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The waves by Virginia Woolf

The waves (1931)

by Virginia Woolf

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I must say I was very glad to be completely unspoilered for this before I read it.









It took me a few pages to work out what was going on, but once I did I wondered why nobody else has ever tried the tight-third multiple narrative quite this way. It's a really different, gripping and intimate pattern of story-telling, giving a rounded presence, both inside and out, to each of the six characters. (Susan perhaps getting less of a fair shake.) It blew me away.

It's also obviously a response to Ulysses, where Joyce tried a similar trick, but from fewer points of view and covering a single day. In The Waves, which is about a sixth the length of Ulysses, less is more, and we get decades in the space of 170 pages.

I had always thought of Woolf as a young novelist. But one of the points that struck me from The Waves was its evocation of my own experience of getting a bit older and watching my friends getting old with me, usually at more or less the same rate. So I wasn't completely surprised to find that she was much the same age as I am, in her late forties, when this was published in 1931. ( )
  nwhyte | Sep 5, 2014 |
This is poetry, and life, and insecurity, and growing, maturing, and love, and work, and pain, and more poetry, and summer and winter and spring and fall, and friendship, and desire, and time, and memory, then death, while the waves crash on. ( )
  sighedtosleep | Sep 1, 2014 |
Thus when I come to shape here at this table between my hands the story of my life and set it before you as a complete thing, I have to recall things gone far, gone deep, sunk into this life or that and become part of it; dreams, too, things surrounding me, and the inmates, those old half-articulate ghosts who keep up their hauntings by day and night; who turn over in their sleep, who utter their confused cries, who put out their phantom fingers and clutch at me as I try to escape—shadows of people one might have been; unborn selves.My umpteenth reading of The Waves and it still floors me. There's not a wasted word here: Woolf's attention to rhythm—she was listening to Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat Minor, Opus 130 while writing this novel, and Beethoven's nuances are found in her prose at all turns—and the ways in which she questions subjectivity, interpersonal relations, the ways in which we are connected and yet disparate from those around us are on display here more so than in any of her other fictional works.

The last section is sadly not as famous as the last section in Joyce's Ulysses, but it may well be even more gut-wrenchingly brutal in its philosophical underpinnings and the ways in which Woolf engages with poetics to sustain the flow of her inquiries into what it means to be human. On each reading there is something more to be found here, something more to be learned, something to relish and treasure, some keen diamond-edged truth that slices just as much as it illuminates. A book that can never have an equal, hands down. ( )
  proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
I wasn't invited to this party, I guess. I love Woolf's essays and her ideas about fiction, but, with the exception of Mrs. Dalloway, I've never been able to stomach her actual novels. It's not their interiority, her famous "difficulty" - it's that her characters are all such hopeless middle class British twits. I don't WANT to spend all this time inside these people, it's like being force fed nothing but cold, milky tea all day long. It's a kind of Downton Abbey of the soul, except that the servants have no inner lives at all. Her modernist rival Joyce's great gift was to give us the inner lives of two men - one who was enormously self-absorbed and one who wasn't at all, and thus begin to sketch how varied human consciousness is. If only Woolf could have had more breadth along with her depth... ( )
1 vote CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |

Time, it moves, it sways, to leave us behind
Minute by minute, the hands keep on down the lines
Time, it ticks, it clicks, towards the sun
We try to stop the clock, but it's already won
-Marginal Man, “Time”

I have always loved this song. It's on Marginal Man's self-titled third and final record, an album many fans disparage as their weakest, commonly citing the reason for their disgust as loss of the band's punk and hardcore edge that earlier marked their melodic sound. This criticism bores me. It is a tiresome critique I have often heard surrounding some of my favorite punk bands. Government Issue and 7 Seconds come immediately to mind. Raw and explosive in their infancy, instead of self-destructing like so many others did, these bands continued on, growing their sound as they grew as people, forging new music in a natural way, adding the nuances and layers we discover in our lives as time passes. And in return many of their fans turned away, perhaps in denial of time's passage and its effects in their own lives, forever pining for Minor Threat's “Salad Days,” when their idealism still loomed large and they had not yet succumbed to suits and salaries.

