Book Review of The Waves by Virginia Woolf

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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

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