NEH Grant EX-20049-01


The Waves



Woolf’s seventh novel, published in 1931, is perhaps her most controversial. Some critics praise it as her masterpiece; others dismiss it as a worthless exercise.  It is structured into nine sections representing time spans in the lives of several characters, with extended ruminations from six – Bernard, Louis, Neville, Susan, Jinny, and Rhoda – and silence from the seventh, Percival, whose inner life remains mysterious. Each section is introduced by an italicized section poetically describing a stage of the sun’s passage through the sky.  There is not so much a plot as a sequence of life events, submerged under the immediacy of inner and outer experience intensely and richly described in a very immediate present. The characters are followed from childhood through school days, from young adulthood to middle age. In the process, both Bernard and Susan marry, Louis remains single and becomes a successful businessman and poet, Jinny takes many lovers, Rhoda commits suicide, Neville can truly love only Percival, and Percival dies in a fall from a horse. A reunion in the eighth passage illuminates the characters’ lives, and in the ninth, Bernard sums up the course of event and thought, ending in a powerful, heroic statement of the battle against Death.

Essay Questions & Paper Topics

1.      Follow the development in thought and experience of one of the main characters.

2.      Explore the extended metaphor of the sun’s passage.

3.      Examine the sensuous qualities and symbolic referents in a passage, e.g., the moth hunt.

4.      Compare the rhythms or images of The Waves to another art form: music, painting, etc.

5.      Compare a passage to stream-of-consciousness passages in other works.


Doyle, Laura. “Sublime barbarians in the narrative of empire: or, Longinus at sea in ‘The Waves.’” Modern fiction studies. Summer 1996 v.42:2

Harris, Andrea L. “’Bare things’: returning to the senses in Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves.’” LIT: Literature interpretation theory. March 1997 v.7:4

Hoffman, Michael J. & Ann Ter Haar. “’Whose books once influenced mine’: the relationship between E.M. Forster’s ‘Howard’s End’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves.’” Twentieth Century Literature. Spring 1999 v.45:1

Lucenti, Lisa Marie. “Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’: to defer that ‘appalling moment.’” Criticism. Winter 1998 v.40:1

Rich, Susanna. “De undarum natura: Lucretius and Woolf in ‘The Waves.’” Journal of modern literature. Winter 1999. v.23:2

Vandivere, Julie. “Woolf’s ‘The waves.’” The Explicator. Fall 1994 v.53:1

Wilt, Judith. “God’s spies: the knower in ‘The Waves.’” Journal of English and Germanic philology. April 1993 v.92:2

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