3-Minute Reads

3-Minute Reads // “Exercises in ink”: Scattered identity in “The Waves”

This entry is the first in what I hope is a series of “3-Minute Reads” – a collection of mini-essays and close readings of texts. Subject choice is eclectic, and based entirely on whatever I happen to be reading, watching, or thinking about at the time.

“If I do not nail these impressions to the board and out of the many in me make one; exist here and now in streaks and patches like scattered snow wreaths on far mountains […] then I shall fall like snow and be wasted”

Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931)

As indicated by the title of this series, I expect The Waves to feature in several mini-essays in the near future. Indeed, reading The Waves spurred my decision to start a literature blog in the first place. Woolf’s novel (if we can even truly call it that) is a gorgeously poetic exploration of identity, self-fashioning, and the relationships between who we are and the stories that we tell. By setting these stories down, perhaps we can gain a better understanding of what makes us who we are.  And that’s a reason to write if ever there was one.

For Louis, the speaker in the quoted material above, his sense of self is challenged by the pace of life, by the confused muddle of events profound and mundane (the death of a friend, the sounds of his office), by the “weight of the world … on our shoulders”. Despite his refrain that “this is life”, there is, he tells us, “no respite”. And in this atmosphere of relentless movement where the “clouds change perpetually over our houses”, he struggles to recall, for a few brief moments, the people and events that matter to him the most.

These thoughts, unfortunately, come in the form of scant “streaks and patches” that offer no real comfort. Recollection takes the tone of a desperate scramble. In his confusion, Percival’s death has become removed from context, and now exists only as an abstract sense of suffering (“he died in Egypt; he died in Greece; all deaths are one death”). “Susan has children”, we learn, in a single, cold clause. Before long, he finds himself lost once again: “I do this, do that, and again do this and then that.”

Louis’ attempt to “out of the many in me make one” meets, then, with mixed success. His soliloquy concludes with a new twist on another refrain: this time, “the weight of the world is on my shoulders”. On the one hand, his sense of self seems to have recovered somewhat. On the other hand, he has perhaps only succeeded in reminding himself how alone he truly is.  

“We shall write our exercises in ink here”, observes Rhoda, earlier in the novel. “But here I am nobody. I have no face.” Woolf reminds readers at every turn that the “self” is not set in stone, but shifts, develops, and emerges through the “divergent elements which make up our individual voices”. [1] As life passes, and our divergent elements diverge even further, it becomes all the more important to set down, in ink or otherwise, the things that make us… us. Sometimes, as with Rhoda and Louis, the process may only serve to remind us of what we have lost. But if selfhood is truly part of a process – if we are all works in perpetual progress – perhaps the only way to find our “face” is to keep working at it, to keep on nailing it down, to keep on writing. 

It is better, perhaps, to find a self that we can still change than a self that is fallen, like snow, and wasted.

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[1] Flint, Kate. Introduction to The Waves. London: Penguin, 1992. ix-xxxviii. xxvi.

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