Bernard is deeply concerned with language, and one of his first apparent traits is his obsession with “making phrases.” This activity is a means of both impressing and helping others, as in the case of Susan early in the novel. As a child, Bernard sees language as a way to mediate and control reality, to turn random events into a chain of meaning. When he leaves for school, for example, Bernard makes phrases as a way to remain in control of his emotions. Later, he begins to turn his phrases into stories, transforming language into a tool for understanding others. Here he begins to run into a problem, however. Bernard has trouble capturing the lives of others (such as Dr. Crane) in his stories, and he is nagged by a sense that some element of the truth always escapes him.
Over time, Bernard comes to think that the problem with his stories is inherent in language itself. Reality, Bernard comes to think, is always more complex than our words can grasp. Part of the reason this is so is related to Bernard’s concept of identity as fluid and changing. Bernard sees himself as a compound being, influenced by and even composed of the people who surround him. Bernard spends much time trying to break down the barriers between different selves. His dissatisfaction with language and traditional narrative echoes many of Woolf’s own concerns and gives a clue as to why she felt the need to try bold experiments with the nature of fiction, such as The Waves itself. In her memoirs, Woolf tells of certain moments, which she calls “moments of being,” in which she gains a direct perception of reality, apart from the distortions and omissions of language. Bernard has such a moment toward the end of the novel, and the moment is a kind of culmination for his character.
Jinny lives her life utterly apart from concerns about the soul. She thinks of herself as a body, first and foremost, interacting with other bodies. From the first moment we see Jinny, kissing Louis among the bushes, she is a creature of motion, surface, and physicality. More than once, Jinny compares herself to an animal and the social world in which she moves to a jungle, in which she is a huntress. She is aware of her own physical beauty, and her greatest pleasure is in being able to pick a man from the crowd and summon him with a gesture. It might sound from this description as though Woolf is being critical of Jinny, but Woolf presents Jinny’s perspective as radically honest and admirably direct. She is not an intellectual and prefers to relate to a world of physical objects rather than ideas, but she is neither stupid nor insensitive.
In her own way, Jinny is just as devoted to beauty and to her ideal of life as someone more obviously idealistic, such as Neville. On the dance floor, swept up in the communal whirl of bodies and music, Jinny feels unified with something larger than herself, something like the flow of life. The problem with Jinny’s ideal is that it cannot be sustained: music ends, beauty fades, and attractiveness withers with it. Neville, Louis, and Susan are each deeply concerned with making something that will last, and this, of course, Jinny cannot do—this is the great failing of Jinny’s way of life. Catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, she sees that her hedonistic time is drawing to a close, but she does not despair. Death is simply part of the bargain, and her attitude is carpe diem—seize the day, and live while you can.
Louis’s deepest sense of himself is that he does not fit in. Embarrassed as a child by his Australian accent and by his poorer background, Louis becomes an ambitious striver, eager to make his mark and to shed his status as an outsider. He becomes keenly aware of social distinctions and is drawn to Rhoda from the beginning, seeing her as a fellow misfit. At school, Louis discovers poetry and sees the tradition of literature as a kind of society open to those with enough genius and drive to gain admittance. From that point, his ambitions include becoming a great poet. But Louis does not go to college along with Neville and Bernard. Instead, he takes a job with a shipping firm in London, and from that time on, he leads a sort of double life. As he sits in a greasy-spoon diner, Louis’s attention is split between the book of poems he reads and the gossiping crowd around him. Later, he rises in the company and become a distinguished businessman, while still retaining his poetic ambition and his attraction to the seamy side of life.
Louis wants to unify the ideal realm of poetry with the hurly-burly of daily life—his idea of a poetic image is a mangy cat rubbing its side against a chimney. What Louis hopes to do by writing poems about such things is to reveal the permanent existence beneath the random flow of ordinary events. Louis’s project is somewhere between Jinny’s (submerging the self in life’s flow, without imposing concepts on it) and Neville’s (living a life of artistic isolation from everyday life). Woolf seems to be sympathetic to this plan, which has a certain resemblance to her own, but it remains unclear how well Louis is able to realize it. He seems compromised by his materialistic desire for success in business and his attraction to the tawdry. Louis and Rhoda become lovers for a time, but Louis is unable to forge a lasting connection there as well.
