Throughout The Waves, the characters struggle to define themselves, which they do through their relationships with others. Bernard articulates this struggle most clearly. He realizes that who he is depends on who surrounds him—his words and thoughts change in relation to his companions. Bernard sees the mind and the self as fluid, with permeable boundaries that enable people to “flow” into one another and essentially create one another. Bernard’s understanding of reality connects to this idea of “flow”: he sees reality as a product of consciousness. He rejects the idea of an “outer” world of unchanging objects and an “inner” world of the mind and ideas. Rather, our minds are part of the world, and vice versa. For Bernard, if there were no minds to perceive the world and bring it into being, the world would be empty. He applies this idea to the flower on the table during the first dinner party. Since seven people perceive the flower at once, it is a “seven-sided flower.” Later, after Percival’s death, Bernard thinks that reality itself is diminished by the loss of a consciousness—the flower is now only “six-sided.”
All the characters grapple with self-definition in different ways. Neville defines himself in opposition to society’s conventions and insincerity and tries to reduce his relationships to intense, pure devotion. Louis is deeply concerned with what others think and tries, with varying success, to shed his provincial self and to create a new, “insider” self. Jinny has a stronger sense of self than the others, and she happily takes her place in London’s social world. However, the physical self is for her the most real self, and all interaction is essentially physical. For Susan, a sense of self is rooted in a sense of place as well as in her relations with others, and she submerges her personal identity within the larger “self” of family and nature. Rhoda’s sense of self is the most fragile and oppressive. Unlike Jinny, who sees herself as all body, Rhoda feels phantomlike, unable to interact with others without losing all substance. She feels an intolerable pressure from contact with others, which, for Bernard, is the essence of selfhood. In the end, Bernard, who has always worked to overcome the false boundaries we create between selves, has the last word.
As the characters struggle to define themselves, they must learn to make sense of the impressions that flash before them and sweep them along. Each character longs for a sense of order and wants to find something lasting in a world of constant change. Louis, Neville, and Bernard have literary ambitions. For Woolf, one of the functions of literature and art in general is to bring order and meaning to the confusion of life. Life itself, as depicted in The Waves, is a constant stream of sense-impressions and random events. Art can be a place outside of the flow of time, where our fleeting perceptions can be made permanent and beautiful. Neville approaches his poetry with this goal in mind, and Louis also thinks of his writing as a way to forge an unbreakable link out of the chaos of daily life.
Rhoda’s response to the music of the opera hall and Bernard’s response to the paintings in the museum suggest that one of the functions of creativity is to bring a sense of peace and solace to life, especially when one is confronted with meaninglessness and death. But Bernard presents a critique of this function of art. He is dissatisfied with the way language and, by extension, all creativity must simplify life in order to give it shape. He rejects the traditional shape of stories, with a beginning, middle, and end, because he believes that such a shape is untrue to the way life is actually lived. In his final “summing up,” Bernard says he will not try to fit his life into any kind of overarching plotline. Rather, he will simply trace the events and try to highlight those that are significant as they arise. Meaning will then emerge out of the process of life in its full development, without the imposition of one person’s limited point of view. Bernard’s method is an obvious reference to Woolf’s own method in The Waves, and the novel can be seen as her attempt to address Bernard’s struggles with language and narrative.
Much of the characters’ self-knowledge begins in recognizing their own mortality. Louis and Rhoda, in particular, are aware of loss and emptiness from the beginning, but they all must confront death when Percival is killed in India. Each of the characters must then struggle to incorporate knowledge of death into the structure of their lives, and each follows an individual path with differing success. Death functions as a kind of reality principle in the novel, reminding the characters that their time is not limitless—death is the “enemy” that Bernard sees facing them all by the end. Five of the six characters, in some way or other, make a commitment to life in the face of death: Neville and Louis through art, Susan through the natural world, Jinny through her own physicality, and Bernard through language. Rhoda is the only one who does not commit to life. Bernard is at one pole of the awareness of death, vowing to fight for consciousness and meaning until the end, while Rhoda is at the other, surrendering at last to the pull of oblivion and joining the world of inanimate things.
