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Virginia Woolf

The Waves
Virginia Woolf

Table of Contents


Plot Overview

Character List

Analysis of Major Characters

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

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Important Quotations Explained

Key Facts


Virginia Woolf was one of the great literary figures of the twentieth century,
and The Waves (1931) represents, in a career filled with bold experiments, her
most audacious exploration of the possibilities of the novel form. The
Waves abandons traditional structure and plot as practiced in the English novel
since the days of the writer Henry Fielding, in favor of a lyrical, almost dreamlike
evocation of character. Instead of narrating her characters’ outward actions,
Woolf enters their minds and reports their thoughts and perceptions as they
occur, with few external clues to provide shape or context. Woolf builds her
characters from the inside out, and one of the concerns of the novel is the way
individual personalities and sensibilities are shaped by relationships with others.
The resulting work still presents unique challenges and rewards for the reader,
even more than fifty years since its publication. Woolf herself, however, worked
hard in her lifetime to create an intellectual and critical environment in which such
formally adventurous works as The Waves could be understood and appreciated.

Woolf was born in 1882 into an already distinguished literary and artistic family.
Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was one of the most notable intellectuals of his
day, and her sister, Vanessa, went on to become a well-regarded painter. Along
with her husband, the publisher Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912,
Woolf became one of the leading figures in the Bloomsbury Group of artists and
writers. Named for the London district in which the Woolfs lived, the Bloomsbury
Group was an informal circle of writers, artists, and thinkers who formed one of
the most well-known branches of the literary avant-garde of the early twentieth
century. Not so much a “movement” as a collection of like-minded friends,
Bloomsbury stood for a moderately leftist political stance, a commitment to formal
innovation in the arts, a refined critical and aesthetic sensibility, and an intensely
inward focus on the way the mind translates experience into language and
meaning. The Bloomsbury Group also tended to define itself in opposition to the
Victorian period, the era of their parents and grandparents. As avowed
modernists, they turned their backs on what they saw as the stuffy formality and
hypocritical morality of the Victorians. Through their experiments in art and
literature, they hoped to discover a new artistic method to match the new century.

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Woolf was at the forefront of these efforts. In her critical writing, she championed
the work of such contemporaries as James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses (1922)
set the standard for modernist writing and is—apart from Woolf’s own work—the
most obvious forerunner of The Waves. She also pioneered efforts to establish a
canon of women writers. Her influential readings of such authors as Jane Austen
and George Eliot help to locate her own work within a tradition of female

In her famous essay “Modern Fiction,” Woolf distinguishes between those writers
she labels “materialists,” who focus on the surface of things and events at the
expense of inner meaning, and those such as Joyce and herself, who are
“spiritual” and want to convey “that innermost flame” of people and events, even
if this concern leads them away from what we are used to thinking of as realistic
writing. For Woolf, capturing the “innermost flame” is the most important task of
the modern novelist, who tries to reveal the extraordinary quality of “an ordinary
mind on an ordinary day.” In her greatest works, such as Mrs.
Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves, Woolf epitomizes
such a modern writer, leaving behind the conventional structures of the novel in
order to pursue the fleeting impressions within the minds of her characters,
capturing them in flight within a net of language and imagery.

Plot Overview

The Waves is a portrait of the intertwined lives of six friends: Bernard, Neville,
Louis, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda. The novel is divided into nine sections, each of
which corresponds to a time of day, and, symbolically, to a period in the lives of
the characters. Each section begins with a detailed description of the course of
this symbolic day.

The first section deals with early morning, or childhood, when the six main
characters are attending a day-school together. As each of the children awakens,
he or she begins an internal monologue composed of thoughts, feelings, and
impressions. The children interact in various ways throughout the day, and each
begins to take shape as an individual in response to the stimulus provided by the
world and by the presence of one another. Although their thoughts are somewhat
incoherent and mostly fixated on immediate experience, their distinct
personalities begin to emerge: Bernard’s loquacity and obsession with language;
Neville’s desire for order and beauty; Louis’s insecurity and ambition; Jinny’s
physicality; Susan’s intensity and attachment to nature; and Rhoda’s dreamlike
abstraction from ordinary life.

The second section deals with adolescence, after the boys and girls have been
sent off to their separate boarding schools. Bernard, Louis, and Neville differ in

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their reactions to the school’s authority and traditions, and they all form
friendships with Percival, a popular, handsome boy who is to become a central
figure in the lives of the six main characters. All three boys develop literary
ambitions of some sort, though they differ markedly in their goals and
expressions. The girls mostly want school to be over and done with: Jinny
desires to begin her real life in society, Susan longs to return home to her father
and her farm, and Rhoda wants an escape from the disruptions to her mental
solitude caused by school. At the close of the section, each character sets out,
whether for college, work, or otherwise, on a more solitary track.

