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Virginia Woolf was one of the great literary figures of the twentieth century,
and The Waves (1931) represents, in a career filled with bold
experiments, her most audacious exploration of the possibilities of the novel form.
The Waves abandons traditional structure and plot as practiced
in the English novel since the days of the writer Henry Fielding, in favor of a
lyrical, almost dreamlike evocation of character. Instead of narrating her
characters’ outward actions, Woolf enters their minds and reports their thoughts and
perceptions as they occur, with few external clues to provide shape or context.
Woolf builds her characters from the inside out, and one of the concerns of the
novel is the way individual personalities and sensibilities are shaped by
relationships with others. The resulting work still presents unique challenges and
rewards for the reader, even more than fifty years since its publication. Woolf
herself, however, worked hard in her lifetime to create an intellectual and critical
environment in which such formally adventurous works as The Waves
could be understood and appreciated.
Woolf was born in 1882 into an already distinguished literary and artistic
family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was one of the most notable intellectuals of
his day, and her sister, Vanessa, went on to become a well-regarded painter. Along
with her husband, the publisher Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912, Woolf
became one of the leading figures in the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers.
Named for the London district in which the Woolfs lived, the Bloomsbury Group was an
informal circle of writers, artists, and thinkers who formed one of the most
well-known branches of the literary avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Not
so much a “movement” as a collection of like-minded friends, Bloomsbury stood for a
moderately leftist political stance, a commitment to formal innovation in the arts,
a refined critical and aesthetic sensibility, and an intensely inward focus on the
way the mind translates experience into language and meaning. The Bloomsbury Group
also tended to define itself in opposition to the Victorian period, the era of their
parents and grandparents. As avowed modernists, they turned their backs on what they
saw as the stuffy formality and hypocritical morality of the Victorians. Through
their experiments in art and literature, they hoped to discover a new artistic
method to match the new century.
Woolf was at the forefront of these efforts. In her critical writing, she
championed the work of such contemporaries as James Joyce, whose novel
Ulysses (1922) set the standard for modernist writing and
is—apart from Woolf’s own work—the most obvious forerunner of The
Waves. She also pioneered efforts to establish a canon of women writers.
Her influential readings of such authors as Jane Austen and George Eliot help to
locate her own work within a tradition of female novelists.
In her famous essay “Modern Fiction,” Woolf distinguishes between those
writers she labels “materialists,” who focus on the surface of things and events at
the expense of inner meaning, and those such as Joyce and herself, who are
“spiritual” and want to convey “that innermost flame” of people and events, even if
this concern leads them away from what we are used to thinking of as realistic
writing. For Woolf, capturing the “innermost flame” is the most important task of
the modern novelist, who tries to reveal the extraordinary quality of “an ordinary
mind on an ordinary day.” In her greatest works, such as Mrs. Dalloway
(1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The
Waves, Woolf epitomizes such a modern writer, leaving behind the
conventional structures of the novel in order to pursue the fleeting impressions
within the minds of her characters, capturing them in flight within a net of
language and imagery.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Waves!