What’s not to like about Virginia Woolf’s prose? It overflows with ripe visual and auditory experience, and marks her as one of the lyrical greats.
Regarded as Woolf’s most experimental novel, The Waves (1931) traces the lives of six characters from childhood through to adulthood. Bernard, Rhoda, Jinny, Louis, Neville and Susan—speak in what Woolf termed ‘dramatic soliloquies’, which are interspersed with sections of prose of one to two pages in length that focus on water and waves at various points of the day. There is no authorial ‘voice’ or narrator presenting the story for us; we see mainly through the six characters’ eyes. Events occur, yet there is no plot as such—hardly surprising for an author who saw the main purpose of the novel as the exploration of character. Woolf’s trademark poetic prose is thus a vehicle for her characters to internalise developments in their lives and understand their sense of identity. It is interesting that the characters ‘speak’ in these dramatic soliloquies rather than talk to each other and yet one of Woolf’s concerns is interconnectedness!
This interconnectedness is reflected in part of Bernard’s long soliloquy that ends the novel in which he reflects [p212] on his individuality thus:
… it is not one life I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.
(By-the-by, I love a good semi-colon, don’t you?)
Consciousness for Woolf is, as Kate Flint writes in her introduction, somewhat similar to waves, “with their incessant, recurrent dips and crests … consciousness is … fluid”. The language used by the characters links them, with constant references to water, waves and light—a commonality that also links the sections of prose. In her diary at the time, Woolf wrote constantly of her own state of mind and activities in terms of waves and water. Of course, water features prominently in some of her other novels, such as The Voyage Out (1915) and the wonderful To The Lighthouse (1927).
Blurring the lines between prose and poetry is nothing new for Woolf, whose stories are rife with lyrical and poetic images. There is the unforgettable (p73):
Now the day stirs. Colour returns. The day waves yellow with all its crops.
There is line after line of such prose… another example (p7):
Flower after flower is specked on the depths of green. The petals are harlequins.
We are presented with early clues on how this story will be an exploration of what it means to be conscious: [p8]: “The leaves went on moving. … What moved the leaves? What moved me heart, my legs?”
How is this for an observation from Rhoda as a child in the classroom she shares with the others: [p14]:
I am left alone to find an answer. The figures mean nothing now. Meaning has gone. The clock ticks. The two hands are convoys marching through a desert. The black bars on the clock face are green oases. The long hand has marched ahead to find water. The other, painfully stumbles among hot stones in the desert. It will die in the desert.
I don’t know how it can be believed that children think in these wildly poetic terms, with such flair, but after questioning that for a moment I realise I don’t care – how can you when writing and imagery is that good?
One of the most striking aspects of the writing is the amount of colour served up by Woolf’s cast of characters, all of whom seem predisposed to note the finest details. This is carried over into the narrator’s short meditations on waves too. Take, for instance, the start of the third such section [p54]:
The sun rose. Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore, gilding the ribs of the eaten-out boat and making the sea-holly and its mailed leaves gleam blue as steel. Light almost pierced the thin swift waves as they raced fan-shaped over the beach. The girl who had shaken her head and made all the jewels, the topaz, the aquamarine, the water-coloured jewels with sparks of fire in them, dance, now bared her brows and with wide-opened eyes drove a straight pathway over the waves.
Yet for all its undoubted brilliance, this is a very difficult book to like. It is difficult to ‘get into’ as they say. The fact that there is no central protagonist doesn’t assist the reader in this regard, not does the overt lack of plot, nor ultimately does the overly poetic language. It is not language which most people would use to tell their story, to reflect on the meaning of their lives. The result is a distinct inaccessibility.
I had similar feelings after I read Mrs Dalloway. She was just too vacuous a character for me to like. I realise this was the point of the story, to satire such people, and so on this account it is a brilliant satire, but it wasn’t an enjoyable story. Yet the writing was sublimely lyrical. It is exactly the same with The Waves. That said, I feel there are many layers to this book, or at least I suspect there might be, layers which may become more appreciated with a second reading; for instance, it is said that Woolf based the six characters on people she knew, people like TS Eliot. What is also interesting is how much of her own life comes through into the lives of her six – Rhoda commits suicide, as does the very troubled Septimus in Mrs Dalloway. One can see the great swings that Woolf herself must have suffered when reading the characters’ observations at the various points of their lives: as children with all their sense of promise, through to old age, when life’s die has been cast, positively or negatively.
What are the parameters by which we should judge a book as ‘great’? Wonderful language? Originality and experimentation with form? The inability to forget it once finished? Certainly there are others, but if it were just these three, then The Waves could indeed be judged as something approaching greatness.
So how to conclude these musings? I can see that in some moments I’d read The Waves and think ‘what abstract tosh!’, whilst in others think ‘what brilliance!’ Can you see where my love-hate comes from?
For now, I think I’ll go with something in between, but I’ll never forget the ‘day waving yellow with all its crops’. Sublime.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
Source: The Local Municipal Library.