The importance of this work is less about what happens on the outside, temporal world, and more about what takes place in the minds of its six protagonists. The book follows the lives of six people--Louis, Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan and Rhoda--from the cradle to the grave.
Overview: The Waves
Beginning in the garden of a house in which they all grew up--where Jinny kisses Louis--the book follows the characters through their schooldays to the point where some of them go to university. The six characters come together again at a dinner--to celebrate a seventh friend, called Percival, who is going off to India to become a colonial administrator.
Neville becomes a don at a university; Susan marries a farmer and becomes a mother; Louis goes into business. The links between them weaken and break--until one night, when they meet at a dinner in Hampton Court. During the dinner, the differences between them seem to be once again overcome. Their identities seem to merge into a single, beautiful whole.
Then, the dinner comes to an end, and they realize that the moments of perfect unity are few and far between. They once again drift into their own separate ways, until Bernard--the last of the narrators to speak--talks about the sadness of old age, and his disappointment when he thinks of how he lived his life. In the last few lines, he welcomes death, which we assume must be coming soon to the six friends whose lives we have traced.
As I have already said, the events of the novel are less important to the reader as the way in which they are presented. Woolf allows each of the six friends to speak, although what they say is dramatically disparate from what one might expect from a normal first-person narrator. Their words are fractured, their thoughts leap from point to point and from everyday trivial matters to highly poeticized and philosophical considerations of the nature of the self and of identity.
Although many writers have used the stream-of-consciousness style to emphasize the differences between people (E.M Forster, for example, often uses the technique to illustrate how people cannot connect), Woolf seems to be saying the complete opposite. The six friends share thoughts, phrases, and images--up to the point where the reader doubts whether we can consider them distinct individuals at all. If anything, the novel could be seen as a statement about how friendship overcomes the boundaries and how individuals inhabit the lives of friends (beginning to feel a part of the whole).
The Waves, is also very much about the nature of language. The work is one of Woolf's most self-conscious novels. Each of the narrators is very much concerned with how they come to reality and how they shape it. Bernard is a great storyteller, and looks to fit his life into sequences. Neville needs precise order and control. Jinny is a sensual being, who only seems to understand reality through color, and sound and touch.
Though these characters, Woolf experiments with the representations and understanding of reality. She eschews a realism that tries to find objectivity. She connects with the subjective truth of experience, but she simultaneously avoids the natural conclusion of experience--that if the world is dependent on the individual's world-view, then people cannot come together within that world.
The novel is a fascinating study of six individuals, but it's also a philosophical treatise--delving into the meaning of the individual. This book is a singular work--completely different to any other book in English. The Waves challenges its readers but also rewards them for the effort with that beauty.