Woolf in Winter: The Waves

“Now let us issue from the darkness of solitude,” said Louis.

“Now let us say, brutally and directly, what is in our minds,” said Neville. “Our isolation, our preparation, is over. The furtive days of secrecy and hiding, the revelations on staircases, moments of terror and ecstasy.”

As a story of friendship, especially between among a group, The Waves is unparalleled in my experience. This almost serves to make it alienating: this group of six people is knit impossibly together; are my relationships really this intense? Are they woven so tightly that one day, like Bernard, I will ask how we are even separated, when there is no obstacle between us?

But it’s this intense relationship that gives rise to the form of The Waves, which interests me more: the alternating soliloquies of six characters, along with a (superficially) unrelated third-person narrative. The novel is a kind of literary cubism whose effect is described at one point by Bernard:

We have come together (from the North, from the South, from Susan’s farm, from Louis’s house of business) to make one thing, not enduring—for what endures?—but seen by many eyes simultaneously. There is a red carnation in that vase. A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves—a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.

This is really experimental; it’s just “said Bernard,” “said Susan,” “said Rhoda,” “said Neville,” “said Jinny,” “said Louis,” “said Bernard,” jarring and disorienting the reader, making him work. Who are these voices speaking to, if they are speaking at all? To the narrator? Who is the audience? But one thing is clear: even if there is no listener, even if the characters are silent, they are speaking, at least in their own heads. These are not the thoughts laid bare of Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. The statements in The Waves are performative, confessional, self-aware. And we find out from quotes like that above that at least some of the time, the friends are talking, and some of the time they are talking to each other.

This speaking brutally, directly, freely does not happen only among friends. In fact, despite Neville’s command, Bernard hints at the beginning of his climactic 60-page monologue that it happens best between strangers: “Since we do not know each other (though I met you once I think on board a ship going to Africa) we can talk freely.” He proceeds to do so, at length, stretching the form of the novel back to something much less avant-garde* but at the same time deepening the emotional and psychological content to a breaking point. When Bernard is given more than a few paragraphs at a time to examine and confess himself, he digs through layers I cannot penetrate. Woolf’s poetic emotional imagery, so effective earlier in the novel with six voices buffeting the reader, fails for me here, and for a moment I almost feel she has been self-indulgent. I read Bernard’s confession of the joys and horrors of human existence and think, yes, but wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.** Of course, that’s exactly what Woolf is trying to fight against with this seven-sided red carnation of a novel. It was a lifelong and a noble battle.

Although I think this reaches too far, or at least to a place I can’t follow, Woolf’s genius is clearly still at work. She meticulously plants dozens of motifs that will work through the threads of all the characters lives. Idle predictions come true, childhood memories resurface, moments in time and thought are distilled into magical phrases. There are great crests and troughs of joy and pain, each character telling of it in his own personal wave imagery. Right now I take as especially wonderful Louis and Rhoda, who “trust only in solitude and the violence of death,” and while much of Bernard eludes me, not all: “No fin breaks the waste of this immeasurable sea.”


The Waves marks the last of Woolf in Winter. Visit Claire at Kiss a Cloud, who is hosting this week’s installment, for more on The Waves. Thanks, Claire!


*This soliloquy, along with the intercalary chapters of more traditional narration, make the whole form a bit more traditional. There is no plot, there is no story, but there is; Bernard desperately wants to tell a story and he gets a lot of space to try. Even though Woolf may be at the height of her innovation here, Bernard does note:

After all, one cannot find fault with the biographic style if one begins letters ‘Dear Sir,’ ends them ‘yours faithfully’; one cannot despise these phrases laid like Roman roads across the tumult of our lives, since they compel us to walk in step like civilised people with the slow and measured tread of policemen though one may be humming any nonsense under one’s breath at the same time…

