The Waves

However, any claim The Waves has to being an example of democratic literature is savagely undercut by the fact that it is by no means an accessable text. Although it may lack the dense myriad of allusions found in Joyce or Eliot, the novel’s sheer complexity of form and imagery leave the average reader in a position where they can do like more that grope about in the dark for some definite edge, some solid reference, that simply isn’t there. It must be noted that, on the whole, Woolf’s prose itself is fairly comprehendable, if rather eloborate. The difficulty of the text does not lie in understanding the basic meaning of the text, as one often experiences in other Modernist works like Joyce’s Ulysses or Gertrude Stein’s Buttons, but this only a superficial accessibility.The true essence of the novel, and the fundamential way in which it represents the crowd,  is in the difficult symbolism, in the webs of connected personality, in the torrent of associations that lurks beneath the surface of every image. In her book, Fiction and the Reading Public, Q.D Leavis accutely describes the feeling of disappointment and incomprehendability Woolf’s prose can evoke in the “ordinary reader” who “helplessly picks out clumps of words without clearly following the sense”. By employing such a complex style, Woolf is rather ironically providing a stunning portrayal of unmeditated life that can only be accessed through intense medititation. Fundamentally, her intentions are noble- language’s difficulty is wielded in an attemept to force the passive consumer to use his own mind as more than a simple receptacle- but ultimately the effect that is created is one that is thoroughly exclusive and stratifying.

A contemporary review in the San Francisco Chronicle aptly describes this difficulting that the novel has in engaging its reader: “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.” We are here touching upon what is the crux of the argument against seeing The Waves as a piece of democratic literature. Every reader comes to a novel with a set of expectations, defined largely- though not exclusively- by classifications such as genre, and author. As Leavis notes, the average reader has become increasingly likely to use a system of prescribed definitions to categorise books, leading to statements such as “‘I can’t read Conrad, sea-stories bore me ’”. Woolf does not cater to these expectations, infact she acts in direct opposition to them in order to provoke the rousing of the aforementioned active reader from his passive slumber. Although The Waves arguably gives a far deeper and broader scope of plot than many of Woolf’s previous novels- Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse being classic examples of an irreverent disregard for any sort of tradition narrative- the majority of what the reader knows about the events of the character’s lives is not described by a traditional third person omniscient narrator but relayed at a later point by a character’s internal monologue. In this way, Woolf creates the impression of an almost incidental plot, one that is referred to because it is relevant to the characters’ thoughts, not because of any formulaic desire to inform the reader.  Although it may be strongly argued that Woolf’s refusal to relay clear and coherent narratives is an attempt at capturig the reality of life, little such ambiguity exist in Woolf’s refusal to provide certainty or clarification. In fact, the novel seems to revel in the ambiguity it creates by focussing on a set of six characters that arguably revolve around a seventh character whose mind we are never shown. The Waves is unique, in the words of Gerald Bullett’s review of the novel in New Statesman and Nation, because “the characters are not analysed, as in a laboratory : they are entered into, intuited”, yet the reader is never once allowed into Percival’s mind and halfway through the novel, they are suddenly robbed of such a pivotal presence. This is an ambiguity that is never going to be resolved, in fact it is present explicitly to frustrate the reader and stop him defining the book and therefore gaining a sense mastery over it.

The word mastery is not chosen lightly, because that is the essence of the problem: for a novel to truly be classed as democratic literature, it must be liked or at least respected the majority of readers. The Waves is no such novel, if anything it reinforces the stratification of literature discussed by Leavis. Its inaccessibility, its purposeful refusal to pander to the taste of the masses and provide them with what they want all isolate the reader from the text. Much like Leavis, Woolf cannot achieven democratic literature because there is a lingering hierarchy inherent in the formal construction of her work and its meaning that situates the novel, rather than the reader, as ther master in that relationship. Woolf’s desire to impose what she thinks the reader should like or need, to define the purpose of literature and the relationship between text and audience, weaves her seemingly democratic portrayal of the crowd into something much more inflexible, reduces her portrayal of the “luminous halo” of human existence into just another preaching pulpit.

May 2, 2018


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