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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Uniquely distinctive in the complexity of its construction and the highly abstracted approach to narrative, The Waves is often considered Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece. More than any other of her works, it cemented her reputation as an originator and preeminent practitioner of English modernist literature. While significant elements from the characters’ lives are shown to influence their growth, Woolf does not organize these concepts into conventional modes of character “development.” Rather, she allows the reader to dwell in the interior of their hearts, minds, and—some would argue—souls. The arrangement of their monologues sometimes appears like an actual conversation among them, while at other times the reader gains the impression of reading one person’s diary or even a fictional account. The sense of not being anchored in time or space is supported by the central conceit of the waves, as life’s hardest lessons beat against the shore of routine daily life; this impression is compounded by other sea- and ship-related metaphors.

Percival, paradoxically, is the central character but the only one who does not speak or think. The reader’s impressions of him all derive from the other characters’ vision of the missing man. We learn that he has died in the British military in India, in an accident rather than in battle. Although one woman, Rhoda, is also described as having died, we do hear from her at various points. This incongruity leads the reader to wonder what foreshadowing of Rhoda’s suicide Woolf may have inserted.

Several of the characters, who have known each other since they were children, have strong feelings for each other. Sibling- or parent-like affection, sexual passion, and jealousy are among the recurring emotions. For those who loved Percival but did not express their feelings, and for others who feel they failed him in some way, guilt and remorse structure their thoughts, often growing stronger as they age. Because of the multi-layered structure, the reader often does not know the character’s age when they are speaking of particular events of relationships. Some readers find this instability troubling, while many have called the work “Cubist’ in that in some ways it better approximates genuine human thoughts processes and memories than does a “realist” plot and character descriptions.

The novel opens with a page-long, complicated description of light over the beach and the powerful force of the waves. Returning to the point where it began, after Bernard cries out against Death, the novel’s last paragraph is one short, simple sentence: “The waves broke on the shore.”

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