Study Guide

The Waves

By Virginia Woolf

The Waves Introduction

Water, water everywhere and not a plot to drink.

Okay, that's not exactly true, but Virginia Woolf's 1931 novel The Waves is heavy on water imagery and light on the kind of plot and action you typically see in a novel. Woolf doesn't exactly trade in traditional narratives or style, and The Waves is the most experimental of her works: we hope you're ready to jump into the deep end.

The novel follows the lives of six narrators and their friend, Percival, exploring their relationships and personal development from youth to adulthood. It uses stream-of-consciousness (what an appropriately liquid-named narrative style, eh?) that focuses more on the characters' inner lives than what happens in the big wide world. As a result, it's sometimes a bit hard to tell what's going on, where characters are, or when events happen.

But hey, duders, you're reading Virginia Woolf's The Waves. This is a whole different kind of "beach reading."

Woolf does introduce some structure to the flow of the six character narratives. She divides the novel into nine chapters, each of which begins with a brief description of a seashore landscape at a particular time of day, linking the 24-hour clock to the human life cycle and making the line between them as blurry as a watercolor painting. But apart from this structural life buoy, you're adrift in the minds of these six characters as they grow up, age, and start to die off.

But The Waves, being a super-duper important Modernist novel, ain't preoccupied with making this novel easily accessible. It's about describing the intricacies of the human mind, the passage of time, and the role of language in our lives.

No use in mincing words here: Virginia Woolf is considered not only one of the best Modernists, but one of the best writers, ever. In any language. The Waves is one of her last novels, and she was writing it at the height of her (really scarily genius) powers. This novel comes after Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and A Room Of One's Own—the titles that made Virginia Woolf a literary celebrity.

So if you're ready to dive in headfirst (we're coming up with all these aqua-tastic metaphors… is there something in the water?) into the stormy seas of Modernism, you couldn't pick a better book than The Waves.

What is The Waves About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever wondered, "Why can't anyone ever quite say what they're thinking?"

No, we're not making a snide comment about Virginia Woolf's (not gonna lie) often impenetrable-seeming prose. We're talking about the creepily huge gulf that can divide our innermost feelings from what we're able to communicate with others. Have you ever seen a sunset and said "Wow," because there was no way you could actually sum up what you were feeling? Or said, "I'll miss you" and then felt really depressed because you meant something way more?

Or even eaten a piece of chocolate cake and been only able to say "Mghmrrrph" because a) your mouth was full and b) there was no way to express the deliciousness that was dancing like a baby rainbow unicorn on your tongue?

We have all been there. We feel you, Shmoopers. Language is hard. And you know who else understands this? Weirdly enough, it's Virginia Woolf, one of the preeminent wordsmiths of all time.

The Waves is all about the desire to ram your head against a desk because there is no way to ever express what you really feel. It's all about the question of whether language is even capable of embodying everything we want to say. This novel asks "If language can't express everything, why bother trying to communicate at all?"

The Waves' Bernard, in particular, struggles to pour every intended drop of meaning into his words. But he always fails, and this failure puts him in quite a funk at times. Ultimately, Bernard realizes that there's always going to be a divide between what he attempts to say and what he ends up saying, but that the answer must be in his attempt.

Why? Because it's the effort of trying to connect with others that's meaningful in Woolf's fiction. Nothing is ever perfect where human relationships are concerned—often the narrators of The Waves are simultaneously feeling two opposite emotions (like love and hate) for the same person; it's a mess.

However, they just keep plugging away, trying to communicate and connect with others… and every once in a while, they seem to succeed. That's what Bernard seems to be getting at toward the end of the novel—it's hard to express ourselves but, as Tom Hanks's character in A League of Their Own says, "the hard is what makes it great."

Tom Hanks's words of wisdom pertain both to communicating our feelings with the clumsy tool of language and to reading The Waves. Both are super challenging, but both are awesome.

The Waves Resources

WEBSITES

Full Text Online, Nerds
The full text of The Waves is available online.

The Lady Herself
Check out a brief biography of Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. And hey, notice the birth and death dates? She and contemporary (and fellow Modernist) James Joyce share the same ones.

Did You Know That Lots of Woolf's Papers are in the U.S.?
True facts, Yanks.

Everyone's a Critic
Read a contemporary review of the novel (not a very flattering one, in fact).

Virginia Woolf: Proto-Punk Princess?
"Godmother of Punk" Patti Smith reads a selection from The Waves (with some of her own improvised thoughts thrown in as well).

Blogging Woolf
This site is a treasure trove for Woolf fans. Click above for details and thoughts on a stage production of The Waves (the mind reels).

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Family Matters
Virginia Woolf's nephew talks about her legacy.

VIDEO

All About Virginia
A documentary about Virginia Woolf.

AUDIO

What Does the Woolf Say?
There is only one known existing recording of Virginia Woolf's voice, from a 1937 segment she did for the BBC series Words Fail Me. Her thoughts were later edited into the essay "Craftsmanship," which was published after her death in The Death of the Moth and Other Stories (1942).

IMAGES

Portraits of a Lady
The National Portrait Gallery in London has oodles of pictures of the fair Virginia.

With Love from YouTube
If you prefer a less high-brow source for your Virginia photos, check out a short video history in photographs about Woolf.