Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves by Virginia Woolf is a highly experiment novel, one written in a stream-of-consciousness style in the voices of six characters.  The book is divided into nine sections which represent a time of day as well as a time of life.  The first section takes place in the morning and during childhood with each progressive section seeing each of the characters growing a little older.  Highly poetic, using a lot of imagery that is echoed throughout, the novel is a challenge to read.  In fact it is so challenging that I would tell anyone that doesn’t immediately like the way it is written they may as well put it down because it doesn’t get any easier than the first few pages.  And so challenging that about one third through the book I was already thinking, “I’m going to have to reread this to appreciate it.”

And there it is.  I can’t say that I “appreciate” this novel yet.  I can admire the skill with which it is written. I can praise the skillful use of stream-of-consciousness.  I can even laud Woolf’s confidence in her reader’s ability to have the intelligence to get what she’s doing and to trust her fully.  But can I say I like this novel upon first reading it?  No.  I really cannot.

I like some of the characters—Bernard and Jinny most especially.  Perhaps because I feel that I know them best.  Perhaps Neville too.  I like the symbolism of the waves—the impermanence of being, the way thoughts and relationships ebb and flow.  There is so much to praise it almost feels anathema to not just say “Wonderful” and move on.

But the truth is, I don’t believe this book can be read once and appreciated.  Not by me, at any rate.  I shall absolutely read it again and with pleasure, with a curious desire to let the evocative voices weave themselves into my skin.  There may be many books one wants to reread because they were so much fun to read the first time around.   There may be books one wants to reread because they have a familiarity of person or place that appeals.   This novel demands to be read just to be better understood.  It left me feeling washed ashore with no bearings and eager to dive back in as soon as I was done.

Rereading will have to wait for another time.  As always, I already have other books demanding and deserving my attention.

This book is part of the Books I Should Have Read By Now Challenge because I read an excerpt from chapter one in my British Literature class way back in 1997 or 1998.  I fell immediately in love with what Woolf was doing and said, “I really need to read this book.”  I’m glad I finally have!  This is also, obviously, a part of the Classics Bribe.  As you can tell, I’m having fun with these challenges (and maybe I’m pondering creating one of my own).


  1. You're absolutely correct in your assessment that one cannot fully appreciate Woolf's novel's without subsequent close-readings because there is just far too much to fully absorb and analyze. Her use of imagery, metaphor and style can be overwhelming. I'm dying to read this novel!

  2. This especially holds true for this novel, I must say. It's best to read each section in one sitting because it's sometimes easy to forget who is talking after you've set the book aside for whatever reason. Not impossible. There were some clear images that were connected to specific people. However, Woolf was trying to create something poetic that also expressed a sort of unified consciousness and often the thoughts flow into and from one another. Very much like waves, obviously.

  3. I actually didn't have that difficult of a time to fall the stream-of-consciousness even when setting the book aside and picking it up later but I agree that reading her work in one sitting would feel like a more rewarding experience. Your assessment of Woolf's technique as a type of "unified consciousness" is spot on.

  4. I tried to leave you a comment yesterday in your blog but kept getting error messages. The post about what you will be reading this fall. I have a pile of books that I'm looking at with enthusiasm and if I list even a few of the books it won't matter because I'll probably read most if not all of them by the end of September and that still leaves two more months of reading unlisted. I don't have enough happening in my life to be so organized with my reading. When I was in school, I definitely had to prioritize and making time for pleasure reading meant I really wanted to pick books I would truly enjoy. Otherwise, wasting my time on a less than wonderful novel would leave me angry and frustrated.


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