The third section traces the characters through young adulthood. Bernard and
Neville are at college together and remain close friends. They both admire
Percival, but Neville has fallen in love with him. Percival has become the focus of
Neville’s desire for beauty and perfection. Bernard is concerned with his own
gregarious nature and thinks deeply about the way his personality is constructed
out of his relationships with others. Neville shares one of his poems with Bernard,
and the moment is important for both of them. Louis is working as a mid-level
clerk at a shipping firm in London. He spends his lunch hour reading at a diner
and people-watching, hoping to make poetry out of his observations of everyday
life. Susan is at home on her farm and communes with the rhythm of natural life.
She walks across the fields before dawn and senses growth all around her,
though she begins to submerge her own active will. Back in London, Jinny and
Rhoda attend the same party, though their experiences are very different. Jinny
comes fully alive in the social setting, and she takes a great, sensual pleasure in
the beauty of her surroundings and in her own personal attractiveness. Rhoda,
on the other hand, feels negated by the others around her and longs to

The fourth section is set later in adulthood and centers on a dinner party, meant
to honor Percival, who is leaving for a position in the colonial government in
India. At the party, the six characters are united again. At first, the group is tense
and uneasy in one another’s company, and they primarily notice their differences.
When Percival arrives, however, these tensions are relaxed and the group
comes together. Briefly, the friends are united in a moment of true communion,
and their individual voices seem to blend. All too soon, however, the moment
ends and the group dissolves back into its singular parts.

The fifth section takes place not long after the dinner party, when the friends
have learned that Percival has been killed in India. Neville is devastated by the
news, overwhelmed by a sense of death and the fragility of life. Bernard is torn
between joy and sorrow: his child has just been born and his friend has just died.
Bernard goes to a museum to look at paintings and finds a kind of solace, even
as he is aware that his memories of Percival must inevitably fade. Rhoda finds a

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similar solace in music when she attends an opera soon after she learns of
Percival’s death, and she finds the strength to go on for a time.

In the sixth section, the characters have entered full maturity. Louis is rising in his
firm and leads a sort of double life. Although he is a respectable businessman,
he is drawn to the seamier side of life and spends his time roaming around
poorer neighborhoods. Louis and Rhoda have become lovers. Susan is a mother
now, both deeply gratified and stifled by her chosen life. On one hand, she is fully
a part of the cycle of natural life; on the other, her own life has become
subordinate to the lives of her children and the ongoing life of the farm. Jinny
continues her purely physical existence, taking lovers but never settling down,
content to revel in her own being. Neville also moves from lover to lover, but in
his case, he is trying to keep the intensity of first desire alive—it is the source of
his creativity.

The seventh section deals with midlife, as the characters begin to age. Bernard
has traveled to Rome, where he observes the ruins and tries to come to terms
with his own sense of failure, as he has begun to doubt both his own abilities and
the ability of stories to capture reality. As Susan sinks deeper into her rural and
domestic life, she regrets what she has lost even as she finds a measure of
contentment in what she has gained. Jinny has a moment of dread in which she
sees that she is aging and her beauty is fading. She reconciles herself to the
inevitable passage of time, however, and resolves to make the most of her
remaining years. Neville is becoming a successful writer. He is mellowing a bit,
but he continues to shift the focus of his desire from lover to lover. Louis rises
ever higher in his firm but still returns to his attic room to write. Literature seems
to him an idealized realm even as his eye is continually drawn to the street.
Rhoda has left Louis and travels to Spain, where she too has a moment in which
she comes face to face with death—here in the form of the vast sea seen from
the cliffs.

In the eighth section, the friends once again gather for a dinner, though this time
the meeting is shadowed by death, thanks both to their increasing age and to the
absence of Percival. Although there is tension among the friends, as at the
earlier meeting, this tension is resolved as they begin to share their common
experiences. The characters have lived long enough to know that this meeting is
one such common experience, and they have another moment of silent
communion, though the moment is elegiac rather than triumphant. Rhoda and
Louis have a quiet moment together as the others walk into the park, but it
inevitably comes to an end.

The ninth and final section is told entirely from Bernard’s point of view. Bernard
speaks to a casual acquaintance over dinner, and tries to give a “summing up” of

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his life. Bernard is still doubtful about the accuracy of any representation of reality
through language. He tries to give a sense of the texture of his life, rather than
making sweeping statements about it. Bernard discusses the others and how
things have turned out for them, including the fact that Rhoda has killed herself.
The most profound moment Bernard describes is one in which he himself seems
to move beyond language into a direct perception of reality. In the end, however,
Bernard sees his life as an attempt to use language to fight against death, and he
sees how the others have, in their individual ways, been part of the same
struggle. Bernard vows to keep fighting until the end.

Character List

Bernard - One of the narrators. Bernard is friendly, garrulous, and in many ways
the glue that holds the group of friends together. He is the least snobbish of the
group, willing to talk to anyone as an equal. Bernard wants to become a novelist,
though his hopes go unfulfilled. By the end of the novel, however, he achieves
the greatest insight into the lives of the other characters.

Read an in-depth analysis of Bernard.

