Book Review of The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Featured
Image Source

Our lives are intertwined, entangled like waves merging in the ocean. We see ourselves in others, in the world around us. The physical appearance of our parents, the traditions of our culture and unique intricacies of our closest friends all leave their mark on who we are, and who we become.

 The ‘I’, our ego, is porous and unbound. It is elusive and cannot be contained, like grains of sand peering through your fingers on the beach. The self is dynamic and evolving as we both shape and are shaped by our environment. To be human is to be nested in a world of finitude and transience. Aware of the fleeting nature of our existence, we eagerly try to find order and balance in a world that is constantly changing.

These are some of the themes that Virginia Woolf beautifully explores in her book The Waves. The book details the coming of age of six characters looking at their lives as they transition from childhood friends to adults collectively experiencing love, loss and friendship.

Those looking for a straightforward narrative, with an event packed plot will be disappointed. The Waves reads more as interwoven soliloquies focusing on the characters internal dialogues. We get a glimpse into the nuances and complexities of the human psyche.

  • What events and life experiences shape who someone is, and what they become?
  • How do we make meaning in a seemingly vast and chaotic world?
  • How do our relationships with others shape our character?

Let’s look at some of the key themes of the book.

Human Subjectivity

‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’ ‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan, ‘spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.’ ‘I hear a sound,’ said Rhoda, ‘cheep, chirp; cheep chirp; going up and down. ’‘I see a globe,’ said Neville, ‘hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.’

In The Waves events are distilled through the thoughts and inner perceptions of each of the six characters. They each see and interpret the world through their own unique lenses. For instance, each of the characters responds to grief differently as we see in the aftermath of death of their friend Percival.

The reader is exposed to the constant tension between the differences between our perceptions and reality. We see the disconnect in how we want to be perceived in the world, and how we are actually viewed by others. In our day-to-day life we may be quick to judge others, but rarely have a window into the internal struggles each individual is facing.

 Through her breathtaking prose and poetic passages scattered throughout the book, Virginia Woolf provides us with a microscope into the mind of the other.  

The Self

And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome

Throughout the book we see several of the characters acknowledge the fluidity of the self. Each character leaves an imprint, a mark, on the other.

The individual doesn’t exist independently, but rather is the sum of their collective experiences with the other characters. Like branches stemming from a tree, each of the six friends exhibit their own unique personality types, but are joined by a common root. The shared events and circumstances which shape their lives determines who they are, and who they will become.

Time

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

Each chapter begins with a poetic description of the sun as it shifts from sunrise to sunset throughout the course of the book. These interludes symbolize the passing of time and the degree of impermanence which we are bound to as human beings. The motif of the waves crashing against the seashore points to this tension of death and renewal, between permanence and impermanence. As each wave moves towards the shore it will reach its end of the cycle, whereas others will begin anew.

We know intuitively that we are finite beings whose days living on this planet are numbered, however we rarely confront this fact directly in our day to day lives. We see each of the characters deal with the fleeting nature of time in their own unique ways. Some characters embody the attitude of embracing each moment, while others try to achieve a degree of permanence and legacy through the creation of art.

All of these life projects are an attempt to forge order out of chaos, to find meaning in an indifferent universe.

Final Thoughts

Although it did take me some time to get used to Woolf’s style of writing, I was taken in by the beauty and elegance of her prose. The Waves reads almost like an extended poem rather than a novel. Woolf gives us a preview of something we are not exposed to in our day to day lives. That is, the inner dialogues, perceptions and internal thoughts that run through our minds.

Exposing the reader to the dynamics of human subjectivity, The Waves compels us towards greater empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings. If only we knew what others were feeling and thinking, perhaps we would treat them differently, with more kindness and with less judgement.

The Waves is one of those books that you can turn to at different stages in life and each time you pick it up will evoke a different emotional response.

Its presence in my room reminds me of the transitory nature of my life calling me to cherish each and every moment as I briefly remember the ephemerality of my time here on earth.


All quotes are taken from The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Image Source: Pexels Free Photos

Featured

The Wisdom of Being Wrong — Pointless Overthinking

Hello Friends,

You can check out a new article I published on the Pointless Overthinking blog by clicking on the link below.

