There's tons o' death and decay in The Waves. We look on as the narrators age, endure the death of two friends, and often fixate on all the stuff that is rotting and/or dying (this book makes windfall apples sounds really nasty).
For example, when Susan and Bernard are running around Elvedon and they come across the lady writing in a window, Susan turns a benign or even peaceful image into a sinister one, remarking, "I see the lady writing. I see the gardeners sweeping [...] If we died here, nobody would bury us" (1b.49). That dark little gem, which comes pretty much out of the blue, is just one example of how Woolf peppers the novel with references to death, often to jarring effect.
Yet despite these frequent references to the darker side of life, the novel ends on a hopeful note with Bernard's promise to rail against the forces of death and decline. Hecky yeah, Bernard! Do not go gentle into that good night! Prior to his decision to fight with all his might, he's actually feeling pretty down in the dumps and fretting that his lifelong obsession with phrase collecting has been pretty much meaningless. He says,
My book, stuffed with phrases, has dropped to the floor. […] What is the phrase for the moon? And the phrase for love? By what name are we to call death? I do not know. I need a little language such as lovers use, words of one syllable such as children speak when they come into the room and find their mother sewing and pick up some scrap of bright wool, a feather, or a shred of chintz. I need a howl; a cry. When the storm crosses the marsh and sweeps over me where I lie in the ditch unregarded. I need no words. Nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with all its feet on the floor. None of those resonances and lovely echoes that break and chime from nerve to nerve in our breasts, making wild music, false phrases. I have done with phrases. (9b.79)
However, before you even have time to get alarmed, Bernard seems to collect himself, possessed by a renewed zest for life (and, presumably, language, since he appears to be feeling talky once again). He says,
I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man's, like Percival's, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death! (9b.84)
Presumably, this renewed desire means he won't be giving up on language and communication—the twin concerns that had been making him gloomy just a moment ago—any time soon. That's a pretty uplifting ending, if we do say so ourselves.
See: there's really no need to be afraid of Virginia Woolf.
The Waves may represent the peak of Woolf's Modernist aesthetics. Why, you may ask?
Ah, we're glad you asked! Here you go:
Thanks to all of the above, The Waves is a masterpiece of Modernist experimentation. Eat your heart out, Joyce.
As you probably gathered from all the water metaphors and the use of chapter intros that focus on an ocean landscape at different stages of the day/tide, water is the central metaphor in this novel.
Woolf's obsession with water, fluidity, and flow "seeps" into every narrative pore, including the stream-of-consciousness style and the similes and metaphors the characters use to describe themselves and others (and particularly their emotions).
With the chapter intros, Woolf draws connections between the stages of the human life and the 24-hour cycle of ocean tides, suggesting a structural similarity between the two. Because the novel presents us with a variety of waves—from literal ocean currents to character narrations that ebb and flow like the tide—The Waves seems like a pretty appropriate title.
Bernard leaves us on a semi-hopeful note, suggesting that, after all the characters' teeth-gnashing about death, aging, and alienation from others, he's going to fight against the forces of decline, death, and disengagement; indeed, he declares, "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!" (9b.84).
It seems like Bernard is not just going to resist these aspects of existence, but actively fight them. It's almost a violent image. We wish him the best of luck… even though we're not totally sure about the anti-aging properties of language. We are, however, sure that language does has the power to convey the most complex aspects of human communication and identity.
Up top, Virginia Woolf.
Starting out in a nursery in an unidentified area of England, The Waves takes its characters (and, by extension, us) all over the U.K. during the course of the story. However, Woolf often uses pretty non-specific language to lay out the environments that the characters move through—which makes sense, given that the novel generally regards actions and settings outside of the mind as secondary to the characters' internal journeys and mental landscapes.
Despite the novel's general tendency to avoid details about landmarks or even town names, here are the details we do get: after nursery school, the narrators go to boarding schools in different regions of England. Then, Susan goes off to Switzerland to finish her education, while Bernard and Neville attend universities in Edinburgh and London, respectively.
It appears that Louis and Jinny don't go to college and end up in London. After university, it isn't immediately clear where Bernard settles, but late in the book he mentions being on a return trip to Waterloo after meeting up with his friends. Not Napoleon's Waterloo. The boring one in England.
It seems that Neville, Jinny, Rhoda, and Louis all live in London, with only Susan opting for an adulthood in the country. She lives in Lincolnshire, as we learn only through a passing reference late in the novel, which is super-pretty.
Although Rhoda and Bernard both take joyrides to other parts of Europe, the novel stays England-centric. What's the point of this? Well, like we mentioned above, the real landscape of The Waves is internal: the rocky moonscapes of the characters' minds. Woolf, as an Englishwoman writing for an English audience, probably wanted to highlight the fact that this novel was about Google-mapping the soul, man, and so she set it in the most mundane place she could think of: merry old England.
