and Jinny (the sensualist) we have six tracks of thought and sensation moving parallel, seeing at times the same events from different angles, observing the exteriors of the speaker's friends, but almost never coming into actual contact with one of the other trains of thought. Even the extroverted Bernard, who needs the company of other people in order to come fully into his own, is only using others in the service of his own self-realization; he's not actually connecting with the cores of their beings, and his story-telling is an attempt to impose order on the world around him, more than to empathize with others.

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. A strange land. I have heard in my moment of appeasement, in my moment of obliterating satisfaction, the sigh, as it goes in, comes out, of the tide that draws beyond this circle of bright light, this drumming of insensate fury. I have had one moment of enormous peace. This is perhaps happiness. Now I am drawn back by pricking sensations; by curiosity, greed (I am hungry) and the irresistible desire to be myself. I think of people to whom I could say things: Louis; Neville; Susan; Jinny and Rhoda. With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness. We shall meet tonight, thank Heaven. Thank Heaven, I need not be alone.

It's a lonely vision, I must say. Because despite Bernard's thanks to Heaven that he need not be alone, these characters are profoundly isolated from one another. And although I relate to its "We perished, each alone" ethos to some degree (I believe there are things we must all face alone), I miss the flashes of soul-deep connection that happen in other Woolf novels. Even those characters who crave solitude over company have a certain manic insecurity about their existences. Neville, the serial monogamist, lives in constant fear of abandonment by his lover du jour (openly portrayed as men, by the by). Louis must prove himself better than the Brits who may or may not be sneering at his Australian accent. Rhoda lives in terror and awe of the worlds conjured by her imagination. Only Susan, who finds a soulful connection with the natural world and in the process of childbearing and mothering, seems in any sense at peace to me.

I go then to the cupboard, and take the damp bags of rich sultanas; I lift the heavy flour on to the clean scrubbed kitchen table. I knead; I stretch; I pull, plunging my hands in the warm inwards of the dough. I let the cold water stream fanwise through my fingers. The fire roars; the flies buzz in a circle. All my currants and rices, the silver bags and the blue bags, are locked again in the cupboard. The meat is stood in the oven; the bread rises in a soft dome under the clean towel. I walk in the afternoon down to the river. All the world is breeding. The flies are going from grass to grass. The flowers are thick with pollen. The swans ride the stream in order. The clouds warm now, sun-spotted, sweep over the hills, leaving gold in the water, and gold on the necks of the swans.

This intrigues me, because, from what I know of her biography, Susan and Louis are probably the characters who overlap the least with Woolf's own experience. Susan lives the kind of traditional, pastoral life that her author, who lived amongst bohemians, never had children, and got intensely restless for London whenever her husband attempted to spirit her away to the countryside, did her best to escape. Perhaps, in Susan's contentment, Woolf is romanticizing the path not taken? Perhaps that romanticization is also behind the role of Percival, the bluff, popular, unintelligent Son of Britain who inspires the love of all six friends before sailing off to India in service of the Empire, and dying suddenly when thrown from his horse? Percival (named in the heroic tradition of Perceval/Parzival) is perceived by all four friends as a hero, and inspires disquieting imperialist dreams in them despite their simultaneous contempt for his lack of intelligence:

I see India [...] Over all broods a sense of the uselessness of human exertion. There are strange sour smells. An old man in a ditch continues to chew betel and to contemplate his navel. But now, behold, Percival advances; Percival rides a flea-bitten mare, and wears a sun-helmet. By applying the standards of the West, by using the violent language that is natural to him, the bullock-cart is righted in less than five minutes. The Oriental problem is solved. He rides on; the multitude cluster around him, regarding him as if he were—what indeed he is—a God.

Woolf does sometimes display the casual racism of her time, but I don't think she goes so far as endorsing Bernard in this little white-supremacist fantasy of his. I think she's portraying Percival as the morally questionable glue that holds the friends together, the traditional lunk whose presence lulls those benefiting by the British Empire into comfort and security. The characters make him into a conquering hero in their minds, but after his pointless death (as after the First World War, caused in part by imperialist in-fighting, destroyed Woolf's generation's confidence in pre-War institutions), they are cast adrift on their own reconnaissance. As Neville says, "without Percival there is no solidity. We are silhouettes, hollow phantoms moving mistily without a background."

