The Waves by Virginia Woolf


Finally I come to a work by Virginia Woolf that I loved.

I loved the “play-poem” form in which it’s written, where the dialogue and thoughts of each character are almost free verse.

I loved Rhoda’s horror of Math:

Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What is the answer? The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures. The others are handing in their answers, one by one. “Now it is my turn. But I have no answer. The others are allowed to go. They slam the door. Miss Hudson goes. I am left alone to find an answer. The figures mean nothing now. (p. 21)

I loved Bernard, escaping to Rome after the death of Percival, and writing in his notebook little quotes which he can pull out later from their appropriate alphabetical heading:

These moments of escape are not to be despised. They come too seldom. Tahiti becomes possible. Leaning over this parapet I see far out a waste of water. A fin turns. This bare visual impression is unattached to any line of reason, it springs up as one might see the fin of a porpoise on the horizon. Visual impressions often communicate thus briefly statements that we shall in time to come uncover and coax into words. I note under F., therefore, ‘Fin in a waste of waters.’ I, who am perpetually making notes in the margin of my mind for some final statement, make this mark, waiting for some winter’s evening.” (p.189)

I loved the vocabulary, coming across words I don’t often see which hardly ever happens to me when I read authors of today:

And, Catullus? The 1st century Roman poet is mentioned no less than five times before page 160 or so, putting me in mind that I need to read some poem by him before too long. (Perhaps for the Clover Bee and Reverie challenge?!)

I loved the reference to waves preceding each chapter, a clue as to what we’ll find within:

The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. (p.7)

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. (p. 75)

Like a long wave, like a roll of heavy waters, he went over me, his devastating presence-dragging me open, laying bare the pebbles on the shore of my soul. It was humiliating; I was turned to small stones. (Bernard, p. 89)

Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. The wave breaks. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room.” (Rhoda, p. 107)

The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping. (p. 150)

Now the news of Percival’s death has come upon them, and then we find:

The waves massed themselves, curved their backs and crashed. Up spurted stones and shingle. They swept round the rocks, and the spray, leaping high, spattered the walls of a cave that had been dry before, and left pools inland, where some fish, stranded, lashed its tail as the wave drew back. (p. 166)

The waves no longer visited the further pools or reached the dotted black line which lay irregularly marked upon the beach. The sand was pearl white, smoothed and shining. (p. 182)

Erratically rays of light flashed and wandered, like signals from sunken islands, or darts shot through laurel groves by shameless, laughing boys. But the waves, as they neared the shore, were robbed of light, and fell in one long concussion, like a wall falling, a wall of grey stone, unpierced by any chink of light. (p. 207)

As if there were waves of darkness in the air, darkness moved on, covering houses, hills, trees, as waves of water wash round the sides of some sunken ship. (p. 237)

At the conclusion of the book we find this:

“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!

The waves broke on the shore. (p. 297)

This was a fascinating read; as usual, Woolf gives her reader much to think about and absorb long after the final passage is read. (What, exactly, do the waves symbolize? Aren’t they in some places an illustration of death? Certainly they are something we have no power over.)

I want to thank Sarah, Emily, Francis, and Claire for opening my eyes to these four works this year. I’d not read anything by Virginia Woolf before, and after reading the books and reviews from Woolf in Winter, I feel that I now know an important author a bit more intimately than I did in December.

For more discussion of this work, visit Claire at Kiss A Cloud, as she is our lovely hostess for The Waves.

36 thoughts on “The Waves by Virginia Woolf

  1. My favorite mention of Catullus was one where Woolf also uses her sweeping vocabulary to make (yet another) issue of Latinate words: "So he turned with a passion that made up for his indolence upon Catullus, Horace, Lucretius, lying lazily dormant, yes, but regardant, noticing, with rapture,…he searched out every curl and twist of those Roman sentences…" Dormant but regardant, we are practically speaking French with our reverence the Roman poets.Glad to hear you liked this one. I was wondering what people's reactions would be, since it is certainly less accessible than the other Woolf we've read, though it is pretty wonderful.


  2. Interesting, interesting! So glad you loved this one, Belleza, and relieved that you found the whole Woolf in Winter exercise valuable despite not being totally in love with most of the books. Catullus pops up in other Woolf novels as well – Jacob's Room for sure, maybe others. He seems to be her shorthand for sophomoric yet exuberant university boys. Personally, I think I'd be able to love this novel a lot more if I were able to love Bernard. I have silly personal history reasons for a strong dislike of him I can't quite seem to shake. 😛


  3. Your love letter here to The Waves practically sings, Bellezza! So happy you have found one to love especially well.You pull so many lovely quotes here that it is difficult to focus on one but I really loved your spotlight on Woolf's word choices. The exotic ingredients to an indescribable feast. And the words all seem to belong, none extraneous. And who does not love the word "lachrymose?" Thank you so much for reading along with Woolf in Winter. Your gentle spirit and lovely posts have added much to the conversations.


  4. Nicole, I love that quote you pulled with the mention of Catallus. Have you read any of his poetry? I think that anything I read after Orlando would have been wonderful, but this book of Woolf's was my favorite. Perhaps I'm learning more about her writing style, which is so very different from most authors I'm used to.


  5. Emily, I love the context in which you place Catullus; now I'll have to read him! And, I'm picqued about your silly personal reasons for disliking Bernard. Isn't it funny how we can't escape who we are/what we've lived when we come to 'story'?


