Study Guide

The Waves Themes

  • Death

    You won't meet a group of people more obsessed with death and mortality than the six narrators of The Waves. Even as children, their thoughts are peppered by reflections on death and decay, and this grimness intensifies after the death of their good friend Percival midway through the book.

    Bernard seems to see his continued efforts to communicate with others as fighting the forces of dissolution and decay, so death and language are kind of intertwined themes in this novel. We also see these six narrators go from morbid little kiddos to morbid old people. Oh, and Rhoda commits suicide.

    Pro-tip: don't read this novel if you're looking for a jolly good time.

    Questions About Death

    1. Why does Bernard consistently suggest that language and art can combat mortality and death?
    2. What do you make of Rhoda's suicide and how it is presented (or not presented) in the novel? What does her death, which occurs near the very end and is only mentioned in passing, do for the novel, narratively?
    3. How does Percival's role in the novel relate to the theme of death?
    4. How do the intros to each chapter relate to/further the novel's obsession with mortality?

    Chew on This

    Bernard perceives language as a means of resisting death because the attempt to convey meaning in language is a process that is always ongoing; it never ends during the person's lifetime, and it even spans eras and generations.

    By associating the cycle of the 24-hour clock with various stages in the "linear" progression of human life (from cradle to grave), the chapter intros resist the notion that the trajectory of human life is necessarily one of decline.

  • Identity

    The Waves has six characters who may or may not actually be one character… identity is kind of a big deal here. The narrators spill a lot of Woolf's ink trying to convince us how different they are from one another, but ultimately the novel suggests that—regardless of whether they are actually the same person—they at least represent pieces of a larger whole whose components complement and work with one another. Essentially, for Woolf, identity is as fluid as those pretty waves she keeps talking about…

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does Woolf invite us to ask whether the six narrators are actually distinct people? That is, why make that ambiguous? And more importantly, do you actually think they're separate individuals?
    2. Why is Percival, who is so crucial to the characters' group identity, never given a voice in the narrative?
    3. What is the importance of Percival's character to the narrators' understanding of themselves and their relationships?
    4. What kinds of similarities do you notice across the different narrators? What is the significance of these common qualities or concerns?

    Chew on This

    With six narrators who may actually be a single person, The Waves refuses Percival a narrative voice to preserve his status as a pure "other" who the six narrators use to define themselves (by comparing themselves against him).

    To get meaning from The Waves, it is essential not to call the ball regarding whether the narrators are separate individuals or a single consciousness with many facets; Woolf's novel hinges on this ambiguity being maintained and even celebrated.

  • Language/Art/Storytelling

    Throughout her literary career, Woolf was fascinated by the question of how far the power of art and language can go, and evidence of this fascination is totally evident in The Waves. Bernard is unsure about language's impact—in some moments, he totally puts language on a pedestal (his uses of language in particular) and then, in the next breath, worries that because language always falls short of the mark in terms of fully expressing the reality underneath words.

    At the end of the novel, Bernard implies that he's going to run with the idea that language is powerful, suggesting that the hunt for a meaning drives life forward—if only because it forces us endlessly into contact with others.

    Questions About Language/Art/Storytelling

    1. Despite a remarkable talent for literary scholarship, Louis opts for a career in a shipping company. What do you make of Louis's lifelong interest and talents in writing and literature and, yet, his failure/refusal to pursue a career that makes use of these talents? What is the significance of including a "failed" author?
    2. Bernard offers a whole bunch of thoughts about language and literature throughout the novel. How and why do his thoughts evolve?
    3. The novel's three male narrators all have strong literary interests and talents; however, as far as we know, that doesn't seem to be the case for the three female narrators. Is there any significance to this discrepancy?
    4. How does the form of The Waves itself relate to or bear out the literary philosophies of its characters?

    Chew on This

    Bernard's views of language evolve throughout The Waves, as he becomes less preoccupied by making up stories (which were largely intended to entertain himself/his friends) and more interested in building connections through expression.

    Though not ostensibly a writer like the male narrators, Rhoda is a crucial artist figure in the book; she offers her thoughts in poetic, abstract soliloquies that, more than the narrations of the other characters, experiment with the relationship between language, metaphor, and the "sense" beneath them. Through her, Woolf challenges the reader to question their own uses of language.

  • Love/Hate

    The characters in The Waves experience some pretty strong emotions, including love and hate. However, in a novel that frequently blurs the boundaries between total opposites, it's no surprise that the difference between love and hate isn't always clear. For example, with respect to her friends, Susan feels an ambivalence that toggles between those two emotions (though, in general, she does seem to be a hater). Louis and Rhoda are also ambivalent about their friends.

    Questions About Love/Hate

    1. Why is Susan so angry all the time? What does her intensity do for the book?
    2. Why are half the narrators (i.e., Jinny, Bernard, and Neville) pretty mellow, and the other half (i.e., Susan, Louis, and Rhoda) pretty keyed-up?
    3. How do the anger management issues of certain characters relate to some of the imagery regarding war and violence that pop up throughout the novel?