Woolf's fluid, allusive stream-of-consciousness style can be heavy sledding on a normal day, and The Waves takes extra risks in experimenting with point-of-view, plot, and overall narration. You may have noticed that the style is kind of like the rhythms of the actual ocean, rising and falling in intensity throughout the story in a way that can be kind of dizzying. Is there such a thing as literary seasickness?
The novel is also pretty heavy on ambiguity; it's not always easy to tell where we are, physically and temporally, in the lives of the characters. With narrators like Rhoda, the narrative is so chock-full of abstract imagery that figuring out what's going on plot-wise is almost impossible.
But hey, knowing what's going on is overrated, right? With a beautiful prose style that brings out the complexity of human experience and the power of language to enrich it, Woolf does a good job convincing us to saddle up on our boogie boards and ride the waves with her.
Using an entire aquarium's worth of water metaphors to describe the emotions of its characters, The Waves also brings its obsession with fluidity into its narrative style: stream-of-consciousness. Woolf writes in a way that has words and ideas flowing and cascading into one another, rising and falling in intensity… kind of like the ocean tides.
Take, for example, when Rhoda says she is riding a mule up a Spanish hill:
The mule stumbles up and on. The ridge of the hill rises like mist, but from the top I shall see Africa. Now the bed gives under me. The sheets spotted with yellow holes let me fall through. The good woman with a face like a white horse at the end of the bed makes a valedictory movement and turns to go. Who then comes with me? Flowers only, the cowbind and the moonlight-coloured May. Gathering them loosely in a sheaf I made of them a garland and gave them—Oh, to whom? We launch out now over the precipice. Beneath us lie the lights of the herring fleet. The cliffs vanish. Rippling small, rippling grey, innumerable waves spread beneath us. I touch nothing. I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me. (7b, 40)
In this big ol' mess of stream-of-consciousness, a whole bunch of thoughts and images collide and flow together in Rhoda's head. Rhoda's narrative of her ascent on the mule gathers intensity before ultimately "dissolving," kind of like the waves she's describing. Yeah, Woolf is a genius. It's true.
Another prime example of the narrative's wavy ways occurs at the very end, when Bernard's depression lifts and he declares his intention to keep on resisting death and decline:
And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man's, like Percival's, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death! (9b.84)
Again, this moment builds kind of like a wave gathering strength, showing off the narrative rhythms that Woolf uses throughout the novel. With the somewhat out-of-the-blue reference to Percival, Bernard's zesty declaration is a good example of the way seemingly random thoughts or references often intrude on—or flow into—a stream-of-consciousness narrative. And, you know, our own organic patterns of thought: which is what stream-of-consciousness is modeled on.
Between several gallons of water references and narrative rhythms that mimic the rising and falling of waves, we don't think the term "stream-of-consciousness" has ever been so apt. As they say, it's not the size of The Waves, but the motion of its ocean, er, prose.
Given the title of The Waves, it should be no surprise that waves and water are symbolically huge in this novel. The novel's very style (which is even called stream-of-consciousness—how perfect is that?) mimics the flow of waves, and the characters describe a lot of emotional waxing and waning in a way that resembles the rhythm of the ocean.
Woolf draws special attention to tidal rhythms and their relationship to other cyclical processes (the 24-hour day and the four seasons) in the italicized introductions that start off each chapter. For Woolf, watery rhythms are reminiscent of The Circle of Life.
Woolf's metaphors go in both directions. On the one hand, waves and water are consistently anthropomorphized. For example, in one of the chapter intros, the narrator compares the waves to warriors:
The wind rose. The waves drummed on the shore, like turbaned warriors, like turbaned men with poisoned assegais who, whirling their arms on high, advance upon the feeding flocks, the white sheep. (3a.6)
On the other hand, taking the metaphor in the exact opposite direction, the behaviors of humans and animals are compared to flowing water. When the six narrators and Percival meet up before Percival's departure for India, the friends share some intense emotions that Louis compares to currents:
But now the circle breaks. Now the current flows. Now we rush faster than before. Now passions that lay in wait down there in the dark weeds which grow at the bottom rise and pound us with their waves. Pain and jealousy, envy and desire, and something deeper than they are, stronger than love and more subterranean. (4b.74)
Through use of these two-way metaphors and a lyrically "fluid" style, Woolf underscores how blurry the divisions between seemingly distinct categories/people/objects can be. If waves can be like people and people can be like waves, it's totally possible that the six main narrators may be one person.
Who doesn't like flowers? They're pretty, they smell good, and they attract friendly bees. Oh, and they're hugely symbolic: just check out Georgia O'Keeffe sometime.