  6. Frances, thank you for co-hosting this wonderful, wonderful introduction (for me, maybe not new to others) to Virginia Woolf. I truly feel enriched as a reader with the exposure to her more famous works, and most importantly, the reviews which accompanied them. It means a lot to me that you liked my "gentle spirit and lovely posts" as I certainly don't feel qualified to discuss her. Maybe next year, if you host more of her works!


  7. Yes, indeed it is funny! Since you're curious, Bernard reminds me very much of an ex-boyfriend of mine who drove me completely nuts. The boy COULD NOT shut his mouth, or be alone. I am more of a Rhoda/Susan type, so you can imagine the issues. 😉


  8. I'm definitely more of a Rhoda type (that girl spoke to me!), and I'm of the opinion that less is more when it comes to talking. I completely commiserate with your being driven nuts!


  9. I'm glad you liked what I liked about The Waves: the "play-poem" form, the many ways the image of waves is used, the unusual words. I wrote down all the words I didn't know but stopped looking them up after a while, so I've got to get back to that, especially "guillemot," which I'm wondering how to pronounce. I think one meaning for the waves is that life is like a series of waves, always moving, always washing over us.Your comment on my post made me a little worried that I'd been unclear about something, so I added one or two sentences at the end. To me The Waves seems to say that individual human lives have no substance to them; they're more like whiffs of vapor; they're always changing so they must not be real. I don't believe this for a minute.


  10. Oh, dear, I wonder what my comment was. I must go back to your blog and check/clarify.As to human lives having no substance to them, or not being real, I don't believe it either. We leave a legacy behind us, and I pray to God mine is of benefit to others.


  11. I love the way you did this, Bellezza (and I am so very glad you love this book)! Beautiful quotes cited, and your focus on her marvelous language–as rich and rolling as the sea itself (had not thought of waves as being an 'illustration of death' more of the indifference of nature, its inexorability). Thank you for pointing out new things to think on!


  12. Yay, glad you liked this one! I liked Bernard too, which made the ending even sadder for me – that he could come to the end of his life so unhappy, so lost that even his phrases so carefully collected had no meaning for him.


  13. Tuulenhaiven, Virginia's works are so steeped in sadness that I almost become accustomed to their despair. Is that unfair of me? Her sorrow, or depression, is almost tangible to me, but that could be because I was so familiar with the effects of depression on a loved one of mine. Anyway, poor Bernard…the things he loved the most could not save him.


  14. ds, it's only when I wrote the final paragraphs as they related to waves and found her saying, "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…the waves broke on the shore" that I made a connection between the two. Plus, being aware of her death by suicide, specifically through drowning, never left my consciousness.But, after reading so many excellent reviews, including yours, I find the waves to symbolize more than death alone. Still, they most significantly symbolize what we cannot control in my opinion; they will come on the shore in a pounding fury or a lap like a kitten completely independent of us.


  15. Wow, I believe you felt about The Waves the way I did about To the Lighthouse. This is not my favourite of the four, because I found it the least enjoyable and the most tedious to read, albeit lovely. I still really liked it, though, but in a manner where I don't feel compelled to pick it up again. I just like how it stays with you and how it makes you think. Although I related the most with Rhoda, I found the Bernard parts the least boring to read.


  16. Your enthusiasm for this is contagious, Bellezza, and I'm actually excited to read more Woolf, despite feeling some intimidation still. I'm also excited that there are references to Catullus! I really love his stuff.


  17. Invaluable thoughts? I rather doubt it, but I do appreciate you hosting this as well as the opportunity to disscuss it with all of the participants. I'm actually relieved I found one I liked, too, I was beginning to despair of ever finding anything in Virginia Woolf that I could enjoy.


  18. The Catullus references kind of cracked me up, Bellezza, because he's sometimes thought of as a pottymouth even today and was given watered-down translations in the past to hide the "dirty" stuff (if memory serves). Anyway, glad you enjoyed The Waves so. I actually enjoyed the first two Woolf in Winter titles a lot more than this one, but it's been fun seeing what appealed and didn't appeal to all the different readalong participants. P.S. By the way, becoming more familiar with your blog was one of the unexpected highlights of Woolf in Winter for me. I know I'm late to the party, but you do nice work here!


  19. Oooh, now I really need to read Catullus after your thoughts on him here!It is fun to see who did, or didn't, like the four Woolf novels we read. I'll always be grateful that we concur on Orlando. I stuck with the read along because I was unfamiliar with Woolf's work, and I wanted to fix that, but also because I have such respect for the hostesses. Which leads me to a sincere thank you to you, Richard, for the compliment you left.


  20. Bellezza, I am so pleased for you that you found -in the last book of the season- a Woolf novel that you loved! The Waves is not my favourite but it has been five years since I read it; the enthusiasm that you and Eva have shown for it have convinced me to reread it.


  21. It was wonderful to find a work of hers that I liked so much; I was beginning to wonder if I was all alone in not appreciating Woolf's work! By the way, the JLC3 prizes are woefully late, but I've finally wrapped them all to send on their way. I haven't forgotten!


  22. No, I haven't. I've hardly read any of the Greek or Latin classics, and it's something I've been meaning to get to more this year (I started some last year and really liked it). The Waves has now given me a special interest in Catullus for sure.


  23. I meant to reread this along with all of you, but somehow the time got away from me. I love your review: this is one of my favourite Woolf books (at least my memories of reading it are wonderful). I was pleased to read your appreciation of it, as it makes me want to get back to it as soon as humanly possible. Thanks for your analysis and the quotes you've pulled out to share. You've even made me curious about Catullus as well!


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