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Friday Favourite: The Waves

In this week's Friday Favourite, Sarah Lewis writes why 'The Waves' is the one book which she always comes back to.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf is a book that I unapologetically love. As an English student with a long reading list, I don’t tend to reread too many books. Yet I could happily revisit this book again and again, knowing that each time I would find something new within it. Every line is crafted like a poem, with its rich style possessing endless room for interpretation.

It is difficult to say exactly what The Waves is about. In general, it portrays the interconnected lives of six friends: Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan, and Rhoda. Woolf traverses the lives of these characters, spanning from their early days together as children, through to middle age and beyond. In doing so, it presents their interior lives, with their thoughts, feelings and impressions of the world as they interact with each other and progress through life.

Published in 1931, The Waves is an example of an experimental novel, arising from the modernist period. Alongside writers such as James Joyce, Woolf was constructing new ways of representing life. In her diaries she details the idea of writing a new kind of novel, which she describes in 1927 as consisting of ‘some continuous stream, not solely of human thought, but of the ship, then night &c, all flowing together’. This is achieved to an extent in her earlier books, such as Mrs Dalloway (1925), but The Waves advances further than ever before in portraying the interior life, free of narrative and plot. 

I remember reading it for the first time in sixth form, taking it out of the library only because I thought it was about time I read some Virginia Woolf. Whilst I didn’t really understand what was going on at first, the words still struck me. I’ve been a Woolf fan ever since, burning through many of her other books, but it’s always this one that I come back to. I talked about it at my Oxford interview, momentarily forgetting how nervous I was as I explained why I loved this book. The Waves now has pride of place on my bookshelf, and whenever I have the time to indulge in reading simply for pleasure, it is often this book that I pick up. 

I love it because it captures so intimately both how it feels to live, and to experience. Internal thoughts mix and blur with perceptions of the external, whilst personal anxieties are expressed in long-running sentences, each artfully crafted. As in many of Woolf’s novels, memory mixes with experiences of the present, as in real life. This is evident in Neville’s recollection of a past meeting with his friend Percival, who he is in love with- 

‘I snatched the telephone and the buzz, buzz, buzz of its stupid voice in your empty room battered my heart down, when the door opened and there you stood. That was the most perfect of our meetings. But these meetings, these partings, finally destroy us.’

Neville’s love for his old school friend Percival is movingly depicted- a transgressive act by Woolf considering how such feelings would not have been widely accepted at the time. The novel also shows how the lives of these six friends are interconnected with each other, as all our lives are. As Bernard reflects in the final chapter- 

‘I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am- Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.’

Emotions are so immediate in the novel that it is often heart-wrenchingly sad to read. As a result it is one of the few books that can genuinely still move me to tears. With such powerful emotional potential, and its unique poetic quality, The Waves stays with me as a book I will always cherish and revisit.

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