After the Second World War, and her death in 1941, there was an unfortunate lull in interest in her work; but feminist literary criticism in the 1960s and 70s created a resurgence, with many seeing both feminist and lesbian themes in Woolf’s work that were ahead of their time.
Virginia Woolf’s work is most often classified as part of the Modernism movement, due to its use of stream-of-consciousness and impressionist writing, as well as other experimental modes, such as a surreal use of time.
The Waves is one of her most Modernist and impressionist works – in fact, it is so impressionistic that some argue it cannot even be classified as a novel.
Woolf herself called it a ‘playpoem’ in her diaries, and the language certainly veers between prose and poetry. The book begins:
“The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.”
A difficult and brilliant writer who is just as revered today as she ever was...It is only the arrangement of these lines that makes them prose rather than poetry. Read aloud they certainly sound like a poem, and the flow and metre of the sentences has clearly been considered as carefully as if it were a poem.
This lyrical style continues throughout the book (which is the safest thing to call it!), which is divided into third person descriptive passages like the opening, and chapter-long monologues spoken by six different characters – Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Louis, Neville and Jinny.
They all have distinctive personalities that still manage to complement each other, and are a close-knit group of friends. In each monologue, an omniscient narrator appears only to say, “he said, she said”: there is no other description or narrative device.
This is what makes The Waves similar to a play as well as a poem, as it could be easily read as a script with long passages of stage direction that dictate the set pieces (perhaps), but not what the characters are doing when they speak.
I say ‘perhaps’ to the set pieces, because it is not clear if the descriptive sections have anything physically to do with the six characters.
Most readings take the descriptions (all of which are of the same view of a beach, with the sun and waves moving and changing throughout the day) as metaphors for the characters’ lives and relationships.
In their monologues, the characters cover almost all aspects of life from childhood to more recent events, musing on emotions and relationships, as well as identity and sense of self.
They tell stories from their own lives, and it is through these that we learn about a seventh character, Percival, who dies halfway through the novel in India.
He is depicted as a ‘perfect’ young man, brave and noble, whose life was cut tragically short, and is thought to be based on Woolf’s brother Thoby, who died at the age of 26. His premature death forces the other characters to consider the movement of time and the fragility of life and happiness.
These were themes that Woolf explored in much of her work, and the death of her brother will no doubt have caused her to think more deeply about these things than ever before.
The Waves is Woolf’s most experimental book, and suggests that as her career and age advanced, she was increasingly willing to take risks with her work and demand more from both herself and her readers.
Her later books are still as impressionist and dream-like as her earlier works, but to me they seem more serious and concerned with the harsh reality of life.
Woolf uses her Modernist style to great effect in The Waves, almost layering it over the more serious themes and making the realities of life seem a little more poetic than they really are. It is a wonderful and thought-provoking text.
Why do you still love The Waves? What were your first impressions of this exciting, complex piece of Modernist writing?