"Time tapers to a point. As a drop falls from a glass heavy with some sediment, time falls. These are the true cycles, these are the true events. Then as if all the luminosity of the atmosphere were withdrawn I see to the bare bottom. I see what habit covers"—Bernard

To see what habit covers is to see life, its sinewy innards, the part sutured under "the truths of most of the time" [quote from my friend Emilie]. The book is about clawing at what is hidden under habit over time, about time's passage and its effects on us, how we change with each other, what past time comes to represent, as seen through the eyes of six people: Rhoda, Louis, Susan, Neville, Bernard, Jinny. And there is also Percival, who touched them all, but never speaks.

Six precocious children describe the world around them. This is how it starts. Jinny tells Louis: “I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you.” Bernard tells Susan: “But when we sit together, close, we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.” But they are kids and it's unrequited. What they speak of is not destined to last, despite how lovely they make it sound. And Jinny doesn't even “want to be fixed, to be pinioned” to one person only.

Bernard tells stories. That's his thing. He says each of his friends is a story. But it also keeps him at a distance from them. He wants to know everyone's stories, to tell them, but he can't ever find the true story and that bothers him, makes him question if there even are stories, or that if they do in fact exist, the horrific possibility that they are all false. Later, Jinny shows him “how life withers when there are things we cannot share.” But he has “a very limited proboscis” (ha!) and so he can't grasp sharing with one; it remains beyond his reach and so he is lonely even with his wife and children, perhaps most of all with them. His “being only glitters when all its facets are exposed to many people.”

Susan loves nature. Returning to her rural lands restores herself to herself: “But from one attic there was a blue view, a distant view of a field unstained by the corruption of this regimented, unreal existence.” She also desires solitude: “I do not want, as Jinny wants, to be admired. I do not want people, when I come in, to look up with admiration. I want to give, to be given, and solitude in which to unfold my possessions.” And silence: “When you are silent you are again beautiful. No day will be without its movement. I shall be lifted higher than any of you on the backs of the seasons.” She wants to retreat to her farm, marry her (presumably) stoic husband, and raise her children, to find what she calls “natural happiness.” Yet this same happiness leads to a bitter loss of her engagement with nature, as motherhood and its many demands leaves her “glutted with natural happiness” and “sick of her own craft.” She wonders, “Where can the shadow enter? What shock can loosen my laboriously gathered, relentlessly pressed-down life?” These are the words of a person who succumbed to the truths of most of the time, who maybe had started pulling at the sutures to see what lay beneath, but later let them sew themselves shut again.

Rhoda knows of the sinews under the truths of most of the time. She feels them: “The sweetness of this content overflowing runs down the walls of my mind, and liberates understanding.” But she is alone in this and lost in time. For her, “one moment does not lead to another.” And this way of perceiving time leaves her wounded; she feels hunted in the presence of her friends:

“I cannot make one moment merge in the next. To me they are all violent, all separate; and if I fall under the shock of the leap of the moment you will be on me, tearing me to pieces. I have no end in view. I do not know how to run minute by minute and hour to hour, solving them by some natural force until they make the whole and indivisible mass that you call life. Because you have an end in view—one person, is it, to sit beside, an idea is it, your beauty is it? I do not know—your days and hours pass like the boughs of forest trees and the smooth green of forest rides to a hound running on the scent. But there is no single scent, no single body for me to follow. And I have no face. I am like the foam that races over the beach or the moonlight that falls arrowlike here on a tin can, here on a spike of the mailed sea holly, or a bone or a half-eaten boat. I am whirled down caverns, and flap like paper against endless corridors, and must press my hand against the wall to draw myself back.”

Rhoda is perhaps the most troubled person in the book. She feels things so intensely, yet tells us “all palpable forms of life have failed me.” She and Louis are lovers briefly, but she leaves him. They “shared silence” but it was not substantial. What must it be like to know the world so sharply through feeling and have all of it turn against you. Later she takes her own life. I felt drawn to her and wished it did not have to be this way for her.