Dr. Crane - The headmaster at the private boarding school the boys attend. Dr.
Crane represents both traditional authority and religion, and the boys’ individual
responses to him are telling. Neville despises him as a repressive, pompous,
insincere figure, while Louis admires him as the representative of the English
society he so much wants to be a part of. Bernard sees the headmaster primarily
as a character about whom he can spin a story.
Jinny - One of the narrators. Jinny is a beautiful, upper-class woman who leads
the life of a glamorous socialite. She is grounded in the here-and-now, rarely
wondering about the deeper significance of events or the symbolic value of
things—a marked contrast to her friends. She is intensely physical, seeing her
body and her sexuality as her primary means of interacting with the world. Jinny
is perhaps the most static of the main characters, though she does come to
terms with her own aging.

Read an in-depth analysis of Jinny.

Louis - One of the narrators. Louis’s father is an Australian banker, and Louis is
painfully aware of his own accent and his lower-class status in comparison with
his friends. He is driven by a desire to escape his position as an outsider and to
prove the superiority of his own intellect. Louis becomes a successful
businessman, but he also wants to become a poet in order to make something
permanent out of the passing disorder of everyday life. Louis is attracted to both
the concrete reality of life in London and the ideal realm of art. He and Rhoda are
lovers for a time, but she eventually leaves him.

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Read an in-depth analysis of Louis.

Neville - One of the narrators. Neville is refined, intellectual, and upper class,
with a deep appreciation of beauty. Neville loves Percival from afar, admiring him
for being everything Neville is not—athletic, charismatic, and grounded in
practical reality. After Percival’s death, Neville pursues many different lovers,
devoting himself intensely to each for a time and then moving on. Neville desires
order and beauty, and he tries to exclude much of the disorder and ugliness of
the world from his life by isolating himself with his books and his lovers. Neville
becomes a famous poet.

Read an in-depth analysis of Neville.

Percival - A friend of each of the main characters. The boys meet Percival at
school, where he is one of the most popular students. Percival is handsome and
charismatic, a natural leader. He is killed when he is thrown from a horse in India,
where he has gone to work in the colonial government. Percival is in love with
Susan, though he does not act on it, and Neville is in love with him, though
Percival has no idea. Percival is an idealized figure for the other characters, and
they each respond deeply to his death, though in different ways.

Rhoda - One of the narrators. Rhoda is introverted, highly sensitive, and almost
phobic when it comes to interacting with others. She tends to drift off into her
imagination as a means of escaping from social situations, and she comes to feel
that her own personality is insubstantial and illusory. Rhoda and Louis become
lovers, but Rhoda is terrified of intimacy and leaves him. Eventually Rhoda’s
sense of the transience of life and her own desire for unconsciousness lead her
to take her own life.

Read an in-depth analysis of Rhoda.

Susan - One of the narrators. Susan hates city life and cannot wait to return
home from school to her family farm, where she wants to tend the land and raise
children. Susan is an earthy, passionate woman who is highly compelling to men,
though not as classically beautiful as Jinny. Susan has an intense relationship
with the land and with nature, but her cultivation of this natural bond leads to the
suppression of many of her other desires. Susan loves Bernard, for example, but
sacrifices any passion of her own for the sake of her family and her place in the
cycle of rural life.

Analysis of Major Characters

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Bernard is deeply concerned with language, and one of his first apparent traits is
his obsession with “making phrases.” This activity is a means of both impressing
and helping others, as in the case of Susan early in the novel. As a child,
Bernard sees language as a way to mediate and control reality, to turn random
events into a chain of meaning. When he leaves for school, for example, Bernard
makes phrases as a way to remain in control of his emotions. Later, he begins to
turn his phrases into stories, transforming language into a tool for understanding
others. Here he begins to run into a problem, however. Bernard has trouble
capturing the lives of others (such as Dr. Crane) in his stories, and he is nagged
by a sense that some element of the truth always escapes him.

Over time, Bernard comes to think that the problem with his stories is inherent in
language itself. Reality, Bernard comes to think, is always more complex than
our words can grasp. Part of the reason this is so is related to Bernard’s concept
of identity as fluid and changing. Bernard sees himself as a compound being,
influenced by and even composed of the people who surround him. Bernard
spends much time trying to break down the barriers between different selves. His
dissatisfaction with language and traditional narrative echoes many of Woolf’s
own concerns and gives a clue as to why she felt the need to try bold
experiments with the nature of fiction, such as The Waves itself. In her memoirs,
Woolf tells of certain moments, which she calls “moments of being,” in which she
gains a direct perception of reality, apart from the distortions and omissions of
language. Bernard has such a moment toward the end of the novel, and the
moment is a kind of culmination for his character.


Jinny lives her life utterly apart from concerns about the soul. She thinks of
herself as a body, first and foremost, interacting with other bodies. From the first
moment we see Jinny, kissing Louis among the bushes, she is a creature of
motion, surface, and physicality. More than once, Jinny compares herself to an
animal and the social world in which she moves to a jungle, in which she is a
huntress. She is aware of her own physical beauty, and her greatest pleasure is
in being able to pick a man from the crowd and summon him with a gesture. It
might sound from this description as though Woolf is being critical of Jinny, but
Woolf presents Jinny’s perspective as radically honest and admirably direct. She
is not an intellectual and prefers to relate to a world of physical objects rather
than ideas, but she is neither stupid nor insensitive.

