THE WAVES by Virginia Woolf (First published by The Hogarth Press, 1931)
In her 1928 essay Women & Fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote that she hoped a time would come when novels would “cease to become a dumping ground for personal emotions” and in her diaries at around the same time she expressed the desire to be rid of “the appalling narrative business of the realists : getting us from lunch to dinner”.
These quotes show how Woolf had at this point become totally bored by the relatively conventional structure of popular fiction. She believed that the linear plotlines of contemporary novels were irreversibly flawed in that they bore little or no relation to how we actually conduct our daily lives.
Embracing the Modernist cause, she developed more of an interest in the darker psychology traits of her characters which led to her becoming less and less concerned with describing their actions, interactions and appearance.
This was evident in her masterpieces Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To The Lighthouse (1927) but The Waves represents her most fully realised attempt to deconstruct the novel. It has no recognisable story and the voices of six characters in search of a plot morph into each other in such a way that it’s hard to tell them apart.
Bernard, Rhoda, Jinny, Louis,Neville and Susan are more or less the same age and variously express the limitations of verbal communication and the vagaries of human understanding, making observations like: “Who is to tell what meaning there is in anything?”, “to speak of knowledge is futile”; “nothing persists” and “speech is futile”.
I have to confess that I found this novel very hard going even though I can recognise and appreciate the boldness of its form. The poetic prose is so detached and anonymous that I got the impression that Woolf barely cared about her characters. For instance, it’s easy to miss the fact that one of them, Rhoda, commits suicide since this detail is mentioned just once, almost as an aside, without saying when, where and how it happened.
I can’t resist comparing it with the verve and vitality of Orlando (1928) , my favourite Woolf novel, which seems to me to be no less radical yet far more entertaining. The key difference is that the experimentation of Orlando is combined with a warmth and self deprecating humour that is profoundly lacking in The Waves.