Which goes a long way toward describing The Waves in general. Beautifully realized, eloquent as Woolf's prose is, it illuminates the psychology of an unmoored and anxious time, in which one set of standards had been proved false, and another set had yet to be found. And a time in which, nevertheless, people continued living much as before - either because they clung to the old dreams (Susan fantasizes about her own sons going to India) or because, as the pounding waves would seem to indicate, human ways of life are dictated by natural rhythms, leaving very little to individual choice. It's not that I necessarily disagree with this observation (although I don't go as far as Woolf with it), but that, unmitigated by moments of genuine human connection, it no longer feels true to my reality. Needless to say, were I recovering from a brutal World War only to witness the rise of Fascist and Communist totalitarianism across Europe, accompanied by a global economic meltdown, I might feel differently.


This is the final installment of Woolf in Winter, hosted by the lovely Claire of kiss a cloud. Be sure to stop by everyone else's posts for more takes on The Waves. And a big thanks to Claire and my other co-hosts Sarah and Frances, as well as to everyone who read along with us! It's been very special to me to share a reading of Woolf with such a large and varied group of people.


  • Emily, the waves indicating life is dictated by natural rhythms, or fate, and less of choice I also agree with but only to a point. I rather believe in that, while we, each one as a wave, have no choice from which point of the sea we begin to ascend and then fall, but that we are also like men in a boat with oars, able to row towards the direction we choose. The wind, waves, storms may slow us down, move us towards another direction, capsize the boat, and define what follows, yet those occur only momentarily, and soon we are left to do our own thing again. Bring the boat back up, row the right way again.

    I felt that this was probably the most depressing book she wrote (so far with the only four I've read) because her own depression might also be causing her to question her fate and how much of her own life she cannot take. At this point, she might have given up on the idea that she can change things and make her life less sad and lonely and pathetic. I don't know, haven't read her diaries, but just basing on the atmosphere of this book. I felt so much of her sadness. Remember when she said in Orlando, how a writer's life is really reflected in their greatest works. This applies so much to her in this book.

    Susan being the least similar to herself, but might she also possibly be depicting her possible fate if she had not been a lover of words? See what might have become of her if she hadn't been born into the family she had, or married the man she had, etc.

    So many things to think about.

    By the way, I replied to your comment in my post. Go read it. Ha ha. See, I am the farthest from a phrase-making extrovert! I am really a depressed fantasist. Well, not exactly depressed though. Solitary fantasist, more like. :D

  • I didn't read all your post as I haven't read this yet. I did read the beginning thought, and I kind of like the idea of seeing how these six lives fit together. Woolf in Winter is getting me excited for more Woolf, even though I didn't get them all read this month!

  • You write so beautifully about Woolf Emily! I've not read The Waves. It sounds like such a sad book in many ways but quiet and beautiful too.

  • Very interesting. I did like this book, but maybe I have a depressive/solitary streak within me that responded positively to it! My copy noted that Vanessa Bell had urged Woolf to write about motherhood, which is how I interpreted Susan's thoughts, through the eyes of someone telling Woolf what it was like. But I thought it was a very strong characterization of motherhood, for someone who hadn't gone through it herself.

    I don't know enough about the history of the time--was the fairly blatant portrayal of Neville as gay controversial?

  • it always strikes me that The Waves dwells instead on the ways in which we are all separate, remote.

    It's funny, I've read a few people say this this morning and I had pretty much the opposite experience. The other books, like Mrs. Dalloway, that attempt to portray those moments of communion you speak of, end up seeming lonelier to me because that communion is impossible. Whereas in The Waves, in so many of these soliloquies the characters are practically obsessing about each other, constantly thinking about the others and the intensity of their history together and their relationships. They seemed much closer than people really are, in my experience. At the same time I do understand the loneliness that pervades a novel made up of endless monologues, but that was something I liked. Everyone is inside her own head, exactly where she belongs—the only place, in fact, she can ever be.

