Virginia Woolf’s The Waves as Both a Loss and Assertion of Individual Identity

The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.

[jd: Shit, that’s good.]

The opening lines of Virginia Woolf’s most experimental novel, The Waves, prepare the reader for the deeply immersive first-person plural narration, in which six children who grow up together and then grow apart are part of an amorphous amalgam, pulling out into a self-aware individuality occasionally, like Boltzmann brains twinkling in and out of existence. Just as, in nature, everything feeds off of and bleeds into everything else until it becomes an indistinguishable blur, the individual subjectivities of the six narrators are the “wrinkles” in the “sea” of their collective consciousness. Over the course of the first passage, as in the rest of the novel, these wrinkles fuse together to become undulating and ever-shifting waves of the sea.

Then she raised her lamp higher and the air seemed to become fibrous and to tear away from the green surface flickering and flaming in red and yellow fibres like the smoky fire that roars from a bonfire. Gradually the fibres of the burning bonfire were fused into one haze, one incandescence which lifted the weight of the woollen grey sky on top of it and turned it to a million atoms of soft blue. The surface of the sea slowly became transparent and lay rippling and sparkling until the dark stripes were almost rubbed out.

the-waves

The vast majority of the novel is told in dialogue through the six narrators, distinct characters who are yet speaking in one voice. They say different things, but in fundamentally the same way.

In the first monologue (split six ways), they each describe the rising sun:

‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’
‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan, ‘spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.’
‘I hear a sound,’ said Rhoda, ‘cheep, chirp; cheep chirp; going up and down.’
‘I see a globe,’ said Neville, ‘hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.’
‘I see a crimson tassel,’ said Jinny, ‘twisted with gold threads.’
‘I hear something stamping,’ said Louis. ‘A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.’

They each characterize the sun in ways that suggest distinction or difference, but turn out to be completely complementary. Together, they can almost read as a single third-person description, and yet each narrator’s choice of words speaks to his or her individual character. Bernard sees “a ring” because he is perpetually driven by a search for unity; Jinny sees a “crimson tassel” with “gold threads” because passion is the primary force in her life and opulence is her version of a higher power. Susan sees a spreading “pale slab of yellow” that is as tranquil and humble as she is; Rhoda hears a sound “going up and down” as an emblem of her love for music and her deep-seated anxiety and overstimulation.

And so at the end of the novel, when Rhoda kills herself, the other five have died themselves in some sense, and yet they are still here. Bernard, who is so concerned with unity, finishes the book with a monologue that rails against the inevitability of death, even while admitting that the individual life may never have existed to begin with.

The birds sing in chorus; deep tunnels run between the stalks of flowers; the house is whitened; the sleeper stretches; gradually all is astir. Light floods the room and drives shadow beyond shadow to where they hang in folds inscrutable. What does the central shadow hold? Something? Nothing? I do not know.

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