Reading The Waves

An extract from Professor Dame Gillian Beer's talk, 'Reading The Waves Across a Lifetime', given on Woolf's 135th birthday, 25 January 2017, at Lucy Cavendish College

Varying motions dapple the surface of Woolf’s language in The Waves (1931). The book explores the intimate individualities of six people, three women, three men, who know each other across their shared lifetimes but come together only infrequently once they are adults. We see them in childhood, at school, at university and in youth, out to dinner together, visiting Hampton Park, and Bernard in age: their thoughts range across time and tangle together events, images and repeated emotions. They are very different from each other in their sexualities and sensibilities though close in social class. The method of representing their consciousnesses is through direct reported present-tense utterance. The last vestige of the conventional narrator is held in the unvarying past-tense and inexpressive speech tag, ‘said Bernard’, ‘said Jinny’, ‘said Neville’, ‘said Rhoda’, ‘said Susan’, ‘said Louis’. In this book the effect is of quiet ritual rather than presiding narrative presence.  Moreover, utterance here does not imply speech but rather a threshold voice, heard in the reader’s ear alone and following the skeins of thought, passion, senses, and feeling within the mind. 

I have come to love the book partly for what it can make happen in a group. It is integral to several of my most poignant experiences as a teacher, and as a listener. It is a book about the everyday, forthright and mysterious. It embraces the ridiculous and does not seek to smooth out incongruity. It is a merciful book, and a book for all times of life. I first read it in my early twenties and now I’m as old as is Bernard at the book’s end. Some works wane but in the course of time, for me, The Waves has gathered. Recently I sat above the sea and heard the thump and withdrawal of the waves, outside meaning, restful, powerful, their systems invisible, their forms fleeting and manifest: unstoppable. Reading The Waves we must trust its process from page to page with some of the same quiescence and alertness that sea-sound induces in us. The book assuages narrative anxiety once we follow its rhythms. But it is also the vehicle of passion and ferocity.

The Waves, moreover, is work of extraordinary sensory directness, with sentences that make your finger-ends fizz. 

Neville:  ‘Yet that crimson must have burnt in Titian’s gizzard.’ (129) The fizz of this sentence comes through your ears as well as your eyes. Taste becomes violence, becomes colour. All our senses commingle as we read. And this is just one sentence in the midst of a paragraph in a fluid procession of lapsed and recovered moments.

Gillian Beer
Clare Hall, Cambridge


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