The Novels of Virginia Woolf #7: The Waves

This book is very difficult to write about; below I’ve only just mentioned most of the characters and their myriad interactions.  As a matter of subjective perception, I will say this book was the most rewarding to re-read so far.  I’ve tried to put some semi-coherent thoughts down here, but there is something extremely reductive in all my sentences that does not feel like it comes close to doing justice to the act of reading the book.  I’ll try my best.

…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 (218)

This passage (spoken by Bernard) gets to the heart of some observations I want to make about The Waves.  Here Bernard makes a statement as a character within the book that the book itself would seem to be asking, and for the most part, refusing to answer.  The technique of The Waves removes everything that Bakhtin calls “narrative surplus” from the text itself.  There are two non-quoted, and therefore putatively omniscient parts of the book: the Italicized bookending passages about waves and light, and the words “said Bernard,” “said Rhoda,” and so on, repeated many times.  So the question “which is the true story?” gets a very deliberately perspectivalist answer, one that continues the kind of unity of unity and disunity mediated through time I found in Lily Briscoe’s art, both arguably working through postmodernist Leotardian “skepticism towards metanarrative”-type categories.  Towards the end, Bernard suggests that “the crystal, the globe of life, as one calls it, far from being hard and cold to the touch, has walls of thinnest air… whatever sentence I extract whole and entire from this cauldron is only a string of six little fish that let themselves be caught while a million others leap and sizzle” (256).  

These metaphors suggest two others of my own: we can see the entire text as a set of crystal prisms (6 in all) through which the light that emanates from the bookend passages bounces around, and into each other.  Instead of six omnisciently portrayed characters and one narrator, we get six vectors through which the light that passes, and is refracted back at the other five.  So we get six portraits of characters as seen by each of the other characters and themselves.  But this metaphor doesn’t capture a seventh presence – Percival’s, who seems central but never becomes narrative.  Another metaphor to describe all this is quantum mechanics – at any one moment, all we get is one particular breakdown of a wave function, into a series of particles at particular places and times, particles which retain the possibility of being in any number of particular places until the moment when we observe them.

There is also, in these 6+1 reflective presences, a social hierarchy, and two gender groupings.  Within the men, it seems fair to say that in some way, Bernard > Neville > Louis, and that Susan > Jinny > Rhoda (I don’t know what’s being compared exactly, but it somehow feels right).  But that doesn’t capture Percival either, who would seem to float ambiguously on a different order of magnitude from all of the others (though he is definitely masculine).  Two polar opposites that emerge from within whatever overlaid network of social hierarchies, though, are the figures of Bernard and Rhoda.  Bernard speaks any number of times of his striving for unity and the dissolution (or even nonexistence) of himself as an individual: “I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am–Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs” (276)  is among the more straightforward statements of this very often-repeated theme of Bernard’s.  Bernard, in describing his process, uses the same two images Woolf uses to criticize the “materialists” and Joyce, respectively, in “Modern Fiction”: “I fill my mind with whatever happens to be the contents of a room or a railway carriage as one fills a fountain-pen in an inkpot” (68).  If Bernard represents or strives for radical intersubjective unity, Rhoda, on the other hand, stands in a position of radical otherness and exclusion.  I’m having trouble locating more definitive reports of Rhoda’s exclusion, but “‘there is the puddle,’ said Rhoda,’ and I cannot cross it.  I heard the rush of the great grindstone within an inch of my head’” (158) will have to do.  The only real connection Rhoda seems to voice involves her furtive affair with Louis, who himself is probably the other most excluded-feeling character here (though he is much more outwardly successful).

With the death of Percival (“But without Percival there is no solidity”), Bernard is propelled towards a thorough act of narrative integration and attempt at reconciliation; Rhoda ends up committing suicide.  But Bernard’s striving for reconciliation also ends up as a kind of death: “A man without a self, I said.  A heavy body leaning on a gate.  A dead man” (285).  And later on, “and now 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” (288).  So Bernard finally develops an opposition between a mysterious “you” (the reader?) and himself, and defiantly confronts death in the book’s final lines.

In spite of the novel’s explicit refusal to include narrative surplus, Bernard becomes normative over the text as a whole towards the end, and Rhoda remains anti-normative throughout.  This recreates an opposition somewhat like that created in Mrs. Dalloway between Clarissa and Septimus, though now, Bernard being a self-conscious writer figure, it becomes not about a dialectic of social unity and exclusion but an artistic one.  Bernard would seem to reconcile even these contrasts, at least notionally, and in the book’s final moments, almost seems to reaffirm some sort of Ubermench-type reaffirmation of Percival’s mythic status in himself: “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” (297).  Even here, narrative to the utmost extremes, Woolf deploys the iconography of empire as a closing.  The non-perspective of the six characters gives way towards one fused version of all of them – and perhaps even with death itself, if depending on how we parse the penultimate sentence: “Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!”  “Unvanquished and unyielding” could refer to the “I” (Bernard) or the “you” (death), or both. Perhaps the only real normative presence here is that of the italicized portions, that move us as readers through phases of the day, life, history, existence, which phases color our perceptions and the language in which each bookended chapter speaks.  Perhaps the final opposition is between Bernard’s sense of his own being, and the inexorable march of time.

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