7.3    Interpretation

The area of investigation as defined in section 4 was to analyze the use of characterization in The Waves , with particular reference to the twin areas of differentiation and development, commenting on the interpretative implications for an understanding of the text, and for the views of the critics. The implications of the findings for the views of the critics have already been covered. How can we now describe our changed understanding of the text?

The Waves depicts the lives of six very different (although occasionally united) characters in some detail. Almost all aspects of their language use that were examined show clear differences (point 2 under section 7.1). Because our view of what happens in the the text is filtered through the characters' speech, we gain a good impression of their concerns, their thoughts, how they view both themselves and the world around them 91 . Unfortunately, the types of analysis performed do not extend to quantifying these concerns, thoughts and views. The following, then, is my reading of what these are.

Bernard is the artist of the group, a potential author. He has always been obsessed with language, and revels in words. He is fascinated by phrases and always carries around a notebook in which to preserve particularly felicitous combinations of words. He is a very complex character, and is intensely interested in the group, and in the members who compose it. He is a fairly objective observer of the others, and of the world around them.

Louis is the visionary of the group. He does not see himself as merely 'Louis', but as contiguous with all of history, with roots going down into the past. This ability to exist partially outside time and space distances him somewhat from the others. He is an insecure person, always self-consciously apologizing for his Australian accent. Although he has by far the keenest mind of all the characters, he learns to conform so as to appear less different, and when the other boys leave school to go up to university, he is forced through financial circumstances to work in a company. His concern is with those things that are felt or sensed, not seen.

Neville is an academic first, and poet second. He is precise and factual in all that he does, carefully dissecting, analyzing, and classifying his world. Because of this, his insights are keen, if not always relevant. He always retains something of the public school with him, including a preference for homosexual relationships.

Jinny is the sensualist. Her world is that of the five senses, and she recognizes little outside it. Her existence is centered in her body and in its sensations. Indeed, she has little control over it. Her life is limited to the present, and she neither cares about nor considers the future.

Rhoda is the most unstable member of the group. Her relationship to the world around her is one of fear and insecurity. Faced with the demands it makes upon her, she either attempts unsuccessfully to conform, or retreats into fantasy. For her, the world is intangible, and only dreams have any meaning. Because of this sensitivity to that which is not of this world, she shares with Louis some of his insights into the continuum of existence.

Susan, of all the characters, is most in tune with nature. She is completely at one with the natural world, and feels cut off from her roots in the city. Her emotions are raw and barely modified by the conventions of polite society. She calls a spade a spade, and her observations are coldly factual and accurate.

The text follows these characters from childhood to late middle age. In it, we see them grow and develop, their speech changing and becoming richer, more sophisticated as they mature (see point 1, section 7.1). The characters in chapter VIII are very different from the characters in chapter I. Their concerns have changed, and while we can see in them the children they once were, they have become much more than that.

And yet, the picture is not quite so simple. If the characters merely grew up and became old, the book would not be the remarkable work it is. In two places in the text, our whole vision of the characters and their lives together is given new meaning. And this is done so subtly, so carefully, that we need to look very carefully to determine how it is done. These two chapters, IV and VIII, are in many ways the two climaxes of the book (Bernard's long soliloquy in chapter IX seems by contrast more of a combination of reminiscence and elegy).

In chapter IV, the characters are not individuals, or rather they are not just individuals. They have become part of a greater whole. Their use of We 92 rises sharply, while their use of I drops. The lengths of their words and their soliloquies converge as their speech becomes closer to that of one being. Fused into a gestalt, they meet to farewell Percival, and all unknowing, to consign their youthful carelessness to dust and death. For Percival is not a character, at least not in the traditional sense; he is the object of their desire, either as the personification of all that they hope they might be, or as the perfected being that they love. In his death they are forcibly confronted with the inevitability of their own deaths, and all the changes that this brings. The seven-sided flower that they briefly became was the exception, not the reality. Perfection is only to be rarely found. And thus, the flower blossomed for a night, and then withered. The elements that made it possible return, changed, to normality, and then go on.