In her own way, Jinny is just as devoted to beauty and to her ideal of life as
someone more obviously idealistic, such as Neville. On the dance floor, swept up

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in the communal whirl of bodies and music, Jinny feels unified with something
larger than herself, something like the flow of life. The problem with Jinny’s ideal
is that it cannot be sustained: music ends, beauty fades, and attractiveness
withers with it. Neville, Louis, and Susan are each deeply concerned with making
something that will last, and this, of course, Jinny cannot do—this is the great
failing of Jinny’s way of life. Catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, she sees
that her hedonistic time is drawing to a close, but she does not despair. Death is
simply part of the bargain, and her attitude is carpe diem—seize the day, and live
while you can.


Louis’s deepest sense of himself is that he does not fit in. Embarrassed as a
child by his Australian accent and by his poorer background, Louis becomes an
ambitious striver, eager to make his mark and to shed his status as an outsider.
He becomes keenly aware of social distinctions and is drawn to Rhoda from the
beginning, seeing her as a fellow misfit. At school, Louis discovers poetry and
sees the tradition of literature as a kind of society open to those with enough
genius and drive to gain admittance. From that point, his ambitions include
becoming a great poet. But Louis does not go to college along with Neville and
Bernard. Instead, he takes a job with a shipping firm in London, and from that
time on, he leads a sort of double life. As he sits in a greasy-spoon diner, Louis’s
attention is split between the book of poems he reads and the gossiping crowd
around him. Later, he rises in the company and become a distinguished
businessman, while still retaining his poetic ambition and his attraction to the
seamy side of life.

Louis wants to unify the ideal realm of poetry with the hurly-burly of daily life—his
idea of a poetic image is a mangy cat rubbing its side against a chimney. What
Louis hopes to do by writing poems about such things is to reveal the permanent
existence beneath the random flow of ordinary events. Louis’s project is
somewhere between Jinny’s (submerging the self in life’s flow, without imposing
concepts on it) and Neville’s (living a life of artistic isolation from everyday life).
Woolf seems to be sympathetic to this plan, which has a certain resemblance to
her own, but it remains unclear how well Louis is able to realize it. He seems
compromised by his materialistic desire for success in business and his attraction
to the tawdry. Louis and Rhoda become lovers for a time, but Louis is unable to
forge a lasting connection there as well.


At first, Neville might seem to be a rather clichéd portrait of a homosexual

aesthete: he is physically weak, overly refined, obsessed with male beauty, and
somewhat promiscuous. But Neville is also a great artist—the most successful

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artist in the novel. Unlike Louis and Bernard, who also harbor literary ambitions,
Neville centers his life on his relationship to his art, to the exclusion of most other
relationships. This intense purity of focus seems to make the difference in his
success as a poet. From the start, Neville is disturbed by mess and disorder,
continually noticing Bernard’s sloppiness of dress. But Neville’s desire for order
goes beyond the material realm. For Neville, life itself is a chaotic mess, and only
in art and literature is perfection attainable. Neville understands this fact clearly
after the death of Percival, whom Neville loves and idealizes. Once Percival is
gone, Neville looks to a series of lovers for a temporary replacement for the
intense feelings he once got from merely watching Percival. In each case, Neville
uses his concentrated if fleeting devotion to the new lover as a source of energy
for writing his poetry. In the end, Neville sees that he has spent an entire lifetime
devoted to the study of love itself.
If Bernard’s problem with language is that it is not large enough to contain reality,
Neville’s problem is that it is not focused enough to serve his particular needs.
Neville’s life is one of concentration and exclusion. He shuts the world out from
his book-lined room, awaiting only the approach of his latest “one.” Neville’s need
for a focused, polished language to express his meaning is part of the reason for
his disdain for Dr. Crane and for conventional religion. For Neville, the
headmaster is a pompous fool, mouthing empty phrases, and most religion is
little more than a collection of such insincere words. Beyond the platitudes of the
sermons he hears, Neville also sees Christianity as a sad, death-obsessed
religion and prefers the pagan Greeks and Romans for what he sees as their
love of life and pleasure in this world.


Rhoda is an eternal outsider, even more so than Louis, to whom she is drawn for
a time. Our first glimpse of Rhoda is as a child, staring into a basin of water that
she imagines is her own private ocean. For Rhoda, the world inside her head is a
refuge from the external world of other people. She is terrified of human contact,
terrified of being criticized and judged. Her deep sense of alienation from others
eventually turns into a desire to abandon consciousness altogether, rather than
risk losing her perfect solitude through intimacy with others. Her most
characteristic gesture, even among friends, is to stare out the window, lost in
imagination. Nothing comes easily to Rhoda, and everything seems foreign—she
has to carefully copy the way Jinny and Susan dress to avoid making mistakes.
She comes to see herself as a ghostlike, faceless figure, drifting through life
without affecting others. She ultimately commits suicide, though it is unclear
exactly what occurs. Some of Bernard’s comments in the concluding section
seem to imply that she leaps from a cliff, perhaps the same one she looks down
from earlier in the novel.

