Study Guide

The Waves Quotes

  • Death

    "My dear sir, I could say, why do you fidget, taking down your suitcase and pressing into it the cap that you have worn all night? Nothing we can do will avail." (4b.2)

    Bernard offers this thought to a fellow passenger on an overnight train. Throughout the novel, Bernard thinks a lot about habitual behavior and how it clouds our engagement with the deeper truths of existence, man. Here he seems to be reflecting on the meaninglessness daily activities. Thus quote suggests that Bernard believes these habitual actions are pointless because the end result of all acts and actions is death. We bet Bernard totally leaves dishes in the sink until he realizes he needs a clean bowl.

    For myself, I have no aim. I have no ambition. I will let myself be carried on by the general impulse. The surface of my mind slips along like a pale-grey stream reflecting what passes. I cannot remember my past, my nose, or the color of my eyes, or what my general opinion of myself is. Only in moments of emergency, at a crossing, at a kerb, the wish to preserve my body springs out and seizes me and stops me, here, before this omnibus. We insist, it seems, on living." (4b.3)

    Here, Bernard reflects how very little stands in the way of death, saying that he feels so disconnected from his own sense of individuality that it is a shock when his body produces the natural reflexes that prevent death (like when he almost steps off a curb at the wrong time but stops himself). Bernard's thoughts here echo Neville's thoughts in the wake of Percival's death, when he watches a little boy boarding a bus and thinks that the boy is just a slip away from a fatal accident.

    "Am I not, as I walk, trembling with strange oscillations and vibrations of sympathy, which, unmoored as I am from a private being, bid me embrace these engrossed flocks; these starers and trippers; these errand-boys and furtive and fugitive girls who, ignoring their doom, look in at shop-windows? But I am aware of our ephemeral passage." (4b.4)

    Bernard seems to be connecting habits or daily activities ( like shopping) with avoiding the "truth" of death. He claims that doesn't go in for such blinders and is aware of how tenuous life is.

    "Death is woven in with the violets." (4b.67)

    When Jinny gets some male attention while she's out to dinner with her friends, Rhoda and Louis think of her as participating in some kind of ritual that resembles a marriage ceremony. In their fantasy, there's someone decked out in flowers, a fire, a celebratory procession… all sorts of glam. However, this image quickly turns ominous (in The Waves? What a shocker!) as they "forebode decay" and then see death "woven" in with this joyous occasion. This moment may forshadow Percival's death in the next chapter.

    "He is dead," said Neville. "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)

    This is the moment we learn about Percival's death. Here, Neville references the tree he "cannot pass," an image that first appears in Neville's thoughts when he talks about hearing about the man who got his throat cut.

    "Such is the incomprehensible combination," said Bernard, "such is the complexity of things, that as I descend the staircase I do not know which is sorrow, which joy. My son is born; Percival is dead. I am upheld by pillars, shored up on either side by stark emotions; but which is sorrow, which is joy? I ask, and do not know, only that I need silence, and to be alone and to go out, and to save one hour to consider what has happened to my world, what death has done to my world." (5b.7)

    As with Rhoda and Louis's vision of a ceremony that is half wedding/half funeral, Bernard's thoughts here present life and death simultaneously, the implication being that they are two sides of the coin for him.

    "This then is the world that Percival sees no longer." (5b.8)

    This quote sums up the sense of shock that the characters experience at confronting a world that no longer includes their friend.

    "You are well out of it," I said, while the doves descended over the roofs and my son was born, as if it were a fact. [...] And I go on to say (my eyes fill with tears and then are dry), "But this is better than one had dared to hope." (5b.9)

    Here, Bernard has ambivalence toward life and death. This characterizes the attitude of the rest of the novel; life is both something that he claims Percival is "well out of" and "better than one had dared to hope." The novel's characters are torn between love and hate, nature and industry, and other sets of opposites. So, we guess it's natural that they would be similarly indecisive when it comes to the big binary—life and death—that is kind of at the heart of human existence.

    "People are so soon gone; let us catch them." (6b.18)

    Jinny's curious statement is offered during her people-watching session with an unnamed suitor and reflects an awareness of the transience of life and relationships. This ties in nicely with the novel's overarching obsession with death.

    "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!" (9b.84)

    This is Bernard's declaration of war against death, offered after he resolves to continue fighting to communicate and connect via language. Hmm, do you think can words really grant immortality? Reading is power, folks.

  • Identity

    "The time approaches when these soliloquies shall be shared. We shall not always give out a sound like a beaten gong as one sensation strikes and then another. Children, our lives have been gongs striking; clamour and boasting; cries of despair; blows on the nape of the neck in gardens." (2b.17)

    This is Louis seemingly foreshadowing the fact that the six narrators' perspectives might actually be (or become) one. That's kinda-sorta romantic, in a '90s way.

    "Having dropped off satisfied like a child from the breast, I am at liberty now to sink down, deep, into what passes, this omnipresent, general life. (How much, let me note, depends upon trousers; the intelligent head is entirely handicapped by shabby trousers.) One observes curious hesitations at the door of the lift. This way, that way, the other? Then individuality asserts itself. They are off. They are all impelled by some necessity. Some miserable affair of keeping an appointment, of buying a hat, severs these beautiful human beings once so united." (4b.3)

    This observation comes from Bernard as he's watching a group of train passengers scatter after riding the night train together. In Bernard's view, sharing the ride has created some kind of union between them all that is now broken as they "assert" their own individuality. He also associates their tedious daily routines and actions with this assertion of individuality, which is interesting…

    "Now I am drawn back by pricking sensations; by curiosity, greed (I am hungry) and the irresistible desire to be myself. I think of people to whom I could say things: Louis, Neville, Susan, Jinny and Rhoda. With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness." (4b.7)

    This quote from Bernard shows how crucial Louis, Neville, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda are to his sense of identity, and specifically his sense that he's "many-sided."

