UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Locating Virginia Woolf’s Critique of Imperialism through the Structural Gaps in The Waves, by Alexander Kwonji Rosenberg

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 “One cannot despise these phrases laid like Roman roads across the tumult of our lives, because they compel us to walk in step like civilized people with the slow and measured tread of policemen”—Bernard, The Waves, 192. My emphasis.

Previous readings of The Waves have characterized this “abstract mystical eyeless book” (Diary 3, 203) as ahistorical and with an “esoteric remoteness” (Flint, xxxiii). However, critics who read The Waves as an entirely “pallid retreat from political issues” have ignored the subtle line of history and social critique that Virginia Woolf traces (Beer, xiv). Indeed, though it may be submerged by the poetic language of the novel, Woolf’s interest in social issues does not disappear in The Waves. Through experimental narrative forms, Woolf explores the processes of empire-building,[1] writing rhetoric, and creating stories. Her critique of imperialism surfaces in The Waves, I argue, through the structures of the gaps that highlight the tensions between performative narratives, the rhetoric of imperialism, and the ways in which The Waves resists monologic and linear stories.

In this article, I elucidate a social critique within The Waves through three structural gaps. First, I examine Woolf’s review of Rudyard Kipling’s notebooks, which I link to Bernard’s parallel notebook that is full of phrasemaking and empire-building. I draw upon the disjunction between heteroglossic and monologic discourses in The Waves that points to a kind of linguistic hegemony and domination performed by Bernard. Additionally, I expand on the issue of heteroglossia among the speakers, as I discuss how these discourses meld together in a specific way—namely, all of the speakers participate in filling in the speaker gap of Percival, though it is mainly Bernard who raises Percival up to the level of a hero through his story-telling. I then return to the textual break between interlude and soliloquy, which subverts the “story” that upholds the Empire by exposing how the sun, as the figurehead of British propaganda and cultural enlightenment, devolves into violence. At the same time, the simultaneity and multiplicity, which the section breaks and flowing repetitions create, offer us a plurality of interpretations and meanings. And while the freedom from these strategies subverts the monologism of imperialist stories, [2]  it also destabilizes a strict reading of imperialism in The Waves. Thus, Woolf explores the discourse of imperialism not through a static position but one that is constantly shifting, varied, and fragmented. I offer one way in which this reading can take shape through the gaps.

As Patrick McGee notes, though there are “obvious and subtle differences of gender and class among the six characters, all of them are shaped by the imperialist ideology into which they are fitted and into which they fit” (645). This article focuses less on the content of The Waves that contains overt social implications, as Woolf removes the majority of explicit references to the social issues that were originally present in the first holograph draft of The Waves.[3]  Because the characters “speak,” the narrator is cut out, and everything is “voiced” in soliloquy, we are drawn instead to the action and performance of these narrative and rhetorical processes. Additionally, in excising from the text the position of the omniscient narrator, Woolf obscures tonal cues[4]  and definitive ways of interpreting the content. Indeed, Hermione Lee notes that the content of The Waves is subsumed by the rhythm of the novel, which “creates a difficulty about the novel’s social assumptions” (170). While interpreting these social assumptions may be difficult due to the lack of tonal cues, we can still read a critique[5] of imperialism through the structures created by the gaps. 

Though the apparent lack of social issues may seem like an aberration in literature, Woolf’s treatment of the subject as a hole or absence in The Waves may in fact be characteristic of modernist texts in general. Frederic Jameson offers us a valuable understanding of how the text functions in relation to this absence. He suggests that modernism is not

a way of avoiding social content—in any case an impossibility for beings like ourselves who are “condemned” to history and to the implacable sociability of even the most apparently private of our experiences—but rather of managing and containing it, secluding it out of sight in the very form itself, by means of specific techniques of framing and displacement which can be identified with some precision (138; my emphasis). [6]

This observation applies to The Waves but with a twist. I argue that though Woolf may “seclude” the social content “out of sight,” we can still place it in the novel, for Woolf’s critique of imperialism is instead to be found in the various narrative structures that the gaps create. Rather than subjugating the issues of Empire through techniques of framing and displacement, Woolf draws upon these structures that highlight for the reader the tensions of empire-building, imperialism, and rhetorical processes. Indeed, within the modernist text, social content is “no longer safely contained by the objective boundaries of the frame” (McGee, 641). For example, since this “frame,” what we can refer to in The Waves as the structures of speakers’ soliloquies, is disrupted by Bernard’s final soliloquy, the content becomes “a social force and a ground of political contention that any reading must confront if it is to make sense out of the work” (641). In other words, the complexities of the gaps provide us with the tonal cues.

“Notebook Literature”: Linking Rhetoric to the Empire

Though some critics have pointed to instances of ambivalence in Woolf’s position toward imperialism,[7] Virginia Woolf, in her essay writing, remained an opponent to British expansion and subject domination. In Three Guineas, a work that extensively deals with social issues, she draws parallels between British patriarchy and imperialism with German fascism.[8] However, for the purposes of this discussion, I will instead examine Woolf’s review of Rudyard Kipling’s Letters of Travel, 1892-1913, as it offers us an important perspective on her view of imperialism as a writer. In “Mr. Kipling’s Notebook” (1920), she not only criticizes Kipling’s belief in the Empire but also his writing style which it serves to promote. Woolf argues that Kipling’s purpose for describing his travels is to “display the splendours of Empire and to induce young men to lay down their lives on her behalf” (Essays, 240)[9]:

 

 It is true that Mr. Kipling shouts, ‘Hurrah for the Empire!’ and puts out his tongue at her enemies. But praise as crude as this, abuse as shallow, can be nothing but a disguise rigged up to justify some passion or other of which Mr. Kipling is a little ashamed. He has a feeling, perhaps, that a grown man should not enjoy making bridges, and using tools, and camping out as much as he does. But if these activities are pursued in the service of Empire, they are not only licensed, but glorified (Essays, 240).

