On The Waves


The Waves:  Woolf’s aesthetic of the private-political

What is political? A clearly defined, verifiable public act which can be held against recorded evidence, clarified and brought to empirical justice? Or is the originary point of the political more interior, located in the private individual? Discussions and debates which revolve around how the political gets conceptualised have been the substance of art and literature historically, devolving the issue sometimes as one denomination among others, but at other times – prominently when literary texts have to stand accountable to paradigm-altering cultural movements – foregrounding the political.

Virginia’s Woolf’s The Waves is a case in point. Considered Woolf’s most experimental work, The Waves challenges notions of the political as an exclusively socio-historical phenomenon, synchronously positing the political as an aesthetic category, hence making it possible to trace how literary experiment may be directly affiliated to a progressive political vision.

Structured around the lives of six friends, Jinny, Neville, Bernard, Louis, Rhoda and Susan, The Waves renders six lives intertwined, poignantly describing each articulated self as a refracted image of another, or of all others. In this closed world, identities are shaped and distorted by the characters’ movements which segue in and out of – and are conditioned coevally by – the society and the cityscape. Placed on a site outside the line of narrative, the seventh character Percival is the binding strand that holds together the six friends and their lives.

British novelist Jeanette Winterson, in her essay “A Veil of Words”, remarks that a geometric pattern emerges out of Woolf’s portrayal of her characters. “Susan, Jinny, Rhoda, Louis, Neville, Bernard,” for Winterson, are, “A hexagon of words. Six shades and six angles that form a crystal around the silent figure of Percival who stands perpendicular to the plane.” (86) Percival is at once inextricably embedded in the narrative, but also configures it only as an absence. One way to understand Percival’s character would be to regard him as something of a diametrical opposite to Iago’s character in Othello. Iago forms the focal point of the play; he is a socket from where the story originates, a source of language. He governs how the trajectory of action unravels in Othello as the other characters are reined into an overarching epistemology and narrative that Iago is continually in the process of creating and constructing. But Percival is a narrative void, a locus where the voices of the other six characters converge. He is the point beyond language.

Neville observes, “That is Percival, lounging on the cushions, monolithic, in giant repose. No, it is only one of his satellites, imitating his monolithic, his giant repose. He alone is unconscious of their tricks, and when he catches them at it he buffets them good-humouredly with a blow of his paw.” (Woolf 52) Percival is imitated but inimical, and it is in Percival’s character that Woolf contests claims of language, literature and questions of existence. Is it possible for language to contain the world it describes? For people to exist beyond the realm of mutual perception? For literature to remain unremittingly liable to an external, objective reality?

Georg Lukács, in his seminal essay, “Realism in the Balance”, questions whether, “’the closed integration’, the ‘totality’ of the capitalist system, of bourgeois society, with its unity of economics and ideology, really form an objective whole, independent of consciousness.” (31) For Lukács, Marx’s postulation that “The relations of production of every society form a whole,” provides the answer. In extension, for Lukács, “economic reality is a totality in itself subject to historical change.” (31) Thus, situated against a Marxist elucidation of a phenomenological world which frames the individual in an unequivocal bind, Expressionist endeavours to suggest a subjective engendering of reality were an inevitable failure.

Lukács’ vehement objections to movements like Expressionism and Surrealism are founded in a belief that they deny that “literature has any reference to objective reality.” (33) Although conceding that, “Writing from their own experience, they have often succeeded in developing a consistent and interesting mode of expression, a style of their own, in fact,” Lukács ultimately dismisses them because they fail in the context of social reality, “as it never rises above the level of immediacy, either intellectually or artistically.” (37)

Published in 1931, Woolf’s The Waves embodies queries which the Expressionists, more emblematically, the Modernist movement was grappling with. Along with writers like James Joyce and TS Eliot, among others, Woolf responds to accusations of disloyalty to the real and the political by proposing an alternate politics, one conceived entirely within the private, the aesthetic.

The Waves deliberates over the borders of the individual and the private when juxtaposed against the social and the public. Each of its characters epitomize different traits, set at a variance from the others but not completely removed, hence each character is simultaneously singular and multiple. Bernard is the storyteller for whom, “Images breed instantly. [He is] embarrassed by his own fertility. [He] could describe every chair, table, luncher here copiously, freely. [His] mind hums hither and thither with its veil of words for everything.” (Woolf 76) Neville, on the other hand, is the poet, desires other men’s affections, and the worst affected at Percival’s death as it also culminates a life-long unrequited love affair.

The relationship between the three female characters is more complex – it is in their depiction that Woolf further develops the idea that reciprocated identity conflates, but also deforms. The confident, exuberantly charming society beauty Jinny is a cause of Susan and Rhoda’s insecurities, resulting in extreme reactions in both. Jinny, who effortlessly yields to the demands of social performance, is a metonymical representation of everything Susan resents – the looming artifice of the cityscape, its immense machinery and facades – and she resists from being completely subsumed by retreating to the pastoral, the utterly domestic. “I hate linoleum,” she says, in one of her longer soliloquies. “I shall have children; I shall have maids in aprons; men with pitchforks; a kitchen where they bring the ailing lambs to warm in baskets, where the hams hang and the onions glisten. I shall be like my mother, silent in a blue apron locking up the cupboards.” (Woolf 63)

