Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is not a beach read
Virgina Woolf penned her 7th book, The Waves in 1931. It is considered to be her most experimental work. As luck would have it, this was the first book I picked up in my quest to get through a few works by the famous modernist author. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t selected this as my first read. The thing is, I am not a student of literature. My brain does not automatically deduce meanings from cryptic and confusing sentences. Of course, like any other reader I love beautifully crafted prose and a fair bit of emotions, but anything more than the normal amount and I find myself distracted. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened.
I can imagine The Waves part of the curriculum for 2nd year literature students for an essay on human emotions and perceptions – it would make an interesting study for a group of readers, guided by a professor who understands the nuances of Woolf’s writing. But for a lone reader, whose main purpose to read a book is enjoyment and not to earn a university degree, this book can be a challenge to get through. To read this book requires patience and plenty of time. The book consists of soliloquies spoken by the book’s six characters and best friends – Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville and Louis. It is divided into 9 sections, with each section signifying a moment in the day and different junctures in each of their lives.
I began my reading of The Waves with absolutely no warning and before reaching the 4th page, I was lost! Who was the protagonist? Where is the character setting? What was this sorcery? It immediately reminded me of a horrible book I had purchased a few years back – A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride – I hated it so much that I couldn’t go past the 5th page. I gave it a 1 star on Goodreads only because there was no provision to rate negative. You get the gist.. I was 90% sure Woolf would end up disappointing me the same way. The inner monologue and the abstract train of thought seemed too much for me to handle. Nevertheless, I decided to stick on and take the help of an external source. I came across this fantastic online study guide, Course Hero, that had clearly defined chapter summary and analysis and even character sketches. Only after reading through the chapter 1 summary, I understood the ‘experimental’ writing style that everyone was talking about. I went back and read the 1st chapter and it felt like a veil had lifted from my eyes. Everything made sense. Each character stood out with their own unique personalities and it was such a delight and challenge to read and understand the workings of their minds. To make sure I was on the right track, I would refer back to the summary and analysis after completing each chapter, and I can honestly say that without the help of Course Hero I would not have completed this book.
The Waves rejects the conventional notions of plot, instead it gives the reader an experience of the flow of consciousness over the course of a lifetime. It is easy to imagine the 6 characters as your friends – each with his/her own desires, wants, shortcomings and fears. Through the characters, the novel allows the reader to experience different emotions and perspective to the same situation. Do I regret picking up this book? Not at all. However, I wish I had read at least another novel by Woolf before taking this on. I feel a little overwhelmed by her writing style. My next read was going to be the more popular book, A Room of One’s Own but I think i’ll take a break and read something lighter.
I would strongly recommend picking this book for a buddy read or taking the help of a trusted guide like I did – it is easy to get lost and discouraged by the very complicated writing style. I would also suggest reading Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse or A Room of One’s Own first as they might be easier to digest (so I have heard) and get you in the groove of Woolf’s writing. Either ways, do give The Waves a short, and it’ll be worth it.