Author: Virginia Woolf
Published: October 1931
Publisher: Hogarth Press
Length: 324 pages (according to Wikipedia, though mine is only 177, so I'm not quite sure what to believe...)
Rating (all out of five)
Characters: ★★★★ (4.5, I need to somehow find a half star symbol)
Writing Quality: ★★★★★ (I'd add more if I could)
Regarded as one of Woolf’s most experimental works, I’d consider The Waves to be more of an epic poem than a standard novel. The Waves is narrated by six individuals – Susan, Rhoda, Jinny, Louis, Bernard and Neville, as they each grow up. The plot, as usual with Woolf, focuses on the everyday, the ordinary, which I found soothing, many books clinging to their readers with dramatic and over the top events that really aren’t necessary to keep the reader engaged. Is this an easy read? It is probably the most confusing book I’ve read so far, frequent narrative voice changes with a mere so-and-so said, then sinking into the rambling mind of said character, signifying whose perspective you’re reading. I’ve decided to underline the characteristics of each narrator as oppose to writing a plot summary, since the plot is really based around how each character mentally processes everything, and the process of growing up, beginning with the awakening of each child in the morning and ending during their later adult life, which is somewhat difficult to write about without including spoilers.
Having read a fair amount on Woolf’s life, Rhoda is clearly a demonstrating of the isolation that the author herself felt. An insightful narrator indeed, she is often sketched out to be an outcast, dreaming of alternatives and longing to fit in yet also clinging to her moments of solitude for comfort – I think this is a side that many introverts, like myself, could also relate to. Like Rhoda Louis believes he is an outsider, repeating several times that his Australian accent is stigmatised at school. However, their similarities end there as Louis is shown as passionate about bettering his situation, working hard to escape from any relative deprivation with his peers and exceed everyone’s expectations of him. Another element of Woolf features within Louis as he mentions a yearning for capturing the everyday, something she does indeed achieve.
Given the publication date, I found Neville equally fascinating, but for different reasons. Though his sexuality is never actually stated, Neville is completely, hopelessly and beautifully portrayed as in love with Percival, a boy whom all the characters adore. His account is truly heart-rending as the reader sympathises with his shame for being weak and inadequate for Percival, his longing stretching out throughout the book. Considering the treatment of Oscar Wilde some thirty years prior to the book’s publication, Woolf may have evaded blatantly labelling Neville as gay, but her inferences towards it certainly show the hardship of unrequited love that he felt he should hide, perhaps by not stating it she was showing that even Neville did not want to admit his homosexuality to himself directly. Neville also enjoyed writing, using the torment he endured as a power to write, finding solace in the clarity of language. Bernard, as a comparison, struggled with language, fearing the idea of distorting reality and being concerned with how people change.
Susan seemed to represent the consequences of conforming to the gender stereotypes, as in later life she realises that by devoting herself to the act of being a mother, she’s lost a part of herself. In childhood, she flourishes in life, having sentimentalities towards the tranquil country life, yet also has an awareness of social norms and how to fit in. Likewise, Jinny is social, but is presented as a character that scrutinises the beauty of others far more, she was probably my least favourite narrator, though that is not to say that Woolf intended for her to be dislikeable, in fact I grew to sympathise with her more as the book progressed. I found these two to be quite similar at points, I'd have also liked to have seen more language variation as everyone seemed very sophisticated - which is fine, but it'd have been nice to have a contrast or a more comedic character to break up the passages.
There are so many themes in this book – from life and death, to solitude, to mental health, to love (and sexuality depending on your interpretation), to childhood, to dreams and resentment and regrets. As usual, I felt humbled by the beauty of Woolf’s writing and how she somehow managed to include every little detail necessary. The lack of clear dialogue can be a deterrent for many, as can her sudden switches in narrative, and I’ll admit that it did make the book tricky to read, but it’s also a wonderful use of experimental writing that makes her book stand out. She includes these brief passages between each section that describe the movement of water, with imagery that is so descriptive, it’s simply stunning. I’d love to include a quote from literally every page of this book, because I adore her use of language, but that’d take up too much room, so I’ve decided to simply include one from the first page before I conclude!
“the 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. Gradually the fibres of the burning bonfire were fused into one haze, one incandescence which lifted the weight of the woollen grey sky on top of it and turned to a million atoms of soft blue.”
I probably went over the acceptable quote length, but isn’t that just gorgeous? This is just a fraction of one of her descriptions, the paragraph goes on and the writing is consistently perfect. Anyway, I’ll stop fangirling now. If you want to get into reading Virginia Woolf, I’ve got a couple of review up on two of her other books – this one’s extremely experimental, so if you’d prefer to start with something with a simpler writing style, I’d highly recommend Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse. Feel free to drop me a comment below!