1. I oppose to what is passing this ramrod of beaten steel. I will not submit to this aimless passing of billycock hats and Homburg hats and all the plumed and variegated head-dresses of women . . . and the words that trail drearily without human meaning; I will reduce you to order.
As Louis sits in the eating-shop in the third section, he watches the people around him, contrasting their lives with the idealized world of the poems he reads. His own poetic project is conceived in terms of resistance, order, and rigidity. He thinks of poetry as a steel ramrod that he will use to straighten out the crookedness of reality. Louis’s tone is defiant, almost angry. He refuses to “submit” to the chaos around him and will “reduce” it to order. However, he still desires to include the details of modern life in his art. In contrast, Bernard becomes dissatisfied with stories precisely because they “reduce” life too much, while “reduction,” in the sense of the elimination of the ugly or mundane, is the secret of Neville’s creativity. Louis, meanwhile, intends to take a ramrod to reality. The human activity he is so captivated with seems like an ocean of chaos; the people are “aimless,” and their “dreary” words lack meaning. Louis wants to state the meaning these passersby will never see for themselves.
2. Should I seek out some tree? Should I desert these form rooms and libraries, and the broad yellow page in which I read Catullus, for woods and fields? Should I walk under beech trees, or saunter along the river bank, where the trees meet united like lovers in the water? But nature is too vegetable, too vapid. She has only sublimities and vastitudes and water and leaves. I begin to wish for firelight, privacy, and the limbs of one person.
Neville asks these questions in the second section, while he is at school. Neville is distancing himself from the natural world and turning toward his own private domain. The problem Neville has with nature is similar to what Louis sees in the city—it is full of disorder and emptiness. Neville longs for both human warmth and for an ideal state of perfection. These two desires are contradictory, of course, but at this point in the novel, Percival is still alive and Neville has yet to learn of the incompatibility of perfection and temporal existence. Another problem Neville sees with nature is simply that it is too big. Neville wants beauty, including harmony, grace, and proportion, rather than sublimity, which is awe-inspiring, forceful, and huge. The perfection Neville seeks is by definition to be found on a smaller, more intimate scale. In Neville’s desire for form and organization, we can see the beginnings of his future life of books and seclusion with a chosen lover, as well as his fondness for classical poets and orderliness.
3. Beneath us lie the lights of the herring fleet. The cliffs vanish. Rippling small, rippling grey, innumerable waves spread beneath us. I touch nothing. I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.
In the seventh section, Rhoda travels to Spain, where she has this vision of the ocean from high atop a cliff. The scene is beautiful but ominous, and there is a double meaning to Rhoda’s statements about touching and seeing “nothing.” That is, what she is seeing and touching in this scene is nothingness, nonexistence. Rhoda is imagining the dissolution of her body into the larger body of the sea. The symbolic value of the “waves” is clearly active here as well—Rhoda knows she is constantly being dissolved by the passage of time anyway, and she is strongly tempted to give in to the process. As it happens, Rhoda does not give in to the temptation here, but this scene is a kind of harbinger of future events and a portrait of the drift of Rhoda’s mind. It also serves as a kind of counterpoint to the scene in which Bernard, also looking down upon the ocean, sees the porpoise break the surface. In his case, meaning and life come welling up from below, while Rhoda imagines herself being sucked under by meaninglessness and death.
4. How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground! Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half sheets of notepaper. . . . What delights me . . . is the confusion, the height, the indifference, and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and movement; something sulphurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost, and I forgotten, minute, in a ditch. Of story, of design, I do not see a trace then.
As Bernard begins his “summing up,” he expresses again his distrust of stories. As he says, the problem with stories is that they try to squeeze reality into a kind of straightjacket, forcing it into a predetermined shape. Bernard is always interested in what gets left out of the “neat designs of life.” For Bernard, stories have trouble accommodating the wild, formless nature of reality—illustrated by the roiling, shifting mass of clouds he sees overhead from his ditch. Bernard’s last sentence, which links the words “story” and “design,” suggests that he sees neither narrative meaning nor pattern in nature. Implicitly, Bernard is denying the presence of God in the world and saying that whatever meaning is found in the universe has been made by us in the act of trying to comprehend it. Woolf is clearly explaining her own procedure in The Waves in this passage. The novel tries to find meaning in human lives while staying true to the shifting, formless nature of reality.
5. Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.
Late in the last section, Bernard returns to his idea of the fluidity of identity. For Bernard, all personalities are multiple: we are not self-sufficient, self-created entities. Bernard seems to suggest that we should be both humbled and comforted by the extent to which we have been shaped by others. This idea is key to a kind of ethical dimension in Woolf’s writing. If we can see others as connected to ourselves, as part of ourselves, we will be less likely to objectify or exploit others to suit our own desires. By the end of the novel, Bernard is able to put his own desires, and even his own thoughts, to the side and to look upon others with a compassionate detachment born of the certainty that we all share in the same life, and are all journeying toward the same end.