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Before her tragic end, Rhoda finds some measure of consolation from two
sources, the first of which is music. In the wake of Percival’s death, Rhoda enters
an opera house and is moved by what she hears. Death is both the ultimate
disruption of solitude and its ultimate expression, and the music seems, to
Rhoda, like a kind of structure in which she can find temporary shelter. Rhoda is
briefly able to find similar solace in her relationship with Louis, but she is unable
to maintain the state of intimacy and breaks it off. In the end, Rhoda’s greatest
desire is simply to cease desiring and existing. She is drawn away from the
basin-ocean, in which she has imaginative control, and into the ocean she sees
from the cliffs in Spain, which she thinks of in symbolic terms as death itself—a
vast ocean of emptiness and stillness that swallows her up.


Like Jinny, Susan is a strongly physical presence, and like Rhoda, Susan is at
least partially motivated by a desire to lose herself within a larger force. But
Susan wishes to engage with life through her body at the primal level of
generation and reproduction, and through this process to become one with the
growth of the land and of her home. From Susan’s perspective, Jinny’s life is one
of sterile—literally fruitless—activity, while Rhoda tragically resists her body’s
own desires. Susan walks her fields in the early morning, sensing the awakening
life all around her, and Woolf’s appreciation of the value and reward of Susan’s
choice is clear. Susan wants a productive, work-filled life that fosters the land and
nurtures others. Through her life on the farm, Susan is seeking to find meaning in
ordinary life.

Woolf acknowledges that sacrifice is involved in Susan’s life choice. Susan has
always been emotional and passionate, either hating or loving (or both at once)
most people she meets. As a mother, however, Susan must put others first, and
she thinks to herself that her greatest emotions will be for and through her
children, and most of her work will be on their behalf. At a certain point, Susan
realizes that the price of the fulfillment she has found has been to lose herself
within the role of wife and mother, becoming a generic, de-individualized person
even in her own eyes. Susan looks back longingly at her youth and her first love,
Bernard, whose phrases had always seemed too complex and subtle for her.
She thinks continually of Jinny and her comparatively free existence. By the end
of the novel, Susan’s life is shot through with regret, and she even speaks, to
Bernard, of her life as a ruined, wasted thing.

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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

The Influence of the Other on the Self

Throughout The Waves, the characters struggle to define themselves, which they
do through their relationships with others. Bernard articulates this struggle most
clearly. He realizes that who he is depends on who surrounds him—his words
and thoughts change in relation to his companions. Bernard sees the mind and
the self as fluid, with permeable boundaries that enable people to “flow” into one
another and essentially create one another. Bernard’s understanding of reality
connects to this idea of “flow”: he sees reality as a product of consciousness. He
rejects the idea of an “outer” world of unchanging objects and an “inner” world of
the mind and ideas. Rather, our minds are part of the world, and vice versa. For
Bernard, if there were no minds to perceive the world and bring it into being, the
world would be empty. He applies this idea to the flower on the table during the
first dinner party. Since seven people perceive the flower at once, it is a “seven-
sided flower.” Later, after Percival’s death, Bernard thinks that reality itself is
diminished by the loss of a consciousness—the flower is now only “six-sided.”

All the characters grapple with self-definition in different ways. Neville defines
himself in opposition to society’s conventions and insincerity and tries to reduce
his relationships to intense, pure devotion. Louis is deeply concerned with what
others think and tries, with varying success, to shed his provincial self and to
create a new, “insider” self. Jinny has a stronger sense of self than the others,
and she happily takes her place in London’s social world. However, the physical
self is for her the most real self, and all interaction is essentially physical. For
Susan, a sense of self is rooted in a sense of place as well as in her relations
with others, and she submerges her personal identity within the larger “self” of
family and nature. Rhoda’s sense of self is the most fragile and oppressive.
Unlike Jinny, who sees herself as all body, Rhoda feels phantomlike, unable to
interact with others without losing all substance. She feels an intolerable
pressure from contact with others, which, for Bernard, is the essence of selfhood.
In the end, Bernard, who has always worked to overcome the false boundaries
we create between selves, has the last word.

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The Desire for Order and Meaning

As the characters struggle to define themselves, they must learn to make sense
of the impressions that flash before them and sweep them along. Each character
longs for a sense of order and wants to find something lasting in a world of
constant change. Louis, Neville, and Bernard have literary ambitions. For Woolf,
one of the functions of literature and art in general is to bring order and meaning
to the confusion of life. Life itself, as depicted in The Waves, is a constant stream
of sense-impressions and random events. Art can be a place outside of the flow
of time, where our fleeting perceptions can be made permanent and beautiful.
Neville approaches his poetry with this goal in mind, and Louis also thinks of his
writing as a way to forge an unbreakable link out of the chaos of daily life.