  • Claire: Yes, it seems like she was at a time of questioning. It's interesting that all of the characters have a kind of questioning time in mid-life (when Bernard goes to Rome, etc.) - the time of life Woolf was at when she wrote this book. I don't know if her life was particularly "lonely and pathetic" - she had lots of friends, a husband she loved, etc. - but it does seem like she was on a "what if things had been different" wavelength, somehow. I think also the political situation at the time would have been very discouraging for everyone in England who had hoped that WWI would be "the war to end all wars." It was starting to be obvious that there would either have to be more violent conflict, or they would all be living under a totalitarian dictatorship.

    Rebecca: I'll look forward to your future Woolfian adventures! :-) Glad Woolf in Winter is getting you excited.

  • Stefanie: Aw, thanks Stefanie! Sad and quiet and beautiful, yes. I'd say so.

    Amy: Oh, interesting that Vanessa had encouraged her to write about motherhood. I imagine that the Susan character also owed a lot to Vita, who loved gardening and the countryside and was devoted to her kids and dogs. As someone who hasn't been a mother myself, I can't assess her accuracy with Susan, but I did find myself liking her the best this time around. As for Neville, I'd say his explicit gayness was probably overshadowed by the other, weirder aspects of The Waves, but homosexual acts were still illegal in England at this time. It was only 35 years after the Oscar Wilde trial, after all.

  • Nicole: Interesting! I suppose it's all down to one's own experience of the world. To me it's not impossible at all to achieve those moments of true communion with other people - rare and difficult, but I do experience them, and they pretty much make my life worth living. So I don't relate to the lack of that in The Waves, especially after those moments are (in my opinion) so glowingly in some of her earlier novels. But hey, different experiences! I'm glad you connected with the self-contained-ness of the characters in this one. :-)

  • Thanks, Emily, for that perspective. The fascinating aspect to Woolf generally and perhaps more so with this novel, is the filter we all read through. My reading was very much from the woman in the garden, exploring views through the different aspects of her own personality. The Susan character was certainly a part of VW's personae, frequently overshadowed by the Neville metropolitan part.

  • i'm still unsure of how to wrap up my thoughts on this one but it is definitely a quiet punch of a novel. i have pages and pages of excerpts taken from this - some more beautiful and expressive than works by my favourite poets. and yet it isn't going to become my favourite woolf.

    i can't wait to read the rest of woolf's novels.

  • That's so interesting that we have such different reactions to this one! :) One of the things I loved, is that each of the friends knew what the other was thinking a lot of the time. So, say, when Susan hides her farm-hands because Jinny makes her self-conscious, and then we pop over to Jinny who recognises exactly what Susan's doing. I suppose for me, that felt like a connection.

    I do agree with you that Susan seems the most content of all of the characters. Bernard talks about her 'lacking a destiny,' and I wonder if Woolf was romanticising that as well. Susan has 'smaller' dreams and goals, and ones that allow her to see a ton of tangible results. The opposite of Woolf, really. I identify with Susan...I used to have bigger, 'fancier' goals, but these days, my goals are more quiet and personal. They're more true to me, but I had to get over worrying what my friends & family would think of the change. :)

  • "And whereas my favorite Woolf books often celebrate the transcendent moments of communion between people—difficult, fleeting, imperfect as they often are—it always strikes me that The Waves dwells instead on the ways in which we are all separate, remote." Emily, really liked this line from your review, and reminds me of why I am suddenly so depressed by this book. I actually really love the idea of the book--being able to be in the minds of these six different characters and to see how they view the world and each other, but also found it frustrating that, as you say, they don't reply or react to each other. I found myself wanting to defend each from the other, and say, no, that's not what so and so is like or is feeling. Plus, I wished one of the female characters had been a poet/writer, instead of Woolf giving that aspiration to Bernard and Neville, only. I think you are so right, that Woolf if probably,"romanticizing the path not taken?" (I say that especially as a mother to 2 young girls).

    Anyway, always learn so much from your writing. Unfortunately, my schedule has been crazy, so haven't had a chance for my own reflections on the novel. Instead, I thought I would spend the time, reading other's reflections and comment to each one.