It is this kind of writing that both praises the Empire and seeks to advertise a sense of adventure that Woolf calls “raw material” and “unreadable” (Essays, 239). She criticizes Kipling for creating a comparison between images of roughing it outdoors with serving the Empire; such a comparison, she suggests, plays upon men’s boyish affinity for adventure. Literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century capitalized on the adventure subject and glorified the idea of the hero, self-reliance, and ruggedness. This kind of rhetoric was “understood (implicitly) to answer the political needs of imperialist nations and their ruling classes” (Green, 82). Indeed, Francoise Carter deftly links Kipling’s descriptions of “making bridges, and using tools, and camping out” with the Boy Scout movement, founded in 1908 by Sir Robert Baden-Powel, who based the Boy Scout activities on his military exploits in India and Rhodesia. [10] Writing that notes and describes these glories and adventures holds no truth or meaning for Woolf: “All notebook literature,”[11] she declares, “produces the same effect of fatigue and obstacle, as if there dropped across the path of the mind some block of alien matter which must be removed or assimilated before one can go on with the true process of reading” (Essays, 240). Woolf also comments on how Kipling’s childish enthusiasm for adventure activities is inextricably bound to the act of glorifying Empire: “Whether grown-up people really play this game, or whether, as we suspect, Mr. Kipling makes up the whole British Empire to amuse the solitude of his nursery, the result is curiously sterile and depressing” (Essays, 241). As I will explore, story-making and glorifying the Empire through “notebook literature” is an important act in The Waves, one which Bernard and the rest of the speakers perform in creating the heroic image of Percival. First, let us begin with the apparent clash between voices through the lens of imperialism.

The Disjunction between Voices: A Reading of Imperialist Forces

The tension between the heteroglossic and monologic voices provides us with a comment on monologic narrativity as a force not only parallel to but also a part of the rhetoric of imperialism. There is a clear connection between Kipling’s “notebook style” literature and Bernard’s own notebook, in which he writes phrases for his future novel.[12] Bernard, as the monologic voice in the final soliloquy, enacts the role of the imperialist story-bolster, just like Rudyard Kipling. By telling stories of daily events, he gives them order and sequence. He makes sense of his experience by bringing events together by means of “linked phrases,” so that “instead of incoherence there is perceived a wandering thread, lightly joining one thing to another” (38).

There is a trade-off in imposing coherence through one narrative voice, as the sense of multiplicity evoked through the rest of the speakers is reduced, a kind of domination analogous to the Empire’s rule. Mikhail Bakhtin notes that “in the unity of a monologically perceived and understood world […] there is no presumption of a plurality of equally-valid consciousnesses, each with its own world” (Problems, 7). He also describes “philosophical monologism” as an “attempt to squeeze the artist’s demonstrated plurality of consciousness into the systematically monologic framework of a single worldview” (Problems, 9).

Bernard’s incorporation of the interludes[13] and the other speakers’ soliloquies as evidence of this textual command best illustrates this point, as Bernard clearly transgresses the designations of narrative structures. After the accumulation of heteroglossic textures grows to a crescendo, the discourse narrows down to Bernard’s voice. Woolf hints at the tension between heteroglossia and monologism throughout the novel—the sense of the speakers’ unity and connection through their communal language and shared imagery is present from the beginning. It is only in the final soliloquy that Woolf explicitly condenses the voices so that the gap is made apparent to the reader both through the literal structure of the work and through the dialectical tension between present and absent voices. Bernard retells the story of his friends’ lives and appropriates their experiences, identities, and perspectives into his own voice:

Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan’s tears. I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt (214).

 In this way, he orders and focuses the chaotic plurality of the speakers to “sum up” and “explain the meaning of my life” (176). This narrative ordering contributes to the sense of “roundness, weight, depth,” that Bernard sense to be his life (176). Bernard even absorbs the narrative voice of the interludes:

Day rises; the girl lifts the watery fire-hearted jewels to her brow; the sun levels his beams straight at the sleeping house; the waves deepen their bars; they fling themselves on shore; back blows the spray; sweeping their waters they surround the boat and the sea-holly. The birds sing in chorus; deep tunnels run between the stalks of flowers; the house is whitened; the sleeper stretches; gradually all is astir (216).

In the words of Bakhtin, Bernard presents the “single ideational accent” through the “statement of an idea [that is] thoroughly monologistic” (Problems, 82). Bernard writes ideas and fictions as facts and “truths” in reshaping the voices of the interludes and his friends’ soliloquies.[14] His incorporation of these other voices demonstrates his domination, what Jane Marcus calls “literary hegemony”: he performs the forces of imperialism by absorbing the voices of “his marginalized peers into his own voice” (Marcus, 142). Bernard’s “literary hegemony,” then, dramatizes the movement of the text in invading the spaces of the interludes and other speakers’ voices. If, as Simon Gikandi argues, “the imperial map of the world was to thread its way into the cultural products of the West and become a vital part of its ‘texture of linguistic and cultural practice,’” The Waves reflects the violence[15]  of the Empire’s practice through the voice of Bernard (Maps of Englishness, 5). This practice incorporates and combines all other voices; indeed, Bernard mixes the voice of the interludes with his own memory, linking the house of the interludes with the metaphoric image of his nurse, who “turns the pages of the picture-book [and] stopped and said, ‘Look. This is the truth’” (213). In this way, The Waves can be seen as a text which dramatizes and exposes the practices of a monologistic and imperialistic rhetoric in the tension between the heteroglossic and monologic discourses.

Additionally, Woolf links Bernard’s monologistic narrative command directly to imperialistic control. Quite tellingly, he admits in his final soliloquy to a passing desire to take hold of the British Empire. After narrating the various rhythms and orders of life that go on ticking like the “mainspring of a clock,” Bernard imagines: “suddenly the telephone rang with urgency and I rose deliberately and went to the telephone. I took up the black mouth. I marked the ease with which my mind adjusted itself to assimilate the message—it might be (one has these fancies) to assume command of the British Empire’” (193). The “black mouth” of Bernard’s telephone weaves together his fantasy of imperial command with technology. It is also reminiscent of Louis’s heeding the “White Man’s Burden”: “My shoulder is to the wheel; I roll the dark before me, spreading commerce where there was chaos in the far parts of other worlds” (122).[16] These instances are part of the direct, albeit few, textual links in The Waves between imperialism and desires for authority and control that Bernard enacts.

Bernard’s narrative construction and empire-building prove bound together through the parallel of authoritative impulses, but unlike Kipling’s notebook literature, The Waves subverts the monologic narrative form of imperialism that upholds a strictly univocal position. Indeed, Woolf creates a new kind of textual space or “cultural project” that “consists […] in offering the possibility of different modes of subjective positioning in language beyond the pretty fictions” of notebook literature (Paccaud-Huguet, 230). Though the concept of “subjective positioning” primarily refers to the subjectivity of characters and reader perspectives, The Waves also includes identity formation at both the national and textual levels: the exploration of the imperialist theme through the violence and dominance that Bernard’s monologic narrative creates.

