The Challenge of Description in Woolf’s ‘The Waves’ and Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.
The great aim is accurate, precise and definite description. The first thing is to recognise how extraordinarily difficult this is.’ (T.E. Hulme).
In the works The Waves (1931) and Ulysses (first published in 1922), Woolf and Joyce both use the freedom of form in the Modernist movement to attempt ‘accurate, precise and definite description’ of their characters’ thought processes. The differences between the authors, however, shape how they approach the struggle of empathetically capturing their character’s processes of thought, and how their characters themselves regard the possibility of truly understanding each other’s perspectives. Woolf famously rejected Ulysses from the Hogarth Press and called it ‘underbred’, but she also acknowledged that it was ‘an attempt to get thinking into literature’, which she admired; so in her more experimental novels like The Waves and Mrs Dalloway she engaged with the process of capturing thought but structured them with consistent third-person narration to bridge the gap of easy comprehension for the reader. So in The Waves, Woolf alternates between six perspectives through their entire lifetimes but maintains her lyrical observational writing style throughout and makes it clear for the reader who is speaking and what events are occurring; in almost direct opposition, Joyce writes primarily about the journey of his single protagonist over the course of one ordinary day, but in dramatically conflicting writing styles and with different perspectives introduced without explanation. The former allows for nuance between each interpretation of the events but due to the maintained style emphasizes the similarity in the characters’ lives and their descriptions overall, whereas the latter has moments of connection like that of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus, but primarily echoes the busy confusion of the novel’s Dublin itself through the variety of characters and the characters’ perceptions are fundamentally so dissimilar in style that Joyce ultimately emphasizes their inability for perfect communication to a greater extent.
During a conversation about Shakespeare, the character of Stephen Daedalus demonstrates the difficulty of recreating another person’s experience through words alone, by saying: ‘Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.’ Our own perspective always warps our surroundings, emphasizing anything applicable to our life and discarding that which is not, as well as projecting our priorities and identity onto others. While this phrase may initially seem to promote empathy, as even in this diverse list we are ‘always meeting ourselves’ and thus would connect in some way, in reality it portrays the limits of self-description. The vastly diverse lives of this list (exaggerated by the inclusion of ‘ghosts’ and ‘giants’) cannot truly be conveyed because the mind will only reduce their descriptions until it discovers a reflection of itself, as conveyed thematically by Daedalus’ discussion of Hamlet existing as the ghost himself (he cannot fully see something as different as another plane of existence, in Daedalus’ opinion, he is only perceiving a lesser version of himself).
In The Waves, the language-orientated aspiring writer Bernard, to whom Woolf gives the final summary of the novel, seems to recognize how ‘extraordinarily difficult’ true communication is. He agonizes over the wording of a love letter, saying ‘I must give her the impression that though he – for this is not myself – is writing in such a slapdash way, there is some subtle suggestion of intimacy and respect. I must allude to talks we have had together – bring back some remembered scene. But I must seem to her (this is very important) to be passing from thing to thing with the greatest ease in the world… It is the speed, the hot, molten effect, the larval flow of sentence into sequence that I need.’ He never actually writes the letter, as he cannot find the perfect words. The specific difficulty expressed here is that of conveying a natural, unpretentious, even rushed writing style while in reality planning every word carefully; constructing heightened realism (like that of the final chapter ‘Penelope’ in Ulysses) through a fictional persona. Bernard is a fervent believer in the ability to connect through words, but fails on occasions like this to choose them (also exhibited when he stops entertaining with an imagined description of a schoolteacher, saying ‘stories that follow people into their private rooms are difficult. I cannot go on with this story.’) Perfect description is not possible for him, as he realizes at the end metaphorically catching only ‘six little fish’ out of a million, precisely because he is only one perspective.
‘Penelope’, the final chapter of Ulysses, presents the perspective of Leopold Bloom’s wife, Molly. Although her adultery has been the subject of Bloom’s thoughts, this final monologue is the first true example of her voice, and in a novel purposefully guided by thought rather than plot, it is arguably the apotheosis of Joyce’s ‘stream-of-consciousness’ method. The flowing nature of this chapter is aided by the lack of any third person narrator or direct speech from Bloom (although we know he is in bed as well within the narrative); as though to counter the outside perspectives of Bloom and other men (the unconstrained structure also contrasts the strictly binary chapter before, ‘Ithaca’.) She contradicts Bloom’s perspective as the wronged husband through phrases like ‘it’s all his own fault if I am an adulteress’ and ‘living with him so cold never embracing me’, heightening the reality of the overall novel even as Bloom’s narrative is called into question, by admitting that even the protagonist would be unable to see his own flaws. Although Bloom is largely portrayed as an empathetic man, especially towards women as demonstrated by his imagination of the birth in ‘Oxen of the Wind’ (‘kill me that would’) and Molly’s admission in ‘Penelope’ (‘yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is,’) his understanding of his own wife is limited, as hinted at by her mysteriously observing that ‘he thinks nothing can happen without him knowing he hadnt an idea about my mother’. Joyce does not reveal the actual secret to the reader here, instead leaving it an unfinished thought as though to more closely mimic the process of a mind recoiling from an unpleasant or hidden memory.
