Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is sometimes seen as a challenging novel, but here Hannah Butler proves that Woolf’s insight, originality and skill make any effort expended in tackling this beautiful work very worthwhile…
First published in 1931, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves tells six distinct stories, through the soliloquies of its six narrators, yet ultimately provides readers with overarching sentiments spanning the lives of all its main characters. The novel follows Bernard, Jinny, Rhoda, Neville, Susan and Louis through early childhood to old age, incorporating themes of school, work, marriage, children, and eventually death. Woolf demonstrates how individual narratives can weave together to form a comprehensive overview of a situation seen from many angles. Percival, a character who never narrates any part of his own story, is pieced together by the depictions of the six others.
Leaving home to go to school, whilst a “solemn moment” for Neville, who likens himself to “a lord to his halls appointed”, is torturous to Susan, whose eyes “prick with tears” and who frets about her squirrel and doves back at home. Bernard, a story-teller, “must make phrases and phrases” to avoid crying, yet Louis’ assertion “I will follow Bernard, because he is not afraid” highlights the inadequacy of one viewpoint in encompassing a situation in its entirety. Woolf’s characterisation is vivid: as the story progresses, readers begin to recognise each narrator through their distinct traits, habits and thought patterns. Bernard’s obsession with finding the perfect phrase is matched by Jinny’s fixation on her physicality, which in turn contrasts with Susan’s homely and maternal instincts.
Throughout the novel, we are privy to each character’s pains and anxieties. Particularly excruciating is Susan’s anguish as a young child, seeing Jinny kiss Louis. The piercing fusion of innocence and jealousy: “She danced flecked with diamonds light as dust. And I am squat, Bernard, I am short,” evokes heart-wrenching sympathy and compassion. Later, as Bernard’s story-telling fails him at school: “there is no longer any sentence and he sags and twiddles a bit of string and falls silent, gaping as if about to burst into tears,” we witness a young man’s failure to live up to his own expectations of himself, and others’ recognition of this agony.
Quite simply, the novel is beautiful. As the narrators mature, rising to adulthood before dimming on the brink of old age, the soliloquys are broken at intervals by powerfully descriptive images of a sun rising above waves: “an arc of fire burnt on the rim of the horizon,” gaining in height and power, “no longer half seen and guessed at,” before gradually coming down to set: “The shadows lengthened on the beach; the blackness deepened”. These visualisations evoke inescapable melancholy as we witness each character’s struggle to come to terms with death, disappointment and unfulfilled potential. The slight ambiguity and confusion clouding the novel’s opening gradually clears away as we become more and more involved in the lives of these six individual yet intricately connected characters, and the different perceptions of the world they present to us.
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