The Waves by Virginia Woolf was published on October 8, 1931. Woolf would take her own life by drowning ten years later, at the age of 59, and The Waves would be her final major work.
It has been described as more of a prose poem than a novel, consisting of soliloquies from the six main characters. It is Woolf’s most experimental novel and some say her finest, although not her best loved or most read book. The central event of the book is the death of a character based on her brother Thoby who died at the age of 26.
Woolf wrote in her journal on the night she completed the book: “I wrote the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad). I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead. Anyhow, it is done.”
Woolf had long suffered from mental illnesses and the fragmented voices in the novel seem to replicate the fragmentation of her own sense of being that she felt at times. It also mimics the internal voices she sometimes heard.
I read The Waves for the first time a couple of years ago and although I found it hard to follow in places and certainly full of a good deal of gloom, I was also struck by its lyrical and optimistic passages.
Woolf writes in her journal “The only way I keep afloat is by working…and when I wake early I say to myself, Fight, fight. If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world.”