The prose in this section appears lifelike and unplanned through colloquialisms, and repetitions of phrases or interjections like ‘O’, ‘O Lord’, and ‘yes’. The framing of it as never punctuated and wandering from thought to thought based on connections between words again heightens the reality. Molly’s simple, practical and relatively uneducated character is brought into vivid focus through anti-intellectual statements like her tirade against atheists: ‘as for them saying theres no God I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something’. She also remembers the doctor asking about ‘omissions’ when he probably meant ‘emissions’, and has to stop to break up the spelling of ‘precipitancy’ as ‘he could twist how he liked not acting with precipat precip itancy’: Joyce lets these mistakes remain uncorrected to fully immerse the reader into this character’s inner thoughts. Feminist critics have objected to this male imitation of a female perspective as, unlike the section ‘Nausicaa’ in which Gerty’s thoughts are heavily implied to be the projected fantasies of Bloom, Joyce does truly present this as Molly’s most truthful, uncensored inner life. The preoccupation with men and her desirability has therefore led critics like Mary Ellman to accuse Joyce of ‘feminine stereotypes’. However, as Heather Cook Callow states, this example of a female voice does contradict the male ones at the very end of the book as though in an attempt to question the male consensus opinion through structure, similar to Joyce’s questioning of traditional depictions of inner lives through a structure of conflicting writing styles. The relatively mundane thoughts that occupy her mind, like planning for tomorrow’s chores and remembering the events of the day, are expressed in such a way that she is the most intuitively described perspective in the novel, and her memory of their proposal ends the novel with one of its most-quoted phrases: ‘and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’ Molly may embody some stereotypes but her perspective leads to the most vivid description of the entire text.
The form that Woolf uses in The Waves presents a more precise description of how people realistically perceive events by presenting a multi-faceted perspective. This is compared by Bernard in the final summary to a ‘symphony’, as the individual voices complete nuances that a single perspective cannot fulfill and create ‘the effect of the whole’ (this is perhaps the most significant metaphor in the novel: as Clements remarks, Woolf uses music in some of her most resonant moments, like the singing old woman in Mrs Dalloway or the musical waifs inhabiting the house in To the Lighthouse.) The similarity between the speakers’ voices, and what they notice, means that one character in a monologue may recreate the experience of another. Rhoda’s despair about figures when they are younger, for example, is expressed in this lament: ‘Look, the loop of the figure is beginning to fill with time; it holds the world in it. I begin to draw a figure and the world is looped in it, and I myself am outside the loop; which I now join – so – and seal up, and make entire. The world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying ‘Oh save me, from being blown forever outside the loop of time!’
There are clear similarities within Louis’ reconstruction of her within the scene: ‘Her shoulderblades meet across her back like the wings of a small butterfly. And as she stares at the chalk figures, her mind lodges in those white circles; it steps through those white loops into emptiness, alone.’ Although this passage begins with the clear reminder that he is sat behind her, apart and without even a view of her face, to remind the reader that this writing is now from a shifted perspective, Louis is so sensitive to her state of mind that the description of their thoughts use the same imagery. Richardson argues that instances of this are numerous within the novel, and that they demonstrate that Woolf is ‘creating a fictive world within a fictive world.’ The reader is listening to a character describing another character’s emotions in passages such as this, and so the self-consciousness of description within the novel is heightened. There is an inherent irony to the image too of course, as Louis is describing how lonely she is while experiencing so close a connection that his description is perfect, although within the narrative he does not know it.
The contrast between the two novels’ attempts at perfect description of thought lies in their respective ambitions: the sheer breadth of Joyce’s different abstract styles all describing the same day, as opposed to Wilde’s single voice refracted by six perspectives over the course of their lifetimes. Joyce explores empathy more realistically by capturing many different characters and trying to describe their thought processes through different writing styles, ending with what Woolf’s Brendan had been trying to capture: a thoroughly planned monologue with the illusion of spontaneity and realism. Woolf’s characters see the difficulty in capturing experiences in words, but the author herself captures the experience of perception through the innovation of six similar lives with subtly different perspectives, expressed in the same writing voice.
Joyce’s method of describing individual thought emphasizes the difference between people through radically different writing styles, as seen in the difference between the strictly formatted ‘question and answer’ penultimate chapter, ‘Ithaca’, and the closing unstructured monologue from Molly. The perspective of the men leaves little room for vagueness or unanswered mysteries while ‘Penelope’ is restless and never-ending, always connecting to another thought or memory before finishing the sentence. The description of thought here captures it through sheer scope and variety, while making clear that description within the narrative cannot lead to a perfect connection through words by portraying fundamentally different perceptions. Woolf’s characters, however, despite having separate leitmotifs and preoccupations, are ultimately as connected as six aspects of the same personality, expressing a single perception of the world in some of Modernism’s most complex description.
1. Ulysses, James Joyce, ed. Jeri Johnson, Oxford University Press (2011)
2. The Waves, Virginia Woolf, Cambridge University Press (2011)
3. ‘Modern Novels (Joyce),’ Woolf’s Reading Notes on Ulysses in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, transcribed by Suzette Henke, in Bonnie Scott Kime Scott, ed.
The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1990) 642- 45
4.‘Joyce’s Female Voices in Ulysses’, Heather Cook Callow, ‘The Journal of Narrative Technique’, Vol.22, No.3 (1992) pp.151-163
5. ‘Transforming Musical Sounds into Words: Narrative Method in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”’, Elicia Clements, ‘Narrative’, Vol.13, No.2 (2005) pp.160-181
6. ‘Point of View in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves’, Robert O. Richardson, ‘Texas Studies in Literature and Language’, Vol.14, No.4 (1973) pp.691-709
The Waves and the Self
‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousnesses’
Above is an extract taken from Virginia Woolf’s influential essay ‘Modern Fiction’, in which she argues for a new way of presenting experience and reality in the novel. Simultaneously a defence of her unique style, the essay works to develop a theory of realism, and establishes the relationship between art and the real world in the new conditions of the 1920s. Woolf, as one of the most prominent figures in literary modernism, created works which became renowned for their distinctive narrative method, particularly characterised by her use of the stream-of-consciousness mode. The Waves, published in 1931, arguably Woolf’s most poetical work, particularly adopts this device. Described by Woolf as a ‘playpoem’, throughout the work the sense of genre seems almost to dissolve, and the border between prose and poetry to blur. It is this fluidity of language which enables Woolf to present and detail ‘the self’ in such an extraordinary way, as the present thoughts of consciousness are captured and evocatively conveyed.
