The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Leonard Woolf’s first impression of his wife’s novel The Waves was, “It is a masterpiece,” “And the best of your books”. He also thought “the first 100 pages extremely difficult.” Virginia Woolf’s own note read “never have I screwed my brain so tight over a book.”

Each of those sentiments is immediately recognisable as I read this remarkable prose poem. As is my custom I read the introduction to my Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Waves after completing the novel. Had I read it before I may have felt less inadequate to the task:

Certainly, the reader of The Waves  needs to swim, to trust to the buoyancy of the eye and the suppleness of the understanding. It is no good panicking when sequence seems lost or persons are hard to pick out. The rhythms of the work will sustain us comfortably as long as we do not flounder about trying to catch hold of events. The events are there, sure enough, but they are not sundered from the flow. This is to say that the form of the waves is acted out in the actual reading experience, and the reader must trust the medium. The rhythmic patterns of the book, this ‘play-poem’, provide the clues for the performance.

The feelings of inadequacy that this novel inspired from time to time never subtracted from the thrill of reading something sublime. Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is comparable. The inadequacy comes from the knowledge that there are allusions and a depth that would need a lifetime of study to fully comprehend.

Bernard’s final soliloquy is the only part of the novel where I read more than fifty pages in a single sitting. Prior to the last chapter, twenty page bursts were sufficient at a time. I needed to recap, to drink in the words. The last chapter presented no alternative but to be consumed singly, breathlessly.

The book is brilliant and a logical development, the one I hoped for, from Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. As an exploration of self and perception, the book is profound. To be aware of Woolf’s psychologically precarious existence and her diary entries that these “characters” suggested different aspects of of self, perhaps of that enigmatic “lady writing” whilst the gardeners sweep, is to appreciate more profoundly how difficult this book must have been to write.

Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I write the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid remembering the voices that used to fly ahead.

Reading The Waves brings to a close Woolf in Winter, my first shared reading experience. My heartfelt thanks to Sarah, Emily, Clare and Frances for galvanising me finally to tackle Virginia Woolf. Reading Woolf, particularly To the Lighthouse and The Waves, has been enriching.

Though Mrs. Woolf and I need a little time apart, I will surely read The Years and Between the Acts, Hermoine Lee’s biography and dip frequently into the essays and diaries, all of which now sit on my library shelves. The Waves and To the Lighthouse are also novels to be read again, several times.

In a twelve month period where I have finally read Austen and Woolf, this Harold Bloom excerpt seems apposite and appropriately controversial:

Will we ever again have novelists as original and superb as Austen, George Eliot, and Woolf, or a poet as extraordinary and intelligent as Dickinson? Half a century after Woolf’s death, she has no rivals among women novelists or critics, though they enjoy the liberation she prophesied.

Feel free to provide answers below.

14 thoughts on “The Waves by Virginia Woolf

  1. >Dear Anthony,In response to Bloom's question–No.Oh, I suppose I should say more than that. OK.As great as The Waves is, it is only the midpoint, and even finer things were to come later–not so experimental, not so difficult, but with the exception of a few extemporanea and light baubles, everything Woolf wrote resonates–the earlier novel less than the later, admittedly, but starting with Jacob's Room (and prior to that some of the short stories–I'm think "Kew Gardens" and "A Haunted House") Woolf reinvented the world. It's a shame she made such a fool of herself with respect to Joyce, of whom, I can only conclude she was intensely jealous, because the two are not in conflict, but together represent the fullness of the method each developed on her/his own. I'm glad you enjoyed these because they are powerful, echoing works, and the world is a better place when you can see it in part through the lens offered by such magnificent writing.Thank you for sharing your journey. It reminds me that it is high time for me to dip back into the opus.shalom,Steven

  2. >Wow, Anthony! You loved it; that's fantastic. It's pretty great to see such a wide diversity of opinions on this novel (for me it's middle-of-the-road Woolf, which is still better than most other writers). And I'm so glad you found Woolf in Winter valuable. Even I need some time away from Woolf after such an intensity of reading, but I do HIGHLY recommend the Hermione Lee bio. Very balanced and illuminating. I think Lee is almost as fine a master of her chosen form as Woolf was of hers.As for Bloom, I make a principle of disagreeing with him, so it's no surprise I do here as well. 🙂 I think it's easy to be nostalgic (VERY easy, apparently, for Mr. Bloom), and always difficult to pick out those enduring artists of one's own time. But I think they're out there. We've got Toni Morrison, Mary Oliver, Marilynne Robinson, Hilary Mantel…I think we're doing OK.

