I’ve been waiting to write about The Waves until after I met with my Read More Woolf reading group. I hoped that our meeting would give me some extra insight about this difficult and complex novel — I already appreciated its beauty and extraordinary form, but I know there is a great deal more for me to grasp. Those of you who have already read and/or studied and/or taught The Waves, please chime in in the comments!
I have a bit of a hard time labeling The Waves a novel. There is no story, character, or plot as we are used to encountering them. Instead, the book is a long exploration of individual and community, told by six voices (I don’t want to call them characters — Woolf herself rejected this term, calling them “figures”), three men and three women, who develop in a slow arc from childhood to adulthood. The structure, with the “dialogue” of the voices (each segment of prose is couched as though one of the figures “says” it, but the flow of the prose is entirely internal), is like the waves of the title: each wave is distinct, but they all flow together in the community of the tide. This is high Modernism, where structure is story and form is entirely function. Without the experiment, the content would not exist; likewise, without the force of the personalities — Bernard, Neville, Louis, Rhoda, Susan, and Jinny — the structure would fall to bits. The prose is powerful, delicate, beautiful, repetitive. It’s like absolutely nothing else I’ve read.
As I mentioned, the six voices are not delineated as characters as we usually see them in novels. Each voice, or figure, has its own primary characteristics: Susan, for instance, belongs to the land (and if you wanted to caricature her, she’s a bit D.H. Lawrence-y, all having babies and walking around in the frost. She reminded me of Judith in Cold Comfort Farm.) Bernard makes phrases. Neville, because he cannot have the boy he fell in love with at school, falls in love with one boy after another — and so on. These characteristics are repeated over and over, recognizable even when nothing else is. Is this a weakness in the book? Are the figures merely types?
I argue that they are not. Woolf begins the book with the young childhood of the six figures, when their perception is almost all of physical things, what’s around them: the dappled sun, the prickly hedge, a sudden kiss. The figures’ development into their primary characteristics is a slow arc from these first pages, and it comes from their experiences — school, religion, sport — as well as their relationships with each other. Their six-person community, interdependent and tight-knit, is as important as each figure within it. These are not stock types, they are as real as people can be.
Still, the book can be annoyingly repetitive. I never grasped Rhoda’s character, a will-o-the-wisp type who is terrified of her own shadow. She is always fleeing somewhere, always hiding behind pillars and waiters on her way to her seat in a restaurant, and I found myself terribly impatient with her character. The repetition of each figure’s characteristics (phrases; nature; animal passions; whatever) got tiring at times, as well. These are the waves, I suppose. And then I had to take a step back and admit it was brilliant. Woolf took the water imagery she introduced way back in The Voyage Out and made it something new: something that meant separation and connection, constant perception in the moment and also eternity.
There is, actually, a seventh figure in the book that I haven’t mentioned: Percival. I haven’t spoken of him because he doesn’t speak. All six of the other figures talk about him, and in some sense gather around him, but Percival has no voice. The other six meet him around the time they go to school (they don’t know him as young children, so he’s not one of their initial group.) He functions almost as a godlike figure in this religionless group: he shines, he is beloved, he is utterly central — the reason for their gatherings for years — and then he dies. Why is he deprived of a voice? I theorize that Woolf is showing us something else about community: even with its minor god taken away or unable to speak, this community continues to exist. It is not the bright light at the center that matters, it is the hazy halo outside that is so beautiful. (Percival is linked to imperialist images, as well, and his voicelessness says some interesting things about Woolf’s thoughts on empire.)
This book pushes the bounds of an experiment, in some ways. Woolf doesn’t give us very much, in the way of an authorial hand up. But pushing past the barrier is worth while: the insight into human nature, the vision of perception and communication as part of the natural world, the urgency of experience, all are so marvelously expressed that almost any barrier at all would be.