Throughout The Waves, the characters struggle to define themselves, which they do through their relationships with others. Bernard articulates this struggle most clearly. He realizes that who he is depends on who surrounds him—his words and thoughts change in relation to his companions. Bernard sees the mind and the self as fluid, with permeable boundaries that enable people to “flow” into one another and essentially create one another. Bernard’s understanding of reality connects to this idea of “flow”: he sees reality as a product of consciousness. He rejects the idea of an “outer” world of unchanging objects and an “inner” world of the mind and ideas. Rather, our minds are part of the world, and vice versa. For Bernard, if there were no minds to perceive the world and bring it into being, the world would be empty. He applies this idea to the flower on the table during the first dinner party. Since seven people perceive the flower at once, it is a “seven-sided flower.” Later, after Percival’s death, Bernard thinks that reality itself is diminished by the loss of a consciousness—the flower is now only “six-sided.”
All the characters grapple with self-definition in different ways. Neville defines himself in opposition to society’s conventions and insincerity and tries to reduce his relationships to intense, pure devotion. Louis is deeply concerned with what others think and tries, with varying success, to shed his provincial self and to create a new, “insider” self. Jinny has a stronger sense of self than the others, and she happily takes her place in London’s social world. However, the physical self is for her the most real self, and all interaction is essentially physical. For Susan, a sense of self is rooted in a sense of place as well as in her relations with others, and she submerges her personal identity within the larger “self” of family and nature. Rhoda’s sense of self is the most fragile and oppressive. Unlike Jinny, who sees herself as all body, Rhoda feels phantomlike, unable to interact with others without losing all substance. She feels an intolerable pressure from contact with others, which, for Bernard, is the essence of selfhood. In the end, Bernard, who has always worked to overcome the false boundaries we create between selves, has the last word.
As the characters struggle to define themselves, they must learn to make sense of the impressions that flash before them and sweep them along. Each character longs for a sense of order and wants to find something lasting in a world of constant change. Louis, Neville, and Bernard have literary ambitions. For Woolf, one of the functions of literature and art in general is to bring order and meaning to the confusion of life. Life itself, as depicted in The Waves, is a constant stream of sense-impressions and random events. Art can be a place outside of the flow of time, where our fleeting perceptions can be made permanent and beautiful. Neville approaches his poetry with this goal in mind, and Louis also thinks of his writing as a way to forge an unbreakable link out of the chaos of daily life.
Rhoda’s response to the music of the opera hall and Bernard’s response to the paintings in the museum suggest that one of the functions of creativity is to bring a sense of peace and solace to life, especially when one is confronted with meaninglessness and death. But Bernard presents a critique of this function of art. He is dissatisfied with the way language and, by extension, all creativity must simplify life in order to give it shape. He rejects the traditional shape of stories, with a beginning, middle, and end, because he believes that such a shape is untrue to the way life is actually lived. In his final “summing up,” Bernard says he will not try to fit his life into any kind of overarching plotline. Rather, he will simply trace the events and try to highlight those that are significant as they arise. Meaning will then emerge out of the process of life in its full development, without the imposition of one person’s limited point of view. Bernard’s method is an obvious reference to Woolf’s own method in The Waves, and the novel can be seen as her attempt to address Bernard’s struggles with language and narrative.
Much of the characters’ self-knowledge begins in recognizing their own mortality. Louis and Rhoda, in particular, are aware of loss and emptiness from the beginning, but they all must confront death when Percival is killed in India. Each of the characters must then struggle to incorporate knowledge of death into the structure of their lives, and each follows an individual path with differing success. Death functions as a kind of reality principle in the novel, reminding the characters that their time is not limitless—death is the “enemy” that Bernard sees facing them all by the end. Five of the six characters, in some way or other, make a commitment to life in the face of death: Neville and Louis through art, Susan through the natural world, Jinny through her own physicality, and Bernard through language. Rhoda is the only one who does not commit to life. Bernard is at one pole of the awareness of death, vowing to fight for consciousness and meaning until the end, while Rhoda is at the other, surrendering at last to the pull of oblivion and joining the world of inanimate things.