The novel centres around the streams-of-consciousness of six different characters: Bernard, Louis, Neville, Jinny, Rhoda and Susan. Woolf follows these six narrative foci from their shared childhood, to middle ages, across nine episodes or sections. There is however a seventh character, Percival, spoken of by the other characters, though himself not possessing a voice. Although the lives of the characters are distinct, at instances throughout the novel they seem to synchronise; their minds, or individual voices appear to blur together, conveying a united voice, a group identity.
During the composition of the novel, Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘The Waves I think is resolving itself… into a series of dramatic soliloquies. The thing is to keep them running homogenously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves.’ Each voice can be seen as the interior monologue of the character, which Woolf attempts to weave into the ‘rhythm’ of the novel, characterised by the nine interludes framing each section. As Woolf famously wrote, ‘I am writing to a rhythm, not to a plot’. It is this lesser focus on the plot, which allows for a more effective and natural flow of the character’s voices, and consequently, a more vivid and impressionistic portrayal of their identities. Certainly, Woolf’s fluid style aids to convey the blurring, mutable boundaries of the self: a critique against the conventional, solidified confinements of a character’s identity, seen in traditional literature. However, despite this fluidity, the poetical ‘rhythmic’ aspect seems to convey human experience and identity as being a part of a pattern; there is an undertone of permanence, suggesting that the interior monologues are representative of the universal rhythm of being. Certain shared images and emotions voiced by the soliloquies seem to further indicate a unity and patterning to human selfhood or existence.
These inner monologues, expressions of the self, begin in a somewhat mystical garden overlooking the sea, as described in the interludes between each section of the text. We are first introduced to the various characters when they are young children, and are immersed in their inner thoughts of the world around them:
‘”All my ships are white,” said Rhoda. “I do not want red petals of hollyhocks of geranium. I want white petals that float when I tip the basin up. I have a fleet now swimming from shore to shore. I will drop a twig in as a raft for a drowning soldier. (…) And I will now rock the brown basin from side to side so that my ships may ride the waves. Some will founder. Some will dash themselves against the cliffs. One sails alone. That is my ship.”’
The reader witnesses the development of each character’s identity, in relation to themselves and others, as they begin to experience the world and form their individual perceptions. A fragment of Rhoda’s inner monologue can be read above, as she sits dreamily floating petals in a basin. Here, although seemingly involved in her imagination just as the other children are, glimpses of her individual identity can be seen. As the characters grow older throughout the novel, their voices become more distinct, and Woolf develops their impressions of the world. Gradually, their individual temperaments and ambitions are revealed. As a child, Rhoda can be seen as envisaging her own private ocean- forming her world out of metaphors, in an attempt to escape the external world of judgment, which she so fears. This element of her identity continues on, and develops as time passes in the novel. As a teenager, Rhoda seems to become frequently alienated from the other characters, and Woolf focuses on her essential confusion, or loss of identity, as she states ‘I have no face’. This can be further seen as Rhoda recounts her dissociation from her self and her inner consciousness, during her time at school: ‘I came to the puddle. I could not cross it. Identity failed me. We are nothing, I said, and fell. I was blown like a feather. I was wafted down tunnels.’ Often feeling entrapped by her own mind and body, Rhoda attempts to move beyond it, resulting in this diffusion, or loss of a clear personal identity. It could be said that Rhoda is characterised by her particularly fragile sense of self, significantly more so than the other characters. This isolation of Rhoda, her detachment from others and her self, confirms her to be the ship that ‘sails alone’, an element of her character associated with her from childhood.
Rhoda’s statement, ‘I have no face’ is to become a recurring motif throughout the novel, acting as a signpost for her distinctive habits of mind. Likewise, the other characters develop repeating terms that are expressed as ‘leitmotifs’, which both convey the presentation of the character’s identities, and contribute to the rhythm of Woolf’s work. For example, Bernard’s ‘Tuesday follows Monday’, Louis’s ‘My father is a banker in Brisbane’, and images of leaves or growing vegetation, which often accompany the voice of Susan. These motifs aid in differentiating the particular selfhood’s of the characters, and symbolically capture aspects of their identity. During the writing of the novel, Woolf recorded this in her diary: ‘What I now think (about The Waves) is that I can give in very few strokes the essentials of a person’s character. It should be done boldly, almost as caricature’. This experimentation with caricature once again undertones the text with a stability- despite the flowing impressions, memories and sensory perceptions of the individual voices, the leitmotifs provide an essential sense of permanence and pattern.
From childhood, the character Bernard is associated with the motif of, ‘making phrases’. He develops an obsession with language and words, perpetually ‘making notes in the margin of (his) mind for some final statement’. Essentially, his voice becomes that of the novelist, with his deep desire to convey life and reality through perfect phrasing. As the novel progresses, the reader can see that Bernard possesses the most fluid of identities- it is through Bernard’s voice, that Woolf conveys the symphonic sense of self. Bernard requires the influence of other people, their impressions and perceptions, to compose his own identity; he sees himself as a collective being, yet for this reason is unable to define himself in any way: ‘To be myself (I note) I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is myself.’ He views the self as something with permeable boundaries- something which is composed of the flow of consciousness of those around one, not just singularly the individual perception. In the final section of the novel, the structure shifts, and is replaced by the single soliloquy of Bernard. Here, the unity of the six voices is reconciled, as Bernard states:
‘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’
He sees that identities and personalities are multiple, and that, following the rhythmic pattern of life, we are all following a universal passage of time to the same end. Woolf’s aim is captured in Bernard’s final speech: to convey the fluidity of identity and to deconstruct the immovable boundaries of self, as seen in conventional character. The six mutable, flowing identities seem to make up a singular, complex self, as Woolf wrote: ‘I did mean that in some way we are the same person, and not separate people. The six characters were supposed to be one.’ Bernard, in his attempts to somewhat biographically describe the identities of his friends, comes to this conclusion of their unity. The self, in Woolf’s rhythmical novel, is symphonic.