**”What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

12 comments to Woolf in Winter: The Waves

  • So interesting that you were struck by the intensity of the characters’ friendships, Nicole, whereas I experienced them as gazing over an insurmountable void, hardly able to perceive each other at all. It’s true that they think about each other a lot, and that certain actions of one will resurface years later in the thoughts of another. I suppose the imaginative empathy of one character for another, which I love in Mrs. Dalloway, was missing. There’s no desire on the part of any of the characters to help their friends become more fully realized – for example, when Percival dies, Bernard only thinks of who HE most wants to see, not who would most benefit from seeing him. Neville is a kind of leech off his lovers; he doesn’t believe he’s offering them anything in return for what they’re giving him. It strikes me as unbalanced in that way; my reality involves more give-and-take, trying to understand life from another’s perspective as well as my own, even if that effort is most of the time doomed to failure or, at best, only partial success…

    I agree about Bernard’s final monologue, though – the first time I read the book I was horrified at what I perceived as him “taking over” the novel (selfishly, since for petty personal reasons he is my least-favorite of the six). Now I feel like I understand more what Woolf was after, but I still think it’s the weakest part of the book.

  • Eva

    I think it’s interesting to see how the style changes from most of the book to Bernard’s soliloquy at the end. I agree that it makes the book feel more traditional, but both halves seem to enhance the other. Of course, I still wish Bernard hadn’t been the one getting the spotlight, since I don’t like him as much as Susan or Jinny, but it does feel the most ‘writerly’ of the characters, so I wasn’t surprised. I think I’m rambling too much! But I very much enjoyed reading your post. :)

  • It’s funny, I didn’t think the friends were ever talking to each other. The best opportunity for that seemed to be their first reunion in a restaurant; but I came away with an impression of each observing their own perceptions of and reactions to the others. What they actually said was alluded to but not recorded–because it was trivial. Wow, this makes me think of a social fantasy: What if I could sit here with a tape recorder in my mind and keep a record of all my thoughts and feelings about the people around me. A good thing that’s impossible. Because it would be even more trivial than what I said; not literary at all.

  • “She meticulously plants dozens of motifs that will work through the threads of all the characters lives. Idle predictions come true, childhood memories resurface, moments in time and thought are distilled into magical phrases.”

    Your use of the word “plant” is especially appropriate here I think as I feel her writing so self-conscious in this book. I think that her craft is always evident but nowhere more than here. And that brings to mind all those issues with language, authenticity, subjectivity in The Waves. There is so much here.

    Great post as usual, and thanks so much for joining these conversations.

  • I wondered the same thing, too, “Are my relationships this intense?” I also found the repeated use of ‘said’ jarring, but it helped to know that Virginia wrote this book as a play-poem (her words). Then I could just relax and read it all as a poem, which I don’t plan on fully comprehending in the first place. Poems are so much of an illustration of something, as I find Virginia doing in the books of hers I’ve read; it seems that something is always symbolizing something else. Now, I just need to figure out where, exactly, the connections lie beyond the vague images I conjure up.

  • Yes, ‘plants’ is such an apt term! Woolf painstakingly crafted this novel, and as such it is almost rigid in the intensity of its purpose. And yet those seeds of images that she plants in the beginning and which grow throughout the book were one of my favorite aspects.

  • I hadn’t thought about the six being knit so intensely together. I felt much the same way Emily did, that each one’s inner self was impenetrable to the rest, but now I do think you have a point, and I find that there is a balance here between your point and Emily’s point. So interesting.

    I also thought Bernard’s final monologue a bit unbalanced in relation to the rest of the novel, but must admit that I found it one of the parts I most enjoyed and one of the least tedious. I realize it’s the least experimental and does feel at times that it opposes the real purpose of the book, however, I thought his musings about the passing of life so enlightening. Maybe Woolf felt compelled to put in on there to satisfy her need to explain even a little what the whole book really boils down to and what she really, finally meant to say? I don’t know. This book really still eludes me. Don’t know if I’ll ever reread it again, though it definitely will stay with me.

    Thanks so much for reading along, Nicole! I always love reading your thoughts as you make always make a lot of sense and I always learn something from you.