  • I hadn't thought about the Parzival connotations behind the figure of Percival; thanks for bringing this up. But there seems to be something deeply ironic in the reference. In your quote, Bernard names Percival as a God--but he depicts him more as a bumbling, don Quixote-like figure. I like the way you reveal his death as a metaphor: "his pointless death (as after the First World War, caused in part by imperialist in-fighting, destroyed Woolf's generation's confidence in pre-War institutions)." But, personally, I didn't understand his meaning as a hero to his friends, or why his death so changed their universe. After the first part of the novel, when the six friends were so strongly established as the pillars in its structure, he looked like an extra. Yet the whole middle part, narrated by Neville, is about the loss of Percival. I don't know whether I want to keep muddling about in Woolfiana, but I'm not finished yet with the Neville/Percival/death problem.

  • Anthony: Yes, I think when there's so much there it's easy for ten different people to read from ten wildly different perspectives. And I'm intrigued by the thought that all six main characters are elements of one person...that makes it even sadder to me that they connect so little with one another, but it does make for an interesting interpretation!

    Selena: I sense a kinship in your reading. My copy is brutally marked up as well (of course, all my Woolf novels are). :-)

  • "And whereas my favorite Woolf books often celebrate the transcendent moments of communion between people—difficult, fleeting, imperfect as they often are—it always strikes me that The Waves dwells instead on the ways in which we are all separate, remote."

    And yet connected here by some strange brand of symbiosis. As if they gain strength together where their thoughts feed into a collective consciousness. But as you suggest, that relationship springs not from shared communication but from dependence upon one another to define, to stave off loneliness.

    Although masterful, this is not my favorite Woolf either for the same reasons you offer.

    Another splendid post, Emily. I always look forward to what you will write for these shared reads. And so happy that we have more to look forward to!

    As an aside, I have a really hard time commenting on your blog. I keep typing all the little characters in and it keeps telling me I have it wrong. Going to try this again now.

  • Eva: I know, our readings were almost opposite! So interesting. I agree that the friends had a certain amount of insight into one another's actions, as in the fingernails scene you mention, or when Neville knows that Bernard has been underlining certain passages in Byron because they remind him of himself. But I guess what strikes me is that those insights are very self-centered - Neville looks down on Bernard for wanting to be Byronic; Jinny senses that Susan feels insecure but doesn't DO anything to make her feel less ill at ease. None of them try to HELP each other, unlike in Woolf's other books. Which seems sad & lonely to me...not that there shouldn't be sad & lonely books! :-)

    Lourdes: Well, I'm sorry you were depressed by the book, but kind of gratified to find a kindred reaction to the lack of interaction among the characters. :-) Your comment about the lack of a traditionally artistic female character is interesting...I think there's this balance in Woolf between wanting to fight for women having an equal shot at traditionally artistic endeavors, and wanting to celebrate the things women traditionally do AS a form of art. I wrote a paper in college about Jinny and Mrs. Ramsay in this regard - how their manipulation of social situations is indeed an art form, if one less recognized & lasting than literature. And yet, I agree with you - I still crave a female artist in the traditional mold. It seems as though it could have been Rhoda, if only her imagination had been channeled differently.

  • Julia: Yes, I think the heroic/godlike perception and the knowledge of Percival's bumbling ineptness sort of peacefully coexist in the minds of the friends - or at least Bernard, Neville and Susan. Neville is so deeply enamored of Percival, but even he acknowledges that Percival is fairly stupid and would get on Neville's nerves if they lived together. But I get what kind of person Percival is - he's that very physically attractive, charismatic jock type who's always gotten everything he wants, & seems charmed. I understand how the stupidity & bumbling could coexist with that kind of charisma. And I'm not sure if Woolf is saying that this very charisma ITSELF is dangerous, or just that it becomes dangerous when paired with imperialism. Food for thought.

    Frances: Grr, I know, the captcha expires really quickly. David is looking into how to fix it. In the meantime, if you just refresh the screen in your browser it should refresh the captcha & let you comment. Sorry for the inconvenience!

    But about The Waves - yes, there is that sense that they're all floating together in the primordial goo, but that doesn't really do it for me the way the unreliable yet tangible connections in books like Mrs. Dalloway do. I'm really enjoying reading everyone else's entries, though - realizing that some people are so enthusiastic about the very aspects I dislike. And I heartily agree - so happy we're continuing to read together!!