The characterising idea of the transient boundaries of the self in The Waves, captures Woolf’s thoughts of consciousness as a whole. Human experience is not something solid and concrete, which simply follows a linear passage through time; it is amorphous, fluid and deeply influenced by the impressions of all things and people surrounding us. Bernard, more so than any of the other characters, recognises that the nature of reality is mutability, which he calls, ‘our eternal flux’. Woolf attempts to immerse the reader, more realistically than ever before in fiction, in the flowing, present thoughts, sensory perceptions, and sometimes formless impressions of the inner mind. At times, external reality is indistinguishable from the internal perceptions of the characters, but this nebulous aspect of consciousness was undoubtedly intended by Woolf. ‘The Waves’ offers the reader an enthrallingly realistic presentation of the self, consistent with Woolf’s belief that: ‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’
Modern Voices: Challenges to the Linear Narrative in ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’
For the modernists, the linear narrative was something of a constraint on the writer’s ability to express their ideas and perceptions of the world. To discard the linear narrative, therefore, seemed the most logical solution to this problem. As Virginia Woolf writes in her 1925 essay ‘Modern Fiction’:
‘[The modernists] attempt to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them, even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions which are commonly observed by the novelist.’
In her novel The Waves, Woolf follows her own advice, abandoning linear narrative and the traditional use of authorial voice so as to provide a distinct and wholly unique vision of life. This discarding of linear narrative is something also done by the poet Wallace Stevens, who, in his poems ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ and ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, presents a form defined by multiple perspectives and dissonance.
In The Waves Virginia Woolf utilizes the musical device of polyphony so as to disrupt linear narrative and provide a form of language that accurately portrays her interpretation of human consciousness and experience of the physical world. Polyphony, which is the layering of separate and independent melodies in music, arises at various points in the book to provide numerous experiences of the same moment in time. The novel’s form is intrinsically linked to polyphony, Woolf structuring the novel to be constructed of groups of soliloqieys from its six central characters: Bernard, Louis, Neville, Rhoda, Jinny and Susan, these sections separated by interludes in which a seaside setting is described in extensive detail. By placing numerous soliloquies in sequence with one another Woolf provides a multifaceted view of the world, presenting the reader with multiple perspectives of single events instantaneously.
One example of polyphonic soliloquies is in the first section describing the lives of the main characters as children. Louis has hidden in a hedge and through a slit in the branches observes the rest of group as they play in a garden. He then says ‘Now something pink passes the eyehole […] She has found me. I am struck on the nape of the neck. She has kissed me.’ This is paired with Jinny saying ‘What moved the leaves? […] I dashed in here, seeing you green as a bush, like a branch, very still, Louis, […] I thought, and kissed you’. At the same instance of time Susan also says ‘Through the chink in the hedge […] I saw her kiss him.’ Within a linear narrative framework this series of events would be recounted in chronological and order solely in the past tense. Through a polyphonic collage and thus fractured non-linear narrative, however, Woolf lends the scene a sense of immediacy through the use of both past and present tense. By discarding linear narrative Woolf presents a more realistic representation of individual time, not a single line with a series of events placed upon it, but rather multiple timelines criss-crossing mutual points of experience. Woolf’s version of the modernist novel thus overtly rejects the narrative conventions of realism. As Jane Wheare notes, in ‘The Waves, largely through the novelty of her method, Woolf draws attention to the process of narration which one normally takes for granted in reading a “realist” novel.’
The layering of voices so as to disrupt linear narrative and thus reinvent the role of voice is something that it also important when considering Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. In the poem the narrator presents to the reader his observations as he watches a woman sing by the ocean, the sound of her voice and the sound of the sea coming together to such a degree that the narrator finds it difficult to distinguish the two apart. In the poems first stanza Stevens makes note of three distinct sounds: the voice of the singer, the sound made by the flow of water and the sound caused by this flow interacting with its environment. Stevens writes that the sound of the ocean was a ‘mimic motion’ as it ‘Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry’. [Line 5] The use of constant and the adverb constantly creates a sense that the ocean noise is something of a control variable when perceiving the scene. While the singer ‘sang beyond the genius of the sea’, [Line 1] the sea has been continually making noise. This places the singer’s voice atop the noise of the sea, like the fifth in a triadic chord. A triadic chord consists of three notes, and thus the two remaining sounds of the sea are left to complete it. As it can be assumed that something has to be made before it can cause something else in a chain reaction, the sound of the flow of water should become the chord’s root, while the sound caused by this flow becomes the third.
It should not be read, however, that Stevens merges the sounds into one. In the same way that Woolf makes distinction between the voices of Louis, Jinny and Susan, Stevens shows the reader that the three sounds are still separate and individual, merely brought together by the sensory experience of the narrator. Stevens writes:
‘The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.’ [Lines 8-10]
By not being ‘medleyed’ the song and the dual noises that the water produces remain individual, linked only by the imagination of both the narrator and the singer, the singer only being inspired by the sea as it ‘was what she heard’. Her song is a distinct and wholly separate sound as Stevens writers her song is projected through language ‘word by word’, while the noise of the sea is merely ‘The grinding of water and the gasping of the sea’, [Stevens, Line 13] ‘The heaving speech of air’. [Line 26] A triadic chord, though coming together to produce a single melody, is made of three wholly separate notes and this poem, the inspiration of which could be seen as a melody, recalls three distinct sounds. Stevens thus rejects a linear framework to observe that what we experience through our senses is not necessarily what is happening in reality. It could be argued that Stevens capitalizes upon musical devices to disrupt linear narrative in ‘The Idea of Order…’, using musical theory to present a particular view of reality. Anca Rosu argues that you could read ‘Stevens as a “musical” poet […] by following the development of musical themes in his poetry’. Stevens layers voice over sound, anthropomorphizing the water and creating a three tonal narrative, following suite with Woolf and rejecting linear narrative.
