The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

I'm a huge Virginia Woolf fan, but if I really analyse it it's the 1920s Woolf I love: Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando (not so much Jacob's Room, admittedly), The Common ReaderA Room of One's Own - these are my favourites, these, I think, are her finest. 1910s Woolf (The Voyage Out and Night and Day being the two novels of that time) I enjoy, and I could never get into to 1930s Woolf as much. I loved Flush, it's hard not to, and there is The Common Reader Second Series from 1932, but Three Guineas, The Years, and The Waves are not favourites. And sadly Between the Acts, 1940s Woolf, was lost on me (though I was inspired to try again by this post by Simon Lavery).

That said, I think my second read of The Waves was a little more successful. It's Virginia Woolf's seventh novel (if you count Orlando as a novel: some count it a biography) and was published in 1931. It's her most 'experimental' - and yes, by that I also mean 'hard'. 

There are nine parts to The Waves and in each part we see the characters mature and develop from infancy to old age. There are six characters - Bernard, Neville, and Louis, and three women - Rhoda, Susan, and Jinny. The characters tell their own story or they tell the story of the others - there is no authorial intervention, Woolf in that sense is absent but for the description of the waves which separates each of the nine parts: the sea ebbing and flowing, the sun rising and setting above it. We learn from them of their childhood, their adolescence, and adulthood - Louis and Bernard are businessmen, Susan a mother and wife of a farmer, Jinny the socialite, Neville the artist, and Rhoda, forever an outsider. In Woolf's earlier novels she used 'stream-of-consciousness' to express the inner lives of her characters, but in The Waves I wouldn't call it 'stream-of-consciousness' - the monologues of the characters are too structured and it is not one continuous flow. I think there's an element of it, but at the same time it's more self-conscious. This is one reason I didn't love it - it did feel highly unnatural, and I found it hard to settle into that. It is not the natural, meandering river-like thoughts of, say, Clarissa Dalloway - each thought has a purpose to it - these thoughts reveal an aspect of a character or the characters as a whole and it's supposed to - it's why it's there. It's contrived, in short, and feels contrived and artificial.

So The Waves left me divided. I loved reading it, and looked forward to reading it when I wasn't already, but though it's a very compelling novel I found it hard to love. It is hard to keep track of the characters: there are 'hooks' if you will - for example Louis is 'the Australian', and that little detail makes his character distinct from the others. However, the characters are also a single unit. I didn't find the style of each monologue terribly different from another; confusion quickly and frequently arises and this group of friends become one self. This I have no doubt was deliberate - each character struggles with their sense of identity and try and strike out as individuals, but this truly is a struggle. Their attempts of order, too, are thwarted, and they become tossed about as if in a wave. 

The novel is almost dream-like. It has great beauty and sometimes eloquence, and Woolf communicates in this manner not only the idea of 'self' in each character, but also how it may be thwarted and undermined. There is no reality to it, which is why I found it hard - and the expression of the thoughts of each character is as I said highly unnatural and contrived. The poetry of The Waves and it's wonderful fluidity and motion makes it a beautiful read, and though it captures the essence of thought it is not representative. But does that matter? I don't suppose we're meant to actually identify with it, we're simply presented with six other individuals that bear no relation to our selves. It is, I do believe, a successful novel: by that I mean Woolf produced exactly what she wanted to produce; my not quite liking it is not down to something Woolf did wrong. She did nothing wrong - it's stunning, powerful, and memorable. I did thoroughly enjoy the challenge of the novel: I know I sound like I'm apologising for writing a bad review, but really I wasn't writing a bad review, just sharing some of my difficulties. I know this is a favourite of many Woolf fans, but for me, my heart lies with Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and To the Lighthouse.

Comments

  1. Later in life is Woolf "experiment" due to perhaps personal issues she was going through, or influences by outside literary peers? It would be interesting to track her life (or what we know of it) in relation to her works. As long as I understand why a person is doing something, then I can often appreciate it more.

    So often in books we look for characters we can relate to or life lessons. I wonder if Woolf was pushing against that and saying, here I'll give you something beautiful that you can't connect with? I have no idea, having never read the book, but it's fun to muse over. :-)

    In any case, I appreciate your review, even if you struggled with the book. It's really helpful to understand other people's reactions, as they can often shed more light on your own.

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    1. I'm glad it's helpful in that way at least. It is a great book, but there's something about it that makes me unable to love it.

      I know Woolf was incredibly taken by Proust, and I think she read some of In Search of Lost Time in the mid to late 20s... I'm not sure what inspired her to be so experimental at this period but there will be a reason. I'll report back when I've read one of her biographies - it's been too long since I last read one :)

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  2. The novel premises as well as the narration seems difficult...however it is also very unique. I loved your review and I completely understand your reactions. I think I will however hang on to reading it, until I have firmed up my love for Woolf completely!:)

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    1. Yes, I don't think it's a good Woolf to read in the early phases of reading her work. I'll look forward to seeing what you make of it when you do get to it, though :)

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  3. I bought The Waves in High school and yet failed to read it entirely almost 5 years later. That's the guilt of a huge Woolf fan who could connect so well to To the Lighthouse. Your review makes me want to give it another try soon.

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    1. I think it's one of those books where it's ok not to like or understand. There are many Woolf fans who don't like this one. I felt the same, though - I LOVED most of her works, but I never connected with any of her 1930s novels :)

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  4. The Waves is a more challenging novel...I've read it twice, and I kind of like it, but I'm still not sure I could sum up the story or explain it very well. Every time I finish reading it I feel like I've missed something and should go back and read it again. :) Probably my two favorite novels by V. Woolf are Mrs. Dalloway and Night and Day. The one I REALLY didn't like? Between the Acts. It was a good idea in theory, but somehow missed the mark...at least for me. Great post!

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    1. Same here on all accounts! This is my second read, and this was one tough post to write. I love Mrs Dalloway and Night and Day, and Between the Acts is definitely my least favourite Woolf! :)

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  5. excellent analysis. i loved it; relating the structure to how life evolves in relation to natural processes is key here,i think. i found one essay on the net(a thesis of some sort i believe) that compared the way the novel is assembled to the operations of quantum mechanics. virginia's father, stephen, was very interested in science and i wonder if some of that rubbed off on his daughter. it's not an easy read, as you say, but i found it very rewarding.

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    1. Thank you! It is rewarding almost, but for me not quite - too much of it I struggled with. There seems to be a code within it, and it's not easy to crack :)

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