Awash in The Waves of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf by sister Vanessa

Finally, I finished Virginia Woolf’s difficult novel The Waves. For several weeks I have been reading it at bedtime. The novel usually put me to sleep after reading no more than 20 minutes, but the final 35 pages came alive for me and I finished the novel in a wakeful rush. It was a relief, after such a long reading, to find that the author finally gets to the point.

There are 6 speaking characters in The Waves; each character speaks to the reader one after another in 9 chapter-like segments that correspond to different stages of their lives. A prose poem precedes each segment and sets the stage with a meditation on the sun shinning on the waves lapping the eastern coast of England. Some of these introductions are quite beautiful. Finally, in the last segment, Bernard, who might be considered the principal character, takes over and in a long soliloquy explains (in a manner of speaking) the novel we have just read. Unusual.

Drawn to this novel while researching a quote by Leonardo Silva in the detective novel, El Lejano País de los Estanques, a web search led me to the Gutenburg, Australia home page where I downloaded the text. Continuing the search in the text uncovered the mysterious quote I was looking for and left me interested in reading the novel; so I ordered the pBook (no Kindle eBook available) from Amazon and soon was trapped by Woolf’s beautiful poetry-like prose.

There seems to be general agreement by reviewers and scholars that this experimental novel stretched the boundaries of what was then considered the realm of the novel. Interestingly enough, Woolf’s contemporaries generally gave it a good review, but found it a difficult.

A review in the San Francisco Chronicle (1931) said:

“Most people are going to find The Waves extremely difficult reading — all people, in fact, excepting those who are prepared to accept the author’s highly artificial trick in writing it for the sake of the poetic images she invokes. . . . it is hard to see why Mrs Woolf chose so odd a manner to convey what she had to say. . . . [The characters] are simply six Mrs Woolfs, they are not more than attenuated shadows — brilliant, many-sided, tricky, but still shadows — of the real people the reader has a right to expect. . . . No doubt it is a beautiful exercise, but it lacks the reality, the passion, the association with life that would bring it into relation with those who must read it. And lacking that passion, that association, it lacks the significance that would make it a fine book.”
Quoted on-line UA Huntsville, Virginia Woolf Seminar, Contemporary Reviews for The Waves, 1997.

Aside from being extensively reviewed in the press, the novel has been subject to computer analysis: A Computer Assisted analysis of characterization in The Waves by Virginia Woolf. Mr. Treloar, in the preface to his thesis, quotes Mrs. Woolf:

“How unexpected, how odd that people can read that difficult grinding stuff! [The Waves]”
– Virginia Woolf, 9th of October, 1931.

I like this quote, but my quick scan of the statistics presented in this thesis, however, did not help me much in understanding the novel.

If you decide to undertake the reading of this novel, I recommend taking it slowly. Enjoy the journey, but don’t expect to find a plot.

Carto
Day 39: The Waves (Virginia Woolf) (1931).
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About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked; Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure. Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical.
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