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.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Orlando gives us Virginia Woolf’s hand at  biography. It is allegedly about her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. But,  it is even more than that. It is a fantastical, improbable satire (which in many ways reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide). It is through this venue that Woolf examines the role of gender over the past 300 years.

When we begin the setting is Elizabethan. The boy, Orlando, was intended to be the first Queen Elizabeth’s “son of her old age; the limb of her infirmity; the oak tree on which she leant her degradation,” but Orlando removes himself from her favor by kissing a girl:

It was Orlando’s fault perhaps; yet, after all, are we to blame him? The age was the Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets; nor their climate; nor their vegetables even. Everything was different. The weather itself, the heat and cold of summer and winter was, we may believe, of another temper altogether…Thus, if Orlando followed the leading of the climate, of the poets, of the age itself, and plucked his flower in the window-seat even with the snow on the ground and the Queen vigilant in the corridor, we can scarcely bring ourselves to blame him. He was young; he was boyish; he did but as nature bade him.” (p. 21)

Love wreaks its havoc when Orlando falls in love, but loses his Russian princess after she sets sail without saying good-bye to him:

Once before he had paused, and love with its horrid rout, its shawms, its cymbals, and its heads with gory locks torn from the shoulders had burst in. From love he had suffered the tortures of the damned. Now, again, he paused, and into the breach thus made, leapt Ambition, the haridan, and Poetry, the witch, and Desire of Fame, the strumpet; all joined hands and made of his heart their dancing ground.” (p. 60)

Of all Orlando’s adventures, none is more bizarre than him awakening as a woman:

“He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess—he was a woman.

The sound of the trumpets died away and Orlando stood stark naked. No human being, since the world began, has ever looked more ravishing. His form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace.” (p. 102)

Is Virginia saying the perfect human is a combination of both? Why make her hero into a heroine unless he is incomplete as a male; unless she needed to explore the place that women had in the life she found herself living, the place one woman in particular held in her life as an intimate?

For it was this mixture of man and woman, one being uppermost and then the other, that often gave her conduct an unexpected turn. The curious of her own sex would argue how, for example, if Orlando was a woman, did she never take more than ten minutes to dress? And were not her clothes chosen rather at random, and sometimes worn rather shabby? And then they would say, still, she has none of the formality of a man, or a man’s love of power, She is excessively tender-hearted. She could not endure to see a donkey beaten or a kitten drowned. Yet again, they noted, she detested household matters, was up and dawn and out among the fields in summer before the sun had risen. No farmer knew more about the crops than she did. She could drink with the best and like games of hazard. She rode well and drove six horses at a gallop over London Bridge. Yet again, though bold and active as a man, it was remarked that the sight of another in danger brought on the most womanly palpitations. She would burst in to tears on slight provocation. She was unversed in geography, found mathematics intolerable and held some caprices which are more common among women than men,  as for instance, that to travel south is to travel down hill. Whether, then Orlando was most man or woman, it is difficult to say and cannot now be decided.” (p.139-140)  

I see parts of Virginia in Orlando, especially when it comes to writing:

Next morning, in pursuance of these thoughts, she had out her pen and paper, and started afresh upon “The Oak Tree,” for to have ink and paper in plenty when one has made do with berries and margins is a delight not to be conceived. Thus she was now striking out a phrase in the depths of despair, now in the heights of ecstasy writing one in, when a shadow darkened the page. She hastily hid her manuscript. (p. 130-131)

and again here:

Then Orlando felt in the bosom of her shirt as if for some locket or relic of lost affection, and drew out no such thing, but a roll of paper, sea-stained, blood-stained, travel-stained–the manuscript of her poem, “The Oak Tree.” She had carried this about with her for so many years now, and in such hazardous circumstances, that many of the pages were stained, some were torn, while the straits she had been in for writing paper when with the gipsies, had forced her to overscore the margins and cross the lines till the manuscript looked like a piece of darning most conscientiously carried out. She turned back to the first page and read the date, 1586, written in her own boyish hand. She had been working at it for close on three hundred years nos. It was time to make and end. And so she began turning and dipping and reading and skipping and thinking as she read how very little has had changed all these years. She had been a gloomy boy, in love with death, as boys are; and then she had been amorous and florid; and then she had been sprightly and satirical; and sometimes she had tried prose and sometimes she had tried the drama. Yet through all these changes she had remained, she reflected, fundamentally the same. She had the same brooding meditative temper, the same love of animals and nature, the same passion for the country and the seasons. (p. 172-173)

And then, as I came nearer to the end of the book, I was amazed to find the subject of leaning upon another brought up again. It had been asked in the very beginning of the book, by Queen Elizabeth I, and now it was being asked by Orlando him/herself:

But whom could she lean upon? she asked that question of the wild autumn winds. For it was now October, and wet as usual. Not the Archduke; he had married a very great lady and had hunted hares in Roumania these many years now; nor Mr. M.; he was become a Catholic; nor the Marquis of C.; he made sacks in Botany Bay; nor the Lord O.; he had long been food for fishes. One way or another, all her old cronies were gone now, and the Nells and the Kits of Drury Lane, much though she favoured them, scarcely did to lean upon.

