The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves by Virginia WoolfThe Waves by Virginia Woolf
Published: Mariner Books (1931), Paperback, 348pg
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction
Source: Bought


The Waves is often regarded as Virginia Woolf's masterpiece, standing with those few works of twentieth-century literature that have created unique forms of their own. In deeply poetic prose, Woolf traces the lives of six children from infancy to death who fleetingly unite around the unseen figure of a seventh child, Percival. Allusive and mysterious, The Waves yields new treasures upon each reading. Annotated and with an introduction by Molly Hite

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After two wonderful Virginia Woolf books, I’ve come across something slightly less wonderful. It’s not a dud, and I did enjoy reading it (sort of), but it’s not at the same level as To the Lighthouse and Orlando. That confuses me, because The Waves is considered to be VW’s opus.

See, my problem with The Waves is that I think it’s too caught up in its narrative technique. The story isn’t directly related through a third person omniscient narrator, like in Orlando, and it isn’t even really inside the heads of the characters, like in To the Lighthouse. Instead, each character “speaks” their story. Their plot threads intertwine, which is nifty, and there is still some of VW’s stream-of-consciousness stuff, which is also nifty, but the narrative is definitely dominated by what each character “says.”

Okay, so, this technique is interesting, and definitely it’s an evolution of what VW was doing in her earlier books, but it also overrides whatever she was trying to do with the story. The story is secondary– it’s the style that’s paramount in The Waves, and while I like stylish books I also like them to have a good story.

Another problem with the style VW uses here is that all the characters sound exactly the same, which is both boring and strange, and they know stuff about each other even to the extent of repeating exact phrases another character had “said” earlier. This is also strange, almost like the six characters are a hive mind, and while they have different personalities they’re mostly shown through what each character obsesses about, which isn’t particularly nice to read about. I mean, how many times can you read “my father, a banker in Brisbane” without wanting to throw the book at the wall? Almost every other page I wanted to shout at them to just get over it already, but obsession with stupid, heartbreaking stuff is what VW does well, so. Yeah.

I hope I’ve explained myself coherently enough! I went into this thinking The Waves would be difficult and scary (and depressing), but actually, though the style is somewhat tough, it’s not nearly as bad as Jacob’s Room. I never had a problem keeping the characters straight, and not even the first 100 pages daunted me, like VW’s husband said they would (according to the introduction in my copy). I can see why people say it’s one of VW’s better books (kinda), but I don’t think it’s her best.

Nevertheless, what story I could glean from under the style was great, and so was the interesting autobiographical stuff VW put into it. Especially the stuff about being a writer! I think it was that autobiographical stuff that kept me reading, because after two books I really want to know VW more personally. I like that she’s sneaking in tidbits about her life into her books. It makes her books even more special, I think.

And though I’ve complained about the style overtaking the story, I still did think that the style was really unique and interesting. After a while I got into the flow and hardly noticed it by the end, which probably just negates whatever I’ve said about it being too much in the forefront. But I still stick by what I’ve said about the characters!

I think when I go back to reread this later on (as I inevitably will) I’ll like it more, because I’ll be used to the style and I can focus on the story/characters more. And I’ll probably be less annoyed at how everyone sounds the same, and how they’re all in love with Perceval even though he’s the most useless one of all of them (another thing that drove me insane), and how they keep repeating the same thing over and over again (much like the waves, actually). Yup!

Read: March 31-April 1, 2010

Important reading life lesson: if someone tells you a book is “difficult” or “hard to read” or “confusing”– don’t listen to them!! Read it and find out yourself. It might not be as confusing as you were led to believe. Now, if someone tells you a book is bad (or really, really good), that’s a whole other thing…


  1. Ok, so I agree with you on To The Lighthouse being better, but I loved The Waves.

    Admittedly, the characters get a bit annoying (oh how I wanted to slap Neville and Louis upside the head), but I thought that was part of its charm. I mean, we’re all a little redundant in our vocabularies and the mistakes we make, the things we think, etc, and it seems braver to me to make your characters mundane like that than to make them bright, larger than life types.

    I don’t know, but I guess it’s the idosyncracies that make me like this book– it feels the most human to me.

    • I suppose I just didn’t connect with The Waves as much as you did, haha!

      It’s true that the obsessing over the same thing for years and years is very human (I do it myself), but I think the format that the book was in made me very aware that The Waves characters were fictional. It’s almost like it was a play, and I’m watching this play and I KNOW those actors aren’t really the people they’re playing, and I can’t make any emotional connections with them. Do you know what I mean?

      In The Years, now, the characters have that same uber-realism to them but the style doesn’t build a wall between me and them, and in fact I got to know them very well and even care about them. It was boring when they were talking about mundane things like how fast the kettle wasn’t boiling but I still kept reading anyway because I wanted to know what happened to them next. I didn’t get that in The Waves. 😀

  2. Pingback: Review: The Years by Virginia Woolf « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

  3. Chris

    I think that one needs to connect with the pattern and general emotional state of the book, and through this, it’s author, to appreciate it. True there is no story compared to the likes of that found in Orlando, true it repeats certain verses over and over, yet if you grasp the concept of “waves” then it falls together in a beautiful, poetic and eloquent way which the likes of her other books, and that of other great writers have never really managed to come close to.

    Maybe it’s down to outlook on life and it’s certainly a bit of a “marmite” book, but I think it offers beautiful verses and perspectives on life which can be seldom found anywhere bar the lines in this book. Just my tuppence worth though….

    • Anastasia

      I was actually just thinking about rereading VW’s books this year (and reading the ones I haven’t read already), because I think for some of them they do get better the second time around. Or maybe not “better,” but more…understandable, I suppose?

      What you said about the waves is very true, and that’s something I hadn’t picked up on until right near the end. Maybe if I go and reread it with that idea at the forefront of my mind, I’ll get even MORE out of it than I did the first time I read it. 🙂

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