Rhoda’s response to the music of the opera hall and Bernard’s response to the
paintings in the museum suggest that one of the functions of creativity is to bring
a sense of peace and solace to life, especially when one is confronted with
meaninglessness and death. But Bernard presents a critique of this function of
art. He is dissatisfied with the way language and, by extension, all creativity must
simplify life in order to give it shape. He rejects the traditional shape of stories,
with a beginning, middle, and end, because he believes that such a shape is
untrue to the way life is actually lived. In his final “summing up,” Bernard says he
will not try to fit his life into any kind of overarching plotline. Rather, he will simply
trace the events and try to highlight those that are significant as they arise.
Meaning will then emerge out of the process of life in its full development, without
the imposition of one person’s limited point of view. Bernard’s method is an
obvious reference to Woolf’s own method in The Waves, and the novel can be
seen as her attempt to address Bernard’s struggles with language and narrative.

The Acknowledgment of Death

Much of the characters’ self-knowledge begins in recognizing their own mortality.

Louis and Rhoda, in particular, are aware of loss and emptiness from the
beginning, but they all must confront death when Percival is killed in India. Each
of the characters must then struggle to incorporate knowledge of death into the
structure of their lives, and each follows an individual path with differing success.
Death functions as a kind of reality principle in the novel, reminding the
characters that their time is not limitless—death is the “enemy” that Bernard sees
facing them all by the end. Five of the six characters, in some way or other, make
a commitment to life in the face of death: Neville and Louis through art, Susan
through the natural world, Jinny through her own physicality, and Bernard
through language. Rhoda is the only one who does not commit to life. Bernard is
at one pole of the awareness of death, vowing to fight for consciousness and
meaning until the end, while Rhoda is at the other, surrendering at last to the pull
of oblivion and joining the world of inanimate things.

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Stream-of-Consciousness Narration

In her essay “Modern Fiction,” Woolf describes life as “an incessant shower of
innumerable atoms,” and she says that a modern writer must “record the atoms
as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall.” This idea helps explain
the stream-of-consciousness method Woolf uses in The Waves. Rather than
summarizing for us what the characters see, think, and do, reporting from the
outside, or tidying up a character’s thoughts into standard, clear sentences,
Woolf tries to give the reader an impression of what it is like to be inside the
characters’ heads. She forces us to sift through a flow of sense impressions,
inchoate emotions, and memories, just as the characters themselves are forced
to do. In each section from each narrator, we get a combination of thought,
sensation, memory, description, action, and speech, and we must separate for
ourselves what is purely “internal” and what is a combination of “internal” and
“external.” Woolf is trying to give a more realistic picture of psychology than had
ever before been presented in fiction. Whether she succeeded in presenting
accurate psychological portraits through this method, or whether consciousness
is in fact anything like “stream-of-consciousness” fiction, is a common point of
debate when approaching Woolf’s work.


In opera, a leitmotif is a musical phrase or melody that is associated with a

particular character—when a character appears or is mentioned, the leitmotif is
heard. Woolf makes use of a similar device in The Waves to differentiate the
characters from one another and to provide an insight into their values and
desires. She gives each narrator a set of characteristic phrases or gestures, and
the appearance of these “leitmotifs” in various contexts helps us to understand a
given character’s situation. One example is Jinny’s act of lifting her arm in
summons to a man. For Jinny, this gesture is the sign of the power she wields by
virtue of her beauty. As long as the gesture works, her identity is stable. Another
example is the use of the term “making phrases” in relation to Bernard. The term
has a different tone depending on who uses it, but it is always meant to evoke
the constant stream of language Bernard is capable of pouring forth. Woolf also
uses certain types of imagery around certain characters. Water is a leitmotif of
Rhoda, history is a leitmotif of Louis, and leaves and growing things are leitmotifs
of Susan.

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The Waves

When the narrators are children, the first thing they hear in the morning is the
sound of waves crashing on the shore. Each of them tries to make sense of the
rhythmic pounding—Louis, for example, hears the stamping of a chained beast—
and the sound becomes a background noise to their day. As the novel proceeds,
the rhythm of the waves becomes associated with the passage of time. Certain
characters are more aware of the passage of time than others. Louis is always
sensitive to it, and Rhoda saturates her narration with water and wave imagery.
Each of the characters has a moment in which he or she is reminded of the
passage of time, and the effect is similar to someone who has become used to
the sound of the waves at the beach and suddenly hears again the sound that
has never ceased and that will continue long after he or she is gone. The novel
itself demonstrates this idea of continuity, as it ends just as it begins—with an
image of the breaking waves.

“Fin in a Waste of Waters”

On his trip to Rome, Bernard catches a glimpse of the sea from a parapet and
sees a porpoise turn quickly in the water. He immediately turns this sense-
impression into language: “Fin in a waste of waters” is the phrase he makes. At
the time, Bernard simply files the phrase among all the others he has made, but
the fin breaking the surface eventually comes to symbolize the way meaning and
reality can break the surface of life with no warning. The majority of our waking
lives, Bernard comes to feel, is made up of routine, boredom, and automatic
actions and words—getting a haircut, traveling to work, and so on make up the
“waste of waters.” Every now and again, we get a brief glimpse of what is real
and lasting, a glimpse of being in and of itself—a hidden purpose in the
emptiness of our daily lives. Neville uses a similar image when reading his
modernist poem: he compares the poem to a searchlight trained on the waves at
night, catching a glimpse of some creature just surfacing. This image clearly
works together with the symbolic waves and indicates the understanding Bernard
is able to achieve in the face of time and death.

