Contemporary Reviews for The Waves

Updated December 12, 2000
Created August 15, 1997

Mujumdar, Robin, and Allen McLaurin, eds. Virginia Woolf : The Critical Heritage. London; Boston : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

1. Harold Nicolson, review, Action - 8 October 1931

(Harold Nicolson was married to Vita Sackville-West and was a friend of the Woolfs.)

"There is a note in this book which has never yet been heard in European literature. . . . Her whole intention is to depict the fluidity of human experience, the insistent interest of the inconsequent, the half-realised, the half-articulate, the unfinished and the unfinishable. . . . Her aim is to convey the half-lights of human experience and the fluid edges of personal identity. Her six characters fuse, towards the end, into a synthesis of sensation. It is important that this book should be read twice over. The book is difficult. Yet it is superb."

2. Frank Swinnerton, review, Evening News - 9 October 1931

"I am not a great admirer of Mrs Woolf’s work, and I find the present book as bloodless as its predecessors; but it would be idle to deny great distinction to the style, great beauty to many of the similes, and much subtlety and penetration to the author’s intuitions. If to these qualities life had been added, I should have been lost in admiration of Mrs Woolf’s gifts. . . . But the book itself is not very interesting to read. Partly this may be because all the six characters whose thoughts are communicated to us seem to think in the same tone, so that it is hard to remember which of them is which. . . . the incessant chanting effect grows monotonous, and I found my attention distracted or exhausted as I read, even though, a moment before, I had been conscious of magic. . . . In the end . . . she allows one of her rhapsodists to become an apologist and narrator. He tells us, too late, what the book has been about -- the story."

3. Gerald Bullett, review, New Statesman and Nation - 10 October 1931

" . . . Mrs Woolf’s writing has always been ‘difficult’: by which I mean that it will yield its motive, its clear and luminous core, only to a reader who is ready to empty himself of preconceptions and to become in the highest degree receptive, patient, searching. . . . Six characters . . . have each a name, each a private and independent existence; but in one important respect they are all Virginia Woolf. . . . No literary convention is more artificial, or in appearance more absurdly naive, than the soliloquy; and what Mrs Woolf does with it here is little short of miraculous. We see her people as personal essences. . . . It is impossible to describe, impossible to do more than salute, the richness, the strangeness, the poetic illumination of this book. The characters are not analysed, as in a laboratory : they are entered into, intuited. In each soliloquy in this pattern of soliloquies we ourselves are at the centre. We are Bernard, we are Susan, but with this difference: that we have borrowed, for a moment, the lamp of genius, and by its light may read the secrets of our private universe."

4. G. Lowes Dickinson, ‘Your book is a poem’, from a letter to Virginia Woolf - 23 October 1931

(Dickinson was a close friend of members of the Bloomsbury Group, although Virginia Woolf knew him only slightly. As quoted in E. M. Forster’s Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, she replied to his letter: "What you say you felt about The Waves is exactly what I wanted to convey. . . . I did mean that in some vague way we are the same person, and not separate people. The six characters were supposed to be one.")

"Your book is a poem, and as I think a great poem. Nothing that I know of has ever been written like it. . . . The beauty of it is almost incredible. Such prose has never been written and it also belongs to here and now though it is dealing also with a theme that is perpetual and universal."

5. L. P. Hartley, review, Week-end Review - 24 October 1931

"[The characters] do not speak what is in their minds, they speak what is at the back of them : their inner consciousnesses are rendered articulate, but not dramatic, nor even coherent; they proceed from association to association, from speculation to speculation borne up on bubbles of pure aesthetic emotion. . . . the universe, dissolved in the crucible of their minds, no longer exists; it is not an idea even. . . . they have even dimmed the sense of their own identities; it is the printed page that speaks; phrases and sentences of perfect beauty, strains seraphically free from taint of personality. . . . Her genius is like a shaft of sunlight breaking into a room -- a golden medium in which float a million fiery particles but beyond that enchanted area the darkness is darker than it was."