  3. >Steven – I am far from finished my Woolf reading. I expect I shall tackle the Hermione Lee biography sometime soon. I'm looking forward to the other novels, the full diaries and essays. I hadn't even thought of the short stories. Thank you for the suggestion.

  4. >Emily – As I mentioned in reply to Steven, the Lee biography is high on the list before I tackle any more of Woolf's own work.Oh, I have a soft spot for Bloom. I wonder how posterity will deal with the writers that you mention. Are they truly game-changers?As for English fiction I can see a baton that has passed from Shakespeare to Austen to Woolf, and stopped. To be honest I don't know any of the writers you mention well, merely dabbled.

  5. >I understand exactly what you mean about a break from her writing – but I'm also very excited to pick up a new work by her now that Woolf in Winter has come to a close.I truly enjoyed reading the Waves (though my thoughts won't be up until tomorrow) but nothing has been able to beat out To the Lighthouse. And I think I agree with Emily. We have plenty of equally influential female writers… I just don't think they're as much of a powerhouse as Woolf is.

  6. >Hermione Lee's biography is excellent! :)I love this one too, and it's fun seeing how Woolf refined her craft by reading several books in a short time space. I intend to read Between the Acts in the next couple of weeks-it will be new to me (my Woolf in Winter participation was all rereads), so I'm excited.

  7. >likeglass – To the Lighthouse is my favourite at this moment too.There are influential writers today but who will be considered to have moved writing on, when viewed fifty years from now.

  8. >Let me also recommend the Hermione Lee biography. Such as step up from the Quentin Bell standard from prior to its publication. Lee is quite the writer, possessing a craft worthy of her subject. And also respond to Mr. Bloom by saying that although Woolf and other company listed have provided undeniable examples of literary genius, I must agree with Emily that they are not alone. Think I would be sad to think that genius died with modernism.Enjoyed reading about your reading experience. Your descriptions are just lovely. Read in much the same way – small pieces at a time while I read other things. Seems most natural. How much internal monologue can one absorb at one time?Thank you so much for joining us for the reads. You have added much to our experience.

  9. >Haha, well, if your standard is so high that only Shakespeare, Austen & Woolf qualify, it makes sense to expect to wait another hundred years before the next flame-bearer appears! We're only 80 years on from Woolf, after all – it took 300 to get from Shakespeare to Austen. 😉

  10. >Emily – Touché, haha, you are quite right. What's another 20-200 years? I am narrowly confining my range to English fiction. Once you extend the argument to American, or even Scottish writers, it breaks down.Wouldn't it be exciting though to be reading the new standard bearer to Woolf as a contemporary?How thrilling must it have been to be living through those pangs of modernism, to be reading first editions of Woolf, Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence? Has anything since been able to offer a comparable thrill?

  11. >Anthony, I also started reading The Waves and was befuddled so stopped midway, read the introduction, started over again, and made better progress. At least the way became clearer than before. I love that quote you picked from the introduction to your edition. So apt.I also have to agree with Emily with regards to Bloom's comment. While I do consider Shakespeare and Austen and Woolf "greats", and some of their contemporaries, I cannot imagine my reading life without Morrison or Garcia Marquez or Calvino or Eco, etc.Bloom's statement is so interesting because there was this character in Orlando who would, every age, reminisce about past writers and how the present ones will never compare to them, and then in another age reminisce and praise about those past others who in another life he considered worthless.

  12. >Clare – I agree that there are very many other fine writers that form a necessary part of any varied reading diet. I could however be very happy marooned on a desert island with only Shakespeare, Austen and Woolf's books to give me solace.I didn't stick with Orlando this time around but will definitely try again. I would enjoy the irony of the character you mention.

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