McIntire rightly notes that Woolf does not want to “enforce a law” that would have her, in turn, “monologically dictating the terms of the debate” in order to convey to the reader the costs of a monologic narrative (31). Instead, Woolf’s exploration of imperialism in The Waves, in her criticism of the kind of reductive violence Bernard performs, communicates this discussion to the reader subtly through the gaps of the novel. Because these structures open up the plurality of interpretations and readings, Woolf avoids the same mistake she criticizes of linear and monologic narratives. I will return to this subject again when I discuss how images move in and out of references to imperialism.

 Woolf does not merely draw a parallel between the reductive violence wrought by imperialism and Bernard’s final soliloquy; rather, she subtly connects the rhetoric of Empire, of monlogism itself, to Bernard’s rhetoric and reductive summation, and she explores how heteroglossic discourses create the heroic figure of Percival. Bernard creates the monologic rhetoric that Woolf links to the discourse of imperialism both in the text and through Bernard’s reductive violence and linguistic domination of the other speakers’ voices in The Waves. The exact nature of this rhetoric comes into question, as I now turn to the other side of the narrative tension, to the heteroglossia of the speakers, who write together the heroic figure of Percival.

Stories, Empire, and the Gap of Percival

The speakers of The Waves all participate in forming the absent character, Percival, as the hero of the Empire. He has no voice in the novel and only exists through the heteroglossic discourse of the speakers, who mythologize him in their soliloquies. Through the hole left by Percival, Woolf gives a name to what Gayatri Spivak would call, after Derrida, the “blank part of the text,” that open space in which we find certain exclusions from representation (294). The “blank part of the text” is itself a sign of the historical condition and limit of representation.  Indeed, the very gap of Percival, a kind of narrative silence, allows Woolf to express the issues of empire and imperialism in her modernist aesthetic: through the heteroglossia of the speakers’ stories and discourses that fill in Percival’s gap, Woolf links a kind of story-telling rhetoric to imperialism, hero-worship, and the British public school system.

All of the characteristics the speakers ascribe to Percival frame him as the imperial commander. Even his name suggests his apparent bravery and mythological status, as it alludes to Sir Percival, the knight of the Arthurian legend in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, or the character in Wagner’s opera Parsifal, who sets out on the romantic quest for the Holy Grail, a symbol of perfection (Carter, 84). Indeed, we are first introduced to the silent figure when Louis describes his “magnificence” as that of “some mediaeval commander”: “A wake of light seems to lie on the grass behind him. Look at us trooping after him, his faithful servants, to be shot like sheep, for he will certainly attempt some forlorn enterprise and die in battle” (37).[17] In his imaginative vision, Louis voices the self-conscious position the speakers form around Percival as “faithful servants.” Even after Percival’s death, Neville fantasizes that Percival “would have done justice for fifty years, and sat in Court and ridden alone at the head of troops and denounced some monstrous tyranny and come back to us” (109-110).[18] It is interesting that Neville places Percival as a leader and rebel above the “monstrous tyranny” of colonialism and the British Empire, for all the details of Percival’s life point to his complicity and obedience to follow Britain’s orders—in fact, Percival travels to India in order to correct the West’s “Oriental problem.”[19]

Before his trip to India, the speakers gather together to wish him farewell.  As its place in the center of the novel suggests, the dinner scene is a significant event in The Waves, and for the purposes of this discussion, it presents a moment in which the heteroglossia of the speaker’s soliloquies clearly works together to not only create Percival as the hero of the Empire but also India as the colonized “Other.” Bernard begins this process and imagines Percival as the savior who will tackle the chaos of the third world country by bringing culture and order. He narrates:

“I see India,” said Bernard. “I see the low, long shore; I see the tortuous lanes of stamped mud that lead in and out among ramshackle pagodas; I see the gilt and crenellated buildings which have an air of fragility and decay as if they were temporarily run up buildings in some Oriental exhibition. I see a pair of bullocks who drag a low cart along the sun-baked road.  The cart sways incompetently from side to side.  Now one wheel sticks in the rut, and at once innumerable natives in loin-cloths swarm round it, chattering excitedly.  But they do nothing.  Time seems endless, ambition vain.  Over all broods a sense of the uselessness of human exertion. There are strange sour smells. An old man in a ditch continues to chew betel and to contemplate his navel. But now, behold, Percival advances; Percival rides a flea-bitten mare, and wears a sun-helmet.  By applying the standards of the West, by using the violent language that is natural to him, the bullock-car is righted in less than five minutes. The Oriental problem is solved.  He rides on; the multitude cluster round him, regarding him as if he were—what indeed he is—a God’’ (98).

Bernard’s description of the bullock cart is an allusion to a similar scene in Kipling’s Kim, which points to Bernard’s role as the author serving the goals and rhetoric of the Empire (Marcus, 245). By mythologizing Percival as the leader who applies the “standards of the West” and saves the bullock cart, Bernard demonstrates for the reader how rhetoric works to praise the figures and ideologies of imperialism through contrasts between the competency of the West and ineptitude of the colonized. Indeed, Bernard describes India as an alien land with “stamped mud that lead in and out among ramshackle pagodas” and likens the architecture to stereotypical images of deteriorated “run up buildings in some Oriental exhibition” (98).[20] The other speakers also participate in constructing this opposition: Rhoda imagines “the dancing and drumming of naked men with assegais,”[21] Louis envisions the “dance of savages” with the “leopard skins and the bleeding limbs which they have torn from the living body,” and Neville assures the others, “We are walled in here. But India lies outside” (101, 102, 98). Through the speakers, the images of India suddenly become those of Africa—the “Oriental problem” [22] transforms into the “African problem,” as the speakers amass foreign and colonized cultures into one indistinguishable “Other.” Interestingly, even in the rhetoric of hero-worship, Bernard constructs his narrative of the bullock cart in a passive voice: “the bullock-cart is righted in less than five minutes” (98). Though Percival may be the apparent “God” that saves the colonized from their ineptitude, he is once again just a space or a hole, a tool used for the goals of the British Empire. Thus, through the structure and syntax of Bernard’s story, Woolf subtly undermines the apparent rhetoric that builds heroes, and she exposes Percival’s place as a mere servant of imperialism. 

