Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 26, 2010

The Waves

Curl of Wave

by Virginia Woolf

I started to write something about this book this morning, but couldn’t get going. All day I have tried to think about what I wanted to say about it, but I don’t feel like I have anything fresh or particularly insightful to present. This will just be a collection of impressions then. Sufficient, I believe.

After reading distractedly to page 20 or so, in an odd funk I turned to the introduction (normally saved until I’ve finished the book) and sought some kind of flash of understanding. Then I set sail through the waves again, and this time I found myself riding them with ease, my yellow highlighter like a tiller in my hand. I have rarely, if ever, started a book over again but in this case it was the best thing I could have done.

With the idea of the ‘playpoem’ in my mind, and the thought that Woolf was writing ‘to a rhythm and not to a plot‘ accompanying me, I found the book opening up like, suitably, a red carnation, with layer upon layer of imagery and impressions carried, threaded through it. The six identities – for they are not so much characters as sections of a greater self – from the very beginning pick up images and run with them, the most obvious being Louis’ great beast stomping on the shore. Bernard mentions a ring, and Susan the color yellow, while Jinny voices the first of the ‘variations on four words’ that pulse throughout the whole piece – ‘“I burn, I shiver,”…‘.

I wholeheartedly succumbed to the language with this book, accepting the experimental quality and letting the craft sweep me away. I was fascinated by Woolf’s exploration of self, agreeing and disagreeing with her in, what else? in waves. I found the book infinitely aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately sad. It was full of lovely, lovely phrases – phrases that landed on their feet – and I loved them, even while being unable to love the six identities who supposedly voiced them.

Taken separately, Bernard, Louis, Neville, Susan, Jinny, and Rhoda are somewhat one-dimensional. Taken as a whole, or, as Bernard suggests, ‘as a symphony with its concord and its discord, and its tunes on top and its complicated bass beneath‘, I am left sitting in a room with a more complete person, but one who is unhappy in a way that I don’t understand, someone who has gone to a place within themselves where I can’t, and don’t wish to follow.

I could make assumptions, or do some research and state more truthfully that perhaps in this book Woolf was taking herself apart and examining the pieces. I don’t think that’s too far off. I feel that with this book I’ve come closer to her center, closer to her true being, and I believe that she unsettles me. There is a balance in that between good and bad that I find fascinating. I disagree with Woolf’s impression of the world more often than not, but I love her phrases. I’m okay with this. I’ll be reading more. ‘…in me too the wave rises.

woolf in winterAnd thus ends Woolf in Winter, with the final conversation hosted today by Claire. Easily one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life. Many thanks to our fellow hosts Emily, and Frances. And thanks to everyone who has participated and helped make the last two months so expansive. When we’ve all recovered somewhat, lets do it again! 🙂


  1. This is the best post I’ve read about this book so far. You totally nailed it.

    I especially like your idea that the six characters represent one person, since they’re so one-dimensional on their own. I was reminded of Emerson’s ideas of the Oversoul, but that’s an interpretation I hadn’t considered!

    • Wow, thanks EL Fay. I didn’t think I’d articulated much of anything here! 🙂 I’ve just been making the circuit, and I must say there are some astonishingly good post out there. My head is spinning with interpretations – so exciting!

  2. I agree with you when you say “she unsettles me” a lot of her I think is in the writing, and to be all of that would be overwhelming.

    I liked your review.


    • Thanks Christy. A lot of Woolf is definitely in her writing, and I think SHE would have scared me a little if I had met her in real life, so it’s no surprising that her words unsettle me!

  3. I thought you did a fine job here, Sarah, despite your warning about reduced expectations for the post and the fact that I didn’t appreciate the craft in The Waves nearly as much as you. Re: the unhappy vibe you got from the novel, I felt much the same way and really strongly at times, too…so my lingering question to try and sort out is was Woolf really that unhappy or did she just give voice to that feeling with a frankness that other authors didn’t or don’t? A question that I’ll continue to think about but one that is difficult to work out only through the texts since we already know how Woolf the person chose to end Woolf the author’s life. On a less gloomy note, thanks to you and the rest of the Woolfies for hosting this two-month readalong. It was fun, for the most part!

