The Waves

The Waves
Virginia Woolf
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Written almost entirely in soliloquies delivered by the novel’s six main characters, The Waves is a dreamy, poetic, and extremely ambitious exploration of people, their interior lives, and their relationships with each other. The novel is divided into seven sections spanning the course of the characters’ lives from childhood to infirmity with each episode bookending brief descriptions of a shoreline and its waves over the course of a day, and the only plot event of note is the death of a seventh, voiceless character with whom the other six were friends. Of particular importance to understanding the novel is the recognition that the speakers in the book are not intended to be fully realized characters, but rather, as Woolf clarified in her diary, different aspects of a single consciousness. This results in somewhat unusual, even surreal perspectives from some of the speakers. Bernard, for example, is obsessed with storytelling and how we go about connecting with other people, and it is only briefly alluded to that he has a wife and kids, an entire life that we learn almost nothing about. Susan, on the other hand, dwells on motherhood and nature to the exclusion of everything else, even her husband. The final product is masterful and utterly unique; there is nothing quite like The Waves in all of English literature.

I identified much more strongly with some characters than others. Neville is the most obvious, since he spends much of his life falling in love with a series of men and composing romantic poetry about them. His segments were some of the most challenging for me to interpret, but I chalk that up to my general inexperience with poetry. Louis was also particularly striking, since he is largely concerned with his status as an outsider (his father is an Australian banker) and finding social acceptance. I felt that I was on more familiar ground with him because his concerns were material, such as anxiety about his accent or economic standing. Lastly, Rhoda also spoke very clearly to me, though I wish she hadn’t. She is extremely introverted and seems to view herself and her life as insubstantial and insignificant to the point where she struggles to make any meaningful connection with reality. It was hard to read at times. The other characters, Bernard, Susan, and Jinny, were all very interesting in their own ways, but it was really the former three that captured my attention.

The Waves is best experienced by going with the flow, not attempting to understand each and every word and image, but just letting the whole thing wash over you like, well, a wave. It’s usually a love-it-or-hate-it book, and readers should be able to tell which category they fall under after only ten or twenty pages; what you see is what you get. For what it’s worth, I found it to be a staggeringly beautiful book, and I don’t typically enjoy poetry that much. It seems to me that Woolf was attempting to convey some fundamental truth about the human experience using this unique structure and, I thought, failed completely. As beautiful as the prose poetry was, I could never quite manage to completely translate it into something coherent, I could only ever feel and intuit what she was trying to say. But that’s okay, because the overall message I took from the story was that our individual experiences are so unique that they can never be fully communicated to each other, and that’s simultaneously tragic and magnificent.

Orlando

Orlando
by Virginia Woolf
Difficulty: Hard
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Here’s a summary of Orlando: a lonely young man with nice legs (very nice, we are repeatedly assured) gets dumped by a Russian princess after their ice river carnival was swept away in a sudden thaw. He’s sad for a while, and decides to go abroad as a royal ambassador. Then one night, in a flurry of trumpets and Spensarian theatrics, Orlando transforms into a woman for some reason (who still has nice legs). And everyone’s cool with it, though she does need to go through a lengthy legal process to retain ownership of her property now that she’s a woman. So she returns to England, and spends time writing poetry and hosting famous poets at her estate. Eventually, Orlando wins her lawsuit for her property and decides to marry a sea captain named Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (seriously). They then live happily ever after for at least several hundred years.

I love Orlando for how un-seriously it takes itself. There aren’t many ‘great English authors’ who were willing to let themselves have this much fun. Even when composing parodies or satires they’re always very serious about their art and their reputations, but perhaps Woolf cared less because she had other reasons for writing this novel. Orlando is often called the ‘longest love-letter in literature’ because it was written for Woolf’s close friend and sometimes lover Vita Sackville-West, represented by the character Orlando. In Virginia’s eyes, Vita transcended the limitations of gender, time, and place, so Orlando does too (she must have had very nice legs too, if the pattern holds). I find it incredibly romantic that one of the most radical and celebrated novels of the 20th century sprung from such a relationship. What a monument to the lover!

While Orlando is one of Woolf’s most accessible novels, it’s still written in dense, high-modernist fashion and may prove a bit difficult at times. Goofy as the plot can be, it’s not really a laugh-out-loud comedy though it does have its moments. It’s a bit difficult to say how the character Orlando would be labelled in our current moment. The concept of transgender didn’t really exist at the time, and Orlando continued to dress as both man and woman as it suited them, suggesting that neither their male or female version is more correct than the other. The obvious term might be ‘genderfluid,’ but Woolf had some slightly different ideas about the relationship between the masculine and feminine. In A Room Of One’s Own, she muses upon the necessity for the artist to be “man-womanly” or “woman-manly” in order to consider all points of view and achieve lasting art. I find this interesting to consider in our era of names and labels. What if, fifty years from now, we discover we’ve had this whole gender thing wrong the whole time? Or some other aspect of sex and sexuality that we treat as fact today? Orlando helps us think about those questions, and so it remains one of the more important LGBT+ books yet written.