The Challenge of Description in Woolf’s ‘The Waves’ and Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.

August 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

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

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