    "And then," said Bernard, "the cab came to the door, and, pressing our new bowler hats tightly over our eyes to hide our unmanly tears, we drove through streets in which even the housemaids looked at us, and our names painted in white letters on our boxes proclaimed to all the world that we were going to school with the regulation number of socks and drawers, on which our mothers for some nights previously had stitched our initials, in our boxes. A second severance from the body of our mother." (4b.29)

    Bernard thinks about how the children separated to go off to boarding school. He connects this separation from his school buddies to the separation of mother and child… abandonment issues much?

    "There is a red carnation in that 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)

    Here, Bernard observes that the seven friends assembled together make up a kind of "whole" that is symbolized by the seven-petalled flower. As they are waiting for Percival, the friends reflect that the group is not complete without their seventh member, and it is clear throughout the novel that each character's unique characteristics and personality contribute something distinct to the group. The flower shows this novel's emphasis on the multifaceted.

    "Marriage, death, travel, friendship," said Bernard; "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 reflecting upon the many different lives the narrators have led and the priorities they have, Bernard once again envisions the friends as a flower, this time "many-faceted" rather than "many-petalled." Here, the single flower also becomes the symbol of the "one life" that the characters have shared.

    "But we were all different. The wax—the virginal wax that coats the spine melted in different patches for each of us. The growl of the boot-boy making love to the tweeny among the gooseberry bushes; the clothes blown out hard on the line; the dead man in the gutter; the apple tree, stark in the moonlight; the rat swarming with maggots; the lustre dripping blue—our white wax was streaked and stained by each of these differently. Louis was disgusted by the nature of human flesh; Rhoda by our cruelty; Susan could not share; Neville wanted order; Jinny love; and so on. We suffered terribly as we became separate bodies." (9b.5)

    Now Bernard reflects on what made each of the narrators distinct and how those differences developed.

    "…We saw for a moment laid out among us the body of the complete human being whom we have failed to be, but at the same time, cannot forget. All that we might have been we saw; all that we had missed, and we grudged for a moment the other's claim, as children when the cake is cut, the one cake, the only cake, watch their slice diminishing." (9b.48)

    Here, Bernard addresses this thorny question of whether the different narrators have actually been separate entities all this time or not. Because Bernard says they have "failed" to be a complete human being, it kind of sounds like maybe this "six narrators-in-one" thing was metaphorical? We really wish Woolf was around to answer this one.

    "Wait," I said, putting my arm in imagination (thus we consort with our friends) through her arm. "Wait until these omnibuses have gone by. Do not cross so dangerously. These men are your brothers." In persuading her I was also persuading my own soul. For this is not one life; nor do I always know if I am man or woman, Bernard or Neville, Louis, Susan, Jinny, or Rhoda—so strange is the contact of one with another." (9b.53)

    Again, Bernard is suggesting how intertwined the lives of the narrators are and blurs the boundaries between their individual identities (and even between the categories of male and female).

    "And now I ask, "Who am I?" I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead, and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt "I am you". This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome. Yes, ever since old Mrs Constable lifted her sponge and pouring warm water over me covered me with flesh I have been sensitive, percipient. Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan's tears. I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt." (9b.68)

    In discussing the connectedness of the narrators' lives, Bernard explicitly floats the idea that the others may have been simply facets of Bernard rather than separate characters. However, he also insists on leaving this question ambiguous, responding "I do not know" to the question of whether they are actually one and the same or not.

  • Language/Art/Storytelling

    "Now grass and trees, the travelling air blowing empty spaces in the blue which they then recover, shaking the leaves which then replace themselves, and our ring here, sitting, with our arms binding our knees, hint at some other order, and better, which makes a reason everlastingly. This I see for a second, and shall try tonight to fix in words, to forge in a ring of steel, though Percival destroys it, as he blunders off, crushing the grasses, with the small fry trotting subservient after him. Yet it is Percival I need; for it is Percival who inspires poetry." (2b.18)

    In this moment, Louis explicitly links the desire for expression (i.e., by fixing something in words) with forging and maintaining connections between the friends. In this case, it appears that the friendships here (and particularly Percival's) are the basis of literary creation, but elsewhere it is implied that the relationship between language and friendship goes both ways, with language and art facilitating interpersonal connection.

    "Now let us follow him as he heaves through the swing-door to his own apartments. Let us imagine him in his private room over the stables undressing. He unfastens his sock suspenders (let us be trivial, let us be intimate). Then with a characteristic gesture (it is difficult to avoid these ready-made phrases, and they are, in his case, somehow appropriate) he takes the silver, he takes the coppers from his trouser pockets and places them there, and there, on his dressing-table. With both arms stretched on the arms of his chair he reflects (this is his private moment; it is here we must try to catch him): shall he cross the pink bridge into his bedroom or shall he not cross it?… But stories that follow people into their private rooms are difficult. I cannot go on with this story. I twiddle a piece of string; I turn over four or five coins in my trouser pocket." (2b.33)

    Bernard is trying to amuse Neville by imagining the private life of their school don, Dr. Crane. He manages to spin a pretty elaborate tale but ultimately finds it's too difficult to imagine and convey all the details of someone's private life. This moment serves as a good example of Bernard's frustration with the inexactness of language in capturing a full reality.

