Critical Evaluation

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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 passion of maternity.” Though relegated to this sphere by the dictates of biology, Susan at least imagines an odd sort of self-determination, a self-willed denial and isolation, which Woolf indicates with...

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the repeated phrase “I shall.”

Louis, on the other hand, voices the orderly hyperlinear reality of men’s lives: “This is life; Mr. Prentice at four; Mr. Eyres at four-thirty.” He repeatedly refers to the stability and satisfaction he receives from having this definite schedule, while Susan regards such regularity as insufferable tedium. Though multisensory in her descriptions of this ennui, Susan’s senses are muted.

Regulation holds even more complex ramifications for Neville. Even though being a poet places him in a position to order or not to order life’s elements as he sees fit, he feels beset by the gravest responsibilities. He echoes the burden of duties, weights, and obligations until it subsides after middle age. Just as Neville acknowledges that they are scarcely to be distinguished from the river—the life-source of creation—Woolf writes in the interlude immediately following that “sky and sea are themselves indistinguishable.” This expresses the ultimate permeability of boundaries between human existence and nature. Significantly, this climactic anticlimax occurs only after the “sun had sunk” and thus when darkness (a metaphor for the unconscious) is able to flow: It washes down streets, rolls its waves along grass, blows along slopes, envelops, and engulfs.

Woolf’s awareness of unconscious forces becomes clear in her portrayal of inherent contradictions, for this covering darkness must come before humans can be enlightened. Bernard’s summation soliloquy epitomizes the eternal struggle of the mind to bring ideas to light and sift the elements of life. Sensation, the subconscious, self-consciousness, sex, and guilt all lead to a sustained inquiry into selfhood. Woolf uncovers the insufferable pain of denying permeability, that is, claiming boundaries, as when the bodies of the novel’s six characters become separated. Only among themselves, Bernard reflects, is there a “body of the complete human being.” Thus can he speak of them in the first person plural (yet singular) and collective (yet individual): “our life . . . our identity.”

The blurring of separateness manifests itself when Bernard contemplates the suicide of one of this body’s parts. As he imagines his own attempt to convince Rhoda to wait and not to kill herself, he realizes he is also persuading his own soul: “For this is not one life; nor do I always know if I am man or woman, Bernard or Neville, Louis, Susan, Jinny or Rhoda—so strange is the contact of one with another.” Woolf projects her own worldview through Bernard, who sees wholes and unity as illusions. He seeks throughout his life to find something unbroken through language—a perfect unity among phrases and fragments.

At several moments throughout this soliloquy, Bernard is able to see clearly what it is that differentiates the emanations, which Woolf did not intend or perceive as individual characters; what they all have is a “rapture; their common feeling with death.” Indeed, The Waves is Woolf’s elegy to her deceased brother, Thoby. Percival is Woolf’s creation of a rare complete person who, though a victim of senseless death, is the prime antagonist. Percival’s death is a rupture in the lives and sensibilities of the six other parentless peers who make up one whole identity. At the same time, that death functions as their unifying core or nucleus. Death is both a victory and a defeat, a loss of self but at the same time an ecstatic embrace. Percival’s death, the novel’s transition and transformation point, occurs in the center of the book. The movement is from diffusion in the first half of the book (covering early childhood, school, and separate paths taken according to gender and class) to emergence in the second half, which includes their reactions to Percival’s death, middle age and the solidifying or coalescing of identities, nostalgia, the reunion dinner at court, and Bernard’s soliloquy.

Bernard defies death, which he deems the enemy, but he is able to do so only by his acceptance of and belief in the “eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.” The oscillating waves suggest the undercurrents of Woolf’s novel, the undertow that pulls humans into the extension of their selves, the quickening of memory and deepening of perception, and, intermittently, allows them to surface. Given that the early titles for this novel included “The Life of Anybody” or “Life in General,” part of Woolf’s search may have been for a voiceless, characterless form of expression that could contribute to the work’s profoundly surreal quality. A complex part of that quest is, inevitably, an ongoing individuation of self while that self is almost antithetically in communion with the other (or, in this case, others). Rhoda achieves this—as Woolf herself would later—in the ultimate isolation of suicide.

The Waves represents the refinement of Woolf’s subjective novels and possibly an attempt to transform the genre. The writing in The Waves is generative rather than conclusive, recursive rather than discursive. Woolf demonstrates that, like waves, the experience of being in the world constitutes a fluid, perpetual process of reconstruction.


The Waves