Hope you all enjoy your weekend:)

If only things were that simple. If only events could be packaged into neat containers of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Despite our proclivities towards binary and dualistic thinking, life is a whole lot messier. Many circumstances are morally ambiguous and uncertain. Being in this metaphorical ‘grey’ area of not knowing can be…

The Wisdom of Being Wrong — Pointless Overthinking

Racing Against the Clock: A Meditation on Being Human in a World of Endless Possibility

Featured

On a planet that has existed for billions of years, the human lifespan is remarkably short. Assuming I live to 80, the average age of a Canadian male, I have about 4,000 weeks on this earth. If I am lucky and healthy enough to make it that long, that gives me about 2,500 weeks left. [1]

Given the limits of our short existence, why is it that we waste so much of our time on trivialities, on fulfilling the expectations of others and neglecting our authentic selves. We spend our time carelessly while we know our mortality is something that can often be often unpredictable, unexpected and out of our control.

Constrained by Limits

Writing in ancient Rome, the Stoic philosopher Seneca observed the importance of being aware of your mortality as a check against frivolously wasting our days. In his essay On the Shortness of Life he writes,

you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something may be your last. Like the mortal you are, you are apprehensive of everything; but your desires are unlimited as if you were immortal. 

As humans, whether we accept it or not, we are constrained by our biology – we all have limits. What this means is that we have to make choices about what things to prioritize, and how best to spend the fleeting number of weeks, hours and minutes we have left.

In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals Oliver Burkeman makes the point that is naïve and often counterproductive to think that there will come a point when we have attained perfect order and control of our lives. When we finally reached the ideal ‘work-life’ balance that we’ve been dreaming of, crossing off every item of our never-ending to-do lists. Instead of running on the elusive treadmill of productivity, filling our lives with worry and anxiety, Burkeman advises that we should learn to accept our limitations. He notes that we are seduced,

into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.

Technology, self-help gurus and ‘productivity hacks’ have attempted to convince us that we can do more and more with our finite time. It is true that these tools help us achieve more and eliminate mundane tasks, but it comes at a cost. The great paradox of the modern age is that technology, which was meant to save us time has left us more anxious, busy and frantic.

The smartphone has made communication much easier and more efficient. However, it has also blurred the lines between work and home life. Instant messaging has left us in a state of constant apprehension and alertness always anticipating when we’ll receive the next text message.

A consequence of being a finite human being is the necessity of making decisions which limits our options. ‘FOMO’ or the fear of missing out, is not a defect or something to be frowned upon. Rather it is a byproduct and a feature of the limited nature of our existence.

Quality Versus Quantity

Thanks to the modern advances of the industrial age, the human lifespan has more than doubled over the past century. Of course, this is a great achievement is something to be celebrated.

What gets missed however in this project to continuously increase the length of our lives is the focus on quality. That is, the ancient ideal of living a life akin to virtue and goodness.  A rich life filled with purpose, value and intention.  

What good would it do me to live a long life devoid of meaning?

Ultimately, we don’t know when our time will come. Like many, we may hope to prolong our life’s ambitions or wishful side projects for our retirement. But who knows what fate has in store for us?

An individual who is solely focused climbing up the career ladder, may neglect the need to cultivate interests and hobbies outside of work. When they are finally ready to retire, they are left with their life’s savings and an influx of free time but no idea what to do with it.

Memento Mori: Remember That You Are Mortal

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The 16th century philosopher Michel De Montaigne said that “to practice death is to practice freedom.” We know our lives will all come to an inevitable end. Rather than succumbing to fear or avoiding this basic fact of our existence, Montaigne advises us to embrace it. To accept it. To keep it at the forefront of our minds.

Allowing ourselves to be constantly reminded of our finitude and mortality enables us to give our lives a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. Once the fear is quelled, we can fully appreciate the time we are given.  Our time can be savored with our full attention and meaning.

The world is in constant flux. Our lives are entangled in a sea of uncertainties. While we can meticulously plan ahead, the only thing we can be certain about is the present moment, what is right in front of us.

In the final analysis, when you’ve reached the end of your days, what will you truly remember?

What will you desire to be known for?

Perhaps answering these questions is a starting point to allocating our limited number of days left of this earth.

Tell me, what is it that you will plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

[1] If you do the math, you’ll come to the conclusion that I am just about 30 years.

Featured Image: Pexels Free Photos