    "Bernard's stories amuse me," said Neville, "at the start. But when they tail off absurdly and he gapes, twiddling a bit of string, I feel my own solitude. He sees everyone with blurred edges. Hence I cannot talk to him of Percival. I cannot expose my absurd and violent passion to his sympathetic understanding. It too would make a "story."" (2b.34)

    Neville, too, complains about the inexactness of Bernard's storytelling. He also seems to imply that there is something about Bernard's stories that can be damaging or hurtful, and so he's unwilling to expose his own "violent passion" to his friend, because he's afraid that it will get distilled into a story.

    "We differ, it may be too profoundly," said Louis, "for explanation. But let us attempt it. I smoothed my hair when I came in, hoping to look like the rest of you. But I cannot, for I am not single and entire as you are. I have lived a thousand lives already." (4b.41)

    This quote from Louis implies that he finds communication difficult, particularly when talking to someone different from himself, but he thinks it is important to make the effort anyhow.

    '"Like" and "like" and "like"—but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing? Now that lightning has gashed the tree and the flowering branch has fallen and Percival, by his death, has made me this gift, let me see the thing. (5b.26)

    Here, Rhoda also puts her finger on a central question for the novel: What is the "thing" that lies beneath language and how do we get to it? Apparently Percival's death has somehow brought her into contact with the mystery beneath language, which she perceives as a gift. However, given what we know about Rhoda's eventual end (in suicide), we wonder how happy her access to this knowledge makes her.

    "It is curious how, at every crisis, some phrase which does not fit insists upon coming to the rescue—the penalty of living in an old civilization with a notebook. This drop falling has nothing to do with losing my youth. This drop falling is time tapering to a point. Time, which is a sunny pasture covered with a dancing light, time, which is widespread as a field at midday, becomes pendant. Time tapers to a point. As a drop falls from a glass heavy with some sediment, time falls. These are the true cycles, these are the true events. Then as if all the luminosity of the atmosphere were withdrawn I see to the bare bottom. I see what habit covers." (7b.2)

    Bernard, like Rhoda earlier, asserts that he sometimes gains access to some kind of core truths, a "bare bottom" that is typically obscured by "habit."

    "But for ourselves, we resent teachers. Let a man get up and say, "Behold, this is the truth," and instantly I perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say… I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found that story. And I begin to ask, Are there stories?" (7b.5)

    Bernard is thinking about the difficulty of telling how much truth is in language, suggesting that he and others like him reject "teachers" who talk endlessly about "the truth." Instead of being a pompous teacher, he turns to his storytelling. But Bernard does appear to search for something true beneath words—"the one story to which all these phrases refer"—and admits to doubting whether this story can be actually be found. In fact, he asks if there are any stories at all. Silly, doesn't he know he's in one?

    "Waves of hands, hesitations at street corners, someone dropping a cigarette into the gutter—all are stories. But which is the true story? That I do not know. Hence I keep my phrases hung like clothes in a cupboard, waiting for someone to wear them. Thus waiting, thus speculating, making this note and then another, I do not cling to life. I shall be brushed like a bee from a sunflower. My philosophy, always accumulating, welling up moment by moment, runs like quicksilver a dozen ways at once. But Louis, wild-eyed but severe, in his attic, in his office, has formed unalterable conclusions upon the true nature of what is to be known." (8b.15)

    Bernard says again that he's never found the one story that could use all those perfect little phrases he's been collecting. He thinks that this failing makes his philosophy deeply flawed. In contrast, Louis has pinned things down pretty well, having "formed unalterable conclusions upon the true nature of what is to be known." Lucky Louis.

    "How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground. Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half-sheets of note-paper. I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement. I begin to seek some design more in accordance with those moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then undeniably… Of story, of design, I do not see a trace then." (9b.2)

    Bernard is speaking to a stranger he has invited to eat with him as he prattles on about his life story. He is kind of trashing his own habit of collecting perfect phrases, indicating that he now seeks a "broken" language. He also says he is tired of stories and their "neat designs." Hmm, well, The Waves might be his kind of novel, then, eh?

    "Blindness returns as one moves and one leaf repeats another. Loveliness returns as one looks, with all its train of phantom phrases. One breathes in and out substantial breath; down in the valley the train draws across the fields lop-eared with smoke… But for a moment I had sat on the turf somewhere high above the flow of the sea and the sound of the woods, had seen the house, the garden, and the waves breaking. The old nurse who turns the pages of the picture-book had stopped and had said, "Look. This is the truth." (9b.64-65)

    This very abstract and very up-for-interpretation moment occurs toward the end of the book, when Bernard is experiencing feelings of intense detachment from the world. He describes being in a state somewhere "high" where a nurse points out the "truth" to him. It's not clear if Bernard thinks this revelation is a positive or negative event, however, as the world to which he returns after this event has "blindness" but also "loveliness."

  • Love/Hate

    "I love," said Susan, "and I hate. I desire one thing only. My eyes are hard. Jinny's eyes break into a thousand lights. Rhoda's are like those pale flowers to which moths come in the evening. Yours grow full and brim and never break. But I am already set on my pursuit. I see insects in the grass. Though my mother still knits white socks for me and hems pinafores and I am a child, I love and I hate." (1b.43)

    Susan's thoughts encapsulate the fact that love and hate are different sides of the same coin—in her universe, at least—and she seems to feel both emotions intensely (and sometimes simultaneously) even from a young age.

