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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
When the narrators are children, the first thing they hear in the morning is the sound of waves crashing on the shore. Each of them tries to make sense of the rhythmic pounding—Louis, for example, hears the stamping of a chained beast—and the sound becomes a background noise to their day. As the novel proceeds, the rhythm of the waves becomes associated with the passage of time. Certain characters are more aware of the passage of time than others. Louis is always sensitive to it, and Rhoda saturates her narration with water and wave imagery. Each of the characters has a moment in which he or she is reminded of the passage of time, and the effect is similar to someone who has become used to the sound of the waves at the beach and suddenly hears again the sound that has never ceased and that will continue long after he or she is gone. The novel itself demonstrates this idea of continuity, as it ends just as it begins—with an image of the breaking waves.
On his trip to Rome, Bernard catches a glimpse of the sea from a parapet and sees a porpoise turn quickly in the water. He immediately turns this sense-impression into language: “Fin in a waste of waters” is the phrase he makes. At the time, Bernard simply files the phrase among all the others he has made, but the fin breaking the surface eventually comes to symbolize the way meaning and reality can break the surface of life with no warning. The majority of our waking lives, Bernard comes to feel, is made up of routine, boredom, and automatic actions and words—getting a haircut, traveling to work, and so on make up the “waste of waters.” Every now and again, we get a brief glimpse of what is real and lasting, a glimpse of being in and of itself—a hidden purpose in the emptiness of our daily lives. Neville uses a similar image when reading his modernist poem: he compares the poem to a searchlight trained on the waves at night, catching a glimpse of some creature just surfacing. This image clearly works together with the symbolic waves and indicates the understanding Bernard is able to achieve in the face of time and death.
The apple tree Neville is looking at as he overhears the servants at the school discussing a local murder becomes inextricably linked to his knowledge of death. Neville finds himself unable to pass the tree, seeing it as glimmering and lovely, yet sinister and “implacable.” When he learns that Percival is dead, he feels he is face to face once again with “the tree which I cannot pass.” Eventually, Neville turns away from the natural world to art, which exists outside of time and can therefore transcend death. The fruit of the tree appears only in Neville’s room on his embroidered curtain, a symbol itself of nature turned into artifice. The apple tree image also echoes the apple tree from the Book of Genesis in the Bible, the fruit of which led Adam and Eve to knowledge and, therefore, expulsion from Eden. Though Woolf doesn’t dwell on this particular connection, the idea of knowing “too much” makes sense in the context of The Waves. In a way, Neville yearns for knowledge—of his own self as well as the world—but is uncomfortable with the difficult reality of death.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Waves!