It is notable, however, that there is a level of difficulty in separating individual voices in both The Waves and ‘The Idea of Order…’, at times it seems more convincing that both Woolf and Stevens are presenting a single voice rather than multiple different ones speaking polyphonically at the same time. If this were true, then some level of linear narrative would be retained by Woolf and Stevens as tropes of realism would become noticeable within their work. It is in The Waves perhaps more so than in the poetry of Stevens that this problem becomes apparent. The soliloquies of the six main characters are written in the same prosaic language and often at times the reader can become disorientated, forgetting by whom the soliloquy is being given. There are also points where the novel itself becomes conscious of this problem. In the final soliloquy of the novel Bernard says ‘And now I ask, “Who am I?” I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know.’ [pg. 222] This quotation brings into the question the validity of the novels narration. Has the novel simply been of one consciousness fractured into six voices each with its specific position and perspective: Jinny and elation, Neville and beauty, Rhoda and gloom for example, and thus some form of barely linear interior monologue. Are we, as Bernard asks, all of them? Or is the novel’s narrative what we have been lead to assume, six different characters leading six autonomous lives.
I would argue that the novel follows the latter form of narrative. As the style of prose does not change throughout the novel, remaining the same in all the soliloquies as well as the interludes in which the seascape is depicted, the reader has to rely on specific symbols and cues that Woolf provides them to recognize the voice of each character. The most obvious of these signs and symbols are the introductions to the soliloquies, each one beginning with a two word phrasing stating which character is speaking, ‘—said’. In the first group of soliloquies this makes the text easy to read and assign names to speech, but only due to the short length of the soliloquies:
‘“I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”
“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”’ [pg. 5]
Later on in the novel, however, when the soliloquies may run for several pages the reader can forget who is speaking and it is here that tropes specific to each character become important. Bernard, for example, can be recognized due to his obsession with language and the search for the perfect phrase, Louis often repeats versions of the phrase ‘My father is a banker in Brisbane and I speak with an Australian accent’, [pg. 13] and Rhoda is characterized by a feeling of unidentifiable unhappiness and lack of importance, her signature tone following that of ‘here I am nobody. I have no face.’ [pg. 23] Lorraine Sim writes that ‘it is only in rare moments that the separate characters or points of view represented […] share a common experience or understanding of the world.’ By connecting characters to the narrative not through the reader necessarily following plot but rather by recognizing signs and signifiers, Woolf places a great importance upon the role of voice. Woolf presents a world where meaning is derived not by experience but by symbols of the individual’s character. The reader must truly know the voices of the six characters to follow the fractured plot of the novel and thus Woolf places character development, signs and symbols as more important than plot. Linear narrative is once again rejected for a form of narrative that allows Woolf to place greater emphasis on signs and symbols as key components of reality.
The notion of symbols taking more significance than plot derived from a linear narrative structure is something that is important when reading Stevens’s poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. This poem abandons linear narrative altogether, the poem consisting of thirteen totally separate stanzas only connected by the focus on the blackbird. Unlike in ‘The Idea of Order…’, Stevens presents no train of thought, no argument, no setting or plot. The poem could be read as a poetic exorcise or experiment and perhaps an active investigation into ideas of form, structure and language. Thirteen different perspectives are given, suggesting that a single outlook on existence would be counterproductive while living life, Lee Margaret Jenkins writing that the poem ‘attests to the redundancy of any single “way of looking.”’ It could be argued, furthermore, that ‘Thirteen Ways…’ is a poem totally made of symbols as no meaning or plot can be easily if at all taken away.
The central symbol is of course the blackbird which is the only thing to appear in all thirteen stanzas of the poem. What the blackbird symbolizes however changes from stanza to stanza. For example, in Stanza II: ‘The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime’, the blackbird comes to symbolize the cyclical nature of the seasons, while in Stanza VI the blackbird symbolizes humanities fear of the unknown and misunderstood. Other symbols arise, such as a focus on the seasons: autumn in Stanza II, winter in Stanzas I and VI and spring in Stanza XII, ‘The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying.’ [Lines 48-49] Shadows are repeatedly mentioned as symbols of a phenomenological perspective of life’s experiences, while phenomenology is once again mentioned in Stanza IX when considering our immediate environment:
‘When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.’ [Lines 35-37]
Once again it appears that Stevens and Woolf follow a similar stylistic dictum; in literature multiple perspectives consisting of symbols are what define our existence rather than a linear narrative where meaning is largely derived from a single plot.
Both Woolf, in The Waves, and Stevens, in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ and ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, have clearly rejected all notions of linear narrative. In The Waves Woolf provides the reader with a form of novel with clearly abandons linear narrative, instead using polyphonic collages of voice to present a more realistic interpretation of time and replacing plot with a reliance on symbolic language. Stevens similarly layers voices, taking a far more directly musical approach than Woolf but follows suite when opting for symbolism over plot. By taking similar approaches to the narrative structures of their works, both Woolf and Stevens are able to show the limits of the linear narrative framework. For them both, linear narrative seems to have been abandoned due to its inability to accurately represent their nuanced and highly specific interpretations of human existence. The human experience is far too complex and variety of our experiences is too great to be accurately represented in a simple linear narrative. Both Woolf and Wallace have thus found forms and structures of literature that suite their needs and fit their vision: ruptured, complex and full of ambiguity.