  • I found your post thought-provoking: ‘Who are these voices speaking to, if they are speaking at all? To the narrator? Who is the audience? But one thing is clear: even if there is no listener, even if the characters are silent, they are speaking, at least in their own heads. These are not the thoughts laid bare of Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. The statements in The Waves are performative, confessional, self-aware.’

    As I mentioned to you on Twitter, after I had written my post I read somewhere that the characters in The Waves may all be seen as aspects of Woolf herself, except perhaps for Lewis, the “outsider”, who represented Leonard Woolf, who was Jewish. I found this rather “explained” things; the different aspects of Woolf were “talking” to one another, and Bernard being the story-teller, got to tell the story, as it were.

    One thing is certain though. We all have different ideas about the book, and it has stretched and challenged us, and I think that is what good literature is about.

  • nicole

    Emily: There’s no desire on the part of any of the characters to help their friends become more fully realized
    No, I think, on the contrary, they are much more concerned with themselves becoming fully realized by acquiring the traits of their friends. Not in any kind of sinister way, but their desire for personal completion is inward- rather than outward-facing.

    Julia: It’s funny, I didn’t think the friends were ever talking to each other. The best opportunity for that seemed to be their first reunion in a restaurant; but I came away with an impression of each observing their own perceptions of and reactions to the others.
    Certainly your impression is a popular one, but I will maintain my reading. My first quote above is from that restaurant scene, and in at least one of the restaurant scenes Louis and Rhoda have a parenthetical aside together in which they are fairly clearly talking to each other. Not talking in any kind of normal, everyday way that a person would actually do—but “saying,” “confessing” in the terms of the novel, I definitely believe.

    Frances: Your use of the word “plant” is especially appropriate here I think as I feel her writing so self-conscious in this book. I think that her craft is always evident but nowhere more than here.
    I actually had “place” or something less specific but went back and revised it thinking the exact same thing. It seems to happen to me every time, but when I flip through a Woolf novel to look back at passages I’ve flagged I’m surprised at how much her craft is evident even from a quick lookback (rather than a full re-read). Here, in The Waves, I thought in many ways she failed the most, because her ambition was so great. But still, the craft was there, amazingly strongly.

    Bellezza: Now, I just need to figure out where, exactly, the connections lie beyond the vague images I conjure up.
    Yes, that is part of the problem with letting her words wash over you the way at least I often do. And what re-reads are for!

    Claire: I realize it’s the least experimental and does feel at times that it opposes the real purpose of the book, however, I thought his musings about the passing of life so enlightening. Maybe Woolf felt compelled to put in on there to satisfy her need to explain even a little what the whole book really boils down to and what she really, finally meant to say?
    I wouldn’t say it was unenlightening; however, I did think she felt somehow “compelled” to put it in. But the road not taken is very difficult to imagine; who could say what the novel would really be without that final passage?

    Violet: I found this rather “explained” things; the different aspects of Woolf were “talking” to one another, and Bernard being the story-teller, got to tell the story, as it were.
    I especially like your point about Bernard getting to be the storyteller, because he certainly is, grasping at it the way he does at the end—where did I hear someone mention he was like the Ancient Mariner?

  • I too agree with the plants. it suits them the better. the book seems to be more matured, poetic, hearty and touching. The author seems to be more lively and matured persons fetches the life of the women. Awesome

  • With apologies for the tardiness of my visit, Nicole, I’d like to let you know that I thought this was a really interesting post! Love both the “literary cubism” comment you commence with and the reminder you bring up about Bernard’s reference to a stranger during his “climactic monologue.” Who is “the audience,” indeed? And the Wittgenstein quote! Don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but the Argentine novelist and literary critic and Princeton professor Ricardo Piglia (one of my favorite writers) uses the same Wittgenstein quote as one of the conceptual launch pads for his great 1980 work Artificial Respiration, written during the height of the ’70s/’80s military dictatorship there. How nice to run into that quote in an altogether different context here!

  • nicole

    Thanks! No, I’m not at all familiar with Ricardo Piglia, but that sounds amazing. You can be sure I’ll look into this novel, between my love of the Tractatus and the fact I want to read some Latin American fiction this year.

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