• Peter

Isolation in ‘The Waves’

I was looking through some of my documents, when I came across an essay for my Master’s (I think – it might have been an essay to get me on to the course.) Now, I don’t think it’s perfect, but I thought Woolf fans might want to have a read.

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves written during 1930 and published the following year has been universally described as Woolf’s experimental novel, and one that the author herself described as ‘…so full of holes and patches’ (Woolf, 2008:280), thus indicating that it was a struggle to complete.  The text follows the lives of six characters, each with very different characteristics and two of these characters, Rhoda and Louis, are possibly the two most isolated of the six.

Initially, on the first page of the text (excepting the prologue), the reader is presented with an unusual method of introduction; the characters appear to speak individually through monologues with seemingly little interaction. This continues throughout the work, and whether this is Woolf attempting to lead the reader into the deepest thoughts of her characters, or just a whimsical manner of writing a novel is a separate issue. Each of the characters ‘speak’ in turn, and the first noticeable feature is that while four of the characters see something; Bernard sees a ring, Susan a slab, Jinny as tassel and Neville a globe, Rhoda and Louis both hear sounds, thus already separating them from the others; ‘I hear a sound….cheep, chirp….going up and down.’ (Woolf, 1992:5) is what Rhoda hears, echoing that of a baby bird wanting food from its mother. Louis, on the other hand, hears a stamping beast; ‘A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps…’ (ibid). This, I believe, demonstrates more about Louis’ character as he feels chained, or restricted by circumstances in his life. Later on in the opening pages, the reader learns that Louis is in fact from Australia and his father lives in Brisbane. It is because of his accent that he feels like an outsider; ‘They laugh at my neatness, my Australian accent.’ (ibid:14). However, it is possible that it is just this isolation from the others that makes Louis see more than the others do; ‘I know more than they will ever know.’ (ibid).

This notion of being superior than the other characters is echoed by Susan who states that Louis should lead them when walking because he is ‘alert’ and not a ‘wool-gatherer’ (ibid:17). It could be that only Louis sees himself as outside the group and he purposefully alienates himself, even hiding away amongst the flowers all alone, declaring himself to be ‘the stalk’ (7). This analogy could mean that he sees himself as a singular being, disconnected from leaves that would bind him to other facets of life. However, he does state that his ‘… roots go down to the depths of the world’ (7), thus suggesting that he is the glue that holds the group together; he, in fact, is the silent leader from which all life springs from. Indeed, while Louis is hiding in the flowers, the others, apart from Rhoda, are playing with nets and calling for him, yet they do not call for each other. As well as this, when Jinny stumbles across him in his hiding place, she kisses him for fear that he is dead; Susan witnesses this act and immediately is filled with anguish and agony, suggesting that she is jealous of the kiss with Louis, or indeed the feeling of closeness that she desires, which Bernard attempts to give her while she is unhappy.

Rhoda, on the other hand, is a sharp contrast to Louis even though they both feel isolated, it is only Rhoda who is truly alone. Louis is possibly the only character who realises this; ‘She has no answer for them. She has no body like the others have.’ (ibid:16), Due to their similar circumstances, Louis is drawn to Rhoda, yet even he sees her as being trapped. He likens her to a small butterfly (16), and it is precisely this creature that the others, minus Louis and Rhoda, were catching earlier on in the opening. This suggests, therefore, that by the very nature of the group, Rhoda is already caught and unable to flee, yet she likes the freedom she has when she is alone. Realistically, Rhoda notices this and craves the freedom to explore who she really is. Often she muses when she is alone, likening herself to a ship sailing alone (13), and this is a common theme throughout the opening pages. Indeed, on the first page, Rhoda notices ‘islands of light’ (5), followed by ‘cold water begins to run from the tap’ (6) and concluding with ‘I sink, I fall’ (20); Rhoda is constantly linked to water and cliffs, possibly echoing her intimated death at the end of the novel by suicide from jumping from a cliff – ‘…the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt’ (ibid:241). The idea of water being cleansing and freeing the human body of its sins and foibles is something that could connect Rhoda to the water – sailing away from cares on the open sea would free her from the constraints that she sees herself fighting against would be an escape. Of course, Woolf drowned herself in the river Ouse, thereby cleansing herself of the voices she heard in her head. It is this similarity that I believe that Rhoda was somehow based on the author herself. Both Rhoda and Woolf committed suicide with a connection to water and both craving some kind of freedom. In her diaries, Woolf states resolutions; ‘…not to be tied. Second, to be free and kindly with myself…to sit rather privately reading in the studio.’ (2008:295). Even the title of the book, The Waves connects Rhoda and the author inexplicably to the stories written; both ladies give themselves to the water eventually. Rhoda even mentions ‘…planting a lighthouse here.’ (1992:13), referencing Woolf’s earlier work, To the Lighthouse.

Although the characters of Louis and Rhoda are the most obviously isolated characters, this does not mean that the others do not experience the feeling of loneliness. Neville is deemed too delicate to go with the others and uses his ‘hour of solitude’ to escape the conversations (17), thus being separated by health. In contrast, Susan feels isolated by language and words, especially when with Bernard; ‘I am tied down with single words. But you wander off; you slip away.’ (11). Bernard recognises this when Susan is running away from Jinny and Louis’ kiss, he wants to comfort her when she thinks ‘I am alone.’ (9). Jinny and Bernard, though, are the two that are most sociable and do not generally speak about being alone or separated from the others. Bernard, especially, considers himself to be part of the group, using the pronoun ‘we’ when with Susan.

Generally, I believe that The Waves is a study of isolation and freedom, exemplified by Louis and Rhoda, who become lovers for a while later on in the book. However, this relationship does not last, thereby allowing each their freedom or isolation. Freedom and isolation could be seen as very similar things, but it depends on how one looks at it. Louis feels the isolation, but he is in fact free from the constraints and takes his own path into poetry. Rhoda, in contrast, sees her isolation but desires the freedom, even though this affects her profoundly. There are certainly other moments and characters in the novel that demonstrate this feeling of isolation and loneliness, or freedom, but none more so than the examples provided. Possibly there are elements of the author in all of the characters in the book, showing various facets of her life, doubts and eventual death. I believe that the story demonstrates how a group of individuals can be so intertwined with each other, yet still hold on to the ideas and notions of being individual and lonely.

If you like what you have read, then please do consider supporting me and my foray into literature and writing by buying me a coffee here. You can also check out my professional website here. Thank you for reading.


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Peter J Fullagar. Reading, UK.


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