Virginia Woolf was one of the great literary figures of the twentieth century, and The Waves (1931) represents, in a career filled with bold experiments, her most audacious exploration of the possibilities of the novel form. The Waves abandons traditional structure and plot as practiced in the English novel since the days of the writer Henry Fielding, in favor of a lyrical, almost dreamlike evocation of character. Instead of narrating her characters’ outward actions, Woolf enters their minds and reports their thoughts and perceptions as they occur, with few external clues to provide shape or context. Woolf builds her characters from the inside out, and one of the concerns of the novel is the way individual personalities and sensibilities are shaped by relationships with others. The resulting work still presents unique challenges and rewards for the reader, even more than fifty years since its publication. Woolf herself, however, worked hard in her lifetime to create an intellectual and critical environment in which such formally adventurous works as The Waves could be understood and appreciated.
Woolf was born in 1882 into an already distinguished literary and artistic family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was one of the most notable intellectuals of his day, and her sister, Vanessa, went on to become a well-regarded painter. Along with her husband, the publisher Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912, Woolf became one of the leading figures in the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers. Named for the London district in which the Woolfs lived, the Bloomsbury Group was an informal circle of writers, artists, and thinkers who formed one of the most well-known branches of the literary avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Not so much a “movement” as a collection of like-minded friends, Bloomsbury stood for a moderately leftist political stance, a commitment to formal innovation in the arts, a refined critical and aesthetic sensibility, and an intensely inward focus on the way the mind translates experience into language and meaning. The Bloomsbury Group also tended to define itself in opposition to the Victorian period, the era of their parents and grandparents. As avowed modernists, they turned their backs on what they saw as the stuffy formality and hypocritical morality of the Victorians. Through their experiments in art and literature, they hoped to discover a new artistic method to match the new century.
Woolf was at the forefront of these efforts. In her critical writing, she championed the work of such contemporaries as James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses (1922) set the standard for modernist writing and is—apart from Woolf’s own work—the most obvious forerunner of The Waves. She also pioneered efforts to establish a canon of women writers. Her influential readings of such authors as Jane Austen and George Eliot help to locate her own work within a tradition of female novelists.
In her famous essay “Modern Fiction,” Woolf distinguishes between those writers she labels “materialists,” who focus on the surface of things and events at the expense of inner meaning, and those such as Joyce and herself, who are “spiritual” and want to convey “that innermost flame” of people and events, even if this concern leads them away from what we are used to thinking of as realistic writing. For Woolf, capturing the “innermost flame” is the most important task of the modern novelist, who tries to reveal the extraordinary quality of “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.” In her greatest works, such as Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves, Woolf epitomizes such a modern writer, leaving behind the conventional structures of the novel in order to pursue the fleeting impressions within the minds of her characters, capturing them in flight within a net of language and imagery.