Similarly, the descriptive content of Bernard’s story turns on its own rhetoric. Woolf clearly emphasizes the sense of deflation and hollowness in the grandiose language that glorifies the imperial commander, as Bernard imagines the bathetic image of Percival on a “flea-bitten mare,” wearing a helmet to protect his face from the sun. Indeed, the “notebook literature” image of the Empire’s hero ultimately gives way to the reality of his death. Unlike the heroic ending Louis predicts for Percival, the soldier does not die valiantly in battle. Instead, as Neville explains, “He fell. His horse tripped. He was thrown” (109). Percival dies from an accident on his horse. The speakers do not try to mask his death in their rhetoric of hero-worship. Just as the bathetic nature of Percival’s imperialistic future in India slips into Bernard’s narrative, so too does the narrative of his death give way to farce, subverting his glorified status within the Empire.

If Percival figures into The Waves as the center of the novel and is signified as an absence, what does it mean for the novel to be structured by this gap? Woolf emphasizes the hole that the other speakers try to fill in so as to point to the role of rhetoric and literature in creating and upholding the ideal soldier of the Empire, what she warns against in “Mr. Kipling’s Notebook.” Indeed, The Waves implies through the gap and overt absence of Percival that the culture which the speakers are a part of can easily create figures like Percival—as a silent character, he can be anyone the speakers and the culture choose to create. [23]

The British public school system, as the breeding ground of this culture, emphasized a sense of competition, leadership, and hero-worship, qualities that prepared the students for the role as defenders of the Empire.[24] In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf argues that the schools endow their students with a

Master in Lunacy. All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the [British public] school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides,’ and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot (110).

Indeed, in the school section of The Waves, Woolf exposes how Percival is fitted into this process as the leader in sports whom everyone follows (25). Through Bernard and the other speakers, Woolf dramatizes the literature and voice that uphold the doctrine of imperialism, as they narrate and create the character of Percival who will “put right” the cultures of colonized people by using the “violent language that is natural to him” (98).[25] This kind of literature was very much a part of the nineteenth century British public school system, which used such rhetoric to

glorify and promote the idea of heroism, through the study of ancient Greek and Latin, both languages of former great empires, through romantic notions of knights in shining armor riding into battle, through nineteenth century romantic poetry, and through writers [like Rudyard Kipling] who glorified the British Empire (Carter, 89).[26]

According to Anthony Easthope, national cultures are “reproduced through narratives and discourses” (Englishness and National Culture, 12). Thus, it is fitting that the “notebook literature” that praises and romanticizes the Empire instills within its culture the practices and tools for creating “heroes,” who ultimately act as servants to the nation. The Waves, itself a narrative, reflects the tension and anxiety of its national culture in regards to imperialism, both thematically and textually, through the gap of Percival. For, on the one hand, he appears as the figure that the speakers and British culture “write” him to be, and on the other, his very absence exposes this process of cultural “writing” to the reader.

Though all the speakers create the figure of Percival, it is Bernard who explicitly takes the place of author in the final section. As I have previously mentioned, Bernard enacts the role of the empire upholder, like Rudyard Kipling. And just as he orders his life by connecting events through “linked phrases,” so too does Bernard tell the “story” of Percival (38). However, as the language of his story and the gap in Percival’s discourse stresses, this notebook literature comes only from Bernard’s imagination—it is the fabrication that the Empire’s rhetoric creates to further boundaries of subjugation. Similar to the story of his life and the stories of the other speakers’ lives that he creates in his final soliloquy, Bernard’s story of Percival is predicated on the impulse to “sum up” life (176).

Yet during his final soliloquy, Bernard comes to realize that language cannot fix meaning—it creates a false coherence and an “arbitrary design” (156). With this realization, Bernard drops his notebook on the floor, empty and useless: “What is the phrase for the moon? And phrases for love? By what name are we to call death? I do not know” (216). He is “done with phrases,” the empty words that fill in stories. Bernard recognizes that this arbitrary reduction contains overtones of political and social dominance. He disparages his own narrative strategy in claiming that the ordered “story” of life is a “mistake, this extreme precision, this orderly and military progress; a convenience, a lie” (189; my emphasis). A rhetoric that “lies” in its attempt to create coherence for the sake of “convenience” is far too close, Woolf suggests, to the rhetoric of imperialism, colonialism, and “military progress.” [27]

 Thus, through Bernard’s trajectory as an author, Woolf demonstrates how “notebook literature” unravels, not only in its aesthetic design to capture coherence and dismantle a sense of multiplicity, but also in its use for ideologies. Woolf mocks imperial story-tellers’ creation of a literature that praises the hollow notions of heroism and the grandeur of empire-building, and she illuminates how the rhetoric structures these beliefs.

The ending of The Waves complicates Bernard’s dual position in creating the monologic rhetoric of the Empire and in recognizing its failure. He declares:

What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death! (220).

Bernard takes over Percival’s knightly and heroic position in facing death—he narrates himself instead, in his own elevated rhetoric that suggests a medieval conquest. Is there not a sense of irony in his comparison to Percival? Is Bernard not aware of his own impulse to reduce life to narrative? Finally, does he not realize that in his last attempt to discover some kind of meaning to life, he once again writes in a romantic rhetoric? Woolf appears to hint that Bernard recognizes this, for he was disillusioned by the failure of reductive literature only moments before. Woolf emphasizes that Bernard’s final declaration is indeed a story, an imaginative musing on the theme of heroism. With an upward rise of the spirit, Bernard continues to “speak” and tries to fill in the gap of death and solitude[28]: “Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!” (220). Words are all he has to convey the illusion that “something adheres for a moment” (176), and his effort to “sum up” and fill in these abysses affirms Woolf’s original intention to “show that the theme effort, effort dominates; not the waves: and personality: and defiance” (Diary 3, 339). 

However, because Woolf gives the “final word” to the interludes[29]—“The waves broke on the shore (220)—she obscures a definitive answer as to whether Bernard triumphs “over the abysses of space” or fails (168). This last gap between interlude and soliloquy highlights the tension that cannot be easily explained away in The Waves. She leaves open the interpretation of the ending for the reader.

Interlude and Soliloquy Breaks as Subversions of Narrative and National Schemes

Similar to the gap between heteroglossic and monologic discourses, the breaks between interlude and soliloquy provide us with a way to read beyond the apparent lack of content concerned with issues of imperialism and empire. I refer to the gap between these sections not as a disjunction but as an open structure that multiplies the possibilities of reading by creating a sense of simultaneity. [30] This sense of simultaneity occurs through the rhythmic pattern of textual breaks between sections and the overlap among shared images.