Jenkins, Lee M., Wallace Stevens: Rage of Order, [Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2000]
Rosu, Anca, The Metaphysics of Sound in Wallace Stevens, [Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995]
Sim, Lorraine, Virgina Woolf: The Patterns of Ordinary Experience, [Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2010]
Stevens, Wallace, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. by Lawrence Rainey [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005]
Stevens, Wallace, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45236/thirteen-ways-of-looking-at-a-blackbird, [accessed 17/12/14]
Wheare, Jane, Virginia Woolf: Dramatic Novelist, [London: The Macmillan Press, 1989]
Woolf, Virginia, ‘Modern Fiction’, in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. by Lawrence Rainey [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005]
Woolf, Virginia, The Waves, [London: Penguin Classics. 2011]
Societal Standards and the Impact of the Individual in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves
Virginia Woolf, one of the most innovative and important writers of her time, emphasizes modernist ideals and the importance of the individual in her work. In Virginia Woolf’s novels To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Woolf argues the idea that gender roles can be oppressive, often confining men to be tough and nearly emotionless while typecasting women as hysterics, expected to cater to men’s egos. Additionally, Woolf comments on the temporary nature of life, its frailty, and the idea that one may romanticize objects, events, or people in his or her past in order to give extraordinary meaning to his or her existence.
Much of both To the Lighthouse and The Waves comment on the societal expectations of men and women, specifically that society expects men to be consistently stolid while the expectations for women suggest that their emotions guide them, often causing them to make hasty or otherwise hysterical decisions; Woolf also comments on how society also places women in a position where their only true responsibility is to cater to men. In The Waves, Woolf depicts the headmaster of the boarding school that Neville, Luis, and Bernard attend as a stolid, harsh man. When he mounts the pulpit to preach from the Bible, he does so with a severity and seriousness that Louis appreciates; Louis’s “heart expands in his bulk, in his authority…There [was] no crudity [there]. No sudden kisses”, exemplifying a man’s inherent desire to be stern rather than gentle (Woolf 35). Luis prefers the authority of Dr. Crane and his crucifix to the crassness of the emotions attached to a sudden kiss, though emotions are generally more tender than they are crude while authority is often more crude than it is comforting. However, the authority appeals to Luis because he is attempting to suppress the more vulnerable emotions that the unexpected kiss brought upon him as he sees vulnerability as feminine and weak while the authority Dr. Crane exudes is masculine and powerful. In contrast, also in The Waves, Woolf notes that it is possible to be powerful and feminine, as Mrs. Lambert causes everything to become “luminous” and “wherever [Mrs. Lambert] goes, everything changes under her eyes”, highlighting the idea that power does not always have to be dark and intense to be effective (45). Mrs. Lambert is a strong, authoritative figure, but she does not come across as intimidating or otherwise domineering, exhibiting that it is possible to be feminine and powerful. When Mrs. Lambert walks past, she causes the women to stand a little straighter, exemplifying her effect on women and their perception of themselves; Standing taller coincides with one’s confidence, and the more confident one is, the more powerful he or she becomes. Mrs. Lambert essentially has the female students embrace their power all while being a source of light, rather than an aggressive force. Mrs. Lambert’s power exemplifies the idea that women can adapt to their gender role and bend the role so that it suits them in a way that can make them powerful rather than weak. This idea counters the notion presented in Chloe Taylor’s “Kristevan Themes in Virgina Woolf’s Novels”, which states that women are locked into gender roles that will ultimately lead to depression and resentment; Mrs. Lambert owns her feminine power in a way that makes her strong, not resentful (Taylor 6). However, in To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe breaks away from her gender role completely when she does not cater to Mr. Ramsay’s shattered ego after his collected demeanor fades, as she says that she is “not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid”, illuminating the notion that a woman is essentially useless if she does not cater to men (Woolf 151). However, Woolf challenges this idea by making Briscoe a creative, strong figure herself. Although she does not come about her power through force, her creativity and her certainty in herself makes her strong, exemplifying the idea that a woman can be powerful, all while remaining true to who she is.
Additionally, the power that each of Woolf’s characters possesses manifests through his or her personality, although the power each character has is diverse, especially between the two genders. In The Waves, Woolf describes Percival as intense, giving him his power. Luis notes that Percival has a remarkable command over others when he notices that he and his friends are “trooping after him, his faithful servants, to be shot like sheep, for he will certainly attempt some forlorn enterprise and die in battle. My heart turns rough; it abrades my side like a file with two edges: one, that I adore his magnificence; the other I despise his slovenly accents…and am jealous” (Woolf 37). Percival’s power is intense; though he does have weak points, these weaknesses do not overshadow his severity. Other characters are drawn to him because he has such a strong presence, but his strength sets a boundary between him and the others. While his intensity earns him respect, it also brings forth the other characters’ sense of inferiority, essentially placing Percival on a pedestal, but isolating him from his friends. Where Percival’s duty as an authoritative figure is to protect his friends in The Waves, Mrs. Ramsay feels that her duty is to protect men in To the Lighthouse, as she felt that:
she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones!
