I spotted an old copy of “The Waves” at the library some time in June and was immediately interested by its noticeable worn-out quality among the shelf of newer fiction. Surprised by the intricate and complex language, I didn’t hesitate to borrow the copy. However, it took me until the end of September to finally finish the book. Woolf’s work challenges the way we read and enjoy literature. In this experimental novel, there is no plot, no sense of time nor action, only the swirling thoughts of characters who describe their thoughts so deeply, yet so mysteriously, and asks the readers to figure out for themselves what the entire novel’s purpose is.
Woolf opened her novel with some beautiful language describing the scene just before sunrise at the sea. It struck me by surprise how delicate her language is; every adjective, imagery and simile carry a fine quality of poetic lines: “the light struck upon the trees in the garden, making one leaf transparent and then another. […] The sun sharpened the walls of the house, and rested the tip of a fan upon a white blind and made a blue finger-print of shadow under the leaf by the bedroom window.” I realized how rare this writing is, especially in modern fiction.
The rest of the novel, except for some intermissions of descriptions of the sun as it rises and sets, is written in the format of the character’s thoughts or dialogues. It is a “weird” way of writing a story, I thought, but then I realized, this might not be a story. There are only a few discernible actions throughout the novel: Susan witnessing Jinny and Neville kissing, the characters going to elementary school, the characters graduate and say farewell to Percival, Percival dies and the remaining characters continue with life, and death. The remaining of the book is fluid language of description of thoughts, feelings and reflections. The plot became unimportant, and the spotlight was on the literature: how words are formed, their connotations, their imagery, their sound. It would be extremely difficult for me to explain to anyone what the book was about; perhaps I’ll just end up with a stupid answer like, “it was about life”, or “nothing happened in the book”, but the beauty of the writing is what makes this novel exceptional.
One of my favourite phrases from the novel is “butterfly powder”, one of Bernard’s phrases in his collection. I don’t know what exactly it means, but it contains so much imagination within just two words. I think of the softness, subtlety of a butterfly’s wings, the smoothness and delicateness of its flight, the lightweight of its body. I think of a buttery like a small particle of a powder that falls onto flowers and plants without impact, without noise. “Butterfly” and “powder”, both are so soft, so weightless, fine and dainty; and together, they trigger a smell of flowers and pollen powder lightly disguising itself in the air.
For the most part of the novel, I simply immense myself in the diffusive language, like losing my mind in a piece of abstract art. I would imagine this would be the voice of men and women everywhere if we were all artists. This is how we would think of death, life and regret if we all could master the art of literature: “pretence and make-believe and unreality are gone, and lightness has come with a kind of transparency, making oneself invisible and things seen through as one walks – how strange.” And at the end of our lives, we will all realize that “I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis.” Our souls are so similar yet so distant, our bodies so alike yet so separate.
“Drop upon drop,’ said Bernard, ‘silence falls. It forms on the roof of the mind and falls into pools beneath. For ever alone, alone, alone, – hear silence fal and sweep its rings to the farthest edges. Gorged and replete, solid with middle-aged content, I, whom loneliness destroys, let silence fall, drop by drop.”