In defining the modernist text, Tamar Katz explains that the various narrative strategies writers experiment with “offer the perceptual processes of the subject as the real story, and in doing so raise the question of just what shape subjectivity might possess” (232).[31] Through the structures of the gaps, Woolf not only questions “what shape subjectivity might posses,” but also the violence of imperialism on the page. Woolf challenges the concept of “notebook literature,” the Empire it reinforces, and she offers the reader an alternate narrative form.

The interludes describe the trajectory of the sun over the course of one day. Similar to the parallel between Kipling’s literature from his notebook and Bernard’s own notebook (along with the speakers’ rhetoric), there is also a connection with the images in the interludes that Woolf demonstrates to function as the “notebook literature” of Britain. Indeed, the common nineteenth century expression, “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” captures the association of the sun with the reach of the British Empire across colonized nations (Wilson, 55). Part of the Empire’s campaign and propaganda to expand its domain included images that show the natives being freed from despotic rule, raised from their ignorance, and saved from cruel and barbarous practices (Sharpe, 100).  The interludes (and to an extent, the soliloquies) capture this “story” through the image of the sun, instructing “the coloniz[ed] culture as an emissary of light” (Sharpe, 100). Gayatri Spivak reminds us that the story of imperialism, understood as England’s “social mission,” was a crucial part of the cultural representation of the nation to the English (Spivak, 269). I have examined how literature and rhetoric figure into the goals of the Empire in the previous sections of this chapter; likewise, the role of literature in “the production of cultural representation should not be ignored” (Spivak, 269). The “story” of the Empire not only affects the colonized but also instructs the English, as the rhetoric justifies the reasons for imperialism and shapes English national identity and the narratives that follow from it. The Waves engages with the issues of imperialism and the Empire’s bolstering rhetoric through the rhythmic breaks between soliloquy and interlude. These breaks invite the reader to note Woolf’s careful narrative progression of the sun through the day.

Through the imagery of the sun as the symbol of the Empire, Woolf narratizes the violence of imperialism that grows fiercer as the sun moves from feminine to dehumanized forms.  In the first interlude, Woolf presents the image of the sun as a woman with a lamp: “Behind it, too, the sky cleared as if the white sediment there had sunk, or as if the arm of a woman couched beneath the horizon raised a lamp and flat bars of white, green, and yellow, spread across the sky like the blades of a fan (3). The sun spreads her light from the horizon of the sky all the way to the boundaries of the house; in this way, Woolf writes into the text a possible narrative of the Empire’s encroachment both on places beyond the horizon and on the domestic spaces of England. For if the “lady with the lamp”[32] represents the glory of the British Empire, Woolf points to how this figurehead is disturbingly put to use as a tool of violence and unravels through this process. Indeed, the label of the “woman” devolves in the third interlude into a “girl who had shaken her head and made all the jewels” (52).

Likewise, the image of the girl transforms slowly into an “it,” as Woolf removes her from the fourth interlude: “The sun, risen, no longer couched on a green mattress darting a fitful glance through watery jewels, bared its face and looked straight over the waves” (78). This growing shift to unsex the “lady with the lamp” through the pronoun “it” [33] signals a turn to the patriarchy and masculine forces of militarism, and the violence associated with these forces.  References to imperialism and militarism often occur together because, once a country accepts the need for colonies, it must rely on force to put down local rebellion and fend off other European nations. This explains the inextricable link between imperialism and the violence it enacts both on colonies and other imperialist nations.

The full force of the sun as a symbol of the Empire comes in the fifth interlude as the scope of the waves and the house broadens:

Now the sun burnt uncompromising, undeniable. It struck upon the hard sand, and the rocks became furnaces of red heat; it searched each pool and caught the minnow hiding in the cranny […] or it fell upon the arid waste of the desert, here wind-scourged into furrows, here swept into desolate cairns, here sprinkled with stunted dark-green jungle trees. It lit up the smooth gilt mosque, the frail pink-and-white card houses of the southern village, and the long-breasted, white-haired women who knelt in the river bed beating wrinkled clothes upon stones (107).

Woolf brings into focus the image of the sun as the marker of the Empire’s expansion. She no longer hints at the sun’s reach through descriptions of the sky and horizon. Instead, she explicitly writes into the “story” of the sun the places it lights up throughout the Empire: the “deserts,” “cairns,” and “mosque” of the Middle East and Asia, the “stunted dark-green jungle trees” of Africa, and even the “card houses” of Southern Europe. It is in this passage that Woolf most clearly connects the rise of the sun with the nation’s echo, “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” as the sun’s “uncompromising, undeniable” rays strike, “search” out, and control these colonized areas. Thus, Woolf subverts the “story” of the sun as the head of the Empire by exposing its violence through these breaks between soliloquy and interlude that create the sun’s progression from feminine to neutral.

By reshaping the conventional “story-telling” structure of The Waves through section breaks, Woolf not only resists “authoritative narratives” but also exposes the “culture that relies upon and uses these words to dictate to, and define and dominate” both the colonized subjects and the nation’s own people (Burford, 269). The breaks between soliloquy and interlude, then, reveal the transformation of violence and domination wrought by the Empire through the imagery of the sun. In creating alternative narratives that suggest simultaneity rather than linear progression and creating a place in the text that exists outside of traditional forms and their hierarchies of monologism, Woolf destabilizes the “story” that the “sun never sets on the British Empire.” Additionally, by demonstrating how the sun as the figurehead of the Empire unravels into hegemony through the breaks between sections, Woolf subverts the authority of the Empire’s phrase.

            However, the image of the sun moves in and out of references to imperialism. I would be overstating a reading of imperialism in The Waves if I did not acknowledge the fact that we can attach many meanings to the images in the interludes. Indeed, the image of the sun could be read as a plurality of ideas, suggested in the various contexts that Woolf’s non-linear structure creates. For example, the rhythm between section breaks draws our attention to parallels across the structures. As the interludes document the rising and falling of the sun, the soliloquies span the lengths of the speakers’ lives. From this perspective, then, we can read the sun as the marker of time and progress. Or we can read the image of the sun, from sunrise to sunset, as the integration and dissolution between individuals and community. The interpretations run on.

Woolf does not need to resolve multiple or shifting meanings attached to images into a reductive system of social values that represent or suggest imperialism. Indeed, the text “rests” on ambiguities, multiple meanings, and perhaps even contradictions. If we locate, as Toril Moi urges, “the politics of Woolf’s writing precisely in her textual practice” (16), we perceive the alternation of images in accordance with Woolf’s aesthetic and philosophic vision of life: the twists and turns of differences and multiplicity. The demand to pin the text down to a strict imperialist reading, let alone an anti-imperialist reading, closes off just those questions which The Waves leaves open. There is no overt or monolithic “political opinion” in The Waves, but rather a subtle exploration of connections and references that move in and out of the imperialist critique.