6. Louis Kronenberger, New York Times Book Review - 25 October 1931

". . . the real reason why The Waves comes close, as a novel, to going out of bounds is that its true interests are those of poetry. Mrs Woolf has not only passed up superficial reality; she has also passed up psychological reality. She is not really concerned in The Waves with people, she is hardly concerned in the prosaic sense with humanity . . . . In spirit, in language, in effect The Waves is -- not a poetic novel but a poem, a kind of symphonic poem with themes and thematic development, in prose. It is as weak in genuine perceptiveness as it is rich in sensibility; and even when a character seems most skilful in penetration himself, it is the essence of a mood that he captures, not a truth. Mrs Woolf does not give us her characters as men and women; she gives them to us clearly in seed . . . and in seed they remain throughout the book. . . . The are not six people but six imagist poets, six facets of the imagist poet that Mrs Woolf is herself. . . . though rare and unique enough, it emerges as minor writing. It cannot satisfy the demands of either important fiction or of important poetry. . . . On an extensive scale she has written imagist poetry of the first order -- a very far cry from the ‘biographic style.’ But a very far cry, also, from greatness."

7. Storm Jameson, review, Fortnightly Review - November 1931

"In this book she is striving -- without the concessions made in her earlier books -- to convey a whole vision, the essence of life, not a story-full of scattered and fragmentary forms. . . . Descriptive prose is generally a sort of bastard writing which tries to paint with words. It tries to make you see a sunrise -- which is the proper work of a painter -- as the work of a musician must be to make you hear it. Mrs Woolf’s way with a sunrise is the make you think it. . . . In order to strive for a whole vision . . . Mrs Woolf has made enormous sacrifices. She is like a woman who has turned her back on life and watches it passing in a mirror, so that nothing shall shake the steadiness of her glance, none of those distractions, those sudden blindings, that come from touching what one sees."

8. Robert Herrick, review, Saturday Review of Literature - 5 December 1931

Mrs Woolf . . . has been concerned almost wholly with different ‘states of mind’ from The Voyage Out to The Waves, which aspires to summarise all states of mortal mind. It is a curious progress from the particular to the general. . . . The Waves . . . is style and very little more. . . . the appeal of the universal has quite overwhelmed the sense of the particular. . . . it is a pity that our cleverest writers . . . do not seek to appeal to more of their fellow men. It is always a pity when the head becomes separated from the heart and the instincts, and no longer leads!"

9. Earl Daniels, letter to the editor, Saturday Review of Literature - 5 December 1931

(Earl Daniels was an American university teacher.)

"I wonder if our treatment of Mrs Woolf’s latest novel may not be an indication that American reviewers are likely to look and pass by on the other side, where British fiction is concerned. . . . she has come nearer to fusing prose and poetry into an expression of unapproached beauty than she has in any of her previous writing. . . . Mrs Woolf has experimented with time passing in To the Lighthouse and in Orlando. In The Waves she passes beyond experiment to mature accomplishment, so that I venture the verdict that better than any other novelist she has solved one of the major problems of fiction, and has actually given the reader a full realization of the time element. . . . Time and change, the impinging of time and experience upon individuals make up the important substance of The Waves. . . . Whereas the Psalmist turned outward to God and queried, ‘What is man that Thou art mindful of him?’ Mrs Woolf’s characters turn to that inward self and question, ‘What then is this I, and for what does it count?’ . . . . The Waves is a novel of first importance; one of the few which have come in our own day with so much as a small chance to survive the vigorous test of time."

10. Unsigned review, San Francisco Chronicle - 6 December 1931

"Most people are going to find The Waves extremely difficult reading -- all people, in fact, excepting those who are prepared to accept the author’s highly artificial trick in writing it for the sake of the poetic images she invokes. . . . it is hard to see why Mrs Woolf chose so odd a manner to convey what she had to say. . . . [The characters] are simply six Mrs Woolfs, they are not more than attenuated shadows -- brilliant, many-sided, tricky, but still shadows -- of the real people the reader has a right to expect. . . . No doubt it is a beautiful exercise, but it lacks the reality, the passion, the association with life that would bring it into relation with those who must read it. And lacking that passion, that association, it lacks the significance that would make it a fine book."

11. Gerald Sykes, review, Nation (New York) - 16 December 1931

(Gerald Sykes was an American novelist.)

". . . The Waves suggests a pretty lampshade -- a well-educated lampshade, smart, original, advanced. Not an ordinary lampshade by any means, but one that has been a mode of self-expression. . . . There is beauty -- one has the sensation of being smothered in beauty -- but it is synthetic. . . . In The Waves we see what happens to an amiable talent that lacks an inner drive; we see virtuosity that has finally become disconnected from inspiration, virtuosity therefore that has lost its original charm and turned into a formula; we see a torrent of imagery because the imagist tap has been left running."

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