This quote exemplifies the mindset that it is a woman’s duty to take care of men as she views them as the leaders of the world; she also feels that they need protection by experiencing how they view and treat women (Woolf 11). Mrs. Ramsay caters to her husband’s every whim because she believes that she must do so as his wife and, in turn, Mr. Ramsay makes her feel like he needs her. Mrs. Ramsay embodies the idea that one can bring power from his or her gender role, even if it is a role that may be constraining. In Kristina Groover’s essay, “Body and Soul: Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”, Groover addresses the idea that Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty is a source of comfort for Mr. Ramsay, as well as an asset that Mrs. Ramsay can derive power from (3). Because Mrs. Ramsay is so beautiful and is essentially the “perfect” housewife, Mr. Ramsay gains a source of stability, which not only gives him a certain sense of vulnerability because it proves that he needs someone to lean on and confide in, but also gives Mrs. Ramsay power. However, Mrs. Ramsay’s comforting presence presents itself as a source of conflict for Mr. Ramsay. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s children want to go to the lighthouse, although it seems rather impossible to Mr. Ramsay to get there, and in Mrs. Ramsay’s attempt to console her children, Mr. Ramsay experiences a bout of intense anger and pessimism: “she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. ‘Damn you,’ he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might” (Woolf 31). Mr. Ramsay undergoes severe episodes of anger and depression throughout the novel and often states that his wife’s optimism is essentially just wishful thinking, based on nothing, providing false hope, and setting the children up for utter disappointment. Even though Mr. Ramsay finds comfort when Mrs. Ramsay reassures him of his masculinity, he views her attempts at optimism for the sake of the children to be foolish. He believes that she has her head in the clouds, while he is the only one who can maintain reality. Mr. Ramsay’s battle with himself and his outward denial of his wife’s attempts at owning her power to make life more bearable for herself and her children exemplify the idea that men may desire to be dominant, even if their dominance is bred out of pessimism, because they may feel that women act solely based on emotion rather than on reality.
Moreover, one’s power does is not the only determining factor in one’s importance as his or her effect on another individual provides an incredible sense of humanity. In To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe views herself as more of an independent, free young woman, who is not bound to a man. She rejected “the reverence which covered all women” and “felt herself praised”, exemplifying that while she does not fit the typical, submissive gender role that seeks validation from men, she still validates her state of being by choosing a path for her life, rather than defining her life based on a man (Woolf 35). Her independence affects her relationship with Mrs. Ramsay because, even though Mrs. Ramsay is content with her life, Lily Briscoe embodies the free spirit that resides within Mrs. Ramsay which never had the chance to break free. Briscoe essentially epitomizes the idea that one’s relationship to another person is dependent on how one views and carries him or herself; Mrs. Ramsay resents her at times because she is entirely her own person, while William Bankes reveres her for that. Additionally, in The Waves, Louis foreshadows that each character’s story will eventually become one, as every person’s story intertwines with the stories of those with whom he or she has ever interacted: “The time approaches when these soliloquies shall be shared. We shall not always give out a sound like a beaten gong as one sensation strikes and then another. Children, our lives have been gongs striking; clamour and boasting; cries of despair; blows on the nape of the neck in gardens” (Woolf 43). Through Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing, she weaves the six characters’ influences and thoughts are interwoven into each character’s story. The characters’ relationships with one another prove that each person has a profound impact on another person’s life—that even their little idiosyncrasies leave an imprint on each person. What makes each of the characters who he or she is also influences the way the other characters develop. For example, they all admire Percival’s severity but no one wants to be as heavy-hearted as he is. The essay “Virginia Woolf” comments on the idea that all of Woolf’s characters glorify the people in their lives, leaving Percival’s death to haunt the characters in The Waves (10). When Percival dies at war, the characters reunite and speak about their past, placing a heavy emphasis that each of them had on one another, though that may not be true. The reader can infer that the characters are placing extraordinary meaning on one another’s influence because they are grieving over Percival’s death and that they never got the chance to thank him for his influence on their lives. Furthermore, Bernard recognizes that his friends are the ones who can “retrieve [him] from [his] darkness”, proving that each of the characters had a certain duty to understand his or her friends—that they had the ability to rescue one another from oneself (Woolf 120). Bernard’s introverted personality ostracizes him from his friends, although they were always able to reach him to an extent. While Bernard was always a private, somewhat secluded person, his relationship with his friends helps him tell his stories and combine each of their lives into one intricate, compelling story. His connection to his friends exemplifies the idea that one’s friends often pave the way to a lifetime at peace with oneself.
Further, the relationship that one has with another person can affect how he or she views him or herself. In Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay is a man of superb intellect, and yet he views himself so lowly, causing his self worth to “depend…upon other people’s praise”, exemplifying that Mr. Ramsay, as intelligent and masculine as he is supposed to be, needs constant reassurance (Woolf 22). Throughout the novel, Woolf depicts Mr. Ramsay as somewhat delicate. While he can maintain his household, he is falling apart inside and constantly looks to Mrs. Ramsay to lift his spirits, even though he does view the female mind as inferior. His view on a woman’s way of thinking interferes with his own mental state, as he views vulnerability as weak, though he is probably the most emotionally unstable and vulnerable character in the entire novel, thus proving that a man might prefer to reject his emotions to prove his dominance, even at the cost of his own sanity. Additionally, in The Waves, Woolf addresses the idea that one’s perception of oneself is a result of who he or she surrounds himself with. While Bernard reflects upon his friends’ lives, he notes that they are “a many-sided substance cut out of this dark; a many-faceted flower. Let us stop for a moment; let us behold what we have made. Let it blaze against the yew trees. One life. There. It is over. Gone out”, illuminating the idea that he and his friends may have gone down different paths in their own lives, but that in the end, they have ultimately lived one life (Woolf 85). He and his friends are one in the same. Even when Percival dies and Rhoda kills herself, it is as though they have all lost a part of themselves as well. The characters define themselves based on how the others see them. Even so, Bernard notes that they “were all different. The wax—the virginal wax that coats the spine melted in different patches for each of us”, highlighting that the narrators have seen things that have made them into who they are (Woolf Waves 102). Certain aspects of life that made each of the characters uncomfortable or upset—cruelty, secrecy, order, and love—and as they developed on their own, some of these things made them “suffer terribly as [they] all became separate bodies” (Woolf 102). They have had terrible experiences on their own, shaping them into the people they became, but their identity comes with a price—turmoil. Woolf’s novels focus heavily on what makes a person who he or she is because through struggle; Woolf’s characters also prove that it is possible to emerge from traumatic experiences stronger, even though it may leave a scar.