After water and waves, flowers are probably the most important symbols in The Waves—they're everywhere. Dead, alive, getting blasted by the breeze, being twisted into garlands, landing in the river as an "offering"—you name a scene in the book, and flowers (or someone who is like a flower) are probably nearby.
One important use of this symbol occurs in the repeated image of a many-sided flower, which seems to be a metaphor for the seven friends themselves. When the six narrators and Percival gather together for a last dinner before Percival heads to India, Bernard looks around the restaurant and spies a red carnation in a nearby vase:
A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves—a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution. (4b.39)
Like the characters themselves, this multi-faceted flower's appearance depends on the eye of the beholder.
The same image appears toward the end of the novel, when Bernard sums up the events and relationships that the book has presented:
Marriage, death, travel, friendship… town and country; children and all that; a many-sided substance cut out of this dark; a many-faceted flower. Let us stop for a moment; let us behold what we have made. Let it blaze against the yew trees. One life. There. It is over. Gone out. (8b.44)
In this moment, Bernard once again uses the flower to represent the unity and dissonance that coexist within the narrators' lives, symbolizing the wealth of experiences that can be wrapped up into one life.
Of course, there are numerous other instances of flower imagery throughout the book—what are some other big ones? Is it always a symbol of life?
Given the novel's emphasis on cycles, it's not super surprising that rings (which are circles, of course) carry a lot of symbolic weight. There's also the subplot where Bernard has to travel to Mordor in order to burn the One Ring in Mt. Doom… oh, wait. Wrong book.
While yearning for the ability to use language to draw connections between seemingly disparate items, Louis expresses a desire to forge "a steel ring of clear poetry that shall connect the gulls and the women with bad teeth, the church spire and the bobbing billycock hats" (4b.41). For Louis language is kind of like a fancy key ring that can bring even radically different items (or, in this case, people) together.
This is not the only instance in which the image of a ring is used to signify connection. For example, as the six narrators and Percival are about to part ways before Percival leaves for India, Louis notes that a "circle in [their] blood," which breaks often due to their differences from each other, closes again and "[S]omething is made" (4b.77). Psst: that something is a ring.
The fact that rings are circular is also important. As you may have gathered, the novel is kind of obsessed with cycles. The chapter intros, which track the progress of the sun over the course of 24-hour day, serve as the first (and most glaring) clue to this preoccupation.
The characters sometimes cycle through a series of emotions or opinions before returning to the original one. Bernard, for one, goes from feeling that things are "good" to experiencing intense despair… and then goes back to feeling good again. So, as circles, rings do double duty, serving as a symbol of both interpersonal connection and the cyclical nature of many life activities (and emotional rollercoasters).
Of course, there are many other rings—including literal ones—mentioned in the book, including jewelry that the characters wear (like Miss Lambert's amethyst ring). Rings, after all, are widely symbolic of prestige (you need cash in order to buy diamonds) and landmark life events (wedding rings, class rings, and teething rings).
Louis makes numerous references to a beast that is off somewhere stamping. In fact, the first time we "hear" from Louis, he says, "I hear something stamping… A great beast's foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps" (1b.6). He later specifies that this beast is an elephant. This image appears almost exclusively in Louis's narrative, though there is one reference to the fact that the waves are like "the thud of a great beast stamping" (5a.4) in the introduction to Chapter 5.
Hmm, perhaps the novel associates Louis with this heavy-footed beast to highlight our favorite Australian's anger-management issues? He does seem super frustrated by the fact that (even while feeling intellectually superior to everyone) he suspects that others will look down on him no matter what. That's probably enough to make anyone crankypants.
Though nature imagery in general is pretty important in The Waves (see "Flowers"), trees in particular seem to "crop up" quite a lot. Sorry, we couldn't let water have all the punny fun.
For example, upon hearing that a man was found dead in the gutter, Neville concludes: "[W]e are doomed, all of us, by the apple trees, by the immitigable tree which we cannot pass" (1b.67). That image returns when Percival dies, and Neville says:
He is dead. […] He fell. His horse tripped. He was thrown. The sails of the world have swung round and caught me on the head. All is over. The lights of the world have gone out. There stands the tree which I cannot pass. (5b.1)
Nature imagery is often used to convey fertility and life (the darling buds of May, etc) but this tree recurs in Neville's narrative as a symbol of death and doom.
Also, in a similar vein, it's worth noting the numerous references to yew trees in particular throughout the text. Yew trees are often found in European graveyards, so perhaps these references are part of the novel's commitment to drawing attention to death in the characters' universe. Because, you know (or should we say "yew know?"), there isn't enough doom 'n' gloom in The Waves already; Woolf wanted to shoehorn in a little extra.