 Such a demand ignores the warnings that the tension between heteroglossic and monologic voices makes apparent. In other words, within the narrative systems and social schemes that Woolf stresses, she adds processes of exchange, performance, multiple voices, and various roles. The effect of this flux [34] is part of the weaving sense of heteroglossia and multiplicity.   

Through the gaps in The Waves, Woolf explores various strands of society, history, and narrative. She does not start with a blunt social message to be expressed and then discover the appropriate form; rather, she expresses the subtleties and tensions as they evolve in relation to her writing. This brings me to the final point on reading a critique of imperialism through the gaps. Critics’ previous charge of The Waves as “ahistorical,” while perhaps an oversight, points to the issue of what Woolf leaves out of the novel. She excises from the text the majority of overt references to social issues—in this discussion, imperialism—in order to narrate what Patrick McGee calls the “historicity of language itself” (642); that is, through the gaps and frustrations, the text opens up for us a possible reading of the tensions and contemporary anxieties of Woolf’s nation concerning empire.

By writing The Waves in her modernist aesthetic, a kind of absence that draws attention to the apparent lack of social issues within the novel, Virginia Woolf demonstrates rhetorical processes to be based on social practices. She concentrates on the structures and processes of her novel which at once provide the reader with the apparent “notebook literature” of the Empire (Percival and the “lady with the lamp”), expose this process of story-telling, and in doing so, question the authority of these stories. At the same time, images such as the sun take on other meanings aside from references to imperialism—Woolf evades reducing her critique down to one monologic voice. She structures her critique based on absence so as to move beyond an explicit discussion of imperialism in The Waves. Such a method draws our attention to the complex relationship between imperialistic tendencies for control and the rhetoric that enables and supports ideologies.

-ALEXANDER KWONJI ROSENBERG.

Alexander is currently a graduate student at the University of Oxford, where he was a finalist for the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. He graduated summa cum laude from Cornell University in 2010 with a BA in English Language and Literature. A Merrill Presidential Scholar, College of Arts and Sciences Banner Bearer, and member of Phi Beta Kappa, Alexander hopes to continue his work in literature, literacy, and human rights advocacy. He has worked as the project director for a grassroots organization in rural Tanzania devoted to education, health, and community development. Alexander also led a grant project in Uganda to create a school library and various literacy activities within his village during 2008. While at Cornell, he taught service-employees reading and writing, coordinated a community health outreach organization, and served as editor-in-chief for two publications. His recent writing can be found in The Trellis, The Prose-Poem Project, and Clockwise Cat.

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Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. 1929. Ed. and Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Beer, Gillian. “Introduction.” The Waves. Ed. Gillian Beer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Burford, Arianne. “Communities of Silence and Music in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.Virginia Woolf and Communities. Selected Papers from the Eight Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Eds. Jeanette McVicker and Laura Davis. New York: Pace University Press, 1999. 269-75.

Carter, Francoise. “The Waves and Virginia Woolf’s Anti-Imperialism.” The Virginia Woolf Review, 17 (2000). Tokyo: The Virginia Woolf Society of Japan.

Dickinson, Renée. “Exposure and Development: Re-Imagining Narrative and Nation in the Interludes of The Waves.” Woolf Studies Annual. 13.1 (2007): 25-47.

Easthope, Anthony. Englishness and National Culture. London: Routledge, 1999.

Flint, Kate. “Introduction.” The Waves. Ed. Kate Flint. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

Gikandi, Simon. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Graham, J. W. “Point of View in The Waves: Some Services of the Style.” Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Criticism. Ed. Thomas S.W. Lewis. McGraw-Hill, 1975. 

Green, Martin. 1992. “Adventures Stake Their Claim.” Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century ‘British’ Literary Canons. Ed. Karen Lawrence. Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Hite, Molly. “Introduction.” The Waves. Ed. Molly Hite. Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 2006.

Jameson, Fredric. “Reflections on the Brecht-Lukacs Debate.” The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. Volume 2: The Syntax of History. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1988. 133-147.

Laurence, Patricia. The Reading of Silence. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991. 

Katz, Tamar. “Modernism, Subjectivity, and Narrative Form: Abstraction in The Waves.Narrative 3.3 (October 1995): 232-51.

Marcus, Jane. “Britannia Rules The Waves.” Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Margaret Homans. (1993): 227-248. 

McGee, Patrick. “The Politics of Modernist Form; Or, Who Rules The Waves?” Modern Fiction Studies. 38 (1992): 631-650.

McIntire, Gabrielle. “Heteroglossia, Monologism, and Fascism: Bernard Reads The Waves.” Narrative 13. 1 (2005): 29-45.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. London and New York: Methuen, 1985.

Paccaud-Huguet, Josiane. “The Crowded Dance of Words: Language and Jouissance in The Waves.Q/W/E/R/T/Y 5.1 (1995): 227-40.

Seshagiri, Urmila. “Orienting Virginia Woolf: Race, Aesthetics, and Politics in To the Lighthouse.” Modern Fiction Studies. 50.1 (2004): 58-84.

Sharpe, Jenny. “Figures of Colonial Resistance.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader.  Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffen. London: Routledge, 1995. 

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader.  Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffen. London: Routledge, 1995. 

Steiner, George. Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman. New York: Atheneum, 1967.

Wilson, John. “Noctes Ambrosianae.” Blackwood’s Magazine.  [1835?]

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957.

________. Collected Essays. 4 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967.

________. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Intro. Quentin Bell. 5 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977-84.

________. “The Leaning Tower.” Collected Essays. Vol. 1 and 2. Ed. Leonard Woolf. London: The Hogarth Press, 1966. 153-61.

________. “The Mark on the Wall.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. NY: Harcourt, 1985. 77-83.

________. “Mr. Kipling’s Notebook” (1920). The Essays of Virginia Woolf, III vols. London: The Hogarth Press, 1988. 

________. Three Guineas. Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin, 1978.

________. The Waves. Ed. Molly Hite. Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 2006.


[1] In this article, I take up the cultural and imperialist discussion that Jane Marcus began in “Britannia Rules The Waves and that Patrick McGee complicates in “The Politics of Modernist Form; Or, Who Rules The Waves?” McGee disagrees with Marcus’s approach because she partially ignores the issue of structure: “Still, by subordinating the novel’s form to its context without paying sufficient attention to the process of mediation, Marcus tends to overlook the politics of literary form at the heart of The Waves and possibly of the modernist project itself” (632). I argue that this “process of mediation” occurs at the level and structure of the gaps. Additionally, McGee’s disagreement with Marcus’s claim that Woof “intended to produce a full-blown critique of imperialism in The Waves” (632) highlights the issue of interpreting and situating a social discourse in The Waves. I believe this room for interpretation is created in part by the structure of the gaps that at once allow for a reading of an imperialist critique and at the same time remain open to other readings. See footnote 4 on tonal cues, which produce a sense of ambiguity.