Jinny seeks admiration and finds it everywhere. From the beginning, she planned to have many lovers. And she is beautiful so this is not a problem. “I do not settle long anywhere; I do not attach myself to one person in particular; but you will find that if I raise my arm, some figure at once breaks off and will come.” I'm not really interested in a person who thinks like this. In middle age, she worries, “I am no longer young. I am no longer part of the procession. […] I still live. But who will come if I signal?” Hmm...maybe use a different signal, one more subtle that would have only been seen by one who could see past your outer beauty, if there is even anything hidden beneath it. Later she realizes how torturing this has all been for her; Bernard sees it in her, the withering of life in the absence of true sharing.

[The weary resignation in their hearts, in their lives, it grows heavy, begins to wear on me.]

Louis...I had hope for him. He was the first to mention mist, in the youth of page 5: “When the smoke rises, sleep curls off the roof like a mist.” He also uses the word “ignominiously.” He seemed hung up on his Australian accent and his father being a banker in Brisbane, which worried me early on. These are a couple of his time anchors through the book, things he returns to over the years (they each have a few). Yet despite his lack of self-confidence, he gets by with a bristling sense of humor: “To be loved by Susan would be to be impaled by a bird's sharp beak, to be nailed to a barnyard door.” Unfortunately he sells out and becomes a capitalist, consumed with the trappings of the life of a businessman. Later he confesses, “I have known little natural happiness.” Perhaps he and Rhoda engendered too much unhappiness together and that is why they couldn't last. I would have like for them to make it; it sort of killed me to find out they did not and then later to read her fate.

With intrepid focus, Neville travels through the book, obsessed with Percival. He is a reader, a writer, an outsider. But he's okay with that; it's almost like he's above it. “I shall be a clinger to the outsides of words all my life.” He knows Percival will forget him, but that is also why he loves him. When Percival dies, Neville is lost. He feels such acute agony, surrenders to it: “Come, pain, feed on me, bury your fangs in my flesh. Tear me asunder. I sob, I sob.” He feels it for all six of them, this fresh hole among them: “But without Percival there is no solidity. We are silhouettes, hollow phantoms moving mistily without a background.” Neville becomes a phantom, for he knows “that our mean lives, unsightly as they are, put on splendour and have meaning only under the eyes of love.” But he is a resigned phantom, and “does not begrudge the young suitor standing outside Jinny's door.” Neville “took the print of life not outwardly, but inwardly upon the raw, the white, the unprotected fibre.” I know that print and that was my line drawn to Neville.

Bernard the storyteller, the one who always saw different versions of himself, brings it to a close, trying one last time to discover the true story of all of them, “seek[ing] among phrases and fragments something unbroken,” yet finds instead in himself a desire to be quiet and alone at the end of his life. “How much better is silence; the coffee-cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake.” This last section was the hardest. I didn't want it to be the way it was. I didn't want Bernard reminding me “how fast the stream flows from January to December,” and how “we are swept on by the torrent of things grown so familiar that they cast no shadow.” I didn't want to see the truths of most of the time flaunted in front of me, not by Virginia. I see enough of that outside her saving prose. I couldn't grasp what she was telling me, or I didn't want to face it. Maybe it was that. And then I thought about her walking into the river that day, alone, letting the waves take her, and maybe I understood a little more of why it had to be the way it was.

“We have destroyed something by our presence,” said Bernard, “a world perhaps.” ( )
  S.D. | Apr 5, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Woolf, Virginiaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Garnett, AngelicaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Parsons, DeborahIntroduction and Notessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The sun had not yet risen.
The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.”
Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to the English one.
There is nothing staid, nothing settled in this universe. All is rippling, all is dancing; all is quickness and triumph.
Percival has died (he died in Egypt; he died in Greece; all deaths are one death).
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156949601, Paperback)

One of Woolf’s most experimental novels, The Waves presents six characters in monologue - from morning until night, from childhood into old age - against a background of the sea. The result is a glorious chorus of voices that exists not to remark on the passing of events but to celebrate the connection between its various individual parts.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:31 -0400)

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One of Woolf's most experimental novels, this book presents six characters in monologue against the vivid background of the sea.

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