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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

The Waves , by Virginia Woolf, is a novel published in 1931. This novel is divided into nine different sections, which correspond to various parts of the lives of the six main characters: Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda. The first section of the novel is about the characters'...

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The Waves, by Virginia Woolf, is a novel published in 1931. This novel is divided into nine different sections, which correspond to various parts of the lives of the six main characters: Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda. The first section of the novel is about the characters' childhoods and time at school. The second section of the novel is about their adolescence. The third section of the novel is about the characters' times as young adults. The fourth section of the novel takes place at a dinner party. The fifth section of the novel discusses the death of a friend of all of the characters. The sixth section of the novel describes the characters as adults. The seventh section of the novel presents the characters as middle-aged. In the eighth section of the novel, the characters meet again as adults. In the final section of the novel, Bernard ponders the lessons that he and his friends have learned in their lives.

All of these characters meet as very young children in a nursery. Each character has his or her own personality, and the reader learns more about how the characters interact with one another through this first section of the novel. When the children go to boarding school, the boys attend one school and the girls another. The boys meet a new character named Percival, who becomes friends with all of the six main characters. Neville especially likes Percival.

As an adult, Susan gets married and has children. Louis, Rhoda, Neville, and Jinny all move to London. Louis is employed at a shipping company. Neville becomes a professor. Jinny becomes a socialite. Bernard moves to Waterloo, but his exact profession is unknown. Percival tells his friends that he is moving to India, and Bernard declares that he is getting married.

Readers learn that the mutual friend who dies is Percival, who falls from his horse while in India. Right around the time Percival dies, Bernard has a son.

The novel ends with Bernard reflecting on his life and the relationships he has made along the way. He tries to decipher his own philosophy of life and comes to the conclusion that his life has had ups and downs but that he will always continue trying.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1167

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 Percival. Before he leaves for India, they meet at a dinner party in London to bid him good-bye. Bernard, not knowing that Susan loves him, is already engaged. Louis is learning to cover his shyness with brisk assurance; the poet has become a businessman. Rhoda is frightened by life. Waiters and diners look up when Jinny enters, lovely and poised. Susan arrives looking dowdy, hating London. Neville, loving Percival in secret, dreads the moment of parting that will carry him away. Here, thinks Bernard, is the ring he had seen long ago. Youth is friendship and a stirring in the blood, like the notes of Percival’s wild hunting song.

The sun passes the zenith, and shadows lengthen. When word comes that Percival has been killed in India, Neville feels as if that doom has been his own. He will go on to become a famous poet and scholar, always a lonely man waiting in his rooms for the footstep on the stair of this young man or that whom he will love in place of Percival. Bernard is married by now, and his son has been born. He thinks of Susan, whom Percival had loved. Rhoda also thinks of Susan, engaged to her farmer in the country. She remembers the dream in which she had offered flowers to a man whose face had been hidden from her, and she knows at last that the man had been Percival.

Shadows grow longer over country and town. Louis, a wealthy, successful businessman, plans a place in Surrey with greenhouses and rare gardens. He still keeps his attic room, though, where Rhoda often visits; they have become lovers. Susan walks in the fields with her children or sits sewing by the firelight in a quiet room. Jinny grooms a body shaped for gaiety and pleasure. Neville measures time by the hours he spends waiting for the footstep on the stair, the young face at the door. Bernard tries to snare in phrases the old man on the train, the lovers in the park. The only realities, he thinks, are in common things. He realizes that he has lost friends by death—Percival for one—and others because he had not wished to cross the street. After Louis and Rhoda part, Louis gets a new mistress: a vulgar cockney actor. Rhoda, always in flight, goes to Spain. Climbing a hill to look across the sea toward Africa, she thinks of rest and longs for death.

Slowly, the sun sets. At Hampton Court, the six friends meet again for dinner. They are old now, and each had gone a different way after Percival had died in India years before. Bernard feels that he has failed. He had wrapped himself in phrases; he had sons and daughters, but he had ventured no farther than Rome. He had not become rich, like Louis, or famous, like Neville. Jinny had lived only for pleasure, little enough, as she was learning. After dinner, Bernard and Susan walk by the lake. There is little of their true thoughts they can say to each other. Bernard, however, is still a maker of phrases. Percival, he says, had become like the flower on the table where they ate—six-sided, made from their six lives.

So it seems to Bernard years later, after Rhoda had jumped to her death and the rest are even older. He wonders what the real truth had been beneath Louis’s middle-class respectability, Rhoda’s haunted imagination, Neville’s passion for one love, Susan’s primitivism, Jinny’s sensuous pleasures, his own attempt to catch reality in a phrase. He had been Byron’s young man and Dostoevski’s and also the hairy old savage in the blood. Once he had seen a loop of light, a ring, but he had found no pattern and no meaning, only the knowledge that death is the great adversary against whom humans ride in the darkness where the waves break on the shore.

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