The Apple Tree

The apple tree Neville is looking at as he overhears the servants at the school
discussing a local murder becomes inextricably linked to his knowledge of death.
Neville finds himself unable to pass the tree, seeing it as glimmering and lovely,
yet sinister and “implacable.” When he learns that Percival is dead, he feels he is
face to face once again with “the tree which I cannot pass.” Eventually, Neville
turns away from the natural world to art, which exists outside of time and can
therefore transcend death. The fruit of the tree appears only in Neville’s room on

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his embroidered curtain, a symbol itself of nature turned into artifice. The apple
tree image also echoes the apple tree from the Book of Genesis in the Bible, the
fruit of which led Adam and Eve to knowledge and, therefore, expulsion from
Eden. Though Woolf doesn’t dwell on this particular connection, the idea of
knowing “too much” makes sense in the context of The Waves. In a way, Neville
yearns for knowledge—of his own self as well as the world—but is uncomfortable
with the difficult reality of death.

Important Quotations Explained

1. I oppose to what is passing this ramrod of beaten steel. I will not submit to this
aimless passing of billycock hats and Homburg hats and all the plumed and
variegated head-dresses of women . . . and the words that trail drearily without
human meaning; I will reduce you to order.

Explanation for Quotation 1 >>

As Louis sits in the eating-shop in the third section, he watches the people
around him, contrasting their lives with the idealized world of the poems he
reads. His own poetic project is conceived in terms of resistance, order, and
rigidity. He thinks of poetry as a steel ramrod that he will use to straighten out the
crookedness of reality. Louis’s tone is defiant, almost angry. He refuses to
“submit” to the chaos around him and will “reduce” it to order. However, he still
desires to include the details of modern life in his art. In contrast, Bernard
becomes dissatisfied with stories precisely because they “reduce” life too much,
while “reduction,” in the sense of the elimination of the ugly or mundane, is the
secret of Neville’s creativity. Louis, meanwhile, intends to take a ramrod to
reality. The human activity he is so captivated with seems like an ocean of chaos;
the people are “aimless,” and their “dreary” words lack meaning. Louis wants to
state the meaning these passersby will never see for themselves.


2. Should I seek out some tree? Should I desert these form rooms and libraries,
and the broad yellow page in which I read Catullus, for woods and fields? Should
I walk under beech trees, or saunter along the river bank, where the trees meet
united like lovers in the water? But nature is too vegetable, too vapid. She has
only sublimities and vastitudes and water and leaves. I begin to wish for firelight,
privacy, and the limbs of one person.

Explanation for Quotation 2 >>

Neville asks these questions in the second section, while he is at school. Neville
is distancing himself from the natural world and turning toward his own private

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domain. The problem Neville has with nature is similar to what Louis sees in the
city—it is full of disorder and emptiness. Neville longs for both human warmth
and for an ideal state of perfection. These two desires are contradictory, of
course, but at this point in the novel, Percival is still alive and Neville has yet to
learn of the incompatibility of perfection and temporal existence. Another problem
Neville sees with nature is simply that it is too big. Neville wants beauty, including
harmony, grace, and proportion, rather than sublimity, which is awe-inspiring,
forceful, and huge. The perfection Neville seeks is by definition to be found on a
smaller, more intimate scale. In Neville’s desire for form and organization, we can
see the beginnings of his future life of books and seclusion with a chosen lover,
as well as his fondness for classical poets and orderliness.


3. Beneath us lie the lights of the herring fleet. The cliffs vanish. Rippling small,
rippling grey, innumerable waves spread beneath us. I touch nothing. I see
nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The
white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and
then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a
tremendous shower, dissolving me.

Explanation for Quotation 3 >>

In the seventh section, Rhoda travels to Spain, where she has this vision of the
ocean from high atop a cliff. The scene is beautiful but ominous, and there is a
double meaning to Rhoda’s statements about touching and seeing “nothing.”
That is, what she is seeing and touching in this scene isnothingness,
nonexistence. Rhoda is imagining the dissolution of her body into the larger body
of the sea. The symbolic value of the “waves” is clearly active here as well—
Rhoda knows she is constantly being dissolved by the passage of time anyway,
and she is strongly tempted to give in to the process. As it happens, Rhoda does
not give in to the temptation here, but this scene is a kind of harbinger of future
events and a portrait of the drift of Rhoda’s mind. It also serves as a kind of
counterpoint to the scene in which Bernard, also looking down upon the ocean,
sees the porpoise break the surface. In his case, meaning and life come welling
up from below, while Rhoda imagines herself being sucked under by
meaninglessness and death.


