I hope that the literary community will forgive me for not getting to Virginia Woolf and this book sooner. I have always focused my reading on 19th century female British authors—Austen, Bronte, Gaskell, Eliot, etc. But this year I have discovered Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, both of whom have given me a new appreciation for 20th century female British authors. I realize I have a lot of catching up to do.
The Waves describes, in the most beautiful and poetic prose, the ebb and flow of the lives of six people, both as individuals and as members of their group, who attended boarding school together. When they graduate from school they remain friends and even through middle age they maintain contact with one another. Written in 1931, it is considered one of Woolf’s most experimental and difficult novels. I have seen it described as a “stream-of-consciousness” narrative, but to me it read more like a prose poem and Woolf herself described it as “playpoem.” The beginning of the book is the most difficult as the six characters are young and described their experiences attending a boarding school. Their identities are tangled with one another and not yet distinct enough to grasp fully. Woolf is very interested in identity and how we view ourselves through others, especially during the formative years. We see this in a conversation between the young Susan and Bernard:
‘I love,’ said Susan, ‘and I hate. I desire one thing only. My eyes are hard. Jinny’s eyes break into a thousand lights. Rhonda’s are like those pale flowers to which moths come in the evening. Yours grow full and brim and never break. But I am already set on my pursuit. I see insects in the grass. Though my mother still knits white socks for me and hems pinafores and I am a child, I love and I hate.’
‘But when we sit together, close,’ said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.’
In just this short passage Woolf gives us so many vivid images to contemplate. What struck me immediately was the “I love and I hate” which is a reference to Catullus Poem #85.* Although Catullus is referring to the tumultuous relationship with his lover in this poem, the mix of emotions is very appropriate for Woolf’s characters. They are trying to figure out their own, individual places in the world but still feel like they “melt” into each other and are “edged with mist.”
As they age and grow their individual temperaments slowly surface; Bernard is a storyteller, Louis is a business man who is self-conscious of his Australian origins, Jinny enjoys parties and has many lovers and admirers, Susan is a mother who enjoys her home in the country, Rhonda is constantly anxious and enjoys her solitude. There is a seventh character who never speaks himself, we only hear about him through the others. Percival is the “hero” of the group—everyone likes him and is devastated when he dies on a trip in India. But even as their own, distinct personalities emerge, they are still drawn back to their identity as part of a group. The seven friends get together in order to see Percival off on his trip to India and Louis comments:
‘It is Percival, said Louis, ‘sitting silent as he sate among the tickling grass when the breeze parted the clouds and they formed again, who makes us aware that these attempts to say, “I am this, I am that,” which we make, coming together, like separated parts of one body and soul, are false. Something has been left out from fear. Something has been altered, from vanity. We have tried to accentuate differences. From the desire to be separate we have laid stress upon our faults, and what is particular to us. But there is a chain whirling round, round, in a steel-blue circle beneath.’
There are so many beautiful passages in this book and I must point out, in particular, the nine introductions to each section that Woolf writes describing the sun and its effect on the sea as it rises and sets in the sky. The book is worth reading just for these gorgeous passages:
The sun, risen, no longer couched on a green mattress darting a fitful glance through watery jewels, bared its face and looked straight over the waves. They fell with a regular thud. They fell with the concussion of horses’ hooves on the turf. Their spray rose like the tossing of lances and assegais over the riders’ heads. They swept the beach with steel blue and diamond-tipped water. They drew in and out with the energy, the muscularity of an engine which sweeps its force in and out again.
I’m curious to hear about readers’ favorite Woolf books. I was thinking about reading To the Lighthouse next. Any other suggestions are most welcomed.
*For the extra curious, here is the Latin for Catullus Poem #85 and my translation:
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
I hate and I love. Perhaps you might ask why I do this.
I do not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.