[2] For as I explain later in this article, Woolf avoids creating a monologic discourse of imperialism, one that is coherent but at the same time reductive.  

[3] The drafts of The Waves originally mentioned working-class children who were “washing up plates” as the upper-class children sat at their desks, and “Florrie” who went out as a kitchen-maid when the others went off to school in Switzerland (183). See other examples of social and class differences on pages 47-48, 69-70, and 97-98 in The Waves by Virginia Woolf; Two Holograph Drafts transcribed and edited by J. W. Graham.

[4] See Molly Hite’s “Introduction” to The Waves, 2006 Harcourt edition, in which she notes that the issues of empire, gender, and class “intrude without a clear indication of what one is supposed to believe or how one is supposed to feel about them” (lxii).The absence of tonal cues within the content of the The Waves provides another reason why I instead turn to the structures of the novel to guide my reading. As I argue throughout this article, the meaning that arises from the structures of the gaps allows us to read beyond the written content of the novel.

[5] Complexities arise in considering the position Woolf takes when she critiques imperialism and empire-building. Specifically, Woolf does not have to identify or support imperialism to be implicated (however indirectly) in its representations. Nor does she fully escape the imperialist system in representing or even subverting its ideologies in the text. It is contradictory to argue that The Waves contains elements of history and society that we cannot ignore and at the same time say that Woolf rises above these imperialist tensions and issues through her critique of imperialism (McGee, 647).

[6] Jameson, Fredric. “Reflections on the Brecht-Lukacs Debate.” The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. Volume 2: The Syntax of History. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1988. 133-147. George Steiner also notes that there is a shift in balance of the discourse toward the “unsayable.” He defines “crucial aspects of modernity” in terms of the increase in “internal language” and of the “concomitant inflation of public verbalization, of ‘publicity’ in the full sense of the term” (Language and Silence, 58). Perhaps, then, the transformation of literature is “inward” toward more ambiguities and narrative gaps that also configure questions of social meaning.

[7] Urmila Seshagiri problematizes critics’ notion of Woolf as an anti-imperialist with respect to issues of race, as she points to the Dreadnought Hoax of 1910, where members of Bloomsbury appeared in blackface and cobbled together African languages in order to gain a tour of the ship. In this instance along with the Post-Impressionist Ball of 1911, full of cultural distortions that “replicated imperialist racial hegemonies,” Woolf presented “an active investment in racial difference and its possibilities for undermining English cultural authority” (63). In other words, even in a critique of imperialism and Empire, Seshagiri argues, Woolf relies on stereotypes of race and the elements of imperialism. We should keep in mind the complexity of Woolf’s position when reading the thread of imperialism in The Waves.

[8] Additionally, In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf criticizes political figures like Mussolini as she draws together imperial desires, the oppression of women, and fascist rule. A Room of One’s Own immediately precedes the publication of The Waves, and Woolf was engrossed in composing the novel while she was drafting her polemical essay.

[9] “Mr. Kipling’s Notebook” (1920). The Essays of Virginia Woolf, III vols. London: The Hogarth Press, 1988. 

[10] Baden-Powell commanded the 5th Dragoon Guards stationed in India from 1897 and took part in the British defense of Mafeking in 1900 during the Boer War (1899-1902). The scouts’ outdoor activities were derived from his textbook on fieldcraft and survival based on his experience of fighting the Ndebele in Rhodesia. Quoted from Carter.

[11] Woolf notes that “the old notebooks, with their trees, streams, sunsets, Piccadilly at dawn, Thames at midday, waves on the beach, are quite unreadable. And for the same reason so is much of Mr. Kipling—quite unreadable” (Essays, 238-239).

[12] At school, Bernard begins to write in “a fat book with many pages, methodically lettered. I shall enter my phrases. Under B shall come ‘Butterfly powder.’ If, in my novel, I describe the sun on the window-sill, I shall look under B and find butterfly powder. That will be useful. The tree ‘shades the window with green fingers.’ That will be useful” (27).

[13] Woolf chooses to highlight the interludes with a typology unique from the soliloquies. She writes in italics and separates each interlude with its own page. The sections also take on a radically different narrative style than the soliloquies. The opening to the first interlude begins:

The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually (3).  

The tone of the interludes is impersonal when we compare it to the confessional and reflective voices of the speakers. A narrative voice does emerge within the interludes, but it is not one that we can clearly pinpoint or frame; indeed, though the narrative voice presents the world of the interludes as objective fact, the interlude passages are highly lyrical, effusive, and even alliterative, suggestive of an “invisible” narrator. The content of the interludes largely evokes images of nature—the water, sky, garden, and house. Noticeably absent are human perspectives and thoughts. Their absence and the emphasis on nature reinforce the impersonal atmosphere of the interludes as a world outside the confines of human thought.

[14] The “woven” or overlapping texture of the voices arises not only from the placement of speakers’ soliloquies, but also from shared images and language. The members of the group all possess the stylized form of thought-speech through repetition, metaphors, images, syntax, and so on. Their shared modes of expression suggest a kind of communal language from which they draw upon. In a way, then, they are united by their language so that identities and voices mix and interact; as Bernard notes, the speakers “melt into each other with phrases” (9).

Their differentiation and unification, like the movements of the waves, creates a rhythm and adds a deeper complexity to the heteroglossia of voices—at some points, the speakers are more distinct and at other times are closer to unity, as they literally meet and draw apart throughout their lives. The group’s phrases and voices are repeated and cycled throughout the narrative so that the tension between heteroglossic and monologic discourses—the differences and commonalities among voices—is continually at play for the reader. Thus, the speakers’ interactions, structured by the form and pattern of the soliloquies, are far different from conventional dialogue, and rest upon more complex weaving and association patterns that make reading the heteroglossic discourse difficult to decipher and reduce.