Defining the narrative perspective for The Waves is kind of tricky. Technically there is a third-person omniscient narrator that interweaves the thoughts of the six different narrators, but aside from the introductions to each chapter that narrator is almost entirely absent; her/his only role is to identify who is "speaking" at any given point. Check out how we are introduced to each of the characters:
"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." (1b.1-6)
And that's pretty much how the rest of the novel progresses, with each character taking her/his turn, one after the other, for nine chapters (with only brief interruptions for chapter intros, which give the omniscient voice some air time). So, third-person (omniscient) is probably the best description we can come up with for this description-defying experimental novel.
During this phase, the six narrators are children, just setting out in the world and struggling with the emotional turmoil and wonder that even a setting as seemingly yawn-inducing as a nursery school can inspire. They deal with issues on a small scale that will loom larger in adulthood: love and death.
The six narrators go off to boarding schools, which offer both plusses and minuses for the characters. During this stage, the boys meet Percival, a cool kid whose athleticism, wit, gracefulness, and fortitude set him apart and make him seem just plain awesome. The narrators use Percival to describe everything they are not.
We follow our narrators through adolescence and into young adulthood, discovering that they carry around some intense feelings. Neville grows tired of Bernard's endless storytelling and has strong, unrequited feelings (of lurve) for Percival; Susan claims to hate school and feel a total hatred for the people around her (primarily the teachers); Rhoda just feels plain alienated from everyone; Bernard can't get anyone to listen to him; and Louis frets that people are judging him for his Australian accent. Sounds like pretty garden-variety teenage angst to us?
The six narrators then get some legit problems when their friend Percival dies, and they are forced to confront death and ponder the meaning of their existence and, also, the power and importance of human relationships. Yikes. Can we just go back to a time when the big drama was that Jinny kissed Louis?
At the end of the book, Bernard triumphs over all the yucky feelings of decline and imminent demise that have haunted the characters—and his own feelings of failure as an author/artist—in one fell swoop, resolving to continue his attempts to communicate and connect with others, because (according to the Gospel of Bernard) it is in the pursuit of meaning through language that one achieves endless vitality. This is a kinda-sorta happy ending. We've sort of returned to the happy place of childhood.
We meet our six narrators when they are children in a nursery school together, spending their days in lessons and frolicking outdoors in the garden like (excessively morbid) little lambs. In this section, we begin to learn about the protagonists and their dynamics with one another. This phase of the book may represent a hat tip to the Biblical tale of the Garden of Eden, which also described a universe in infancy. Basically everything is sunshine and rainbows, with a little side of death-obsession.
During this phase of the narrative, the six narrators separate down gender lines to go to their respective boarding schools. It is at this point that the boys meet Percival and Neville falls in love with him (we also meet Dr. Crane, but only Louis likes that dude). The protagonists then graduate and get into their adult careers (with a stop at university along the way, for some). Percival (who was at some point introduced to the girls as well) goes off to India to work for the imperial government there.
The six protagonists are heartbroken when they learn Percival has fallen from his horse in India and died. Percival's death throws the characters into a tailspin as they try to make sense of this violent interruption in the narrative of their lives. Everybody loved Percy.
Even before Percival's premature exit, the characters were preoccupied by thoughts of death and decay, and Percival's death becomes a lightning rod for the characters' thoughts about all things Grim Reaper.
The characters are now beginning to feel their age, and they all struggle to some degree with the onset of The Big D. (That's death, guys. C'mon.) They're pretty settled into their lives, with some (e.g., Louis and Neville) achieving stratosphere-level success. They note the difficulty of keeping up with old friends and initial awkwardness that happens each time they meet up.
In the final chapter, as he attempts to sum everything up for an unnamed listener, Bernard suggests that these six different narrators might actually represent facets of a single individual. Gotcha!
At this time, Bernard attempts to resolve his love/hate relationship with language that has preoccupied him throughout the novel, ultimately deciding that continuing to wrestle with language (through communication and art) is the only way to struggle against the forces of capital D death. With this realization, Bernard closes the novel on a hopeful(ish) note.
The six narrators are children attending a nursery school together. In this early stage, they mostly play around outside, sit through their lessons, and think about what makes them special and distinct from the others. They are all special snowflakes.
They then go off to boarding school, where the boys meet Percival (who is introduced to the girls at some later point). After boarding school, Neville and Bernard go to university. Ultimately, they all move into adulthood and their respective careers.
Percival dies, sending the six narrators into crisis mode. They advance further into adulthood, reflecting upon the changes they are undergoing and boo-hooing about their distance from others.
The characters descend into old age and ponder their own mortality. At some point, Rhoda commits suicide. Bernard spends the final chapter attempting to summarize the book's events and their meanings and then resolves to fight against the forces of death and alienation that the characters have been struggling with throughout the novel.