The Waves by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
For three weeks I have looked at this book on my desk, trying to summon the necessary courage to write my thoughts. Courage, because whatever I say will be an inadequate, tepid articulation of how The Waves made me feel.
‘I was running,’ said Jinny, ‘after breakfast. I saw leaves moving in a hole in the hedge. I thought “That is a bird on its nest.” I parted them and looked; but there was no bird on a nest. The leaves went on moving. I was frightened. I ran past Susan, past Rhoda, and Neville and Bernard in the tool-house talking. I cried as I ran, faster and faster. What moved the leaves? What moves my heart, my legs? And I dashed in here, seeing you green as a bush, like a branch, very still, Louis, with your eyes fixed. “Is he dead?” I thought, and kissed you, with my heart jumping under my pink frock like the leaves, which go on moving, though there is nothing to move them. Now I smell geraniums; I smell earth mould. I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you.’
The Waves made me quiver. It made my heart jump under my frock like the leaves. I don’t know when I have read such a thing of beauty, a work that soars in joy and plummets elegiacally, rising and falling, ever in motion, and yet caught in stillness. A listening.
Woolf writes the silence between the words, the spaces that we rush to fill with chatter and speeches. She writes the heartbeats we take for granted.
Look, when I move my head I ripple all down my narrow body; even my thin legs ripple like a stalk in the wind. … I leap like one of those flames that run between the cracks of the earth; I move, I dance; I never cease to move and to dance. I move like the leaf that moved in the hedge as a child and frightened me. I dance over these streaked, these impersonal, distempered walls with their yellow skirting as firelight dances over teapots. I catch fire even from women’s cold eyes. When I read, a purple rim runs round the black edge of the textbook. Yet I cannot follow any word through its changes. I cannot follow any thought from present to past. I do not stand lost, like Susan, with tears in my eyes remembering home; or lie, like Rhoda, crumpled among the ferns, staining my pink cotton green, while I dream of plants that flower under the sea, and rocks through which the fish swim slowly. I do not dream.
The Waves transcends literary convention. It is beyond poetry, it defies prose. It loops in and around itself, carrying the characters through their linear lives—youth, the obligations of adulthood, the melancholy of aging—within the circular swell of internal thought.
What is this book? What words can describe the effect the moon has on the tides, the tilt of the hemisphere has on the seasons? A colloquy of six characters. Streams of consciousness flowing into a sea that encompasses the whole of life. A tragedy like all of life is a tragedy. Is it something to love, to admire, to imitate, to despair of?
Like and ‘like’ and ‘like’ – but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?'” How do words relate to the world? What is constant in the flux of identity? How do we know ourselves and each other, how do we understand a moment or a life in those terms?
Bernard, the writer, is our anchor. If there is anything conventional to The Waves, it is Bernard who serves as a main character, like a Maypole around which the others twirl, their lives entangling, unraveling, dancing on. It is he who reminds us of the impermanence and unreliability of our personal narrative.
But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story – and there are so many, and so many – stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories, and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases.
And what lives these are, these characters representative of Woolf’s England: the expatriate, the mother, the ingénue, the depressive, the artist, the scholar, and, in one character mourned for but who is never given a voice, the hero.
Louis, stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet.
As I neared the end of The Waves, I read through a conversation in an online writing group started by a writer who works as a first reader for a literary agent. She is tasked with culling through slush pile manuscripts, making the call whether or not a novel is sent on to the agent for the next round of consideration. She came into our group bemoaning the terrible state of many of these manuscripts and suggested several writing craft guides that she wished the hapless authors of those rejected manuscripts would have consulted as they wrote. Guides that trace character arcs into percentages and tidy packages of outlines and moments. I died a little inside as I witnessed other writers scrambling to write down the books she suggested. Books I have read. I get it. I understand. Convention sells books. But for one moment, I wished the human experience could be released from genres and arcs, released to ride the waves of thought and experience.
How impossible to order them rightly; to detach one separately, or to give the effect of the whole – […] like music.
Then again, if dancing out-of-bounds became convention, it would lose its fragile, precious power.
I am forever changed by The Waves. I am filled with the wonder and possibility of a mind freed from convention and embracing humanity, of what happens when we allow in silence and at last hear the roar of our own hearts.
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