    "This is my first night at school," said Susan, "away from my father, away from my home. My eyes swell; my eyes prick with tears. I hate the smell of pine and linoleum. I hate the wind- bitten shrubs and the sanitary tiles. I hate the cheerful jokes and the glazed look of everyone." (2b.7)

    Susan is firmly fixated on "hate" here, listing a whole bunch of her least favorite things and expressing negative feelings toward her general environment and the people who surround her.

    "For how many months," said Susan, "for how many years, have I run up these stairs, in the dismal days of winter, in the chilly days of spring? Now it is midsummer. We go upstairs to change into white frocks to play tennis—Jinny and I with Rhoda following after. I count each step as I mount, counting each step something done with. So each night I tear off the old day from the calendar, and screw it tight into a ball. I do this vindictively, while Betty and Clara are on their knees. I do not pray. I revenge myself upon the day. I wreak my spite upon its image. You are dead now, I say, school day, hated day." (2b.19)

    So, Susan seems to have some intense (and negative) feelings about school, we guess? It seems her feelings rarely go halfway.

    "We are late," said Susan. "We must wait our turn to play. We will pitch here in the long grass and pretend to watch Jinny and Clara, Betty and Mavis. But we will not watch them. I hate watching other people play games. I will make images of all the things I hate most and bury them in the ground. This shiny pebble is Madame Carlo, and I will bury her deep because of her fawning and ingratiating manners, because of the sixpence she gave me for keeping my knuckles flat when I played my scales. I buried her sixpence. I would bury the whole school: the gymnasium; the classroom; the dining-room that always smells of meat; and the chapel. I would bury the red-brown tiles and the oily portraits of old men—benefactors, founders of schools." (2b.25)

    Once again, the intensity of Susan's hatred is notable and kind of alarming. It leads her to do something with those stones that seems just a hair short of Voodoo doll territory. Yikes. This is a long quote, but it's important to get all of Susan's Haterade out there.

    "I do not want the train to stop with a thud. I do not want the connection which has bound us together sitting opposite each other all night long to be broken. I do not want to feel that hate and rivalry have resumed their sway; and different desires. Our community in the rushing train, sitting together with only one wish, to arrive at Euston, was very welcome. But behold! It is over. We have attained our desire. We have drawn up at the platform." (4b.2)

    Bernard thinks it's sad that everyone who shared that communal sleeper car experience (who knew bonding with strangers could be so easy?) is now scattering to the wind. It seems a bit odd that he sees the default relationship between strangers in the city to be one of "hate and rivalry," right? All these characters are pretty freaking emotional.

    "I have eaten no lunch today in order that Susan may think me cadaverous and that Jinny may extend to me the exquisite balm of her sympathy. But while I admire Susan and Percival, I hate the others, because it is for them that I do these antics, smoothing my hair, concealing my accent." (4b.41)

    Anyone else find random references to hating one's "friends" a bit unsettling?

    "When I came into the room tonight," said Susan, "I stopped, I peered about like an animal with its eyes near to the ground. The smell of carpets and furniture and scent disgusts me. I like to walk through the wet fields alone, or to stop at a gate and watch my setter nose in a circle, and to ask: Where is the hare? I like to be with people who twist herbs, and spit into the fire, and shuffle down long passages in slippers like my father. The only sayings I understand are cries of love, hate, rage and pain." (4b.46)

    Even now that Susan is much older, she seems to have remained fairly intense, admitting that she only understands cries of love, hate, rage, and pain. She's even got strong feelings about surprising items such as carpets and furniture, which she finds "disgusting."

    "It is hate, it is love," said Susan. "That is the furious coal-black stream that makes us dizzy if we look down into it. We stand on a ledge here, but if we look down we turn giddy."

    "It is love," said Jinny, "it is hate, such as Susan feels for me because I kissed Louis once in the garden; because equipped as I am, I make her think when I come in, "My hands are red," and hide them. But our hatred is almost indistinguishable from our love." (4b.56-57)

    Once again, we're getting love and hate as two sides of the same coin. Jinny suggests that the two are "indistinguishable" in the narrators' feelings toward each other.

    "This is Oxford Street. Here are hate, jealousy, hurry, and indifference frothed into the wild semblance of life. These are our companions." (5b.23)

    Rhoda, too, suggests that hate, love, and other emotions and attitudes can exist side by side in the "wild semblance of life" that characterizes Oxford Street; ostensibly, one does not exclude the others.

    "Oh, life, how I have dreaded you," said Rhoda, "oh, human beings, how I have hated you! How you have nudged, how you have interrupted, how hideous you have looked in Oxford Street, how squalid sitting opposite each other staring in the Tube!" (7b.36)

    Now Rhoda gives Susan a run for her money in her declarations of hate and misanthropy. These characters might need to chill out a tad.

  • Time

    "I see India," said Bernard. "I see the low, long shore; I see the tortuous lanes of stamped mud that lead in and out among ramshackle pagodas; I see the gilt and crenellated buildings which have an air of fragility and decay as if they were temporarily run up buildings in some Oriental exhibition. I see a pair of bullocks who drag a low cart along the sun-baked road. The cart sways incompetently from side to side… But now, behold, Percival advances; Percival rides a flea-bitten mare, and wears a sun-helmet. By applying the standards of the West, by using the violent language that is natural to him, the bullock-cart is righted in less than five minutes. The Oriental problem is solved. He rides on; the multitude cluster round him, regarding him as if he were—what indeed he is—a God." (5b.53)

    Bernard imagines India as a place where time is endless and problems go on indefinitely. He then inserts Percival into this fantasy as the Westerner who speedily solves this imagined problem of the bullock-cart. While Bernard implies Percival's fantasy actions are admirable, he also notes that the process of inserting his "standards of the West" on the "Oriental problem" involves "violent language." Hmm… maybe colonialism ain't such a great thing after all?

