“A Fin in a Waste of Waters”: Existence through Symbol in The Waves by Virginia Woolf


The waves rise and break on the shore: rise and break, rise and break. Virginia Woolf had described her own existence as that of a wave, a “fin in a waste of waters” representing the cyclical yet finite motion of her life. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done—and then dies. Yet the reality of constant change to an inevitable end can threaten one’s sense of existence. Set against the vivid backdrop of the sea, The Waves introduces six characters—three men and three women—who grapple with the death of a beloved friend. Outward expressions of grief are replaced with a chorus of interior soliloquies as the narrative voices remark not only on the struggle to define one’s Being, but also on their search for something permanent and lasting in the face of that inexorable Void, death.

Woolf channeled her existence into literature, in the form of stories and symbols that transcend time and counter mortality: an endeavor mirrored in her characters’ reliance on art (whether it be through physical symbol or writing) for self-knowledge in the midst of impressions that flash before them. So The Waves becomes a visual, experimental commentary on whether or not individuals can formulate their Being through art before succumbing to the Void as the characters recognize the existential importance of the task, struggle to achieve it, face its ultimate futility—and nevertheless persevere.

Though the preface of the novel is marked with youth, Woolf’s untried and ingenuous characters possessed enough consciousness to glimpse the necessity for existence through symbol. Each relies on repeated motifs for self-definition. Louis is “stone carved,” Neville is “scissor-cutting,” and Rhoda is the “nymph of the fountain always wet” (Woolf 117). These are the identities chosen for the characters at the prologue of the work. Louis is sculpturesque in that he yearns for solidity, Neville is exact as he abhors the chaotic, and Rhoda’s wetness refers to her never forming a proper shell against the world. Throughout, the characters periodically return to these metaphors as stable cores to their existence, when life is obscure and identity fails them. That they choose to formulate their Being through a tie with the abstract shows the importance of symbol to self-knowledge.

Art is not solely a vesicle for personality—the characters turn to motifs to make sense of the world around them as well. The erratic rise and fall of ocean waves which lies in the background of Woolf’s work is indicative of the chronic disorder in the lives of her characters. Though each struggles against the senseless confusion which is present in all human experience, it is the “scissor-cutting” Neville who embodies the need for reducing chaos most. In personifying a blade to symbolize his Being, he aspires toward someone whose mind falls like a “chopper on a block,” and to whom the “pitch of absurdity is sublime” (Woolf 51). The “sublime” represents the center, the truth of existence that could alchemize all “absurdity.” Through symbol—and through being a classical poet—Neville endeavors to cut away turmoil and vagueness from life and language. His figurative transmutation into a “chopper” is an attempt to derive some meaning from life, and perhaps even death.

The characters further cling to such stability in personal symbols to likewise combat the Void. At the sudden death of Percival, Woolf’s characters are stricken to a harrowing realization: that time is not endless, and that they are mortal. The “nymph” Rhoda epitomizes the urgency for existence through symbol at the loss of “all palpable forms of life”: she “shall be blown down the eternal corridors forever” (Woolf 159). Here, the “eternal” descent toward death is given the permanence that life lacks. Rhoda’s sense of “palpability” and physical existence is threatened by the finite life of the mind and body. Yet a reliance on motif could possibly counter such limitations; for while the consciousness may cease at death, art continues to exist. Such continuity is the “utmost fluidity” of character that “exists with the utmost permanence” that comes out of “the ideal of an art that fuses existence and symbol” (Stewart 435). The characters see metaphorical existence as a vehicle to achieving continuity beyond death. Woolf thus presents art as a means to fill the Void of non-identity, disorder, and nonexistence.

The most literal interpretation of existence through symbol is that which Woolf herself and her character Bernard adopted: creating literature as an embodiment of the self. Yet attaining the Being through art is persistently difficult. Bernard begins writing many stories, but fails to finish any of them. He gets tired of phrases as he is tormented with existential doubts: “what am I?” and “who is to foretell the flight of a word” (Woolf 118)? Bernard’s lack of faith in “what” he is, rather than “who” he is, points to his identity as an artistic symbol rather than as a person. Yet the prolonged interrogative tense of this passage speaks of the protagonist’s disheartened and frustrated attitude toward this form of identity. While language may seem to provide a home for Being, it now appears to be a scene of that self’s unraveling. The pursuit of identity through literature is then a “speculation” and a “risk” (Lucenti 162). Elusive as the “flight of a word,” art is perhaps not the most secure ground on which to build a self.

Perhaps art is not capable of filling the Void of nonidentity; but its ability to reduce the chaos of existence falters as well in the lives of Woolf’s characters. Bernard can only collect so many phrases for his stories before reaching a blank wall, at which he “twiddles a piece a string” in his “trouser pocket” (Woolf 118). Having channeled his Being into words and literary symbols, Bernard suddenly struggles with his own silence. What promised to connect all things turns out to be a bit of “string” stuffed in his pocket. This thread, rather than providing coherence between the fragments of human experience, simply becomes something to “twiddle”—a toy. Here, art fails to provide order to life and acts only as a remnant to turn over and over.

