Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”: A Neglected Classic

(the 1931 dust jacket done by Vanessa Stephen, Virginia’s painter-sister)

The first thing to be said about this unique ‘novel’, is that it can’t be read as a traditional narrative; it is more post-modern than anything else she ever wrote. It is also the most poetic novel ever written in twentieth-century prose. Its poetry is married to visual imagery and music so the book is actually a hybrid sensuous experience from beginning to end.

So, if a reader, hopes to have a prayer of entering and ‘getting’ this book, s/he has to really listen to the book’s words and the voices of its several connected characters. Woolf presents these several points of view from early to late in life, letting each speak for him/herself via stream-of-consciousness. Each voice is a poetic expression of his/her worlds and consciousness. So a reader has to completely go with the flow of the book and its words. *There is absolutely no point for a conventional, more limited, less free reader in trying to look for a plot even in individual episodes.

Essentially, The Waves is a flow of consciousness and sense impressions about literally everything in the characters’ lives. Woolf points out innumerable fascinating insights and epiphanies about life, human nature, and people along the way. One simply has to enjoy the ride. Believe me when I say that individual parts are large, sometimes brilliant, poems in themselves. And the cumulative effect of all these unique sensitive impressions and deep consciousness¬†is astounding and exquisitely profound.

Woolf often envied the great English poets, but she knew what she wrote poetry in any case. (Take the middle section of To the Lighthouse for instance–one of the best prose poems about death and the passing of time.) The Waves is pure poetry. It is also as great a book as Joyce’s Ulysses. It is BIG, MASSIVE, and feels ever so much like life lived through the consciousness of intelligent people with poetic bents and sensibilities.

Further note: There is much of Woolf’s life and people she knew in this book. “Ginny”, incidentally refers to herself, and there are references to her sister Vanessa and her lover Vita Sackville-West too.

*Big recommendation: Get hold of and listen to Naxos Audiobook’s version read by Francis Jeater on 4 CDs (5 hrs., 14 mins.) You will never be the same person or see life the same way afterward. Guaranteed.

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