Review of ‘The Waves’ by Virginia Woolf

Reading this book is like eating a very rich dessert. One spoonful goes a long way. Every page is dense with imagery and ideas. It’s a masterpiece in under 200 pages.

Not the most challenging Virginia Woolf novel I’ve read (that honour goes to Between the Acts or To the Lighthouse) but it still wasn’t an easy read, due to the writing style. It’s very unusual, experimental even. Observations are spoken by six characters, describing their actions and emotions from early age to old age. These chapters are interspersed with a description of the sun rising and setting over the waves, symbolising the passing of a human life in the span of a single day (or at least that’s my interpretation – I’ve deliberately avoided reading other opinions on the book).

Here are some random examples of Woolf’s writing:

‘Let us now crawl,’ said Bernard, ‘under the canopy of the currant leaves, and tell stories. Let us inhabit the underworld. Let us take possession of our secret territory, which is lit by pendant currants like candelabra, shining red on one side, black on the other. Here, Jinny, if we curl up close, we can sit under the canopy of the currant leaves and watch the censers swing. This is our universe.’ (p.12)

‘I have signed my name,’ said Louis, ‘already twenty times. I, and again I, and again I. Clear, firm, unequivocal, there it sounds, my name. Clear-cut and unequivocal am I too. Yet a vast inheritance of experience is packed in me. I have lived thousands of years. I am like a worm that has eaten its way through the wood of a very old oak beam. But now I am compact; now I am gathered together this fine morning.’ (p.98)

‘The iron gates have rolled back,’ said Jinny. ‘Time’s fangs have ceased their devouring. We have triumphed over the abysses of space, with rouge, with powder, with flimsy pocket-handkerchiefs.’ (p.136)

Maybe you can see why I could only read one chapter a day. So much imagery was overwhelming my mind. I think one of Woolf’s best skills is finding original ways to describe life. Everything she says is striking and thought-provoking. It’s like reading her own thoughts divided into the mouths of the six friends.

The novel was first published in 1931. My edition is by Oxford World’s Classics, 2015, edited by David Bradshaw.

16 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Waves’ by Virginia Woolf”

  1. The Waves is certainly challenging, but Woolf’s writing is just beautiful. I preferred To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway to this one I think. I wasn’t that keen on Between the Acts really either. I loved Orlando, Night and Day and Flush though. The only Woolf novel I haven’t read is The Years, perhaps 2019 will be the year.

    1. I’ve read The Years, I actually remember not liking it much! Not a To the Lighthouse fan… but I like Orlando a lot. Woolf is such a fascinating and original writer.
      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. I’ve never been able to get into Woolf, which saddens me because I find her fascinating as a writer and a person. This is a great review though; and I do feel like I want to give her another shot sometime.

    1. Thank you – it’s worth having another go, you could try Night and Day which is one of her early novels and easier to read. Mrs Dalloway is a great one to try, as it’s quite a short book.

      1. I’ve read Mrs Dalloway, and whilst I admired it, I can’t say I enjoyed it. Like you said though, you have to take your time and be in the right frame of mind to process Woolf’s work, so hopefully one day I’ll manage to click with her ?

        1. I think she’s generally the sort of author to be admired rather than enjoyed 🙂

  3. I’m so glad to have read your review, because I plan to read at least one Virginia Woolf book this year. What would you recommend to someone who hasn’t read her before?

    1. Hmm, good question… you could try Mrs Dalloway, it’s quite a short book which takes place over one day. If you find the writing style doesn’t suit you, try Night and Day – Woolf’s 2nd novel, which is written in a more conventional style.

  4. Oh gosh, this sounds like one of those books that I really have to be in the mood to read. I’m ploughing my way through Don Quioxte at the moment which is taking all of my brain power (even though it’s silly and farsical, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on). I don’t know whether Woolf is for me – I keep looking at her books then putting them back – and those extracts feel a bit like wading through treacle. Maybe I’ll try Night and Day?

    1. I don’t think anyone should force themselves to read classics they don’t like, just because they are classics… Well done for reading Don Quixote, I couldn’t do it!
      Woolf’s style is an acquired taste and it’s not for everyone. Her earlier books are easier but I wouldn’t say any of them are easy reads 🙂

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