How Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves' Changed My Life
Sometimes a book can change the way you see not just yourself, but all of humanity.
Virginia Woolf’s The Waves has a way of drawing you into a world that doesn’t feel much different than our own. The story, however, is told through the soliloquies of six interlocking characters that give individual insights to their lives. Throughout, the waves echo the characters’ lives, following their progression. The echo is a constant reminder of what life gives to us and equally what life takes away from us.
Woolf’s characters live through loss, heartbreak, love and, happiness. Through their long lives they relate with the reader and also give a projection of our possible futures. Her characters live loosely attached to one another; living their lives alone and yet always finding their way back to each other. Friendships come and friendships go but they always impact the lives involved. Woolf shows how heartbreak and happiness are both fundamental parts of life, and comforts me that my losses are just as important as my gains, no matter how painful they may be.
Ultimately, Woolf stresses the importance of individuality. She recognises how people change and evolve, and how the self is a constant throughout our lives. The use of soliloquies reveals an individualistic view on the world, an image of a lone wanderer, a relatable image. Woolf holds a mirror up to the audience; she captures our lives in that moment. Whether we are young adults trying to find our way, or towards the end of our lives reflecting on what was and could have been, Woolf shows us an image of ourselves.
The Waves is unforgiving. It will leave you washed up and wondering: Am I Bernard, desperately trying to connect with the world? Am I Neville? Sensitive, confused, unfulfilled? Or am I more like Jinny, a woman who celebrates her sexuality and revels in sexual freedom? She is not tied down to anyone other than herself, and in many ways a modern woman. Oh, or Louis--an embodiment of angst; riddled with anxiety concerning his cultural difference and lower class. Or Susan, devoted to her family and firmly in love with the nature that surrounds her. Or Rhoda, living in her imagination, exploring the world through her beloved metaphors. The truth is that we are all of these people. They represent everything we are and everyone we will ever be.
As I read this book, Woolf taught me that it is okay to not entirely understand yourself all the time, as humans are ever-changing beings. She taught me that “A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” These ideas are prevalent through her characters’ questioning and reflections.
Aging, changing and evolving is a beautiful part of life that must be embraced by us all. Her characters are not perfect human beings, they are flawed and very real. Her reflection of humanity is eerily accurate.
Personally, The Waves swept me up and spat me back out with a whole new outlook. The past cannot be changed and the future cannot be predetermined. All we have is now and all we can do is what we think is best. Woolf taught me that I will never know the answers and that is okay because ‘I am made and remade continually.’
She taught me that I am both alone and not alone in this world, forever surrounded with masses of people who feel the same way as me; people with pasts, regrets, anxieties and hopes. But ultimately we have ourselves to lean on.
We are all of Woolf’s characters; both alone and intertwined with the people around us.
by Honeysuckle Troubridge
Love Virginia Woolf? Read this piece on Virginia Woolf's time in Cornwall.