Virginia Woolf's The Waves: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves', which was published in 1931. We'll look at the form, context, plot and themes as well as the significance of the work.


Among her many literary accomplishments, Virginia Woolf is perhaps best known for the daring and inventive narration she used throughout her writing. Of all of her novels, The Waves, which was published in 1931, implements some of the most innovative and bold narration that Woolf employed.

Woolf was born in 1882 and spent much of her life around some of England's most important thinkers. She began writing early and published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. Woolf quickly established a reputation as an innovative writer and would go on to write numerous novels, short stories, and pieces of nonfiction. Of all of her works, The Waves, her seventh novel, is considered one of her most daring and challenging. Woolf suffered from mental illness throughout her entire life, and in 1941, she took her own life.

Woolf had the opportunity to spend time with some of the greatest academics and writers in England who helped shape her modernist style.
Virginia Woolf


Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, science and philosophy challenged traditional understandings of how people perceive and interpret the world around them. Additionally, a more complicated and fast-paced lifestyle (combined with the experience of witnessing the atrocities that occurred during World War I) also challenged people to rethink their conception of reality. Faced with this new context, many artists believed that it was necessary to create art that reflected the complicated reality of the world we live in. This movement came to be known as modernism and is defined by its use of innovative and often abstract art.

As a modernist writer, Woolf was interested in depicting reality as fragmented and one of the most direct and influential ways she did this was through her unique stream-of-conscious narration. This style of narration involves entering in and out of the minds of various characters and depicting the complicated, often subconscious thoughts as they actually happen rather than in a logical order. This style of writing is central to much of Woolf's fiction, although it's particularly central to The Waves.

The violence that WWI brought had a large influence on many modernist artists.


The events in The Waves are told through six different characters, three men and three women, who know and interact with each other throughout their lives. Perhaps the most insightful character is Bernard, who is particularly thoughtful and prone to introspection. Neville is similarly meditative and tends to focus on beauty, a quality which ultimately leads him to become a successful poet. Louis combines the introspective traits of the other two males with an appreciation for the practical aspects of life.

Jinny, partly as a result of her defining physical beauty, is much less interested in the philosophical musings of the other characters and is much more interested in social issues. Rhoda, in contrast, is fairly anti-social and tends to be more interested in her imagination than real life. Susan also is prone to escape day-to-day events and she tends to accomplish this through venturing into nature.


The Waves is divided into nine different sections, each corresponding to a different phase in the lives of the characters. The first section occurs during the childhood of the characters and depicts their experiences at school. The second deals with adolescence and the time spent in boarding school, although the boys and girls have been sent to separate schools. In the third section, the characters have entered into young adulthood and are beginning to understand themselves better.

In the fourth section, the characters have come back together for a dinner party for the first time in a while, although they soon part ways. Shortly after the dinner party, the fifth section describes the characters learning of the death of a mutual friend, which leads them to consider the fleeting nature of life. These thoughts are central to the sixth section as well, in which the characters are adults who have begun to settle into their own lives.

In the seventh section, the characters are middle-aged and continue to reflect on the lives they've chosen and the questions about life that they still have. In the eighth section, the friends meet again and the relationships seem to be more personal yet also tempered by the awareness of the shortness of life. This theme continues into the ninth section which, narrated through Bernard, reflects on the lessons that have been learned throughout the lives of the characters.


Much of The Waves can be seen as a meditation on the structure and limits of the self. One of the most obvious aspects of this novel is the way that humans are both disconnected and isolated from one another and at the same time define one another. This is made particularly clear through the narration; there are different characters with different perspectives and opinions, yet they all come together to describe a unified, though fluid, story. Where one character ends and another begins is shown to be much more complicated than people might tend to imagine.

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