Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’ and Impressionism

There are a number of artistic movements that came to be named by their detractors. The umbrella terms under which they operate were initially formulated as terms of abuse, forced upon them by reactive sceptics, detractors and the Louis Leroys of history. Impressionism, a nineteenth century genre of painting is one such example. There are others but they elude me for the moment, I’ll update this post once I remember.

Impressionism is relevant within the context of this post because it is a term often used to convey the style of Virginia Woolf’s fiction. Impressionism demonstrates the triumph of brilliant patterns of colour neither-one-nor-the-other over the tyranny of the line; the preference for an endless disclosure of horizon-rich landscapes over filthy symmetry and one therefore cannot fail to detect a certain congruency of approach when casting one’s eye over the vivid lyrical passages that appear at points in Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves: “The sun had now sunk lower in the sky. The islands of cloud had gained in density and drew themselves across the sun so that the rocks went suddenly black, and the trembling sea-holly lost its blue and turned silver, and shadows were blown like grey cloths over the sea. The waves no longer visited the further pools or reached the dotted black lines which lay irregularly upon the beach. The sand was pearl white, smoothed and shining.” There is a rather beautiful paradox established here in the ethereality of the lengthily undulating sentences and how invested the words are in the materiality, the textures of the features of the landscape, the thickening clouds, the chameleon-like sea-holly.

Woolf’s painterly style isn’t limited to these rather lovely descriptive sections, but continues in her highly unique approach to characterisation. The Waves is narrated by six characters, who speak in a rambling and significative yet highly concentrated modernist style. Unusually for a modernist text, whoever is narrating at any given point is clearly signposted, as in this rather mundane example: “‘I was running,’ said Jinny, ‘after breakfast.”  Here, the narratorial voice signals clearly when a monologue begins and ends. This makes a contrast with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, for example, or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, therein character’s voices are interwoven and interspersed and therein madness lies.

At this stage, the work of the impressionists have come to be recognised as Great Works of Art, no longer the outliers that they were when they initially came on the scene and were forced to set up their own salons where their works could be exhibited. It is hard not to snicker derisively at the conservative devotees of particular schools of art that the impressionists railed against in order to foster the environment in which their works could be appreciated.

In an altogether different context, the word impressionism has come to take on a derisive connotation once more, as devotees of computational literary hermeneutics have began to delineate traditional literary critics, known mostly for their grotesquely troglodyte insistence on reading the thing, rather than appreciating literary works of art through bean-counting like normal people in a post-digital era. For computational critics, this methodology (bleh) is insufficiently rigorous, if you’re not counting the number of times Woolf uses the device of personification and graphing it on a colour-coded visualisation, to advance the point that she uses it is useless. I’ll take this opportunity to proclaim myself an impressionist 4 lyf, if and useless to boot, if reading a book is what those who are useless do.

Also, on a fun note, each character is at least partially based on close friends of Woolf’s, such as Mary Hutchinson, Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India. This is great news for all Bloomsbury Group fans-people.

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