Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
After the relaxation of a satiric romp through English literary history in the novel Orlando: A Biography (1928), Woolf began the composition of the most intricate and complex of all her fictional constructions, The Waves. It could be called an “abstract novel” for, like many modern paintings, it is virtually nonrepresentational. Its mirror does not reflect easily recognizable objects or provide familiar images. Dispensing with conventional story line and fully drawn characters, the novel distills human reality and experience. Its six characters are essences without form. The reader has no idea what they look like, how they dress or move or smile. All that is known are their consciousnesses as they contemplate their passage through various stages of life from youth to old age, experiencing various changes as they grow older.
The six characters, who are about the same age and are given no surnames, have grown up together and have continued to keep track of one another as their lives took them in very different directions. Jinny and Susan balance each other as opposites, for Jinny is an urban woman, proud of her body, sensual and passionate with men, while Susan is from the country, where she eventually returns to marry a farmer and rear a family. Neville and Louis also balance as opposites, for Neville is intellectual, homosexual, and assured in the academic world, while Louis, ashamed of his Australian origin, counteracts feelings of inferiority by forcing his way to success in the business world. Rhoda is always a misfit; feeling ugly and alone, she never belongs anywhere and alienation finally drives her to commit suicide. The others continue to exhibit the basic personality traits they acquired as young children and never change internally in any...
(The entire section is 729 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The waves roll shoreward, and at daybreak the children awake. Watching the sunrise, Bernard, maker of phrases and seeker of causes, sees a loop of light—he will always think of it as a ring, the circle of experience giving life pattern and meaning. Shy, passionate Neville imagines a globe dangling against the flank of day. Susan, who loves fields and seasons, sees a slab of yellow, the crusted loaf, the buttered slice, of teatime in the country. Rhoda, awkward and timid, hears wild cries of startled birds. Sensuous, pleasure-loving Jinny sees a tassel of gold and crimson. Louis, of a race that had seen women carry red pitchers to the Nile, hears a chained beast stamping on the sands.
While the others play, Louis hides among the currants. Jinny, finding him there and pitying his loneliness, kisses him. Suddenly jealous, Susan runs away, and Bernard follows to comfort her. They walk across fields to Elvedon, where they see a woman writing at a window. Later, in the schoolroom, Louis refuses to recite because he is ashamed of his Australian accent. Rhoda is unable to do her sums and has to stay in. Louis pities her, for she is the one he does not fear.
The day brightens. Bernard, older now, yawns through the headmaster’s speech in chapel. Neville leans sideways to watch Percival, who sits flicking the back of his neck. A glance, a gesture, Neville realizes, and one could fall in love forever. Louis, liking order, sits quietly. As long as the headmaster talks, Louis forgets the snickers at his accent and memories of kisses underneath a hedge. Susan, Jinny, and Rhoda are in a school where they sit primly under a portrait of Queen Alexandra. Susan thinks of hay waving in the meadows at home. Jinny pictures a gold and crimson party dress. Rhoda dreams of picking flowers and offering them to someone whose face she has never seen.
Time passes, and the last day of the term arrives. Louis goes to work in London after his father, a Brisbane banker, had failed. In his attic room, Louis sometimes hears the great beast stamping in the dark, but now the noise is that of city crowds and traffic. At Cambridge, Neville reads Catullus and waits with uneasy eagerness for Percival’s smile or nod. Bernard is Byron’s young man one day, Shelley’s or Dostoevski’s the next. One day, Neville brings him a poem. Reading it, Bernard feels that Neville will succeed and that he will fail. Neville is in love with Percival. In his phrase making, Bernard becomes many people—a plumber, a horse breeder, an old woman on the street. In Switzerland, Susan dreams of newborn lambs in baskets, of marsh mist and autumn rains, of the lover who will walk with her beside dusty hollyhocks. At a ball in London, Jinny, dancing, feels as if her body glows with inner fire. Rhoda, at the same ball, sits and stares across the rooftops.
They all love...
(The entire section is 1167 words.)