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.