The Waves is Woolf at her most unreachable, Woolf transmitting her highest art. Consequently it is also Woolf at her hardest to read, and as a person who generally likes to guzzle books down taking the time to give credit to Woolf’s great work was difficult. Yet worthwhile, I think. Very worthwhile.
The Waves follows the lives of six people: Bernard, Neville, Louis, Susan, Jinny and Rhoda, starting at their childhood in the nursery school they went to together and following them to their deaths. There is a seventh person, the silent Percival, who I will get to later. Their stories are told in blocks of perspective: Bernard speaks, Susan speaks, Louis speaks and so on, and this is the only perspective we receive barring the interludes between chapters in which the waves, the scenery, the time of day are described, forming a frame through which we view the passage of time. Yet the waves do not change.
To understand the challenge of The Waves, I think it’s best to allow the book to speak for itself. From the beginning:
‘The back of my hand burns,’ said Jinny, ‘but the palm is clammy and damp with dew.’
‘Now the cock crows like a spurt of hard, red water in the white tide,’ said Bernard.
‘Birds are singling up and down and in and out all round us,’ said Susan.
‘The beast stamps; the elephant with its foot chained; the great brute on the beach stamps,’ said Louis.
‘Look at the house, said Jinny, ‘with all its windows white with blinds.’
‘Cold water begins to run from the scullery tap,’ said Rhoda, ‘over the mackerel in the bowl.’
The initial part of The Waves is brief and choppy in that way, though later in the book each character is given greater space to speak and at this point I began to find it much easier to read. At this point, also, each character started to resolve into a distinct personality and it is testament to Woolf’s skill at characterisation that with so brief a remit she can draw something distinct from each character. I started to see how each resolved into a kind of conflict: Bernard and his ‘phrases’ whose personality was changeable and existed only through and in the presence of others; Louis who could never forget his origins, who felt he didn’t ‘fit in’, who wanted to expunge his history with another, more noble origin; Neville who was sharp, who was true and somehow unforgiving, who loved one only (Percival); Susan who is of the earth, a person rooted in land and property; Jinny who is of the body, who is immediate and quick and of the moment; Rhoda who is uncertain who she is, who desires to be invisible, to be not herself, who finds being a challenge and a constant conflict of fear. There is a sense here and throughout the book that Woolf is exploring herself, exploring the nature of identity, what separates and unites us, how we are made and unmade by the perspective of others who surround us. Of all Woolf’s works I have read so far, this is the one in which Woolf the woman is most heavily present. You get the sense, almost, that you are exploring her mind, exploring her questing and imagining, her questions about the nature of who and what she is.
In some respects Woolf presents this quite openly. Here, it seems Woolf addresses criticism of her work in which plot is often notably absent:
“But then Rhoda, or it may be Louis, some fasting and anguished spirit, passes through and out again. They want a plot, do they? They want a reason? It is not enough for them, this ordinary scene. It is not enough to wait for the thing to be said as if it were written; to see the sentence lay its dab of clay precisely on the right place, making character; to perceive, suddenly, some group in outline against the sky. Yet if they want violence, I have seen death and murder and suicide all in one room. One comes in, one goes out. There are sobs on the staircase. I have heard threads broken and knots tied and the quiet stitching of white cambric going on and on on the knees of a woman.”
Here, through Rhoda, she appears to explore the difficulties of being trapped in society life:
“’Oh, life, how I have dreaded you,’ said Rhoda, ‘oh human beings how I have hated you! How you have nudged, how you have interrupted, how hideous you have looked in Oxford Street, how squalid sitting opposite each other staring in the Tube! Now as I climb this mountain, from the top of which I shall see Africa, my mind is printed with brown-paper parcels and your faces. I have been stained by you and corrupted. You smell so unpleasant too, lining up outside doors to buy tickets. All were dressed in indeterminate shades of grey and brown, never even a blue feather pinned to a hat. None had the courage to be one thing rather than another. What dissolution of the soul you demanded in order to get through one day, what lies, bowing, scrapings, fluency and servility! How you chained me to one spot, one hour, one chair and sat yourself down opposite! How you snatched from me the white spaces that lie between hour and hour and rolled them into dirty pellets and tossed them into the wastepaper basket with your greasy paws. Yet those were my life.”
Then there is the enigmatic Percival. Percival never speaks for himself in The Waves, though he appears to be the pivotal point around which the others circle. Percival is loved by all, envied by some. Neville is evidently in love with Percival. Percival loves Susan, yet she refuses him. Percival is a hero who dies an un-heroic death at the age of twenty-five, falling from his horse in India. His death is a shockwave to the others, having invested Percival with all their expectations. And yet Percival never has real presence or weight in the book, we never really see nor hear him. We only know of his influence and the impact of his passing. It is an interesting approach, perhaps taking the premise of Jacob’s Room even further by denying Percival any voice at all.
It is an interesting book, The Waves. There is so much to say about it that I simply don’t have the space to get into here. Its style is unusual, it is the most inaccessible of Woolf’s books (so far) and yet it is the most thought-provoking and the most beautiful. It is so stunningly written, it is pure poetry from start to finish. It is a book to read slowly and to savour, a book to return to, to read in short bursts and then over again. It is framed by the concept of waves, it has a wave-like structure and a wave-like rhythm to its words. The protagonists speak in waves and then disappear. It was interesting, also, to see the appearance and re-appearance of the motif of the moth, as Woolf started the book as ‘The Moths’ and then changed it later, yet didn’t remove the concept entirely. Moths, waves: the idea runs through the book of something beating, something flowing forwards and backwards, sending ripples out into the world. It certainly creates ripples, ones which I need time and repetition to confront and understand.
It would be wrong to say I loved this book. I didn’t love it; I found it hard to read, exhausting at times. Yet it is beautifully written, thought-provoking and inspiring. I appreciate the artistry that has gone into its making and I know it is a book I will return to when I am better able to read slowly and absorb all of its wisdom. It is a wise book, it is explorative, it presents a lot of questions around being and identity which I don’t think it answers but prompts the reader to similarly question. It is pure poetry, and like poetry it takes time to absorb, it is something to be read, re-read and unpicked slowly. It is not a book to be swallowed down in great gulps, it takes patience though I think it rewards in equal measure. It is a book to be scribbled on and scribbled over in great quantity, and I cannot do it justice here. One must simply read it, and then again in ten years time read it again. A book for all time, and a great work of art. Whether or not you enjoy the book, I think you have to respect it. And I do.
The Waves receives a thought-provoked 9 out of 10 Biis.