An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2014

On Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

Gillian Patricia Beer
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GILLIAN BEER, a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy since 2001, is the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature, Emerita, and past President of Clare Hall College, University of Cambridge. Her books include Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (3rd ed., 2009), Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground: Essays by Gillian Beer (1996), and Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter (1996). She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1998.

“Here is a hall where one pays money and goes in, where one hears music among somnolent people who have come here after lunch on a hot afternoon. We have eaten beef and pudding enough to live for a week without tasting food. Therefore we cluster like maggots on the back of something that will carry us on. Decorous, portly–we have white hair waved under our hats; slim shoes; little bags; clean-shaven cheeks; here and there a military moustache, not a speck of dust has been allowed to settle anywhere on our broadcloth. Swaying and opening programmes, with a few words of greeting to friends, we settle down, like walruses stranded on rocks, like heavy bodies incapable of waddling to the sea, hoping for a wave to lift us, but we are too heavy, and too much dry shingle lies between us and the sea. We lie gorged with food, torpid in the heat. Then, swollen but contained in slippery satin, the sea-green woman comes to our rescue. She sucks in her lips, assumes an air of intensity, inflates herself and hurls herself precisely at the right moment as if she saw an apple and her voice was the arrow into the note, ‘Ah!’

“An axe has split a tree to the core; the core is warm; sound quivers within the bark. ‘Ah,’ cried a woman to her lover, leaning from her window in Venice, ‘Ah, Ah!’ she cried, and again she cries ‘Ah!’ She has provided us with a cry. But only a cry. And what is a cry? Then the beetle-shaped men come with their violins; wait; count; nod; down come their bows. And there is ripple and laughter like the dance of olive trees and their myriad-tongued grey .  .  .

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