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.