    "And, what is this moment of time, this particular day in which I have found myself caught? The growl of traffic might be any uproar—forest trees or the roar of wild beasts. Time has whizzed back an inch or two on its reel; our short progress has been cancelled. I think also that our bodies are in truth naked. We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence." (4b.3)

    Here, Bernard seems to be contemplating time and the potential for human progress while acknowledging that we are only really bones (and other gooey things) covered in cloth.

    "With infinite time before us," said Neville, "we ask what shall we do? Shall we loiter down Bond Street, looking here and there, and buying perhaps a fountain-pen because it is green, or asking how much is the ring with the blue stone? Or shall we sit indoors and watch the coals turn crimson? Shall we stretch our hands for books and read here a passage and there a passage? Shall we shout with laughter for no reason? Shall we push through flowering meadows and make daisy chains? Shall we find out when the next train starts for the Hebrides and engage a reserved compartment? All is to come." (4b.70)

    As the friends meet up for dinner before Percival deploys for India, they share a moment in which Neville imagines that time for them is infinite. Ah, the power of good friends.

    "Why, look," said Neville, "at the clock ticking on the mantelpiece? Time passes, yes. And we grow old. But to sit with you, alone with you, here in London, in this firelit room, you there, I here, is all." (6b.24)

    Just as time felt infinite to Neville when he and his friends came together, he can also disregard the time on the clock when he spends time with his lover. Ahh, l'amour!

    "But if one day you do not come after breakfast, if one day I see you in some looking-glass perhaps looking after another, if the telephone buzzes and buzzes in your empty room, I shall then, after unspeakable anguish, I shall then—for there is no end to the folly of the human heart—seek another, find another, you. Meanwhile, let us abolish the ticking of time's clock with one blow. Come closer." (6b.28)

    Once again, Neville suggests that the bonds of love can somehow exist outside the time of the clock, allowing time to stand still for at least a little while.

    "Silence falls; silence falls," said Bernard. "But now listen; tick, tick; hoot, hoot; the world has hailed us back to it. I heard for one moment the howling winds of darkness as we passed beyond life. Then tick, tick (the clock); then hoot, hoot (the cars). We are landed; we are on shore; we are sitting, six of us, at a table. It is the memory of my nose that recalls me. I rise; 'Fight,' I cry, 'fight!' remembering the shape of my own nose, and strike with this spoon upon this table pugnaciously." (8b.29-30)

    Bernard associates the will to "fight on" with participation in a world that operates according to the ticking or "hooting" of the clock.

    "Unreasonably, ridiculously," said Neville, "as we walk, time comes back. A dog does it, prancing. The machine works. Age makes hoary that gateway. Three hundred years now seem no more than a moment vanished against that dog. King William mounts his horse wearing a wig, and the court ladies sweep the turf with their embroidered panniers. I am beginning to be convinced, as we walk, that the fate of Europe is of immense importance, and, ridiculous as it still seems, that all depends upon the battle of Blenheim. Yes; I declare, as we pass through this gateway, it is the present moment; I am become a subject of King George." (8b.36)

    Hmm, as Neville too rejoins the world of the clock in this moment, he seems a lot more interested in celebrating the British monarchy and submitting to its authority as a "subject." What's that all about?

    "The iron gates have rolled back," said Jinny. "Time's fangs have ceased their devouring. We have triumphed over the abysses of space, with rouge, with powder, with flimsy pocket-handkerchiefs." (8b.38)

    Is Jinny embracing time here or celebrating escaping from it?

    "It is not age; it is that a drop has fallen; another drop. Time has given the arrangement another shake. Out we creep from the arch of the currant leaves, out into a wider world. The true order of things—this is our perpetual illusion—is now apparent. Thus in a moment, in a drawing-room, our life adjusts itself to the majestic march of day across the sky." (9b.41)

    Bernard uses the image of the drop to describe the way time operates. In his view, time gathers up and then reaches a tipping or crisis point at which it "drops" like water droplets, a process that somehow gives "the arrangement another shake." What does that image do to our understanding of how Bernard views time?

    "Yes, but suddenly one hears a clock tick. We who had been immersed in this world became aware of another. It is painful. It was Neville who changed our time. He, who had been thinking with the unlimited time of the mind, which stretches in a flash from Shakespeare to ourselves, poked the fire and began to live by that other clock which marks the approach of a particular person." (9b.43)

    This is the moment where Bernard clarifies this notion of the "time of the mind," which appears to be quite distinct from the time of the clock. Time of the mind is apparently unlimited and spans great swaths of history with ease, whereas plain ol' clock-time is rooted in every day appointments and habit.

  • Power/Authority

    "I like it now, when, lurching slightly, but only from his momentum, Dr Crane mounts the pulpit and reads the lesson from a Bible spread on the back of the brass eagle. I rejoice; my heart expands in his bulk, in his authority… There is no crudity here, no sudden kisses." (2b.10)

    As you can see here, Louis much prefers the authority of Dr. Crane and his crucifix to the "crudity" of sudden and unwelcomed emotional outbursts such as Jinny's unexpected kiss.

    "The brute menaces my liberty," said Neville, "when he prays. Unwarmed by imagination, his words fall cold on my head like paving-stones, while the gilt cross heaves on his waistcoat. The words of authority are corrupted by those who speak them." (2b.11)

    While Louis waxes poetic about Crane, Neville is not a fan, as he views Crane as pompous and annoying. Different strokes for different folks?

