Renewed Autonomy: The Waves by Virginia Woolf

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

By Emma Miao

Follow my Spotify playlist “the red carnation” for music I listened to as I read The Waves. 

“I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found the story. And I begin to ask, are there stories?”

Over winter break, I read The Waves by Virginia Woolf. A prose-poem and gestalt of lyricism and voice, The Waves follows the lifespan of six friends, Bernard, Rhoda, Jinny, Louis, Neville, and Susan. The characters present themselves only in soliloquies, like individual notes, each speech informing the next. As the novel progresses, vocal talismans help us discern the characters, whose voices blend together. Woolf’s language gleams with musical effulgence, asserting how human relationships can weather distance, time, even death itself. The Waves gives us hope for the human condition; it paints an intrinsic determination for us to set our eyes on the horizon, extend our hands to each other, to step forth and grasp this crazy thing called life.

Woolf gives us control and autonomy over our own stories. Like Bernard says, we’re all phrases in some story, storybook open and scribing. The world is an oyster: “hands,” “street corners,” cigarette[s] in gutter[s]” — all are stories.” Woolf gently reminds us that we have the choice: whichever story we write is the true story. Like Neville, we are “immeasurable; a net whose fibres pass imperceptibly beneath the world.”

The stalwart nature of the human connection, according to Woolf, is too like a net, tenacious and unrelenting even in tumultuous times. The friends are gathered around a table when Bernard identifies a “single flower” made a “seven-sided flower, many petalled” — “a whole flower to which each eye brings its own contribution.” Friendship, he says, is to come together “to make one thing, not enduring — for what endures — but seen by many eyes simultaneously.” As the characters blend together, their gleaming voices blend into an orchestra of more than the sum of their individual selves. Particularly during Covid-19, occupying the same space, the same moment, even virtually, establishes a symbolic grounding. These communal moments rattle not only inside the petals of red carnations but exist in more concrete places outside of the memory, according to Woolf.

Woolf, ultimately, argues for hope. She paints a renewal, day by day, sky by sky. Even in Bernard’s final days, the world keeps on opening — “the stars draw back and are extinguished.” And perhaps this is what Virginia Woolf hoped to assert in the final pages: that the world will always tether our bodies, being always vaster, always brighter. The physical waves, like Debussy’s melodies and Ravel’s reveries, are an “incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.”

As we experience individual endings, we simultaneously find beginnings from the ashes. As night falls in these character’s lives, “all cries, all clamour, are softly enveloped in silence” and we are left in the darkness, bright notes tinkering from the calm, reticent waves, urging us to take the day by its ribs. To come alive.

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