“Whom,” she asked, casting her eyes upon the revolving clouds, clasping her hands, as she knelt on the window-sill, and looking the very image of appealing womanhood as she did so, “can I lean upon?” Her words formed themselves, her hands clasped themselves, involuntarily, just as her pen had written of its own accord. It was not Orlando who spoke, but the spirit of the age. But whichever it was, nobody answered it.” (p.179)

We have come full circle, to a question which interests me immensely. Woman have traditionally been taught to lean on someone (in Disney: “someday my prince will come”), and I think that this is what Virginia is revolting against. And yet, there is no escaping it. Whether we lean on a man or a woman, it seems undeniable that we will at one point or another in our lives, lean on someone. It makes no difference if we are Queen, child, male or female. In that leaning, we will inevitably be disappointed.

Visit Frances for more discussion of Orlando, and then the Woolf In Winter read-along concludes with The Waves led by Claire on February 26.

To The Lighthouse

Hoy High Lighthouse, Graemsay, Orkney Islands (in northern Scotland)
Photo taken by Richard Harvey

She looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie. She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light. It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one’s being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover.” (p. 63-64)

I can’t escape the idea that the lighthouse represents Mrs. Ramsay. Not literally, of course, but in terms of beauty. Purpose. Meaning for those who are searching for a guide, a beacon of light to help them through the dense fogs in life.

In the beginning of the book, James, her tender-hearted son of six, wants nothing more but to go to the lighthouse. His mother says yes, while his father is adamant that the weather will not permit it. More than what these words mean is the significance behind them: Mrs. Ramsay is soft and beautiful and loving;  Mr. Ramsay is seen as a tyrant. He slams doors, he focuses on his books, he whirls plates out of windows if he is displeased that an earwig has landed upon his meal.

Virginia paints for us a picture in words, just as scrunched-face Lily paints one with her brushes. She laments the worth of her painting; do the shadows and light balance one another? Do the images connect? and we wonder the same about the family. Each member brings his or her own personality to create the whole, and each distinct characteristic is needed. For instance, Mrs. Ramsay sees her husband’s work as a scrubbed table:

Whenever she ”thought of his work” she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew’s doing. She asked him what his father’s books were about. “Subject and object and the nature of reality,” Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant. “Think of a kitchen table then,” he told her, “when you’re not there.” (p. 23)

Whereas he sees woman’s minds as foolish:

There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly.

How did he know? she asked. The wind often changed.

The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of woman’s minds minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the questions, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. “Damn you,” he said, But what had she said? simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.” (p. 31-32)

Despite their differences, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay love each other. They forgive each other their faults.

Then, suddenly, Mrs. Ramsay is gone. There is no one left to bring the group together; the summer house is neglected, the books grow mushrooms and spiders, James longs for a reassuring word which he doesn’t receive from his father until the very last pages. Her absence is felt keenly, as Virginia must have felt when her own mother died.

It seems to me that Virginia Woolf is mourning the loss of her mother through the loss of Mrs. Ramsay. We know that her mother was beautiful. That she led a family of eight children just as Mrs. Ramsay does. We know that her sudden death caused Virginia to suffer tremendously, as the death of Mrs. Ramsay causes those who knew her to mourn deeply. And these are the very things that happen in To The Lighthouse.

For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express the emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have-to want and want-how that wrung the heart , and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! she called out silently…(p. 178)

Thank you, Emily, for leading us To The Lighthouse. I’m already looking forward to the next Woolf in Winter read, Orlando, hosted by Frances on February 12.  The last read for Woolf in Winter is The Waves, hosted by Claire, on February 26. Hope to see you there!

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This is the first book in the Woolf in Winter read along. It’s also the first time I’ve personally read Virginia Woolf. I’m amazed that a book written in 1925 can have so much bearing on life today in 2010. 85 years have done little to lessen the grief people suffer from war, or the social status some try to achieve, or the way that we look back on our lives with a mixture of joy and regret.

Mrs. Dalloway is 52, I’m 48. I can relate to her almost perfectly as she remembers how she looked and what it felt like to be 18. I, too, look back on my life and wonder, “What if I’d married this person?” or “How would my life be different if I’d made that choice?” (I doubt that the loves of our lives are ever fully erased; even 30 years later Peter feels “extraordinary excitement” when he sees Clarissa at the end of her party.)

Her party is the vehicle for which the novel takes place. All day long she prepares for it, from stepping out early in the morning to buy the flowers herself, to meeting most of the people whom she had invited.  My favorite of these characters happens to be Sally Seton:

But her voice was wrung of its old ravishing richness; her eyes not aglow as they used to be, when she smoked cigars, when she ran down the passage to fetch her sponge bag, without a stitch of clothing on her, and Ellen Atkins asked, What if the gentlemen had met her? But everybody forgave her. She stole a chicken from the larder because she was hungry in the night; she smoked cigars in her bedroom; she left a priceless book in the punt. But everybody adored her (except perhaps Papa). It was her warmth; her vitality-she would paint, she would write.  (p. 181)

I don’t think I’m supposed to like Sally best; afterall, the novel isn’t entitled Mrs. Seton. But, Clarissa ended up irritating me. I found her too focused on the external, too intent on a good facade, too motivated by the demands of society.

In the end, I think Clarissa made peace with her choices. She finds great contentment in her party, in her guests, her daughter, her husband, her life. This is in high contrast to the tragedy of Septimus Warren Smith, who announces throughout the novel that he will kill himself, then succeeds by throwing himself out of a window.

What are we to make of this? Can we surmise that the lives we live are an indication of our spirits? I will be contemplating both of these characters for a long time: one takes his life, the other plans her party. It’s such a dichotomy.

Join in the discussion of Mrs. Dalloway with our fine hostess, Sarah.