    Chew on This

    Love and hate are two sides of the same coin; you cannot have one without the other.

    Louis and Rhoda are clearly doubles of each other, and Woolf draws attention to this fact by giving them similar inferiority complexes and anger management issues.

  • Time

    The Waves is obsessed with the passing of time. Its structure certainly points this theme out with a bright yellow highlighter; each chapter pairs the characters' reflections during a particular stage of life with chapter intros that describe a landscape at a particular stage of the day. The landscape passes from morning (paired with childhood) to nighttime (paired with old age). It ain't hard to figure out the correlation here. Which is nice, actually, because it's so hard to figure out a bunch of this novel.

    Questions About Time

    1. Why link the stages of life to the stages of the 24-hour day? What does this comparison achieve?
    2. How would you compare the way the different narrators think about time and its passage?
    3. How do the novel's preoccupations with time and language intersect?

    Chew on This

    Rhoda is the novel's quintessential outsider figure, living to a certain extent beyond the time of the clock. The abstract style of her narrative voice is an expression of her reliance on the "time of the mind."

    By comparing the progress of the characters' lives to 24-hour time, the novel underscores that life as a process whose progress is both linear and circular.

  • Power/Authority

    A few of our narrators have strong opinions about authority, and The Waves offers up some interesting examples of authority figures. Dr. Crane, the boys' headmaster at boarding school, is one example that springs to mind; thumping around with his crucifix dangling from his belt and booming from his pulpit, he's a total blowhard.

    Aside from Dr. Crane, we have Miss Lambert, whom Rhoda adores, and Percival, who all of our narrators seem to agree was shaping up to be a strong and just authority figure in India…until he croaked. As this overview of the novel's authority figures might have already suggested to you, there is a good amount of ambivalence regarding powerful and authoritarian figures in the book.

    Questions About Power/Authority

    1. Why exactly do Bernard and Neville feel so negatively toward Dr. Crane? What is it about his brand of authority that turns them off?
    2. Our narrators often celebrate Percival's ability to command respect/obedience and exercise authority. This is true even among people like Neville who typically despise authoritarianism. Why?
    3. Rhoda and Louis both seem to revere the authority figures they come across in school (Miss Lambert and Dr. Crane, respectively). What does this fact do for our understanding of their characters and their relationship to each other?

    Chew on This

    Rhoda and Louis's reverence for authority is the reason they can never achieve true artistry.

    The novel's presentation of Percival as a "good" authority figure is symptomatic of the novel's reverence for post-industrial imperial England.

  • Violence/Brutality

    Though chock full of pretty ocean landscapes and flowers, The Waves also sprinkles references to violence, brutality, and savagery in the mix. Even references to pretty things have sinister undertones, creating a sense that the beautiful in life often comes with the ugly.

    Woolf is pretty amped up about binaries and blurring the lines between them, so her emphasis on the violence/ugliness even within the most exquisite things is par for the course.

    Questions About Violence/Brutality

    1. Susan has a pretty brutal inner life when she is young, at one point essentially making voodoo dolls out of stones and burying them. Later, however, she transitions into being consumed by maternity and the imperative to protect others (rather than destroy them). What do you make of these two aspects of Susan's character?
    2. Neville refers to a "violent passion" for Percival. We know that's a common enough way to refer to an intense emotion, but is there anything more to this phrase? What do you make of the notion that love can be somehow violent?

    Chew on This

    The novel suggests that there is always an element of violence and brutality in love, as loving involves the "violence" of knowing (or wanting to know) another in a way that violates the privacy typically afforded to a person.

    The novel associates violence with authority, thereby undercutting the attempts of the characters to put a positive spin on Percival's authority over others.

  • Class

    Class is an important factor for several of the characters in The Waves. In fact, it figures heavily in Louis's psychology, coloring his relationships with the other narrators. Louis is extremely mindful of class—his own and that of others—throughout the book, introducing us to the professions of each of the narrators' parents early in the first chapter and later taking great pains to highlight how he has come up in the world.

    Questions About Class

    1. What is the significance of the fact that the narrators all come from relatively different class backgrounds? Does Louis's reference to each friend's background simply provide context for his character, or is there something else going on here?
    2. How does the novel's presentation of class tie in with other themes?
    3. Louis desperately wants to elevate his station in life and, yet, notes a lifelong attraction to the seedier elements of life (e.g., public houses). Does maintaining duality in this respect enrich Louis's life or tear him apart?

    Chew on This

    Though class is never presented as an important source of tension for the characters other than Louis, Louis's class-consciousness provides yet another way for the novel to draw attention to the differences of the narrators.

    Louis's attraction to the seedier elements of his urban life is tied to his abandoned talents as a scholar and writer and perhaps even symptomatic of his yearning for this alternate life.