In chapter VIII, as they meet at Hampton Court, they are once more united and the same pattern of pronoun use obtains (the convergence of word and soliloquy length is not so marked). This time, though, their group existence is a fragile crystal which has only six facets, for Percival is dead. At their first meeting, they were joined by their mutual celebration of Percival and of each other. Now they are united against the chaos - of the outside, of that which comes after life, of not-being. They see their own approaching dissolution mirrored in the shattering of the gem, as the group separates after dinner to go their separate ways. The union is not so perfect, the joins are ragged. They speak in short sentences comprising short soliloquies. Too much has passed, and they have changed too much. And yet, what communion they have is still better than none, and some comfort is derived.

Both of these occasions demonstrate the redemptive nature of the characters' group life. While they are self-reliant, different individuals, they draw something from these times that strengthens them for the task ahead. Their union within the group is almost as important as their singularity outside it. Their use of a common word-store (section 6.4) throughout the book also attests to the closeness of their relationship from childhood onwards.

Of the six, Bernard stands out, both in his normal soliloquies, and in his speech in the final chapter (point 3, section 7.1). In the first eight chapters, he is always the observer, keenly perceiving the currents running through the web of the group, and taking careful note. His objective perception of events both external and internal to the life of the group make him therefore ideal to sum up the lives of the members in chapter IX. In his final soliloquy, although he claims to be explaining the meaning of his own life to an acquaintance, he cannot avoid bringing in the other characters. In his life together with them, he has absorbed something of them into himself, and his experience has become in some way a repository for theirs. As he turns the pages of the book of his life, he finds them covered with portraits of those who were closest to him. (Although he is married, we hear nothing of his wife). He begins in the nursery, and follows the threads of their lives. Even as children they were different, discovering themselves and each other. Then came their time at school. They were separated into two groups and Percival appeared.

Their personalities developed and became more rounded. Next came the period in which they all had to come to terms with the outside world, and measure themselves against it. Together, they derived strength and comfort, and thus fortified went on. Then Percival died. They became united in their denial of the necessary destruction of all meaning in death. They attempted to retain their shared vision of what Percival had stood for in their lives but without success. Gradually, as time dulled the pain, they relapsed into complacency and passivity. This was shattered, albeit slowly and painfully, by the second meeting at Hampton Court, and another ephemeral moment of communion formed, only to die away. And yet, the battle continues, the eternal struggle for selfhood is unending. As Bernard reads on, it becomes quite clear that he is not only himself, he is the sum of all his friends and more. They are woven so deeply into the fabric of his life that he cannot dissociate himself from them. Thus it is not just his life that is presented in this final chapter, but all of their lives, seen through his eyes and with his concerns. He has become the ultimate observer, and seems often in this soliloquy to be acting more as a substitute for an olympian narrator than a credible character. Indeed, in parts of this final chapter he seems to become the narrator who is conspicuously lacking in the rest of the book, and The Waves itself the book he always meant to write, the book for which he continually collected phrases. His words and sentences are longer than elsewhere, and his speech more repetitive, as he recalls the characters' experiences.

But as well as being the narrator of their lives, he is also the integrator of them. In him, their lives, and the life of the group come together in a coherent whole and the unity they had only briefly felt in the past is captured and crystallized. Their multiple and single existence is carefully fitted into a meaningful pattern. He examines their lives both together, and as a group, and extracts its essence. Distilling this, he subsumes their experience into his own, and finds in it a strength, a wave rising within him that thrusts him on, unvanquished and unyielding, against Death, resisting their deaths with their life together.

The characterization of The Waves is important on many levels. One of the concepts it mirrors and presents is that of unity in diversity. This is a familiar theme in many of Virginia Woolf's works, but nowhere has it been presented in this way. The characters struggle to define themselves, to discover who they are. And yet, the only possibility of lasting meaning lies in their communion. Individuals who grow and develop and finally die, they become one on two separate occasions. As they create this larger whole, they absorb from each other the essence of their humanity and their lives. All of them, and Bernard in particular, gain strength and insight to push on unvanquished against Death. Although individuals may die, and what they were may be dispersed, it does not run to waste.

In some small way, they have influenced humanity and the world it inhabits. Although their own waves have climbed and broken in a welter of foam, the sea remains, and somewhere other waves are forming, changed, influenced by the currents and eddies left by their predecessors. For Woolf, it is in our lives, and in whatever meaning and coherence we can create, that we can find meaning for ourselves, and make a contribution to humanity and to others. Ultimately, it is in this that we find the courage to face death. Although our day is done, the sun is rising on a new day, and somewhere in the vast sea of existence, a new wave is beginning to rise.


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