Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, published on October 8, 1931, is considered one of her most experimental novels. Instead of a plot-driven story, the stream-of-consciousness novel is told in a series of soliloquies by its many characters.
The book is one of Virginia’s later novels and was written around the same time as A Room of One’s Own. The story follows six characters from childhood to old age, focusing on their inner thoughts and feelings along the way.
According to Virginia’s biographer and nephew, Quentin Bell, many critics consider the novel Virginia’s masterpiece and the book received glowing reviews when it was published, as seen in this New York Times review from October of 1931 titled “Poetic Brilliance in the New Novel By Mrs. Woolf” (although the review does state the novel lacks vision and is still “a very far cry, also, from greatness”):
“Mrs. Woolf does not give us her characters as men and women; she gives them to us clearly in seed (Rhoda, for example, is “frightened and awkward”) and in seed they remain throughout the book. Their thoughts, their words, their preliminary differences from one another become stylized and they themselves fit, at length, into a verbal pattern, half ornamentally. They are not six people but six imagist poets, six facets of the imagist poet that Mrs. Woolf is herself.”
The book’s unusual form makes it difficult to categorize it as a novel and even Virginia herself referred to it as a “playpoem,” although most of her novels were often written in a style more like a poem than a novel.
As with many of Virginia’s books, the characters were based on Virginia’s friends and family members, such as the character Percival, modeled after Virginia’s deceased older brother Thoby, and Neville who was rumored to have been modeled after Lytton Strachey.
Virginia originally intended to call the novel The Moths but later renamed it The Waves. Like many of her works, the theme and title of the novel focuses on Virginia’s obsession with water and the sea.
Virginia wrote the book over a grueling 19 months, between September of 1929 and February of 1931, making several revisions throughout that spring and summer.
The writing process of The Waves was difficult for Virginia as the subject matter forced her to relive the death of her brother Thoby and many other painful aspects of her life.
As a result, she experienced many ups and downs while writing the novel and rejoiced when she wrote the last words, which she discussed in her diary on February 7, 1931:
“Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I wrote the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad). I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead. Anyhow, it is done; and I have been sitting these 15 minutes in a state of glory, and calm…How physical the sense of triumph and relief is!… I have netted the fin in the waste of water which appeared to me over the marshes out of my window at Rodmell when I was coming to an end of To the Lighthouse.”
Aware of the unique style of the book, Virginia worried that her friends and fans wouldn’t like it. As a result, after finishing the book, she waited anxiously to hear her friends reactions to it. Their mixed reactions both elated and depressed her, as she states in her diary on September 15, 1931:
“I have come up here, trembling under the sense of complete failure – I mean The Waves – I mean Hugh Walpole doesn’t like it – I mean John L. [Lehmann] is about to write to say he thinks it bad – I mean L. [Leonard] accuses me of sensibility verging on insanity – I mean I am acutely depressed & already feeling rising the hard & horny back of my old friend Fight fight. Never mind. Here I need not disguise my tumult of feelings. Lord how I hate that Hugh shd. be running about London saying the new VW. is a disappointment – all about nothing – exquisitely written of course. Ought I not then to say that Brace thinks – Oh well, do let me try to give up weighing opposite impressions. Anyhow, my minds is crammed with books, & Lord, I tried to speak the truth, bombastic as the remark sounds, wrung it drop by drop from my brain. So essentially I am not horrified. But The Waves, marks my decline in reputation.”
The very next day Virginia’s mood soared after she received word that John Lehmann loved the book, telling her how “deeply impressed” he was by it. A few weeks later she was ecstatic again when Vita Sackville-West‘s husband, Harold Nicholson, called to tell her the book was a “masterpiece.”
The book went on to receive many positive reviews from critics, as well as more mixed reactions from Virginia’s friends, but by then she had already declared it a success and sales of the novel soared: “And it sells,” she wrote it her diary, “how unexpected, how odd that people can read that difficult grinding stuff!”
As 1931 started to come to a close, sales of the novel slowed and Virginia noted the lack of letters from fans, but she was happy to put the difficult book behind her and move onto her next one, writing in her diary that October: “So now, what shall I work at? So many works hover over me.”
When Virginia committed suicide just a decade later, her husband Leonard engraved the last lines from “The Waves” on a plaque marking the resting spot of her ashes in her backyard in Rodmell:
“Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
The waves broke on the shore”
IN 2017, The Waves, along with a number of Woolf’s other writings, served as the inspiration for a ballet, titled Woolf Works, at the Royal Opera House in London.
Virginia Woolf: A Biography; Quentin Bell; 1972
The Diary of Virginia Woolf; Volume Four 1931-1935; Virginia Woolf
Today In Literature: Virginia Woolf, the Waves: todayinliterature.com/stories.asp?Event_Date=10/8/1931
New York Times; Poetical Brilliance in the New Novel by Virginia Woolf; Louis Kronenberger; October 1931: nytimes.com/books/97/06/08/reviews/woolf-waves.html