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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

This novel by Virginia Woolf uses stream of consciousness to reveal the thoughts of a group of friends who look back onto their childhoods and significant aspects of their lives, including their changing relationships with each other. Sea and waves are repeated metaphors for diverse aspects of their moods and the overall atmosphere that the author evokes.

Woolf begins the book with a description of the waves crashing onto the beach and the shifting colors in the sky as the sun begins to rise. To describe the changing light, she uses an extended metaphor of a woman holding a lamp. This luxurious descriptive passage sets the tone for the abundant descriptions that the third-person omniscient narrator and many of the characters make throughout the novel.

[T]he sky cleared as if the white sediment there had sunk, or as if the arm of a woman couched beneath the horizon had raised a lamp and flat bars of white, green and yellow spread across the sky like the blades of a fan. Then she raised her lamp higher and the air seemed to become fibrous and to tear away from the green surface flickering and flaming in red and yellow fibres like the smoky fire that roars from a bonfire.

The first scene with the characters has them describing events from the past, apparently holding a complex dialogue among five or six people who share extensive memories, for they had been children together. At the end of this scene, Rhoda describes her feelings upon going to bed one night; she uses an oceangoing metaphor.

Now I spread my body on this frail mattress and hang suspended. I am above the earth now. I am no longer upright, to be knocked against and damaged. All is soft, and bending. Walls and cupboards whiten and bend their yellow squares on top of which a pale glass gleams. Out of me now my mind can pour. I can think of my Armadas sailing on the high waves. I am relieved of hard contacts and collisions. I sail on alone under the white cliffs.

Woolf allows ambivalence about whether the characters are actually carrying on a conversation or whether their thoughts are unspoken private reflections. Bernard’s reminiscences, many concerning an occasion when the group came together to bid farewell to Percival, who was leaving for India, summarize his capsule characterization of his friends as they relate to his sense of identity.

We shall dine together. We shall say good-bye to Percival, who goes to India. The hour is still distant, but I feel already those harbingers, those outriders, figures of one’s friends in absence. I see Louis, stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet. These are fantastic pictures — these are figments, these visions of friends in absence, grotesque, dropsical, vanishing at the first touch of the toe of a real boot. Yet they drum me alive.

It is later revealed that many of these reminiscences were prompted by the news of Percival’s death and that the friends are contemplating their own mortality. About halfway through the novel, Woolf joins a description of the waves, likening them to huge horses stamping, with Neville’s comments on the way that Percival died in India, thrown from his horse. She extends the ocean metaphor with Neville’s description of being knocked overboard by the news.

The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.

"He is dead," said Neville. "He fell. His horse tripped. He was thrown. The sails of the world have swung round and caught me on the head. All is over. The lights of the world have gone out.”

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