title The Waves

author Virginia Woolf

type of work Novel

genre Stream-of-consciousness narrative; experimental novel

language English

time and place written Late 1920s–early 1930s, England

date of first publication 1931

publisher Hogarth Press

narrator The novel is narrated by the six main characters, switching between their separate yet interrelated internal monologues.

point of view The point of view of The Waves is complex. Each individual narrator speaks in the first person, reporting his or her thoughts and impressions, as they occur, in a highly subjective way. However, the narrative is broken up and framed by a description of a passing day that is told in the voice of none of the characters, which introduces an objective element into the novel. Further, the shift in narration from character to character is signaled by a formulation such as “said Bernard,” or “said Rhoda,” indicating the presence of a bare-bones version of a third-person narrator, though this narrator is silent, allowing the characters to speak and think for themselves.

tone The tone of the novel is dreamy, lyrical, and sad.

tense The narrative frame—the description of a passing day—is told in the past tense. The internal monologues of the characters are given as the thoughts occur: mostly in the present tense, with shifts into the past for memories.

setting (time) The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

setting (place) England, in several locales, from the countryside, to a university, to London.

protagonist The six major characters are all in some sense protagonists, but Bernard becomes the most prominent by the end of the novel.

major conflict The characters’ struggle to understand themselves and to come to terms with the death of their friend Percival

rising action Youth; everything up until Percival’s death

climax The dinner party before Percival’s departure

falling action Maturity; everything following Percival’s death

themes The influence of the other on the self; the desire for order and meaning; the acknowledgment of death

motifs Stream-of-consciousness narration; leitmotifs

symbols The waves; “Fin in a waste of waters”; the apple tree

foreshadowing Rhoda is attracted to water from the beginning and is haunted by death throughout, as in the scene at the cliff, foreshadowing her eventual suicide; Louis imagines Percival’s death before it happens; Bernard sees the porpoise fin before he learns what it means; as a child, Susan runs into the woods, away from Jinny’s world and toward nature, where she eventually chooses to spend her life.