    "There he sits, upright among the smaller fry. He breathes through his straight nose rather heavily. His blue and oddly inexpressive eyes are fixed with pagan indifference upon the pillar opposite. He would make an admirable churchwarden. He should have a birch and beat little boys for misdemeanours." (2b.12)

    Neville becomes the king of weird compliments here, lovingly reflecting on Percival's attractiveness while simultaneously envisioning him beating little boys and painting him as aloof and remote. Um, with friends like that…

    "At last," said Bernard, "the growl ceases. The sermon ends. He has minced the dance of the white butterflies at the door to powder. His rough and hairy voice is like an unshaven chin. Now he lurches back to his seat like a drunken sailor. It is an action that all the other masters will try to imitate; but, being flimsy, being floppy, wearing grey trousers, they will only succeed in making themselves ridiculous." (2b.13)

    Bernard is no fan of Dr. Crane. Interestingly, he draws a connection between Crane and Percival by suggesting that other masters likely try (and fail) to mimic the headmaster, just as the other schoolboys try to master the unique way Percival flicks his hand. Interesting that Bernard would find such a similarity between his good friend and the headmaster he hates. Wonder what that means…

    "Look now, how everybody follows Percival. He is heavy. He walks clumsily down the field, through the long grass, to where the great elm trees stand. His magnificence is that of some mediaeval commander. A wake of light seems to lie on the grass behind him. Look at us trooping after him, his faithful servants, to be shot like sheep, for he will certainly attempt some forlorn enterprise and die in battle. My heart turns rough; it abrades my side like a file with two edges: one, that I adore his magnificence; the other I despise his slovenly accents—I who am so much his superior—and am jealous." (2b.14)

    Louis, too, notes Percival's command over others. But at the same time he proclaims Percival's "magnificence," he also notes his clumsiness and "slovenly accents." So, do you think that Percival is actually not all that authoritative, or is this just sour grapes from Louis?

    "When Miss Lambert passes," said Rhoda, "talking to the clergyman, the others laugh and imitate her hunch behind her back; yet everything changes and becomes luminous. Jinny leaps higher too when Miss Lambert passes. Suppose she saw that daisy, it would change. Wherever she goes, things are changed under her eyes; and yet when she has gone is not the thing the same again?" (2b.26)

    Like Louis, Rhoda adores an authority figure at school: Miss Lambert. In an echo of Bernard's comments about Dr. Crane and Louis's comments about Percival, Rhoda notes that others imitate Miss Lambert (although for unkind reasons in this case).

    "They are always forming into fours and marching in troops with badges on their caps; they salute simultaneously passing the figure of their general. How majestic is their order, how beautiful is their obedience! If I could follow, if I could be with them, I would sacrifice all I know. But they also leave butterflies trembling with their wings pinched off; they throw dirty pocket-handkerchiefs clotted with blood screwed up into corners. They make little boys sob in dark passages." (2b.29)

    Louis views the boasting boys as "majestic" but also brutal. Despite their brutality, Neville and Louis want to be like them, admiring their "beautiful… obedience." It sounds like they're followers more than authority figures, but they do seem to be quite the bullies. It's weird that Neville and Louis hate their authoritarian headmaster so much but still revere people who bully others.

    "I see India," said Bernard. "I see the low, long shore; I see the tortuous lanes of stamped mud that lead in and out among ramshackle pagodas; I see the gilt and crenellated buildings which have an air of fragility and decay as if they were temporarily run up buildings in some Oriental exhibition. I see a pair of bullocks who drag a low cart along the sun-baked road. The cart sways incompetently from side to side… But now, behold, Percival advances; Percival rides a flea-bitten mare, and wears a sun-helmet. By applying the standards of the West, by using the violent language that is natural to him, the bullock-cart is righted in less than five minutes. The Oriental problem is solved. He rides on; the multitude cluster round him, regarding him as if he were—what indeed he is—a God." (4b.53)

    With this fantasy of Percival swooping in and "solving" the "Oriental problem," Woolf creates a nice advertisement for British imperialism, with Percival as its poster boy. Is the take-home, then, that authority is okay as long as it advances the imperial British effort? Isn't it a little weird that Bernard and Neville mistrust Crane's pompous authority but see nothing wrong with saying that their friend could have been a "God" to the people in India?

    "Yet if someone had but said: 'Wait'; had pulled the strap three holes tighter—he would have done justice for fifty years, and sat in Court and ridden alone at the head of troops and denounced some monstrous tyranny, and come back to us." (5b.4)

    Here, in the wake of Percival's death, Neville is lamenting that Percival didn't get the chance to "do justice," because he thinks that his friend would have been able to prevent a "monstrous tyranny." Is that why Percival's authority is okay, then? He would have used it to resist tyranny?

    "He would have done justice. He would have protected. About the age of forty he would have shocked the authorities. No lullaby has ever occurred to me capable of singing him to rest." (9b.7)

    Bernard, too, thinks about Percival's potential to exert authority and views it positively. However, it is interesting and notable that Bernard imagines Percival shocking "the authorities" at around forty, suggesting that he thinks Percival might have ended up being anti-authoritarian after all.

  • Violence/Brutality

    "...I will use this hour of solitude, this reprieve from conversation, to coast round the purlieus of the house and recover, if I can, by standing on the same stair half-way up the landing, what I felt when I heard about the dead man through the swing-door last night when cook was shoving in and out the dampers. He was found with his throat cut. The apple-tree leaves became fixed in the sky; the moon glared; I was unable to lift my foot up the stair. He was found in the gutter. His blood gurgled down the gutter. His jowl was white as a dead codfish." (1b.67-68)

    This is one of the most striking early references to death in the novel. Neville seems to have been deeply affected by the news that this man was found in the gutter and mediates upon the gory details of his body. The incident is an interesting thing for a young boy to dwell upon, and it sets the stage for the novel's preoccupation with death and violence.

