ReadySteadyBlog

‘Now Miss Hudson,’ said Rhoda, ‘has shut the book. Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What is the answer? The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures.’
-- The Waves


‘Odd, that they [The Times] should praise my characters when I meant to have none’
-- Virginia Woolf, 5th of October, 1931.


Surely, a good novel must be peopled by realistic figures, have fully-rounded characters? Characters that you can believe in (believe really could exist) doing believable things, responding to other characters believably: that, surely, is a key requirement for a successful novel? For characters to be two-dimensional, to be merely mouthpieces of their author, not to act, within the novel's presented situation, in an authentic way this, surely, damages a novel, hobbles it? Indeed, many book reviews seem to suggest that believability is essential to the novel and that believable characters are the hallmark of a good writer. Well, I don't think characterisation is that important. Not at all, in fact. And Woolf's 1931 novel The Waves (and all of the Woolf novels I've recently read) has allowed me to think about this aspect of the novel again.


Of course, endowing a character with complexity is very much dependent on the relationship of the text with the reader. If we read of a character responding aggressively on one page and then, later, acting warmly, we can and do endow a third dimension to the text: we believe these two situations create a roundness to the character that we are reading about. We presume a characterfulness because different scenarios have been presented to us and the reactions to those situations have been, in some way, recognisable, identifiable. But what happens when such "characters" are not invented and such situations do not occur? Can the novel work well without such scenes?


In The Waves we most certainly don't get characters -- we get barely distinguishable (and distinguished) voices that, over the course of the novel, in some subtle ways, distinguish themselves from one another. Towards the end of the novel Bernard, the storyteller, is allowed to expatiate at length in his voice on his voice and the voices of the other names within the work. He underscores how tentative we should be about calling these cyphers characters and of endowing these names with substance. He reminds us that we are reading and that final judgements and good art do not ever belong together. He reminds us that these voices are writing and that Woolf is writing about writing with every word in her great(est) novel.


The voices, here, are, in no way, believable. The writing is poetic -- could only ever be writing; the voices are not naturalistic, not intended to be mimetic of how anyone naturally speaks. (At best, one could imagine this as a script for a play, and one is perhaps encouraged to do so by the simple repetitions of "Susan said", "Jinny said", "Louis said", etc., but the play would be very stiff.) The voices ebb and flow together (as a reader one has to be very aware when the voices shift because they are almost indistinguishable -- they aren't "characterised"; beyond the eg "Neville said" often we have few clues in the words to separate one voice from another): they have different trajectories; but they aren't clearly differentiated as characters by Woolf by her giving to each -- in the writing -- different inflexions. But characters (or sets of behaviours that, when they are reported, seem in some way correctly to be attributed to eg Rhoda rather than Susan) do emerge. At the end of the novel these non-characterised voices have almost become archetypes (Susan, wife and mother; Jinny, lover; Rhoda, suicide; Neville, homosexual; Louis, outsider; Bernard, storyteller). "Character" has, in some sense, returned to the novel; has, clearly, in a certain sense, never been able to be entirely left behind (perhaps because the reader can never be entirely left behind). One might say, that the impossible search for characters is what structures the work. And this line of argument might be said to be embodied in the one character who never appears on the novel's stage.


Percival is central to the The Waves. He loves Susan, is loved by Neville, and is beloved by all the voices. And he dies. His lack is reinforced, later, by his total absence. But his, also, is the absence of absence; both because of his constant presence in the work (he is constantly referred to by the other voices) and because of the death that defines him and defies the destiny that all the other voices had hoped for him. He never appears in the novel, but he never leaves it either.


Is Woolf breaking the novel here? Only in as far as she is immediately remaking it. And she remakes it via the traditional elements she is interrogating at the very moment she uses them to write her book.


But, perhaps, Woolf's exercise in "high modernity" is no example whatsoever to use. It is so singular (or, perhaps better, so much a part of a moment) that using it to think about the work other novels do is innappropriate. Certainly, this could be argued. But perhaps it would be better to think about the limitations of the realist novel that Woolf was working against and, more positively, of the art she was working to produce, and ask why she needed to forestall the drive to complex characters and instead produce such a beautiful (and complex) piece of writing.

Readers Comments

  1. Charlotte Mandell Monday 20 November 2006

    There's a lovely (very short) essay by Blanchot on Virginia Woolf in The Book to Come, called "The Failure of the Demon: The Vocation."

  2. Mark,

    This post makes perfect sense to me; especially your adroit statement:

    "Well, I don't think characterisation is that important. Not at all, in fact."

    The British novel has been ruined by this odd Victorian notion: that, indeed, a good novel must, above all, possess well-crafted characterisation. Hogwash! Tripe!

    Well said Mark.

  3. A lovely, smart and thoughtful post.

    It took me a long time to like _The Waves_. When I was in grad school it was fashionable to think of Bernard as a fascist dictator: the rotten man who comes in at the end and takes the book over. This rang so false to me--as did the nattering on about the beauty of the books' poetry (which is, of course, true. It was the nattering that grated).

    I think Bernard's final chapter is the book's boldest experiment in a way because it allows her to dilate on the way that authors come in and try to make sense of it all and can't.

    Anyway, it's delightful to read vicarously as you work through Woolf!

  4. Can't help linking The Waves (fine book though it is) with 'dissociation'.

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