The Wavesby Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf's most overtly experimental and perhaps most challenging work, The Waves traces the lives of six characters from childhood through old age, presenting them through their own interwoven voices. The voices, always placed in quotations and introduced with the name of the person speaking, fall somewhere between spoken soliloquy and an interior monologue. The tension between these two things, between the spoken and the unspoken, is, in part, what gives the novel so much of its emotional force. The narration of the novel, placeable on a spectrum somewhere between uncensored inner narration and conscious self-presentation, undergirds one of the novel's central thematic preoccupations. That is, the characters whose "voices" we hear throughout each seem caught trying to mediate between the vivid idiosyncrasies of his or her own inner experience and the world of other people. Woolf brilliantly introduces this dynamic in the opening few pages where six children, Neville, Louis, Bernard, Susan, Jinny, and Rhoda take turns delivering one-line impressions of what they see around them. What is striking is the way their descriptions do and do not coincide. While they all speak in identical constructions (subject-verb-object) and describe something about their present sensory experience ("I see a crimson tassel"), they take notice of different phenomena and describe those phenomena in unique, impressionistic ways. Indeed, it is unclear in the opening few pages, as it often is in the rest of the novel, whether they are observing the same scene at all. Are they together or are they each alone? There is no third person narrator to tell us; we instead rely on the characters' own depictions of the world they inhabit and the people with whom they inhabit it. The ambiguity is deliberate, since Woolf's suggestion is that even when these people are together, on a deeper level, each one is still very much alone.
Woolf Studies Annual
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THE SUN had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.
As they neared the shore each bar rose, heaped itself, broke and swept a thin veil of white water across the sand. The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. Gradually the dark bar on the horizon became clear as if the sediment in an old wine-bottle had sunk and left the glass green. Behind it, too, the sky cleared as if the white sediment there had sunk, or as if the arm of a woman couched beneath the horizon had raised a lamp and flat bars of white, green and yellow, spread across the sky like the blades of a fan. Then she raised her lamp higher and the air seemed to become fibrous and to tear away from the green surface flickering and flaming in red and yellow fibres like the smoky fire that roars from a bonfire. Gradually the fibres of the burning bonfire were fused into one haze, one incandescence which lifted the weight of the woollen grey sky on top of it and turned it to a million atoms of soft blue. The surface of the sea slowly became transparent and lay rippling and sparkling until the dark stripes were almost rubbed out. Slowly the arm that held the lamp raised it higher and then higher until a broad flame became visible; an arc of fire burnt on the rim of the horizon, and all round it the sea blazed gold.
The light struck upon the trees in the garden, making one leaf transparent and then another. One bird chirped high up; there was a pause; another chirped lower down. The sun sharpened the walls of the house, and rested like the tip of a fan upon a white blind and made a blue fingerprint of shadow under the leaf by the bedroom window. The blind stirred slightly, but all within was dim and unsubstantial. The birds sang their blank melody outside.
“I SEE a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”
“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”
“I hear a sound,” said Rhoda, “cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and down.”
“I see a globe,” said Neville, “hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.”
“I see a crimson tassel,” said Jinny, “twisted with gold threads.”
“I hear something stamping,” said Louis. “A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.”
“Look at the spider’s web on the corner of the balcony,” said Bernard. “It has beads of water on it, drops of white light.”
“The leaves are gathered round the window like pointed ears,” said Susan.
“A shadow falls on the path,” said Louis, “like an elbow bent.”
“Islands of light are swimming on the grass,” said Rhoda. “They have fallen through the trees.”
“The birds’ eyes are bright in the tunnels between the leaves,” said Neville.
“The stalks are covered with harsh, short hairs,” said Jinny, “and drops of water have stuck to them.”
“A caterpillar is curled in a green ring,” said Susan, “notched with blunt feet.”
“The grey-shelled snail draws across the path and flattens the blades behind him,” said Rhoda.
“And burning lights from the window-panes flash in and out on the grasses,” said Louis.
“Stones are cold to my feet,” said Neville. “I feel each one, round or pointed, separately.”
“The back of my hand burns,” said Jinny, “but the palm is clammy and damp with dew.”
“Now the cock crows like a spurt of hard, red water in the white tide,” said Bernard.
“Birds are singing up and down and in and out all round us,” said Susan.
“The beast stamps; the elephant with its foot chained; the great brute on the beach stamps,” said Louis.
“Look at the house,” said Jinny, “with all its windows white with blinds.”
“Cold water begins to run from the scullery tap,” said Rhoda, “over the mackerel in the bowl.”
“The walls are cracked with gold cracks,” said Bernard, “and there are blue, finger-shaped shadows of leaves beneath the windows.”
“Now Mrs. Constable pulls up her thick, black stockings,” said Susan.
“When the smoke rises, sleep curls off the roof like a mist,” said Louis.
“The birds sang in chorus first,” said Rhoda. “Now the scullery door is unbarred. Off they fly. Off they fly like a fling of seed. But one sings by the bedroom window alone.”
“Bubbles form on the floor of the saucepan,” said Jinny. “Then they rise, quicker and quicker in a silver chain to the top.”
“Now Biddy scrapes the fish-scales with a jagged knife on to a wooden board,” said Neville.
“The dining-room window is dark blue now,” said Bernard, “and the air ripples above the chimneys.”
“A swallow is perched on the lightning-conductor,” said Susan. “And Biddy has smacked down the bucket on the kitchen flags.”
“That is the first stroke of the church bell,” said Louis. “Then the others follow; one, two; one, two; one, two.”
“Look at the table-cloth, flying white along the table,” said Rhoda. “Now there are rounds of white china, and silver streaks beside each plate.”
“Suddenly a bee booms in my ear,” said Neville. “It is here; it is past.”
“I burn, I shiver,” said Jinny, “out of this sun, into this shadow.”
Copyright © 1931 by Harcourt, Inc.
Copyright renewed 1958 by Leonard Woolf
Annotated Edition copyright © 2006 by Harcourt, Inc.
Preface copyright © 2005 by Mark Hussey
Introduction copyright © 2006 by Molly Hite
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Meet the Author
VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882–1941) was one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. An admired literary critic, she authored many essays, letters, journals, and short stories in addition to her groundbreaking novels.
- Date of Birth:
- January 25, 1882
- Date of Death:
- March 28, 1941
- Place of Birth:
- Place of Death:
- Sussex, England
- Home schooling
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