Even though an individual may have a profound impact on someone else, Woolf’s novels also demonstrate that life is ultimately frail and everything, essentially, is temporary; therefore, the characters in Woolf’s novels place a heavy emphasis on their surroundings to add extraordinary meaning to something that should not mean much at all. The essay “Virginia Woolf” states that Woolf’s emphasis on the childhoods of Mrs. Ramsay’s children heightens the idea that innocence quickly fades as time passes (11). Because of the temporariness of youth, Mrs. Ramsay looks at her children and states that “she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters” because she does not wish to see the effect that time and struggle will have on her children (Woolf Lighthouse 101). While Mrs. Ramsay’s children might have been loud and rambunctious, she would have rather had them stay frozen in a phase of life where nothing corrupting could touch them; where they were essentially immune to all the evil in the world. However, she knows that keeping them safe from the reality of the horror that exists in the world is impossible and that they will inevitably grow up and become just as corrupt as their surroundings are. Also, in To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay notes that her incredible evening is already in the past as she walks out of the kitchen: “It was necessary now to carry everything a step further. With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past” (Woolf 50). The night had consisted of a delicious meal, and she had felt like the perfect housewife for putting such a wonderful dinner together, but at the end of the meal, she realizes that it was only going to last for a brief second. Once the meal was over, her “perfect” evening was in the past, and nothing, she knows, will feel as wonderful as that perfect night did. Additionally, in The Waves, Bernard notes that he and his friends are only “shells, bones, and silence”, illuminating that each person is the same after death (Woolf 55). What one goes through does not matter when he or she is six feet under, nor does it matter what made the person unique. Time erases everything one may have attributed to him or herself eventually; Bernard recognizes this temporariness, and it scares him. He knows that he and his friends have woven together this fantastic story that will ultimately mean nothing after they all pass on and he is desperate to share the story while he has the chance. The story is the one chance he and his friends have at immortality as that is essentially what writing does—it documents one’s journey so that others may understand what it was like to be someone else. In Bernard’s case, immortalizing his friends’ stories in writing helps the reader understand what it was like to be a group of six people who have undergone incredible loss.
With the passage of time comes the years of harshness and disappointment that each of the characters undergoes. Neville is afraid to express his “violent passion” out of fear that Bernard will turn it into a story, thus stripping it of its sincerity (Woolf Waves 25). Neville recognizes that some of his feelings are absurdly profound, so much so that putting it into words diminishes its impact. He eventually lets these unexpressed feelings tear him apart inside because expressing such horrible thoughts or experiences would be detrimental to both the listener and to himself. Additionally, Susan notes that she “loves…and hates” intensely, sometimes simultaneously, making life one giant ball of turbulent emotions (Woolf 35). The intensity of the emotions that come and go in Susan’s and the rest of the characters’ lives make them somewhat solitary, even though they ultimately put together a poignant tale of happiness and woe. Each of the characters cowers from intense emotions, although the emotions ultimately make his or her stories intertwine and develop each of his or her understanding, as well as the reader’s understanding, of the surrounding world. Also, in To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe falls in love with Mrs. Ramsay’s way of life, despite the fact that she and Mrs. Ramsay have entirely different mindsets: “’I’m in love with this all,’ …It was absurd, it was impossible” (Woolf 35). Mrs. Ramsay’s life is so simplistic and appealing to Lily because it allows her to be at peace with herself. Lily believes that she is inadequate, but through Mrs. Ramsay’s simplistic life, she realizes that it allows oneself to be at peace with him or herself through self-discovery.
While all the characters are connected through their emotions, ultimately Woolf suggests that people are only ever truly equal in death. Bernard recognizes his detachment from his own individuality when he starts thinking about how death can approach him at any given moment and how he finds it incredible that people “insist on living”, despite everything (Woolf 55). One’s individuality is essentially meaningless in death and Bernard recognizes his own insignificance and he is dumbfounded as to why he continues to live, even if it does not mean he will amount to anything important. As Gillian Beer states in “Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse”, the absence of an important figure in one’s life can lead to one’s contemplation of his or her own life and his or her own insignificance, which Bernard does immediately after Percival dies in The Waves (5). Bernard also states that he is “aware of [his] ephemeral passage”, heightening the idea that he is detached from everyday reality but that he is aware that he is inevitably going to die (Woolf 53). Bernard connects everyday activities to avoiding the reality of death and recognizes that everyone fills his or her days up with meaningless activities in order to distract from the fact that everyone is going to pass away. Bernard is aware of these escapisms and avoids them to prove that he is aware of his own temporariness. When Jinny is watching people pass by, she states “’People are gone so soon; let us catch them’”, recognizing the transience of life (Woolf 103). When Percival dies, a part of each character dies with him. Each character obsesses over death after Percival passes, heightening the impact of the absence of an important figure, especially if one has not expressed everything he or she should have expressed to the person who passed away. Each character recognizes the insignificance of his or her life, which exemplifies the idea that life itself is frail and temporary, and that one’s time here is only as valuable as he or she believes it to be.
Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves comment on the way the world works. From feminist and modernist ideals to the temporariness and frailty of life itself, Woolf captures the essence of being a functioning human in the modern day, with all its beauty and struggles. One’s relationship to others and to himself or herself, as well as the stories he or she lives to tell gives extraordinary meaning to his or her life, even if he or she romanticizes that meaning, because life itself is temporary; how one treats and views his or her life is the only way to ensure meaning to parts of one’s life that mean nothing.
Beer, Gillian. “Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To The Lighthouse.” Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 75-94. Print.
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Groover, Kristina K. “Body and Soul: Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.” Literary Reference Center. EBSCO, n.d. Web.
Taylor, Chloe. “Kristeven Themes in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.” Literary Reference Center. EBSCO, n.d. Web.
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