A Season for Woolfs: A Virginia Woolf Reading Challenge discussion

The Waves
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The Waves

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John Bradley (_johnbradley) | 5 comments Mod

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Martha | 3 comments I’m pretty sure I just read “We should be nailed like stoats to the stable door.”

John Bradley (_johnbradley) | 5 comments Mod
I mean, who among us?

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Matthew | 5 comments My copy doesn’t have numbered chapter divisions...is it safe to assume I should read approximately 1/3 of the book for this Wednesday? If I’ve found the right place, the reading for next Wednesday starts, “The sun, risen, no longer couched on a green mattress darting a fitful glance...”?

message 5: by Jean (last edited Nov 12, 2019 08:30AM) (new)

Jean Lamberty | 3 comments Here's an excerpt about The Waves from Penelope Lively's essay in Lithub.com about Virginia Woolf as a gardener:
So, she was a real gardener, Virginia Woolf; she planted, she weeded, she knew the chocolate earth. But now, here she is when the garden becomes a fictional device: “Flower after flower is specked on the depths of green. The petals are harlequins. Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath. The flowers swim like fish made of light upon the dark, green waters. I hold a stalk in my hand. I am the stalk . . .” This is from The Waves, and is the thought process of one of the six characters whose voices tell the story, turn by turn. Louis is a child in this opening section; the other five respond similarly to what they are seeing of the world around them. I can appreciate this as representing the immediacy of a child’s vision, but this is merely establishing the tone for the rest of the narrative. Stream of consciousness, of course, and in its most exaggerated form. The garden, in that passage, becomes a vehicle for method, style. There is little narrative in the novel, as such—the six friends grow up, remain connected, meet again all together in later life in two set-piece scenes, react to and discuss a seventh, who is not given a voice. They do emerge as separate personalities—three men, three women—though Virginia Woolf herself said that she meant them in a sense to be not so much separate characters as facets of a single consciousness, and called the book a prose-poem. The Waves is remarkable, unique, but I can’t enjoy it: too stylized, too exaggerated.

John | 4 comments Consummatum Est
(Some thoughts on the last three sections of The Waves)

We seem to have finally found out what the “waves” are — they are Neville, Louis, Bernard, Susan, Jinny, and Rhoda. In the last three interludes the waves merit only short references, mostly with the implication that they are declining or failing. This is the longest of the three reading subdivisions, and offers the most meta information concerning the actual meaning of the book (if any).

These sections also offer the clearest internal indication of how Woolf intended the book to be read — as poetry. This is reinforced by her reference to it not as a novel, but as a “playpoem”.

Section 7 is relatively short, and starts with another extended monologue from Bernard that relates the passing of time. Susan follows, then one of the infrequent monologues from Jinny. Then it gets much more interesting in Neville’s passage. In the second paragraph he says “This is poetry if we do not write it” — which seems highly self referential. Shortly thereafter, there is “They want a plot, do they? They want a reason?” This seems to come directly from the author’s mouth. The entire monologue is full of meta references:

“...things are said as if they had been written.”
“Certainly, one cannot read this poem without effort.”
“To read this poem one must have myriad eyes...”
“The poet who has written this page (what I read with people talking) has withdrawn.”

From Neville we proceed to Louis, a character often seen to be based at least partly on the poet T. S. Eliot. His monologue is constructed around a medieval poem, and Woolf doubles down on her poetic diction and style. Rhoda starts her section talking about dreading life, perhaps foreshadowing her later suicide.

One does wonder what Jinny’s name signifies, being phonetically a diminutive of Virginia. She does not seem to resemble the author very much, but the naming may be aspirational rather than factual.

Section 8 starts with Bernard again. Noticed that Bernard starts every section except 5 (Neville announcing Percival’s death) and 6 (Louis). The characters are meeting at the Inn at Hampton Court, and Bernard arrives to find the others already there. This section contains a lot more character interaction than the others, and more closely resembles what one might expect to see in a conventional novel. It is also the last we hear from any character other than Bernard, so it is useful to take note of what each character says as a summation of their presence.

The interlude following section 8 seems to reflect the same time of day that the section closed with.

Section 9 is all Bernard. This was the hardest section for me to read - Bernard is wordy and more than a little tedious, but there are some important parts. A little ways in, he talks about Percival, perhaps in irony showing Woolf’s feelings about the “golden boy” myth. They loved Percival, but that does not mean that he would have been out of the ordinary at all. The point is made (that their regard of Percival is sentiment, rather than fact): “No lullaby has ever occurred to me capable of singing him to rest.” Later, he epitomizes Jinny: “There was no past, no future; merely the moment in its ring of light, and our bodies; and the inevitable climax, the ecstasy.”

There are a couple of themes that recur in this section. One is quoting poetry, including (from Shakespeare) “come away, come away, death” (Twelfth Night) and “Let me not to the marriage of true minds...” (Sonnet 116). The other is the idea of Tuesday following Monday, followed in turn by Wednesday. The latter is repeated four or five times, and seems to signify the ordinary passage of time.

This section is also quite poetic in style. Reading it aloud will illustrate this. Indulging in a bit of meta, Woolf puts these words in Bernard’s mouth: “...standing by the window looking at a sky clear like the inside of a blue stone, ‘Heaven be praised,’ I said, ‘we need not whip this prose into poetry. The little language is enough.’” Is poetry indeed the larger language? Is prose, well, prosaic? Following this is a very poetic examination of Percival’s death (again). A couple of pages later, he may be alluding to the idea that he is the last remaining of the six:

“Was there no sword, nothing with which to batter down these walls, this protection, this begetting of children and living behind curtains, and becoming daily more involved and committed, with books and pictures? Better burn one's life out like Louis, desiring perfection; or like Rhoda leave us, flying past us to the desert; or choose one out of millions and one only like Neville; better be like Susan and love and hate the heat of the sun or the frost-bitten grass; or be like Jinny, honest, an animal. All had their rapture; their common feeling with death; something that stood them in stead. Thus I visited each of my friends in turn, trying, with fumbling fingers, to prise open their locked caskets.”

On the next page, we have “... an impulse again runs through us; we rise, we toss back a mane of white spray; we pound on the shore; we are not to be confined.” The characters are the waves.

On the idea that the characters are aspects of one individual: “... 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.” And “We saw for a moment laid out among us the body of the complete human being whom we have failed to be, but at the same time, cannot forget.”

A few pages later we learn that Rhoda has killed herself; she has gone before them. As Rhoda is the character that tends to be associated with Woolf herself, this seems particularly tragic. “... Rhoda, always so furtive, always with fear in her eyes, always seeking some pillar in the desert, to find which she had gone; she had killed herself.”

From that point, the section seems to build momentum, gathering as a wave about to hit the shore. Bernard alludes to this several times, including “...there is a gradual coming together, running into one, acceleration and unification.” I think that Woolf’s own voice also comes out in this section, with passages like “Heaven be praised for solitude. Let me be alone. Let me cast away this veil of being.” As the section ends, Bernard refers a final time to the wave analogy, and mounts a symbolic charge against Death. Noble or foolish? This is the would-be novelist who never finished a book. When a wave hits the shore, it ceases to be. “The waves broke on the shore.”

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Matthew | 5 comments Interesting! I love your observations, John. I wonder if in some ways Bernard is assimilating them into himself, since he was/is the/their/our writer...? In that way, it doesn’t matter if they are dead because he (just like when reading the story) is stuck with what’s left of them in his memory (or what the author has chosen to tell us). I’m still working on this last Bernard section, so maybe there’s more to come...

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