In her essay “Modern Fiction,” Woolf describes life as “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms,” and she says that a modern writer must “record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall.” This idea helps explain the stream-of-consciousness method Woolf uses in The Waves. Rather than summarizing for us what the characters see, think, and do, reporting from the outside, or tidying up a character’s thoughts into standard, clear sentences, Woolf tries to give the reader an impression of what it is like to be inside the characters’ heads. She forces us to sift through a flow of sense impressions, inchoate emotions, and memories, just as the characters themselves are forced to do. In each section from each narrator, we get a combination of thought, sensation, memory, description, action, and speech, and we must separate for ourselves what is purely “internal” and what is a combination of “internal” and “external.” Woolf is trying to give a more realistic picture of psychology than had ever before been presented in fiction. Whether she succeeded in presenting accurate psychological portraits through this method, or whether consciousness is in fact anything like “stream-of-consciousness” fiction, is a common point of debate when approaching Woolf’s work.
In opera, a leitmotif is a musical phrase or melody that is associated with a particular character—when a character appears or is mentioned, the leitmotif is heard. Woolf makes use of a similar device in The Waves to differentiate the characters from one another and to provide an insight into their values and desires. She gives each narrator a set of characteristic phrases or gestures, and the appearance of these “leitmotifs” in various contexts helps us to understand a given character’s situation. One example is Jinny’s act of lifting her arm in summons to a man. For Jinny, this gesture is the sign of the power she wields by virtue of her beauty. As long as the gesture works, her identity is stable. Another example is the use of the term “making phrases” in relation to Bernard. The term has a different tone depending on who uses it, but it is always meant to evoke the constant stream of language Bernard is capable of pouring forth. Woolf also uses certain types of imagery around certain characters. Water is a leitmotif of Rhoda, history is a leitmotif of Louis, and leaves and growing things are leitmotifs of Susan.
When the narrators are children, the first thing they hear in the morning is the sound of waves crashing on the shore. Each of them tries to make sense of the rhythmic pounding—Louis, for example, hears the stamping of a chained beast—and the sound becomes a background noise to their day. As the novel proceeds, the rhythm of the waves becomes associated with the passage of time. Certain characters are more aware of the passage of time than others. Louis is always sensitive to it, and Rhoda saturates her narration with water and wave imagery. Each of the characters has a moment in which he or she is reminded of the passage of time, and the effect is similar to someone who has become used to the sound of the waves at the beach and suddenly hears again the sound that has never ceased and that will continue long after he or she is gone. The novel itself demonstrates this idea of continuity, as it ends just as it begins—with an image of the breaking waves.
On his trip to Rome, Bernard catches a glimpse of the sea from a parapet and sees a porpoise turn quickly in the water. He immediately turns this sense-impression into language: “Fin in a waste of waters” is the phrase he makes. At the time, Bernard simply files the phrase among all the others he has made, but the fin breaking the surface eventually comes to symbolize the way meaning and reality can break the surface of life with no warning. The majority of our waking lives, Bernard comes to feel, is made up of routine, boredom, and automatic actions and words—getting a haircut, traveling to work, and so on make up the “waste of waters.” Every now and again, we get a brief glimpse of what is real and lasting, a glimpse of being in and of itself—a hidden purpose in the emptiness of our daily lives. Neville uses a similar image when reading his modernist poem: he compares the poem to a searchlight trained on the waves at night, catching a glimpse of some creature just surfacing. This image clearly works together with the symbolic waves and indicates the understanding Bernard is able to achieve in the face of time and death.
The apple tree Neville is looking at as he overhears the servants at the school discussing a local murder becomes inextricably linked to his knowledge of death. Neville finds himself unable to pass the tree, seeing it as glimmering and lovely, yet sinister and “implacable.” When he learns that Percival is dead, he feels he is face to face once again with “the tree which I cannot pass.” Eventually, Neville turns away from the natural world to art, which exists outside of time and can therefore transcend death. The fruit of the tree appears only in Neville’s room on his embroidered curtain, a symbol itself of nature turned into artifice. The apple tree image also echoes the apple tree from the Book of Genesis in the Bible, the fruit of which led Adam and Eve to knowledge and, therefore, expulsion from Eden. Though Woolf doesn’t dwell on this particular connection, the idea of knowing “too much” makes sense in the context of The Waves. In a way, Neville yearns for knowledge—of his own self as well as the world—but is uncomfortable with the difficult reality of death.