The Waves by Virginia Woolf - memory trees
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memory trees

My love of the novel.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

For the unprepared reader the first hundred pages can be as baffling as an unknown code. But once the code is cracked, the whole experiment has a brilliant simplicity. 
Imagine this: a biography of you and your five best friends. From early childhood to death. Told not within the usual matrix of bald accountable facts, social landmarks of achievement and failure. But through a linguistic transposition of the ebb and flow, the forging and eroding, of the waves of our inner life. Those secret and unspoken moments known only to ourselves when we feel at our most isolated or connected, our most transfigured, lost or unknowable. The narrative a fluid continuum where all six of you are continually merging and separating in a fellowship and divorce of feeling. The six of you ultimately becoming one voice endeavouring to give shape to this one shared life.

So The Waves is the biography of six characters, all of whom speak for the other five as much as for themselves. But it's a new kind of biography. A biography of sensibility. A kind of archaeology excavating identity entirely from what’s buried and sacrosanct. Epiphanies, private moments of triumph and failure - or what Virginia Woolf called "moments of being". 

Virginia Woolf speaks somewhere of her earliest childhood memory – of being in bed as a very young child and listening to the sound of the waves distantly breaking on the beach out in the night. She believed the experience remained at the very heart of her inner life, a kind of oracle. The native ground from where all her shoots would spring forth. Authenticity, for her, was to be found in the secret and unspoken experiences of life, her “moments of being”. All six characters in The Waves experience a similar crucible childhood moment. A haunting moment of sensibility which will subsequently act as a motif in the quest to know intimacy and achieve identity. The opening section of The Waves, a depiction of the dawning of day, calls to mind the act of creation itself. For she is questioning the origins and nature of consciousness in this novel. Except no god appears. Instead we see nature as a dispassionate encompassing force locked into its relentless merciless rhythms. The first section introduces us to the six children and their first impressions of the world around them. Baptism comes here, not in church, but when the nurse squeezes a sponge and sends rivulets of sensation down the spines of the six children. An early indication of how Woolf will concentrate on private rather than public events to build the biographies of her six characters. By the end of the first part all six are identifying themselves in relation to each other, all six are struggling with fears and insecurities, all six jarred and flailing in their attempts to achieve identity – as for example Rhoda: “Let me pull myself out of these waters. But they heap themselves on me; they sweep me between their great shoulders; I am turned; I am tumbled; I am stretched among these long lights, these long waves, these endless paths, with people pursuing, pursuing.”


Each section depicts the next phase in the lifespan of the characters. And in each section prevails the endless repetition of the sound and rhythm of the waves. Ultimately the suggestion is that it’s only through sensibility, our creative inner life, that we are able to achieve love, forge abiding worth and find the fellowship that are the principle sources of light and warmth in life.


It’s left to Bernard, the writer, to draw some sort of conclusion: “And in me too the wave swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death.”