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4. How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully
with all their feet on the ground! Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are
drawn upon half sheets of notepaper. . . . What delights me . . . is the confusion,
the height, the indifference, and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and
movement; something sulphurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter;
towering, trailing, broken off, lost, and I forgotten, minute, in a ditch. Of story, of
design, I do not see a trace then.

Explanation for Quotation 4 >>

As Bernard begins his “summing up,” he expresses again his distrust of stories.
As he says, the problem with stories is that they try to squeeze reality into a kind
of straightjacket, forcing it into a predetermined shape. Bernard is always
interested in what gets left out of the “neat designs of life.” For Bernard, stories
have trouble accommodating the wild, formless nature of reality—illustrated by
the roiling, shifting mass of clouds he sees overhead from his ditch. Bernard’s
last sentence, which links the words “story” and “design,” suggests that he sees
neither narrative meaning nor pattern in nature. Implicitly, Bernard is denying the
presence of God in the world and saying that whatever meaning is found in the
universe has been made by us in the act of trying to comprehend it. Woolf is
clearly explaining her own procedure in The Waves in this passage. The novel
tries to find meaning in human lives while staying true to the shifting, formless
nature of reality.


5. Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I
meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my
life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many
people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or
Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

Explanation for Quotation 5 >>

Late in the last section, Bernard returns to his idea of the fluidity of identity. For
Bernard, all personalities are multiple: we are not self-sufficient, self-created
entities. Bernard seems to suggest that we should be both humbled and
comforted by the extent to which we have been shaped by others. This idea is
key to a kind of ethical dimension in Woolf’s writing. If we can see others as
connected to ourselves, as part of ourselves, we will be less likely to objectify or
exploit others to suit our own desires. By the end of the novel, Bernard is able to
put his own desires, and even his own thoughts, to the side and to look upon

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others with a compassionate detachment born of the certainty that we all share in
the same life, and are all journeying toward the same end.

Key Facts

TITLE · The Waves

AUTHOR · Virginia Woolf


GENRE · Stream-of-consciousness narrative; experimental novel

LANGUAGE · English

TIME AND PLACE WRITTEN · Late 1920s–early 1930s, England


PUBLISHER · Hogarth Press

NARRATOR · The novel is narrated by the six main characters, switching between
their separate yet interrelated internal monologues.

POINT OF VIEW · The point of view of The Waves is complex. Each individual
narrator speaks in the first person, reporting his or her thoughts and impressions,
as they occur, in a highly subjective way. However, the narrative is broken up
and framed by a description of a passing day that is told in the voice of none of
the characters, which introduces an objective element into the novel. Further, the
shift in narration from character to character is signaled by a formulation such as
“said Bernard,” or “said Rhoda,” indicating the presence of a bare-bones version
of a third-person narrator, though this narrator is silent, allowing the characters to
speak and think for themselves.

TONE · The tone of the novel is dreamy, lyrical, and sad.

TENSE· The narrative frame—the description of a passing day—is told in the past
tense. The internal monologues of the characters are given as the thoughts
occur: mostly in the present tense, with shifts into the past for memories.

SETTING (TIME) · The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

SETTING (PLACE) · England, in several locales, from the countryside, to a university,

to London.

· The six major characters are all in some sense protagonists, but
Bernard becomes the most prominent by the end of the novel.

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MAJOR CONFLICT · The characters’ struggle to understand themselves and to come
to terms with the death of their friend Percival

RISING ACTION · Youth; everything up until Percival’s death

CLIMAX · The dinner party before Percival’s departure

FALLING ACTION · Maturity; everything following Percival’s death

THEMES · The influence of the other on the self; the desire for order and meaning;
the acknowledgment of death

MOTIFS · Stream-of-consciousness narration; leitmotifs

SYMBOLS · The waves; “Fin in a waste of waters”; the apple tree

FORESHADOWING · Rhoda is attracted to water from the beginning and is haunted by

death throughout, as in the scene at the cliff, foreshadowing her eventual suicide;
Louis imagines Percival’s death before it happens; Bernard sees the porpoise fin
before he learns what it means; as a child, Susan runs into the woods, away from
Jinny’s world and toward nature, where she eventually chooses to spend her life.

The Waves
Virginia Woolf

How to Cite This SparkNote

Full Bibliographic Citation


SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Waves.” SparkNotes

LLC. 2006. Web. 6 May 2010.

The Chicago Manual of Style

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Waves.” SparkNotes LLC. 2006. (accessed May 6, 2010).


SparkNotes Editors. (2006). SparkNote on The Waves. Retrieved May 6, 2010,


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In Text Citation


“Their conversation is awkward, especially when she mentions Wickham, a

subject Darcy clearly wishes to avoid” (SparkNotes Editors).


“Their conversation is awkward, especially when she mentions Wickham, a

subject Darcy clearly wishes to avoid” (SparkNotes Editors, 2006).


The Chicago Manual of Style

Chicago requires the use of footnotes, rather than parenthetical citations, in

conjunction with a list of works cited when dealing with literature.

1 SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Waves.” SparkNotes LLC. 2006. (accessed May 6, 2010).

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