The Waves is definitely a very interesting form of novel. I have not read anything like it before and I guess Virginia Woolf was the first one to write this way? It’s a very modernist form, in the vein of Joyce’s stream of consciousness, except this stream of consciousness, extremely poetic, is externalized through dialogue.
But what I found really interesting about the “dialogue” is that even though the characters technically speak, at least that’s what the quotation marks indicate and every time there is an indication of “so and so said”, the characters do not seem to be speaking to each other or anyone in particular. This, in turn, brings me again to the notion of alienation throughout Woolf’s works. And so far, in this particular work, there are quite a few instances that point to this theme.
First is, of course, the form itself. The characters take turns and speak, externalize their thoughts and feelings, describe what is going on around them, but there is no clear recipient. Also, no character really directly responds to what has already been said, no character reacts to it and it seems that the only persons that hear what these characters say are the reader and the speaker himself or herself. This way, Woolf shows us different perspectives on certain events – such as Jinny kissing Louis (we get Louis’ view, as well as that of Jinny, Susan and Bernard, also a bit of Neville’s) – and through this, the alienation of personal, subjective experience of certain things is very clear. It is almost as if Woolf shows us that we are essentially locked into ourselves, separated from others, even though others can look at us and experience us in their own subjective way, which will not always be compatible with the real way we are. And thus, every character gets his or her separate paragraphs, which may, at times, describe the same events or similar things, but are always separate and in no way reference anything that has been said previously. There is no relation between these characters’ experiences. Thus, when the three boys go to school for the first time, Bernard perceives the other two as not scared, while he himself is terrified. However, Louis is scared as well, but chooses to follow Bernard, because he doesn’t look nervous. Here the incompatibility between the self and the way other people see the self is quite clear.
Thus, different characters have different ways of alienation. Louis, for instance, sees himself as separated from everybody else, because he is from Australia. The issue of colonialism separates him from the other English kids. He continuously mentions his Australian accent and attempts to speak like the other kids: “I will not conjugate the verb until Bernard has said it. 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” (12). Here the issue of British colonialism is quite clear. Louis, even though he is intelligent (as he says, “I could know everything in the world if I wished”), is perceived as inferior to the other kids, because of his colonial heritage, especially Australian, which was a convict settlement.
Bernard also has his moment of alienation, as he likes to relate everything into stories (which is why he is seen as Woolf’s alter ego, I suppose), he finally bores his peers with this, despite some elaborate phrases. Here Woolf writes, perhaps out of personal experience, “Among the tortures and devastations of life is this then – our friends are not able to finish their stories” (26).
It is similar with the girls. Each is by herself with her own loneliness. Rhoda is perhaps the most obvious – her insecurity completely bars her from her peers, as does her childhood presumably – Louis says she has no father (I am not sure about whether the incident with the math problem indicates she’s not as intelligent as the other kids?). Susan is alone with her anger, which she likes to project on physical things and bury them. Jinny is also self-conscious, although she may not show it. What is very interesting is that Susan suffers at the thought of even the teachers loving Jinny as opposed to her (unlike what she experiences at home, which is why she only loves her father, I am guessing), while Jinny looks at herself and sees Susan as more beautiful, more inspiring. This once again, points to the fact that all characters are locked into their own selves, unable to transcend themselves, unable to see themselves or anything else outside of their own experience, which sometimes points them in erroneous directions. This is very similar to the themes of Woolf’s other works, where subjective experience is of utmost importance, but at the same time, can be very destructive