Even against death, a metaphorical existence may not provide the path to personal continuity. Death is in part represented by Bernard’s inability to close-off his stories, to tell their endings. On the brink of concluding his trail of phrases, he contemplates the “drop upon drop” and “stage upon stage” that falls indefinitely—he ponders “why there should be an end of stages” (Woolf 187)? The image of a “drop” of water forming, tapering to a point, and falling portrays the cyclical sequence of each “stage” of human life: birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood… Yet, to Bernard, this sequence appears interminable. He continues to collect phrases, live out stages in his life, and cannot reconcile his stories and existence to a conclusion. At this phase in the novel, the extent to which art enables one to face death and overcome the vagueness of life and identity is questionable.

Yet Woolf moves even further to suggest that the individual ability to formulate the Being through art is impossible. Bernard himself confronts the futility of his phrases, his effort to create the one true story. What distinguishes him from the novel’s other characters is that, unlike them, Bernard realizes that he cannot impose upon the world an order that is merely an extension of his personality. One cannot take a sculpture, “chopper,” or “nymph” and make it mechanism of the self. In view of a willow tree, the protagonist remarks that it has the effect of what remains “outside our illusions yet cannot stay them”—that in spite of our attempt at a transmutation, the willow shows through “stable, still” and with “a sternness our lives lack” (Woolf 251). Art—by motif or writing—is but a twisting of reality. Bernard concedes that it fails to give meaning to his existence, for identity and the world are independent from self-perception just as the willow is separate from the “illusions” given it. In the transmutation of life into art, life becomes “obscured” and “distorted” (Webb 572). Like Bernard, we are left without a “stable” understanding of who we are; the human experience remains chaotic, unfathomable.

As both the novel and its characters approach their end, permanence beyond death is still unobtainable in spite of art’s promise. Having striven to capture life through language since childhood, Bernard ultimately discovers the futility of his task. “Whatever sentence I extract whole and entire from this cauldron,” he realizes, “is only a string of six little fish that let themselves be caught while a million others leap and sizzle” (Woolf 256). Words and phrases cannot begin to fathom the larger “cauldron” of existence. They can only capture life to an “obvious, defined limit” (Miko 67). In invoking life through stories, one constrains the vibrant “leaping” and “sizzling” of events to the same remnant thread of dull, hunted “little fish” to put in one’s pocket. The reduction of vitality to lifeless insignificance suggests the decomposing nature of art: it only hastens one’s passage to death, the “limit” of both art and people.

Woolf’s message on existence through symbol has been clear and monotonic thus far. Though harnessing art as a vehicle for identity, order, and continuity is vital—and though one strives with difficulty to achieve it—attaining the Being in spite of the Void is ultimately impossible. At the brink of the novel’s conclusion, both Bernard and the reader are supposedly in acquiescence with this truth. Yet Woolf contradicts herself in the denouement of her work, with the full force of nature that the title gives it:

Our waters can only just surround feebly that spike of sea-holly; we cannot reach that further pebble so as to wet it. It is over, we are ended. But wait—I sat all night waiting—an impulse runs through us; we rise, we toss back a mane of white spray; we pound on the shore; we are not to be confined. (267)

The individual is a wave that reaches for the “sea-holly” of identity and “pebble” of order. As waves invariably ebb, however, one succumbs to death before the Being is actually achieved. It seems that humanity is too “feeble” for the existential task: a “fin in a waste of waters.” Nevertheless, “we rise” like empowered stallions and “toss back a mane of white spray” to claim who we are and the world around us, refusing to be “confined” by the Void. The close of Woolf’s work is an incitement for a continued search for meaningful existence. Even though, by the end of the novel, Bernard has not entirely grasped life through art, he will endure in collecting phrases until the end—giving hope and reason to the reader that it is achievable.

Simultaneously crucial and inaccessible, existence through symbol remains a possibility. The Being and Void are at constant conflict and art is the enduring solution: the elusive key to identity, order, and continuity. And so humanity strives to rise from the “fin in a waste of waters”—just as the waves continue to rise and break on the shore: rise and break, rise and break.

Works Cited

Lucenti, Lisa Marie. “Virginia Woolf's The Waves: To Defer That ‘Appalling Moment.’” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 178, no. 40, 1998, pp. 156–166.

Miko, Stephen J. “Reflections on ‘The Waves’: Virginia Woolf at the Limits of Her Art.” Criticism, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 63–90. JSTOR, JSTOR.

Stewart, Jack F. “Existence and Symbol in ‘The Waves.’” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 1972, pp. 433–447. JSTOR, JSTOR.

Webb, Igor. “‘Thing in Themselves’: Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves.’” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 1971, pp. 570–573. JSTOR, JSTOR.

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

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