Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In The Waves, Virginia Woolf explores the fictional representation of the unconscious and the connection between the unconscious and fluidity, the interplay of which permeates the text. Images and suggestions of fluid elements permeate the text and extend from the book’s title through its closing line, “The waves broke on the shore.” Bernard invites Susan to explore a new idyllic world of fluid, unshackled communication where “the lady sits between the two long windows, writing.”

Woolf expresses this idea of fluidity most purely in the interludes. In the first interlude, “Everything became softly amorphous, as if the china of the plate flowed and the steel of the knife were liquid.” The fluidity of formerly concrete objects, the liquidity of formerly blunt or sharp ones, constitutes a metamorphosis metaphor throughout the novel, as in the interlude “A plate was like a white lake.” When the sun sinks, in a later interlude, the iron black boot becomes “a pool of deep blue,” and the rocks “lose their hardness.”

Tellingly, Neville, who hates “dangling” or “dampish things,” is the most resistant to the disruption caused by such fluidity. He insists on order. Somewhat ironically, he is the spokesperson for the powerless frustration of being appropriated by someone else’s language when he says, “We are all phrases in Bernard’s story.” Neville alludes to the illusory nature of linguistic mastery and critiques allegedly guaranteed meanings: “Nothing should be named lest by so doing we change it.”

Bernard, the discriminating phrase maker, uses language in ways that satisfy his ego. When describing how and what he will write to impress his woman friend with his profundity, he acknowledges his ability to appropriate events. After his discussion with Neville, Bernard alludes to the power to create and re-create the self, or selves, that constitutes a presence: “I am Bernard; I am Byron; I am this, that and the other. . . . For I am more selves than Neville thinks.”

Woolf’s idealistic vision of the emerging self is possible only when the feminine and masculine permeate each other. This androgyny is given its most physical manifestation in the most body-oriented of the characters, Jinny, who describes many experiences in terms of fluid interaction between men and women. Jinny, who objectifies herself in the looking glass, reflects both literally and figuratively on the limitations of language for her. To experience the warmth and privacy of another soul, Jinny must first be fluid. She claims in the passage immediately preceding a dance with a melancholy romantic man, “I flutter. I ripple. I stream like a plant in the river, flowing this way, flowing that way.”

Conversely, Rhoda expresses, indeed exemplifies, what happens to those who are not fluid or permeable: “What I say is perpetually contradicted. I am to be broken. I am to be derided all my life. . . . The wave breaks. I am also a girl, here in this room.” As a girl confined to a certain definable space, both her speech and her very existence are subject to contradiction.

Confined in a way different from Rhoda, Susan makes it her ambition to “have more” than either Rhoda or Jinny has, and she will do so through her children. She personifies the cyclic nature of women’s lives and realities: childbearing and rearing, about which she is strangely ambivalent when she declares that “I shall be debased and hide-bound by the bestial and beautiful...

(The entire section is 1442 words.)