Rhoda’s quandary, though, is an existential one. From childhood, she has moved from person to person, place to place, assuming facets of other people’s personalities. Rhoda explicitly illustrates Woolf’s investigations into the nature of identity: whether the self is always born in the encounter of one consciousness with another, and as a specific response to specific geographies; whether the self too – equivalent to the multitudinous proliferation of objects in a shop window – is an artefact. But Woolf’s characters, even at their most desperate, are pitiable, redeemed by the transcendent ordinary and rejuvenated in a sense of community. Although Rhoda laments, “There is no single scent, no single body for me to follow. And I have no face.” (Woolf 85) she always returns to her friends despite the fact that doing so is almost unbearable. Susan reflects, “She dreads us, she despises us, yet comes cringing to our sides because for all our cruelty there is always some name, some face, which sheds a radiance, which lights up her pavements and makes it possible for her to replenish her dreams.” (Woolf 78)

While the Jinny, Rhoda, Susan, Neville and Bernard’s battles are firmly rooted within a terrain markedly English, Louis, who is the immigrant, has to contend with a greater crisis of identity – questions of national heritage, tradition and belonging haunt him. In a sense, the fact that his father was a banker – as opposed to the more traditional occupations of his friends’ parents – and his Australian accent, betrays his status as an outsider at any social encounter and unmoors him from his peers and the larger English society. Even when in school, he is aware, “My father is a banker in Brisbane and I speak with an Australian accent. I will wait and copy Bernard. He is English. They are all English,” (Woolf 10) because of which certain traditional routes of living are shut to him. “I shall envy them their continuance down the safe traditional ways under the shade of old yew trees while I consort with cockneys and clerks, and tap the pavements of the city.” (Woolf 42) With an ancestry which differs vastly from everyone he knows, he can never fully belong to the English society and this contributes to an excruciating sensitivity to the greater narratives of history in his soliloquies. “I have seen women carrying red pitchers to the banks of the Nile,” is Louis’ most reiterated refrain, “Yet I am not included. If I speak, imitating their accent, they prick their ears, waiting for me to speak again, in order that they may place me – if I come from Canada or Australia, I, who desire above all things to be taken to the arms with love, am alien, external.” (Woolf 61)

Divisions between the public and the private, the personal and the political, condition the thematic concerns of The Waves. Liesl Olson, in the essay “Virginia Woolf’s ‘Cotton Wool of Daily Life”, contends that, “The Waves marks Woolf’s on-going struggle with facts. Woolf represents the ordinary as entirely stripped from the external world that facts establish, testing the limits of a material-less world.” (83)

In The Waves, struggles that the characters face and its resolution are concomitant on individual choices which become modes of comprehending the world around. Rhoda’s and Louis’ fantasies of social success may have been actualised in so far as a particular section of a society may be concerned but, ultimately, it is to the self that they have to report and bear witness. “As I bend my head down over the basin, I will let the Russian Empress’s veil flow about my shoulders. The diamonds of the Imperial crown blaze on my forehead,” says Rhoda, but quickly realises that, “This is a thin dream. This is a papery tree.” (Woolf 35) Similarly with Louis, an indicator of a constant, unquenched craving for acceptance is his unswerving ambition directed toward establishing a socially putative, respectable identity. But his success only aids in further dissembling the public and redirecting attention to the private. Louis meditates,

“The maps of our undertakings confront us on the wall. We have laced the world together with our ships. The globe is strung with our lines. I am immensely respectable. All the young ladies in the office acknowledge my entrance. I can dine where I like now, and without vanity may suppose that I shall soon acquire a house in Surrey, two cars and a conservatory and some rare species of melon. But I still return, I still come back to my attic, hang up my hat and resume in solitude that curious attempt which I have made since I brought down my master’s grained oak door. I open a little book. I read one poem. One poem is enough.” (Woolf 132-3)

Woolf’s grand project for The Waves was to achieve a stream-of-consciousness narrative that, by interweaving the lives of six characters, would bring forth a possibility of representing, “the life of anybody”, but, as Olson observes, “she could only replicate the upper-class voices of the working classes.” (Olson 79) Negotiations of gender, patriarchal norms, and chronicles of imperialism – although signified only peripherally in the character of Percival who dies on a colonial quest in India – underlie the normative everyday of Woolf’s writing. But Woolf’s primary focus is precisely this negotiation, how the private, the everyday and the ordinary get conflated in response to an ever-alternating sphere of the public, how the ordinary ultimately triumphs.

Lefebvre’s theory of the everyday, in which the “quotidian is what is humble and solid” is useful in understanding Woolf. As Olson suggests, “The limitlessness of Lefebvre’s everyday becomes its most compelling quality, largely because it locates potentially subversive and political power within almost all facets of human experience.” (Introduction 12)

While, in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf introduces elements of the political in clearly distinguishable terms, embodied in the characters – for instance, Mrs Dalloway herself, who makes a choice to attune herself to a life dedicated to the prosaic private realm (by marrying Richard) and Doris Kilman, a blatantly public political figure – in The Waves, such oppositions are less distinctly visible. On the contrary, one can argue that Woolf, by creating an almost seamless consciousness out of the interlocking narratives of Rhoda, Jinny, Neville, Louis, Susan and Bernard – through extreme literary experiment – augments the stance that perhaps such distinctions are irrelevant. For Woolf, the political does not intercept the private individual by making a separate, public claim on him or her, but forms part of the quotidian. The self, inextricably connected to the world around, has to initiate change within the private realm and transmit that change exponentially to the social matrix to which it is connected – for the political, after all, is also an essentially private act.

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.

Winterson, Jeanette. “A Veil of Words”. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York: Vintage

Books, 1997. Print.

Olson, Liesl. Introduction. Modernism and the Ordinary. By Olson. New York: Oxford University Press,

2009. Print.

Olson, Liesl. “Virginia Woolf’s ‘Cotton Wool of Daily Life’”. Modernism and the Ordinary. New York:

Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Lukács, Georg. “Realism in the Balance.” Lukács against Bloch. 28-59. Print.


This piece was an assignment for a literature class (Modernism). April 2012.