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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
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Waves!