    "They are always forming into fours and marching in troops with badges on their caps; they salute simultaneously passing the figure of their general. How majestic is their order, how beautiful is their obedience! If I could follow, if I could be with them, I would sacrifice all I know. But they also leave butterflies trembling with their wings pinched off; they throw dirty pocket-handkerchiefs clotted with blood screwed up into corners. They make little boys sob in dark passages." (2b.29)

    As noted earlier in the section on authority, Louis simultaneously views the "boasting boys" as majestic and rough and violent, which seems like an incompatible mix.

    "We are late," said Susan. "We must wait our turn to play. We will pitch here in the long grass and pretend to watch Jinny and Clara, Betty and Mavis. But we will not watch them. I hate watching other people play games. I will make images of all the things I hate most and bury them in the ground. This shiny pebble is Madame Carlo, and I will bury her deep because of her fawning and ingratiating manners, because of the sixpence she gave me for keeping my knuckles flat when I played my scales. I buried her sixpence. I would bury the whole school: the gymnasium; the classroom; the dining-room that always smells of meat; and the chapel. I would bury the red-brown tiles and the oily portraits of old men—benefactors, founders of schools." (2b.25)

    This is where we learn that Susan is a liiiiitle scary. If the worst thing Madame Carlo did was reward Susan for playing her scales properly, then we'd hate to see how Susan would feel about someone who was actually mean. Also, this whole burying people in effigy thing is creepy. How is this the woman who morphs into the sweet maternal figure?

    "Bernard's stories amuse me," said Neville, "at the start. But when they tail off absurdly and he gapes, twiddling a bit of string, I feel my own solitude. He sees everyone with blurred edges. Hence I cannot talk to him of Percival. I cannot expose my absurd and violent passion to his sympathetic understanding." (2b.34)

    Though it's fairly standard to refer to passion as violent to highlight its intensity, is there anything more to Neville's word choice here? Given the novel's concern with brutality (and with blurring binaries) we have to wonder if Neville might love Percival so much he wants to wear his skin or something.

    Then one of them, beautifully darting, accurately alighting, spiked the soft, monstrous body of the defenceless worm, pecked again and yet again, and left it to fester. Down there among the roots where the flowers decayed, gusts of dead smells were wafted; drops formed on the bloated sides of swollen things. The skin of rotten fruit broke, and matter oozed too thick to run. Yellow excretions were exuded by slugs, and now and again an amorphous body with a head at either end swayed slowly from side to side. The gold-eyed birds darting in between the leaves observed that purulence, that wetness, quizzically. Now and then they plunged the tips of their beaks savagely into the sticky mixture. (3a.4)

    Blegh. What starts out as a fairly serene image of birdies singing in the garden turns a bit dark as the birds swoop down "beneath the flowers" to where there are "dead smells" and bloated, swollen, decaying things. Also, one "beautifully darting" bird attacks a defenseless worm and leaves it for dead. Not so pretty and serene, it seems.

    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)

    This is a fairly violent image—poisoned assegais (those are spears??). Yikes, what happened to the pretty sparkling sea?

    They swooped suddenly from the lilac bough or the fence. They spied a snail and tapped the shell against a stone. They tapped furiously, methodically, until the shell broke and something slimy oozed from the crack. (4a.2)

    Well, the birds are at it again, pecking at small defenseless creatures until they ooze. We're never looking at birds in the same way. The Waves is second only to The Birds in destroying our faith in our feathered friends.

    "The early train from the north is hurled at (London) like a missile. We draw a curtain as we pass. Blank expectant faces stare at us as we rattle and flash through stations. Men clutch their newspapers a little tighter, as our wind sweeps them, envisaging death. But we roar on. We are about to explode in the flanks of the city like a shell in the side of some ponderous, maternal, majestic animal." (4b.1)

    Here, Bernard envisions his train as a kind of missile about to explode into the "ponderous" and "majestic" animal of London. Why do you think is Bernard imagining the relatively mundane event of a train arrival as a violent act?

    "We who yelped like jackals biting at each other's heels now assume the sober and confident air of soldiers in the presence of their captain. We who have been separated by our youth (the oldest is not yet twenty-five), who have sung like eager birds each his own song and tapped with the remorseless and savage egotism of the young our own snail-shell till it cracked (I am engaged)…" (4b.18)

    This quote is rich in interesting, violent imagery. In an image reminiscent of the chapter intros, Bernard asserts that he and his friends pecked at their "snail-shell till it cracked," and he follows that thought by proclaiming "I am engaged." So wait, how are these two things related? He also thinks of himself and his friends as "jackals biting at each other's heels" who have now become "sober" and "confident" soldiers.

    "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)

    Here, Bernard's renewed resolve to continue living prompts him to imagine himself as a warrior fighting death. Since we know a huge part of this fight is reinventing and continuing his struggle to communicate, is the suggestion here that words are weapons?

  • Class

    "I will not conjugate the verb," said Louis, "until Bernard has said it. My father is a banker in Brisbane and I speak with an Australian accent. I will wait and copy Bernard. He is English. They are all English. Susan's father is a clergyman. Rhoda has no father. Bernard and Neville are the sons of gentlemen. Jinny lives with her grandmother in London." (1b.55)

    Here, Louis gives us a helpful overview of everyone's origins and tunes us into one of his major preoccupations: the fact that his father is (wait for it)... Australian. Wait, what's the scandal? Even though an Australian accent is awesome, Louis is mortified by it.