    • I now feel compelled to read a bio of Woolf – I’ll probably go with the one by Hermione Lee – just to get a better angle on what she might have been thinking when she wrote this and the other books. The diaries are probably also in my future reading. I’ve said it somewhere already, but part of me thinks that I might not have liked Woolf the person if I had known her… It’s fascinating to get pounded by an author in the fashion we’ve adopted over the past two months – rewarding, but kind of a battle too. It’s been interesting – I’m so glad you joined us. You’re varying impressions have been one of my favorite aspects! 🙂

  4. And here comes the word “lonely” again. It’s left almost everyone feeling a little out of sorts. I think Richard mentioned going to search out some straight narrative, and although in the midst of Bolano right now, I was momentarily eyeing a few mystery arcs in the corner.

    Not sure where the Tennessee Williams will land us next month but for now, I will take a little read what I want respite. Great post, great shared read. How could we have asked for more from this?

    • I picked up Naked Lunch by William Burroughs the other day, but I think I’m going to either abandon it or just read it in bits while going for simpler, lighter fare – I’m thinking it’s time to try the P. G. Wodehouse I got through your giveaway last year!

      This was a great finish to Woolf in Winter. I don’t mind being a little out of sorts, especially with so many other minds to bounce my own reaction around with. Totally satisfying experience.

  5. Haha! I have the Wodehouse I won from Frances in the line-up as well. Need a picker-upper badly!

    Sarah, I’m with you in that Woolf unsettles me, too. Especially in her recurring issue with death, even with Orlando, which was not a sad book.

    I am even more unsettled that I resonated with Rhoda’s own feelings so intently. I can see also, after all the discussion, and which I wasn’t aware of while I was writing my post, that I resonated with Louis as well. Though I can’t pinpoint why it was with him, maybe the feeling of being an outsider and the connection he felt with the past.

    Bernard’s final monologue really unsettled me (though I enjoyed reading that part) because it speaks of the passing life that is inevitable in all of us. And that we will all get to that point sooner or later, and what has become of life, what we lived through, just frozen images of moments, etc. It really saddened me, though I loved that that part was less ambiguous than the rest, though it did jar with all the previous chapters and tipped the balance.

    Anyway, can’t wait to move on to another writer for our next shared read! xo

    • It was definitely the last section that put me over the edge. The fact that it was Bernard who was so lost really hit me, since of everyone he was the one that seemed to at least need other people the most. The fact that at the end of his life he just wanted to be left alone bothered me.

      I’m definitely ready to move on to other reading!

  6. Sorry I’m so late to comment here, Sarah, but I very much relate to your feelings of waves of agreement and disagreement. Reading it again, I was surprised that The Waves hadn’t struck me as substantially darker than other Woolf novels the first time through – it certainly did this time. I’m interested in the “all the characters make up a single person” hypothesis that you & others are exploring, although I must say that if that’s the case it makes the lack of communion among the different voices even sadder to me! It’s one thing never to make contact with the inner life of another person, but never to be in conversation with another aspect of yourself? What an alienating existence. I do think Woolf wrote this at a very dark place in her own life, and that can’t help but contribute to the mood of the novel.

    ANYway, looking forward to Williams, along with everyone! I have to laugh at the mystery/Wodehouse/lighter fare toward which we’re all gravitating. I’m reading a straight-up, traditional family saga about working-class Australians that’s just the ticket for me personally. Needed some grounding after all this experimentalism! 🙂

    • I’m still playing with the idea of the six as one – you bring up a good point. Taken that way it’s really quite a frightening concept, and one that I hope Woolf was in fact not attempting to communicate! My mind is in a muddle. Lots to think about.

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