  • Woolf's mannered writing in The Waves bothered me almost as much as the humor I didn't connect with in Orlando, Emily, but I still had a splendid time reading these four books with you, Claire, Frances, Sarah, and the rest of the readalong group. Ironically, even though you liked The Waves and I was only lukewarm about it, we both had the same reaction to it as a "lonely vision" that dwells on "the ways in which we are all separate, remote" (sorry for inverting the order in which these quotes appear in your post). I mention this now because I can finally relate to the glimmers of hope you saw in Mrs. Dalloway while I thought it was mostly dark at the time! Anyway, nice job as usual on the post and thanks for spearheading this project along with the other ladies. Cheers! P.S. To add to what Frances said about the captcha, I think it's less a time thing than that the letters are often hard to read with all the evil lines going through them. It's kinda like watching an optometrist's version of Blair Witch Project at times!

  • That's interesting that you saw the characters as isolated from each other, because I saw each of their monologues as building off of one another and combining to create a sort of Oversoul. I think The Waves had that collective conscious vibe going a lot more than Mrs. Dalloway, maybe because it's more abstract. I got the idea, mainly from Percival, that in many respects we're all just sums of other people's thoughts, ideas, and impressions. Does that make any sense? We're like memes, kind of.

  • I really struggled to decipher why I found the book so sad, since so much of what I highlighted were quotes about the characters relying on each other to complete their identities. Bernard certainly had a lot to say about needing people, but it was more of a selfish need than a connectedness. Still, he questioned who he was, and how much of what he was, was made up of his friends. He wouldn't be himself without them, and indeed at the end he seems totally lost. Your post is wonderful and has given me a lot to ponder. Now that you and Claire have used the word 'lonely' my mind is spinning and I definitely see that.

  • Emily, you and claire have given me much to ponder about the loneliness of this book, and I love the beauty of your perceptions. I agree with you about Percival (Parsifal): to me, he was the British Empire (that generation) riding off to save the world, never to return. I think that somewhere VW also suggests her brother Thoby as a model for him. Still he has always struck me as being rather a hollow center for this book (in the way that Jacob's room is empty). Or perhaps the six admire him for being what they are not. I don't know. So much, so much to ponder.
    I am truly sorry that I missed To the Lighthouse; I would love to have had your insights. Thank you for Woolf in Winter; it has been a wonderful experience!

  • Richard: Oh dear dear dear. "Blair Witch Project" is hardly the image I'd like to project. David and I are seeing what we can do about the pesky captcha issue. Re: Woolf, that's very interesting about gaining a new perspective on Mrs. Dalloway in the light of The Waves - perhaps I was unconsciously comparing them in my reactions to Mrs. Dalloway, or at least evaluating that book in the context of Woolf's larger work without realizing it. I understand where you're coming from with your reaction to The Waves; indeed, it's not my favorite either. But I'm super-glad you read along and that we get to continue on with Williams next month!! :-)

    EL Fay: I am too tired at the moment to give your post the attention it deserves, but I look forward to visiting on Sunday when I'm back online! In the meantime, I think you're definitely onto something with the Oversoul connection. Maybe it's just that I don't find that set of ideas as compelling as the ones I find in Mrs. Dalloway? I must admit to being a Western individualist at heart, even if I do dabble in other arenas.

  • Sarah: I think what you say about a "selfish need" gets to the heart of my issue with Woolf's depiction of characters' internal worlds in this novel. Indeed, replying to comments and interacting with others today has really helped me solidify my reaction in my own mind (see? human interaction!). The characters use each other, love and hate each other for their own purposes, but they never seem to reach outside those purposes to enact any empathy, and they never really seem to change based on connection with another person. Which is much different than my experience, I must say. Looking forward to visiting your post (though not til Sunday, sadly, when I get back online).

    DS: My edition (as you can see above) packages Jacob's Room together with The Waves, and I think it's such an interesting and fitting combination for the reasons you outline. Both novels are less than my favorites, yet still intriguing. Both have, as you point out, a certain hollowness, emptiness, loneliness at their centers. Both involve characters inspired by Thoby Stephen. It's a fascinating parallel. In other news, I'm so glad you found Woolf in Winter valuable! I heartily enjoyed it as well. :-)

  • Thanks for the review! I'll be reading this book eventually, and I'm looking forward to the challenge. I love all her ideas about human connection as well, so I'm curious to see for myself how it all plays out here.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography