Brief Thoughts on the Status of Character in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

In The Waves Virginia Woolf achieves, not, as I will argue, an elimination of character—as perhaps she intended to—but a new method by which to express character, organized by a principle much like Roger Fry’s idea of “successive unity” as he expresses it in “An Essay in Aesthetics.” In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf agrees with Arnold Bennett that character is essential to “good fiction-making,” arguing that the reason the Edwardians have not succeeded in producing great literature because “they have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there” (BB 16). Thus she sees it as the task of the Georgian novelist to throw off the yolk of detail, of things, of the cataloguing of possessions and incomes, and to write against the grain, embracing the fragmentation that will necessarily come along with the breaking of years of traditional character building. In these lines and these convictions we see the seeds of the ideas that will eventually produce The Waves, a novel so dedicated to the destruction of the Bennett-ian conception of character, to doing away with the house and the fabric of things, to the reinvention of character, that characters become almost unrecognizable. 

In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf imagined the “prevailing sound of the Georgian age” as that “of breaking and falling, crashing and destruction” as novelists worked to dismantle the work of their predecessors. That Woolf figures this process of dismantling and reinvention aurally, even in 1924, is fascinating in light of the symphony of sounds and voices she produces in 1932, in The Waves, in which prose takes on the rhythm, shape, and sonic quality of poetry, carrying as much meaning in the aural experience it generates as in its content. The Waves, though it does bear some of the mark of fragmentation, does not operate through the sounds of crashing destruction that Woolf imagines in 1924. Rather The Waves is an intricate structure of sound, impression, and image, built up successively piece by piece, note by note, until, in its last section, it achieves a unity of expression and, with it, character.

In Vision and Design in 1909, Roger Fry writes of unity in art, theorizing that there are two types of unity in art:  the first, that which is most familiar to us, the unity of a single static image within a frame; and the second, a “successive unity,” like that of “certain Chinese paintings” whose “length is so great that we cannot take in the whole picture at once, nor are we intended to do so” (Fry, 5). This second type of unity “depends upon the forms being presented to us in such a sequence that each successive element is felt to have a fundamental and harmonious relation with that which preceded it” (Fry, 5). Though Fry writes that this “successive unity” is “familiar to us in literature and music” (Fry, 5), it is only in Woolf’s The Waves that the implications of the concept are explored in terms of character, not merely by virtue of the development of plot or the successive nature of the page-by-page, word-by-word reading experience. In The Waves, Woolf views character as just such a “successive unity,” delivering on her promise in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” to do away with the Victorian and Edwardian portrait of the character through his or her possessions, as a static thing, to be understood at a certain moment of time. In The Waves, Woolf sets her characters “in [their] high relations to the world” (BB, 17) by embracing of the element that makes possible Fry’s “successive unity”: time.

The Waves operates via time: its organizing principle is the the progress of the sun across the sky, marking the time in a day which symbolizes the life of man, set against the eternal, unending roar of the sea and its waves upon the shore. Time is at once constant, continuous, and progressive, segmented, successive. The novel follows its six characters through time, from their childhood up through the onset of old age and—in a few cases—death. This progress, though, is not achieved by means of plot, but by impressions, by the arrangement of a series of sounds and voices, images and symbols, which build upon one another to form character over time, mimicking for the reader the experience of looking in detail at a Chinese landscape on a long scroll or listening to a symphony. Indeed, Bernard, imagines music as the only way to approach the impossibility of “giv[ing] the effect of the whole” (256) and likens his relationship with his friends—and thus the novel that has grown around and through them—to “a symphony, with its concord and its discord and its tunes on top and its complicated bass beneath” (256).

While Bernard focuses on music’s capacity for the expression of simultaneity it is the inextricability of time from music that gives shape to Fry’s metaphor for “successive unity” and which breathes life into Woolf’s characterization in The Waves. Characters in the novel are constantly aware of themselves as being present in a moment of time inextricably connected with the present and the future. The past, memories, moments press in on the present, as does the awareness of the future: “Tuesday follows Monday; Wednesday, Tuesday” (283) and “how fast the stream flows from January to December” (257). They can never understand themselves or one another in a single moment, but must connect that moment to its past and future, the moments which surround and repeat it forwards and backwards in their lives and in history, the ripples of the moment emanating on either side. Each character “stand[s] embedded in a substance made of repeated moments run together” (222) and the reader must understand them as such. Just as any element in Fry’s Chinese landscape scroll cannot be—and will never be—understood in isolation, but is be endowed by the memory of what came before it and the expectation of what will come after, so too are characters constructed via impressions and moments over time in The Waves. Character is not done away with, but reinvented via a marriage to time so that it can never be pinned down as Mr. Bennett might want, but exists always in relation to itself, both in the past and future, becoming a constellation of fragments, of impressions, like musical notes in a symphony.

Citations

Fry, Roger. “An Essay in Aesthetics.” http://rci.rutgers.edu/~tripmcc/phil/poa/fry-essay_in_aesthetics.pdf

Woolf, Virginia. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” http://www.columbia.edu/~em36/MrBennettAndMrsBrown.pdf

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. New York: Harcourt, 1978.

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