Making Existentialist Waves

Perhaps I’m misjudging her but I find it hard to imagine Virginia Woolf in a black, turtle-neck sweater, smoking a Gitane. I also think Jean Paul Sartre might have raised an eyebrow or two at  her preoccupation with the servant problem. However, rereading The Waves (published in 1931) as I am, and having read  Sartre’s first novel Nausea (1938) relatively recently, I was struck by the similarities of theme. Simone de Beauvoir said that Sartre was influenced by the use of stream of consciousness by Woolf and other Modernist writers but does it run deeper than that? And could one usefully describe Woolf as an Existentialist novelist? I’ve had these thoughts at the back of my mind all the way through The Waves. The passage below is one of several where, for me, the issues came to the fore. The characters in The Waves are said to resemble specific members of Woolf’s circle. The character Rhoda is said to be based on Woolf herself and the state she describes herself as being in bears more than a passing resemblance to the “nausea” described by Sartre’s character, Roquentin. The emphases are mine:

There were lamp-posts,’ said Rhoda, ‘and trees that had not yet shed their leaves on the way from the station. The leaves might have hidden me still. But I did not hide behind them. I walked straight up to you instead of circling round to avoid the shock of sensation as I used. But it is only that I have taught my body to do a certain trick. Inwardly I am not taught; I fear, I hate, I love, I envy and despise you, but I never join you happily. Coming up from the station, refusing to accept the shadow of the trees and the pillar-boxes, I perceived, from your coats and umbrellas, even at a distance, how you stand embedded in a substance made of repeated moments run together; are committed, have an attitude, with children, authority, fame, love, society; where I have nothing. I have no face.

‘Here in this dining-room you see the antlers and the tumblers; the salt-cellars; the yellow stains on the tablecloth. “Waiter!” says Bernard. “Bread!” says Susan. And the waiter comes; he brings bread. But I see the side of a cup like a mountain and only parts of antlers, and the brightness on the side of that jug like a crack in darkness with wonder and terror. Your voices sound like trees creaking in a forest. So with your faces and their prominences and hollows. How beautiful, standing at a distance immobile at midnight against the railings of some square! Behind you is a white crescent of foam, and fishermen on the verge of the world are drawing in nets and casting them. A wind ruffles the topmost leaves of primeval trees. (Yet here we sit at Hampton Court.) Parrots shrieking break the intense stillness of the jungle. (Here the trams start.) The swallow dips her wings in midnight pools. (Here we talk.) That is the circumference that I try to grasp as we sit together. Thus I must undergo the penance of Hampton Court at seven thirty precisely.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves


7 thoughts on “Making Existentialist Waves

  1. The reason I didn’t leave a comment is that I have never been able to read Virginia Woolf with enjoyment. I read Leonard Woolf’s autobiography at an early age, before I even encountered Virginia – I was about 15 – and she seemed to be so intensely annoying that developed an aversion to her which has lasted ever since. I can of course see the literary merit of her works, and think I must be missing out on some literary treats.

    Actually that reminds me that years ago I bought a first edition of The Waves in a jumble sale for 10p, because it was an obvious bargain, and it has sat on my shelf ever since. I must give it to Oxfam and then a fan can buy and treasure it, and someone in a famine zone can get a few square meals.

    I am sorry, this is probably not the kind of comment you were hoping for 🙂 🙂 but it is Oxfam’s gain …

    1. On the contrary! I found your comment interesting. It’s interesting how we would all most likely claim that art and literature existed independent of its creator but when the chips are down we can’t help but be influenced by biographical details (and impressions formed as a teenager run deep). I feel similarly about Laurence Durrell: I really enjoyed reading his books at one time but felt repelled and unable to pick them up after reading what his daughter had to say about him.

      As for literary treats, To the Lighthouse and The Waves (in that order) are two of my all-time favourite books.

  2. I was looking over my bookshelves the other day – I’ve done a cull – and realised that nearly everything I own now is non fiction. I am trying to work out why.

    1. Mine now has more fiction than it used to, at a guess. And I know I’ve accumulated a disproportionate number of poetry books over the years. The ebbs and flows of one’s books are hard to explain.

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