Virginia Woolf´s 'The Waves'

Analysis and interpretation of the motif of the waves and of nature´s role in the early lives of the characters and of the role of their friendship at Percival´s Goodbye Dinner

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 21 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents


1 General Overview of “The Waves
a) Narrative technique
b) Characters
c) Plot

2 Waves and the sea as a motif in The Waves

3 Nature and its importance for the individual characters during their childhood

4 Group cohesion as portrayed at Percival´s farewell dinner


5 Bibliography


Originally, what later became The Waves was called The Moths. Virginia Woolf began writing it on July 2nd 1929[1]. It underwent drastic changes during the writing and revising processes, that lasted until the year 1931, when it was eventually published by The Hogarth Press- the Woolf´s own publishing house.

The Waves certainly and rightfully is regarded as Virginia Woolf´s most abstract and experimental, therefore least accessible novel. The ‘story’ is told through ‘dramatic soliloquies’[2] spoken by the six characters Rhoda, Jinny, Bernard, Susan, Neville and Louis. There is no real, direct interaction and talks between these characters, but they mean a lot to each other and bond from their common childhood onwards. A seventh character, Percival, is introduced to the reader by the monologues of the six, he never speaks for himself ,though.

The whole plot is enclosed in a scene, that can be found daily all around the world: a sunrise over the ocean and the nearby beach, as well as a garden/nature scenery. Each of these interposed chapters symbolizes a stage of life the protagonists are now at and the developments they face.

The main questions I will ask and set out to answer are what the theme of waves and water are supposed to symbolize and what role nature ,ubiquitous in this novel, plays and signifies for the respective characters during their childhood. These questions appear to be central for the understanding of this piece of writing, as they do not occur in any of Woolfe´s other works I have read so far.I will also try to analyze the importance of the friends the characters have made and their feelings during the farewell dinner for Percival.

Firstly, I will give a general overview about the way the novel is conceived. Secondly, I will present the main characters and their general characteristics and then give the plot of the novel.

After that, I will examine the role of the waves and the beach scenery in the novel and what nature means to the individual characters and their lives.

Eventually, the focus will lie on what the reunion on the occasion of Percival´s imminent departure , set years after their last encounter, means to the characters and whether time and distance have alienated them from each other and nature.

I will achieve these goals by the technique of ‘close reading’, ie. the approach to this study will mainly be text-based and contrastive.

1 General Overview of “The Waves”

a) Narrative technique

The aim of this chapter is to give a brief impression about, how The Waves, is written, designed.

One can find two different ways of describing the plot in the novel when examining the novel, since the interludes and the actual happenings are told through diverse techniques. Marsh, however, calls them “descriptive passages” and gives their number as nine.[3]

In the interludes, we ‘encounter’ an omniscient, impersonal narrator, that describes the actual events, e.g.:

The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky,except that the sea was lightly 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. (The Waves, 3)[4]

As already briefly mentioned in the introductory chapter, the narrative used in the ´main parts´ of the novel differs quite from what is common: There is no direct discourse, no reacting on the part of the respective narrator to outward actions and stimuli. Therefore, all we find are soliloquies, that actually merely are streams of consciousness, e.g.:

‘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.’(The Waves, 5)

None of these ‘utterances’ is actually audible, as they only reflect what the characters would say, but think for themselves, thus becoming “silent soliloquies”.[5]

However, there seems to be a certain logic behind the pattern, after which the characters are presented. Only on the first three pages is there an order in which the characters ‘speak’, every characters ‘speaks’ once. In sections 3 and 6 one of the characters is ‘silent’. As the utterances grow in the numbers of lines they take up, the order becomes more and more arbitrary. There also appear to be dialogues on pages 7 and 8 between Louis and Jinny, and on pages 9 to 12 between Susan and Bernard. It also seems notable,that Bernard is the first as well as the last of the characters to speak. He also is the first to utter something in the sections 2,3,4,7 and 8.[6]

Affections seem to play a role in the order, in which the characters utter their monologues. According to the other characters, Susan is in love with Bernard and often speaks after him.

Ranked behind them are Louis and Jinny, Neville and Rhoda. One must not forget when looking at these results, that it was Jinny who kissed Louis in the first section and that the finding, that Rhoda speaks more often after Louis,even though she is the one to speak the least, acquires a whole new meaning, considering that she later on becomes Louis´ lover.

Neville, supposedly homosexual, often follows the other boys/men and for a soliloquy of Bernard a preceding Neville can be found in most cases.[7]

However, the order of appearances, arranged by the number of appearances sees Louis in front, followed by Bernard, Neville, Rhoda (surprisingly), Susan and Jinny. What is remarkable and evident at the same time, is that the girls/women speak less. This might be due to the predominant gender conception of Woolfe´s time.

Every character has an individual style of perception and thus varying vocabulary is used to describe his or her impressions and thoughts, especially because of the frequent repititions of images only used by the respective characters, e.g. “death among the apple trees” for Neville. The interludes are mainly dominated by vocabulary belonging to the ‘field’ of nature and man-made culture, e.g: sea, shore and leaf; blind, surface, walls.[8]

b) Characters

As mentioned before, the group of friends consists of seven characters, of which six directly speak to us, whilst the seventh is only portrayed by the six and therfore cannot be regarded as a ‘real’ character.

This circle of friends consists of three male and female characters, their names being Bernard, Louis, Neville, Susan, Jinny and Rhoda.

In this chapter I will outline some of their characteristics, without untimely giving too much of the plot away.

It might seem a bit irresponsible and careless of me to use descriptions of the respective characters as children and not to give a ‘refreshed’ one for the adults they become or vice versa, but most of their character traits, problems, anxieties etc. stay the same throughout the novel or change only slightly. Thus, I concluded, this would not be worth it.

Bernard is described as a poet, someone who is always in search of an apt phrase, a truly fitting description, hereby becoming a “coiner of words” (The Waves ,86) and the “blower of bubbles”.[9] ( also The Waves ,86) Although nothing specific is known of his later profession, it is quite likely that he becomes poet, writer or a storyteller.

Louis, suffering from a feeling of alienation throughout the novel because of his Australian origins, maintains a minority complex from childhood on, in spite of his success in life. He becomes a business man and gets wealthy. He always feels different, set apart from everyone else, but contributes to this by his own doings and feelings:

If I speak, imitating their accent, they prick their ears, waiting for me to speak again, in order that they may place me-if I come from Canada or Australia, I, who desire above all things to be taken to the arms with love, am alien, external. (Waves, 70 )


[1] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931, ed. Kate Flint (London: Penguin Books 1992,) xlv.

[2] Term used by Virginia Woolf

[3] Nicolas Marsh, Virginia Woolf: The Novels. (Houndmills: Macmillan Press 1998) 108.

[4] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931, ed. Kate Flint (London: Penguin Books 1992) 3.

[5] Irma Rantavaara, Virginia Woolf´s The Waves, Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum 26,2 (Helsinki 1960) ,8.

[6] Marlene Müller, Woolf mit Lacan. Der Signifikant in den Wellen. (Bielefeld: Aisthesis Verlag 1993) 28

[7] Müller, Woolf mit Lacan, 29.

[8] Müller, Woolf mit Lacan, 31.

[9] Rantavaara, The Waves, 9.


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University of Bamberg – Lehrstuhl für Englische Literaturwissenschaft
Virginia Woolf´s Waves Analysis Percival´s Goodbye Dinner



Title: Virginia Woolf´s 'The Waves'