At first, Neville might seem to be a rather clichéd portrait of a homosexual aesthete: he is physically weak, overly refined, obsessed with male beauty, and somewhat promiscuous. But Neville is also a great artist—the most successful artist in the novel. Unlike Louis and Bernard, who also harbor literary ambitions, Neville centers his life on his relationship to his art, to the exclusion of most other relationships. This intense purity of focus seems to make the difference in his success as a poet. From the start, Neville is disturbed by mess and disorder, continually noticing Bernard’s sloppiness of dress. But Neville’s desire for order goes beyond the material realm. For Neville, life itself is a chaotic mess, and only in art and literature is perfection attainable. Neville understands this fact clearly after the death of Percival, whom Neville loves and idealizes. Once Percival is gone, Neville looks to a series of lovers for a temporary replacement for the intense feelings he once got from merely watching Percival. In each case, Neville uses his concentrated if fleeting devotion to the new lover as a source of energy for writing his poetry. In the end, Neville sees that he has spent an entire lifetime devoted to the study of love itself.
If Bernard’s problem with language is that it is not large enough to contain reality, Neville’s problem is that it is not focused enough to serve his particular needs. Neville’s life is one of concentration and exclusion. He shuts the world out from his book-lined room, awaiting only the approach of his latest “one.” Neville’s need for a focused, polished language to express his meaning is part of the reason for his disdain for Dr. Crane and for conventional religion. For Neville, the headmaster is a pompous fool, mouthing empty phrases, and most religion is little more than a collection of such insincere words. Beyond the platitudes of the sermons he hears, Neville also sees Christianity as a sad, death-obsessed religion and prefers the pagan Greeks and Romans for what he sees as their love of life and pleasure in this world.
Rhoda is an eternal outsider, even more so than Louis, to whom she is drawn for a time. Our first glimpse of Rhoda is as a child, staring into a basin of water that she imagines is her own private ocean. For Rhoda, the world inside her head is a refuge from the external world of other people. She is terrified of human contact, terrified of being criticized and judged. Her deep sense of alienation from others eventually turns into a desire to abandon consciousness altogether, rather than risk losing her perfect solitude through intimacy with others. Her most characteristic gesture, even among friends, is to stare out the window, lost in imagination. Nothing comes easily to Rhoda, and everything seems foreign—she has to carefully copy the way Jinny and Susan dress to avoid making mistakes. She comes to see herself as a ghostlike, faceless figure, drifting through life without affecting others. She ultimately commits suicide, though it is unclear exactly what occurs. Some of Bernard’s comments in the concluding section seem to imply that she leaps from a cliff, perhaps the same one she looks down from earlier in the novel.
Before her tragic end, Rhoda finds some measure of consolation from two sources, the first of which is music. In the wake of Percival’s death, Rhoda enters an opera house and is moved by what she hears. Death is both the ultimate disruption of solitude and its ultimate expression, and the music seems, to Rhoda, like a kind of structure in which she can find temporary shelter. Rhoda is briefly able to find similar solace in her relationship with Louis, but she is unable to maintain the state of intimacy and breaks it off. In the end, Rhoda’s greatest desire is simply to cease desiring and existing. She is drawn away from the basin-ocean, in which she has imaginative control, and into the ocean she sees from the cliffs in Spain, which she thinks of in symbolic terms as death itself—a vast ocean of emptiness and stillness that swallows her up.
Like Jinny, Susan is a strongly physical presence, and like Rhoda, Susan is at least partially motivated by a desire to lose herself within a larger force. But Susan wishes to engage with life through her body at the primal level of generation and reproduction, and through this process to become one with the growth of the land and of her home. From Susan’s perspective, Jinny’s life is one of sterile—literally fruitless—activity, while Rhoda tragically resists her body’s own desires. Susan walks her fields in the early morning, sensing the awakening life all around her, and Woolf’s appreciation of the value and reward of Susan’s choice is clear. Susan wants a productive, work-filled life that fosters the land and nurtures others. Through her life on the farm, Susan is seeking to find meaning in ordinary life.
Woolf acknowledges that sacrifice is involved in Susan’s life choice. Susan has always been emotional and passionate, either hating or loving (or both at once) most people she meets. As a mother, however, Susan must put others first, and she thinks to herself that her greatest emotions will be for and through her children, and most of her work will be on their behalf. At a certain point, Susan realizes that the price of the fulfillment she has found has been to lose herself within the role of wife and mother, becoming a generic, de-individualized person even in her own eyes. Susan looks back longingly at her youth and her first love, Bernard, whose phrases had always seemed too complex and subtle for her. She thinks continually of Jinny and her comparatively free existence. By the end of the novel, Susan’s life is shot through with regret, and she even speaks, to Bernard, of her life as a ruined, wasted thing.