[15] As Gabrielle McIntire points out, this murmur of violence has many resonances within the novel: it is the violence of the colonized in India and Africa; the violence of the Empire and imperialism; and the competitive culture of the British school system. It is also the violence of monologism: of forcing the “truth” of a single narrative or rhetorical “reading” onto a plurality of voices and meanings. In this way, Woolf’s efforts to form a critique of imperialism stem largely from the ways its rhetoric and narrative are produced in The Waves.

[16] A little later Louis announces that the “weight of the world is on our shoulders […] So by the dint of our united exertions we send ships to the remotest parts of the globe; replete with lavatories and gymnasiums (123).

[17] Bernard echoes Louis’ characterization of Percival during the dinner scene: “We who yelped like jackals biting at each other’s heels now assume the sober and confident air of soldiers in the presence of their captain” (89).

[18] At this point in the text, Percival’s friends mourn his death in a thirteen-page elegy, a heteroglossic and contrapuntal form.

[19] We receive this piece of information only through Bernard’s imaginative story of Percival in India (98). This fact once again affirms that all the “information” we have of Percival comes from others.

[20] Bernard’s description of the “Oriental Exhibition” resembles the one Woolf mentions in her essay, “Thunder at Wembey.” The images Woolf saw at the exhibition find their way into Bernard’s description of India. Yet Woolf subverts the power of the Empire by metaphorically linking the storm that rains on the Wembley British Empire exhibition to the Empire’s eventual destruction:

A rushing sound is heard. Is it the wind, or is it the British Empire exhibition? It is both. The wind is rising and shuffling along the avenues; the Massed Bands of Empire are assembling and marching to the Stadium. […] Dust swirls after them […] Colonies are perishing and dispersing in spray of inconceivable beauty and terror which the malignant power illuminates […] Cracks like the white roots of trees spread themselves across the firmament. The empire is perishing; the bands are playing; the Exhibition is in ruins (Collected Essays 3, 413).

[21] An image also figured in the interludes.

[22] As Hite notes, the “Oriental problem” historically described “various troubled European relations with Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian colonies, with the word Oriental homogenizing all such countries into one problematic other” (lx). Indeed, Woolf takes this generalization a step further in The Waves, as India becomes Africa in the speakers’ imaginations—all colonies are combined into one conglomerate problem that the Empire must control.

[23] Critics have suggested that Woolf wrote Percival based on her brother Thoby, which complicates a strict reading of Woolf’s critique of imperialism through the figure of Percival. Notes Gabrielle McIntire:

Woolf’s cathection to Thoby and her willingness to write out a version of his life as Percival twenty-five years after her brother’s death reveal the complicated balance she was striking between generating a moving fictional biographical testament to both her family life and the interwoveness of her Bloomsbury intimacies, and between elaborating a critique of both biography and Percival’s social, economic, gender, and racial privilege from the vantage point of her outspoken pacifism and feminism (41).

[24] Woolf never formally attended school and instead received her learning through tutors at home or on her own. Her two brothers, Thoby and Adrian Stephen, attended British public schools and then went to Cambridge University. Woolf associated with many of Thoby and Adrien’s Cambridge friends, who would later become part of the “Bloomsbury Group.”

[25] This recalls the ethos of Kipling’s famous “White Man’s burden” and H.F. Hyatt’s “The Ethics of Empire,” in which he declared it was the British mission to civilize: “To us—to us, and not to others—a certain definite duty has been assigned. To carry light and civilization into the dark places of the world, to touch the mind of Asia and of Africa with the ethical ideas of Europe; to give to thronging millions, who would otherwise never know peace or security, these first conditions of human advance” (Qtd. in Carter).

[26] Latin was a clear social marker, as it was part of the examination for the top administrative class of the British Civil Service until the end of World War II (Hite, The Waves, 225). The “sonorous hexameters of Virgil; of Lucretious; and […] the loves of Catullus” (21). Latin authors would have been introduced in this public school for young men and continued at Oxford and Cambridge. Virginia Woolf’s brothers went to the Clifton School in Bristol, which was dominated by Latin and Greek learning.

[27] In Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall” (1917), the narrator tires of generalizations in part because they remind her of the “military” and the whole order it represents: “the standard thing, the real thing, from which one could not depart save at the risk of nameless damnation” (80). 

[28] Woolf originally wrote the ending of the novel with the words “O solitude” instead of “O Death” (Diary 3, 339).

[29] She at one time referred to the interludes as “insensitive nature” (Diary 3, 285). In “On Being Ill,” Woolf denounces the cold indifference of nature with descriptions reminiscent of the interludes: “Nature is at no pains to conceal that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will be thick upon factory and engine; the sun will go out” (167).

[30] In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf links women’s past relegation to a “separate space”—“kept in a room, and to one occupation”—with the fictional Mary Carmichael’s ability to subvert linear narratives (73). Reading Carmichael’s pieces, Woolf describes the experience as “like being out at sea in an open boat” (73). Woolf presents a similar strategy in The Waves by drawing upon spaces—here, gaps—that are connected to questions of social value, and she subverts linear narratives through the simultaneity between interlude and soliloquy.

[31] Katz, Tamar. “Modernism, Subjectivity, and Narrative Form: Abstraction in The Waves.Narrative 3.3 (October                               

1995): 232-51.

[32] The phrase “the lady with the lamp” denotes popular depictions of Florence Nightingale which showed her holding up an oil lap over the soldiers at Scutari. According to Dickinson, Woolf would have been familiar with these images and with Lytton Strachey’s critical account of Nightingale’s life and work in Eminent Victorians. Renee Dickinson claims: “Woolf’s depiction of the sun as a lady holding a lamp above the horizon summons these images and their depictions of Nightingale as a ministering angel as well as Strachey’s subsequent criticism” (31).  

[33] Dickinson rightly observes that this “it” is not the “idealized social and/or authorial” androgyny Woolf advocates for in A Room of One’s Own (33); instead, as I argue, the “it” represents a kind of dehumanized tool of the Empire, much like the gap of Percival.

[34] Woolf explains her view on the element of shifting positions and its relation to social meaning in “The Leaning Tower.” She argues that the poets of the thirties are detached from the world around them because the very privileged position from which they condemn social order arises from the sins of society: private property and class oppression. Woolf’s response differs from the poets’ because she does not have the same privileges as they do as men. And so: “A writer has to keep his eye upon a model that moves, that changes, upon an object that is not one object but innumerable objects” (Collected Essays 2, 128; my emphasis). Though Woolf wrote “The Leaning Tower” long after publishing The Waves, the connection between flux and multiplicity created from narrative absences and ambiguities is clearly rooted in both works.

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