    "My uncle is the best shot in England. My cousin is Master of Foxhounds." Boasting begins. And I cannot boast, for my father is a banker in Brisbane, and I speak with an Australian accent." (2b.3)

    Poor Louis is still feeling pretty down about his accent and the fact that his father is a banker… particularly when he has to endure a train ride with a bunch of boys boasting about how their fathers are masters of the universe.

    "Bernard has gone," said Neville, "without a ticket. He has escaped us, making a phrase, waving his hand. He talked as easily to the horse-breeder or to the plumber as to us. The plumber accepted him with devotion." (2b.56)

    On a later train ride, Bernard chats with working class people (e.g., plumbers and horse-breeders), which Neville seems to find oddly fascinating

    "Now I pretend again to read. I raise my book, till it almost covers my eyes. But I cannot read in the presence of horse-dealers and plumbers. I have no power of ingratiating myself. I do not admire that man; he does not admire me. Let me at least be honest. Let me denounce this piffling, trifling, self-satisfied world; these horse-hair seats; these coloured photographs of piers and parades. I could shriek aloud at the smug self-satisfaction, at the mediocrity of this world, which breeds horse-dealers with coral ornaments hanging from their watch-chains." (2b.57)

    Neville, meanwhile, seems pretty ambivalent about interacting with people whose station is lower than his own, alternately asserting his superiority to them. It's clear that he doesn't share Bernard's talent for talking to people different from himself.

    "His thin lips are somewhat pursed; his cheeks are pale; he pores in an office over some obscure commercial document. 'My father, a banker at Brisbane'—being ashamed of him he always talks of him—failed. So he sits in an office, Louis the best scholar in the school." (3b.24)

    Here, Bernard offers external verification that Louis was, indeed, an exceptional scholar, and it seems that Bernard thinks it's kind of a waste that he is using those talents on an office job. Apparently, the intensity of Louis's shame is evident to everyone because he constantly returns to the topic of his father, his biggest source of shame. Is anyone else suddenly feeling pretty bad for Louis's daddy?

    "I like to be asked to come to Mr. Burchard's private room and report on our commitments to China. I hope to inherit an arm-chair and a Turkey carpet. My shoulder is to the wheel; I roll the dark before me, spreading commerce where there was chaos in the far parts of the world. If I press on from chaos making order, I shall find myself where Chatham stood, and Pitt, Burke and Sir Robert Peel. Thus I expunge certain stains, and erase old defilements; the woman who gave me a flag from the top of the Christmas tree; my accent; beatings and other tortures; the boasting boys; my father, a banker at Brisbane." (6b.4)

    Having now grown up and risen in his career, Louis wastes no time in telling the reader about all the material gains his promotions and success have entailed. He asserts that his successes have helped him shrug off the humiliations of the past, including his poor banker daddy and other "tortures."

    "This is life. If I press on, I shall inherit a chair and a rug; a place in Surrey with glass houses, and some rare conifer, melon or flowering tree which other merchants will envy. Yet I still keep my attic room. There I open the usual little book; there I watch the rain glisten on the tiles till they shine like a policeman's waterproof; there I see the broken windows in poor people's houses; the lean cats; some slattern squinting in a cracked looking-glass as she arranges her face for the street corner; there Rhoda sometimes comes. For we are lovers." (6b.6)

    Despite his access to the finer things, Louis appears to remain attracted to less savory elements of city life as well, maintaining an attic room from which he can stare at a "slattern" staring in a cracked mirror and skinny cats, both of which seem to be staples of a more impoverished life than he currently enjoys.

    "Yet when six o'clock comes and I touch my hat to the commissionaire, being always too effusive in ceremony since I desire so much to be accepted; and struggle, leaning against the wind, buttoned up, with my jaws blue and my eyes running water, I wish that a little typist would cuddle on my knees; I think that my favourite dish is liver and bacon; and so am apt to wander to the river, to the narrow streets where there are frequent public-houses, and the shadows of ships passing at the end of the street, and women fighting. But I say to myself, recovering my sanity, Mr. Prentice at four, Mr. Eyres at four-thirty. The hatchet must fall on the block; the oak must be cleft to the centre. The weight of the world is on my shoulders. Here is the pen and the paper; on the letters in the wire basket I sign my name, I, I, and again I." (6b.9)

    Here, Louis struggles with his desire to be accepted in his new world and his sense that he's a fraud. He tries to tamp down his seedier tastes with reminders about his appointments and his duties at work.

    "I am immensely respectable. All the young ladies in the office acknowledge my entrance. I can dine where I like now, and without vanity may suppose that I shall soon acquire a house in Surrey, two cars, a conservatory and some rare species of melon. But I still return, I still come back to my attic, hang up my hat and resume in solitude that curious attempt which I have made since I brought down my fist on my master's grained oak door. I open a little book. I read one poem. One poem is enough." (7b.28).

    In this moment, Louis once again mentions the distinction between the world of his professional life and that of his attic room (which he maintains in spite of his increasing wealth and prestige). Interestingly, the attic is where he can rekindle his scholarly and literary interests.

    I thought how Louis would mount those steps in his neat suit with his cane in his hand and his angular, rather detached gait. With his Australian accent ("My father, a banker at Brisbane") he would come, I thought, with greater respect to these old ceremonies than I do, who have heard the same lullabies for a thousand years. (9b.54)

    Here, Bernard references Louis's overzealousness with respect to English ceremonies, which stems from his status as an outsider (and totally marks him as even more of an outsider).