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The Waves by Virginia Woolf
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The Waves (1931)

by Virginia Woolf

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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 rises.it 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.” ( )
  wellsie | Feb 18, 2015 |
This is a beautifully rendered glimpse into the inner lives of six friends, from childhood to old age. No plot really, but the narrative is broken into nine sections, with the introduction to each section depicting the stages of the day, with a focus on the sun's position in the sky and the behavior of the waves on the seashore. These stages mirror the passage of time and the main characters' stage of life in each section. The reader is just sort of thrown into the minds of the characters at these various stages, with large gaps of time in between, which seems like it would be strange and confusing, but somehow it works. Personalities develop and stubbornly persist (kind of depressing, really), relationships are established, and the same events are interpreted in very different ways by different people to great effect. While the style can seem overwhelming, it magically works, and I feel like each character is burned into my memory forever.

I'm normally not a big quote person, put I noted so many passages in this one that I have to share a couple. Unfortunately, some of my favorites are spoilerish, so I couldn't include them (while there's very little plot, there is one very important thing that happens in the novel that profoundly affects all six characters.)

This is from Bernard's perspective. Bernard seems to be the character who "speaks" the most (it's all internal dialogue so no one is really speaking.) He's sort of a frustrated writer who struggles with identity, always taking on different personas. He never really lives in the moment, because he's obsessed with constantly noting everything that is going on around him in order to one day craft the perfect story. Anyway, this is where he's describing the various faces he wears, even though he knows they are not his true face and he describes one instance where an everyday occurrence allows him to experience a rare sense of stability, peace, and belonging. Or something like that. Anyway, it's lovely.

"'Here's Bernard!' How differently different people say that! There are many rooms - many Bernards. There was the charming, but weak; the strong, but supercilious; the brilliant, but remorseless; the very good fellow, but, I make no doubt, the awful bore; the sympathetic, but cold; the shabby, but - go into the next room - the foppish, worldly, and too well dressed. What I was to myself was different; was none of these. I am inclined to pin myself down most firmly there before the loaf at breakfast with my wife, who being now entirely my wife and not at all the girl who wore when she hoped to meet me a certain rose, gave me that feeling of existing in the midst of unconsciousness such as the tree-frog must have couched on the right shade of green leaf."

This one I just like. No explanation needed really.

"To be loved by Susan would be to be impaled by a bird's sharp beak, to be nailed to a barnyard door. Yet there are moments when I could wish to be speared by a beak, to be nailed to a barnyard door, positively, once and for all."

This is one I will probably reread several times throughout my life. Highly recommended! But perhaps not for a first-time Woolf reader. ( )
2 vote DorsVenabili | Jan 13, 2015 |
This is a difficult book, with it's non-linear narrative and interludes, many readers might be challenged if they're not used to this sort of thing. But it's a beautiful work, although for me, I began to lose ardor for it around half-way through. It's a book I intend to reread, however.

But if you're new to Virgina Woolf, you might consider beginning with one of her other, more famous works, and ease yourself slowly into the languid and ice cold pool of her prose. But don't surrender to weakness, her writing is a life-changing thing, and do not cheat yourself of the experience. Challenging is a good thing. ( )
  wjmcomposer | Nov 5, 2014 |
This is a difficult book, with it's non-linear narrative and interludes, many readers might be challenged if they're not used to this sort of thing. But it's a beautiful work, although for me, I began to lose ardor for it around half-way through. It's a book I intend to reread, however.

But if you're new to Virgina Woolf, you might consider beginning with one of her other, more famous works, and ease yourself slowly into the languid and ice cold pool of her prose. But don't surrender to weakness, her writing is a life-changing thing, and do not cheat yourself of the experience. Challenging is a good thing. ( )
  wjmcomposer | Nov 5, 2014 |
In The Waves, Virginia Woolf has created a masterpiece. From the elegant prose to the innovative structure (yes, innovative even at a distance of almost 85 years) to the philosophy life and death, this book is a revelation. I found it both unsettling and oddly comforting.

Woolf uses the friendship of six people, three men and three women, to discover both the living world and death. The book is written in an almost poetic style, sticking largely to interior speak. There is very little direct interaction between the friends. There are nine sections, presented chronologically that range from early childhood through school, middle age, and the end of life. The writing is odd – it’s hard to figure out if you’re supposed to believe these people are really thinking these poetic words or is it almost what the brain sees and processes before we’d actually put language to it? In the end it doesn’t matter because it’s beautiful and different and therefore more impactful.

I read the paperback book with a pencil in hand – underlining passages, writing questions, and making connections – something I’ve not done since college but that made a big difference in my reading. This is a book that deserves to be analyzed and I intend to do some research on it after I let it settle and form some of my own opinions. It is also a book to be reread and I’m sure it will mean something different to me over the decades to come.

On a personal note, many of you know that my dad died very quickly and unexpectedly this year way too young – only 63. I think this book meant something much different to me after that experience than it would have before. The whole last section of Bernard’s musing on his life and inevitable death really struck me as a gradual personal acceptance of death and separation from earthly matters. That is, until the last paragraph.

I’m obviously pretty blown away by this book. It’s been a while since I read something both challenging to read and personal at the same time. I think it’s impressive that Woolf was able to do both – stretch a reader’s boundaries in language and form but still make a personal book that can be deeply connected to.

Fascinating. ( )
4 vote japaul22 | Oct 21, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (38 possible)

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.”
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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)

(see all 8 descriptions)

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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