The Waves is a portrait of the intertwined lives of six friends: Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda. The novel is divided into nine sections, each of which corresponds to a time of day, and, symbolically, to a period in the lives of the characters. Each section begins with a detailed description of the course of this symbolic day.
The first section deals with early morning, or childhood, when the six main characters are attending a day-school together. As each of the children awakens, he or she begins an internal monologue composed of thoughts, feelings, and impressions. The children interact in various ways throughout the day, and each begins to take shape as an individual in response to the stimulus provided by the world and by the presence of one another. Although their thoughts are somewhat incoherent and mostly fixated on immediate experience, their distinct personalities begin to emerge: Bernard’s loquacity and obsession with language; Neville’s desire for order and beauty; Louis’s insecurity and ambition; Jinny’s physicality; Susan’s intensity and attachment to nature; and Rhoda’s dreamlike abstraction from ordinary life.
The second section deals with adolescence, after the boys and girls have been sent off to their separate boarding schools. Bernard, Louis, and Neville differ in their reactions to the school’s authority and traditions, and they all form friendships with Percival, a popular, handsome boy who is to become a central figure in the lives of the six main characters. All three boys develop literary ambitions of some sort, though they differ markedly in their goals and expressions. The girls mostly want school to be over and done with: Jinny desires to begin her real life in society, Susan longs to return home to her father and her farm, and Rhoda wants an escape from the disruptions to her mental solitude caused by school. At the close of the section, each character sets out, whether for college, work, or otherwise, on a more solitary track.
The third section traces the characters through young adulthood. Bernard and Neville are at college together and remain close friends. They both admire Percival, but Neville has fallen in love with him. Percival has become the focus of Neville’s desire for beauty and perfection. Bernard is concerned with his own gregarious nature and thinks deeply about the way his personality is constructed out of his relationships with others. Neville shares one of his poems with Bernard, and the moment is important for both of them. Louis is working as a mid-level clerk at a shipping firm in London. He spends his lunch hour reading at a diner and people-watching, hoping to make poetry out of his observations of everyday life. Susan is at home on her farm and communes with the rhythm of natural life. She walks across the fields before dawn and senses growth all around her, though she begins to submerge her own active will. Back in London, Jinny and Rhoda attend the same party, though their experiences are very different. Jinny comes fully alive in the social setting, and she takes a great, sensual pleasure in the beauty of her surroundings and in her own personal attractiveness. Rhoda, on the other hand, feels negated by the others around her and longs to disappear.
The fourth section is set later in adulthood and centers on a dinner party, meant to honor Percival, who is leaving for a position in the colonial government in India. At the party, the six characters are united again. At first, the group is tense and uneasy in one another’s company, and they primarily notice their differences. When Percival arrives, however, these tensions are relaxed and the group comes together. Briefly, the friends are united in a moment of true communion, and their individual voices seem to blend. All too soon, however, the moment ends and the group dissolves back into its singular parts.
The fifth section takes place not long after the dinner party, when the friends have learned that Percival has been killed in India. Neville is devastated by the news, overwhelmed by a sense of death and the fragility of life. Bernard is torn between joy and sorrow: his child has just been born and his friend has just died. Bernard goes to a museum to look at paintings and finds a kind of solace, even as he is aware that his memories of Percival must inevitably fade. Rhoda finds a similar solace in music when she attends an opera soon after she learns of Percival’s death, and she finds the strength to go on for a time.
In the sixth section, the characters have entered full maturity. Louis is rising in his firm and leads a sort of double life. Although he is a respectable businessman, he is drawn to the seamier side of life and spends his time roaming around poorer neighborhoods. Louis and Rhoda have become lovers. Susan is a mother now, both deeply gratified and stifled by her chosen life. On one hand, she is fully a part of the cycle of natural life; on the other, her own life has become subordinate to the lives of her children and the ongoing life of the farm. Jinny continues her purely physical existence, taking lovers but never settling down, content to revel in her own being. Neville also moves from lover to lover, but in his case, he is trying to keep the intensity of first desire alive—it is the source of his creativity.
The seventh section deals with midlife, as the characters begin to age. Bernard has traveled to Rome, where he observes the ruins and tries to come to terms with his own sense of failure, as he has begun to doubt both his own abilities and the ability of stories to capture reality. As Susan sinks deeper into her rural and domestic life, she regrets what she has lost even as she finds a measure of contentment in what she has gained. Jinny has a moment of dread in which she sees that she is aging and her beauty is fading. She reconciles herself to the inevitable passage of time, however, and resolves to make the most of her remaining years. Neville is becoming a successful writer. He is mellowing a bit, but he continues to shift the focus of his desire from lover to lover. Louis rises ever higher in his firm but still returns to his attic room to write. Literature seems to him an idealized realm even as his eye is continually drawn to the street. Rhoda has left Louis and travels to Spain, where she too has a moment in which she comes face to face with death—here in the form of the vast sea seen from the cliffs.
In the eighth section, the friends once again gather for a dinner, though this time the meeting is shadowed by death, thanks both to their increasing age and to the absence of Percival. Although there is tension among the friends, as at the earlier meeting, this tension is resolved as they begin to share their common experiences. The characters have lived long enough to know that this meeting is one such common experience, and they have another moment of silent communion, though the moment is elegiac rather than triumphant. Rhoda and Louis have a quiet moment together as the others walk into the park, but it inevitably comes to an end.
The ninth and final section is told entirely from Bernard’s point of view. Bernard speaks to a casual acquaintance over dinner, and tries to give a “summing up” of his life. Bernard is still doubtful about the accuracy of any representation of reality through language. He tries to give a sense of the texture of his life, rather than making sweeping statements about it. Bernard discusses the others and how things have turned out for them, including the fact that Rhoda has killed herself. The most profound moment Bernard describes is one in which he himself seems to move beyond language into a direct perception of reality. In the end, however, Bernard sees his life as an attempt to use language to fight against death, and he sees how the others have, in their individual ways, been part of the same struggle. Bernard vows to keep fighting until the end.