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The Collective Self-Conscious: Archetypes of Imperial Decay in Virginia Woolf's The Waves

About the Author: Jonathan Offenberg

Jonathan Offenberg is a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, studying Marketing and English. Upon entering “the real world,” he plans to land a job in advertising, where he hopes his creativity and writing ability will set him apart from all the other wannabe Don Drapers out there.

By Jonathan Offenberg | General Essays

In “The Future of the Novel,” D.H. Lawrence lamented the “self-consciousness” of the modern novel, complaining of characters “absorbedly concerned with themselves and what they feel and don’t feel,” and dismissing such work as “awful” and “childish” (152). To Lawrence, the then-fashionable stream-of-consciousness experiments of other early modernists, namely James Joyce, lacked a vitality that only engagement with the objective—the real, physical world—could provide. Two years later, however, Virginia Woolf expressed a seemingly opposite sentiment. In “Modern Fiction,” she urged writers to abandon the “material” in favor of the “spiritual,” which she identified in the works of Joyce (“Modern Fiction” 161). And with the 1931 publication of The Waves, a work composed almost entirely in interior monologue, Woolf took this philosophy of interiority to its extreme. Yet The Waves does not, as Lawrence may have believed, abandon the real in favor of the subjective; rather, The Waves communicates a broad and very historically-anchored experience. Woolf’s six centers of consciousness, called focalizers, are not strictly individual voices but facets of a larger, shared consciousness similar in nature to the “collective unconscious” described by Carl Jung. Woolf constructs this collective consciousness—or unconscious, to borrow from Jung—to function at a national level, incorporating symbols, or archetypes, that signify shifting British identity and geopolitical decline in the early 20th Century.

The most conspicuous structural feature of The Waves is its lack of narrator. Woolf instead presents the reader with interior monologues, or “soliloquies,” which, aside from several brief interludes called ekphrases, constitute the entirety of the narrative. Woolf distinguishes each soliloquy with the name of the character speaking (“said Rhoda,” “said Neville,” etc.), but obfuscates the boundaries of these individual consciousnesses by establishing parallel thought patterns and allowing unspoken exchanges between characters. In the opening chapter, for instance, Bernard and Susan participate in what seems to be an unspoken conversation. “Put your foot on this brick,” says Bernard. “Look over the wall. That is Elvedon. The lady sits between two long windows, writing. The gardeners sweep the lawn with giant brooms,” to which Susan responds: “I see the lady writing. I see the gardeners sweeping” (Woolf, Waves 10). As the novel progresses, Woolf increasingly portrays similar or identical images through the eyes of different characters. For instance, the image of the “circle” or “chain” appears to multiple characters while sitting at a restaurant (Woolf, Waves 103), and phrases such as “waves crashing” (Woolf, Waves 9, 11, 32) or a “string dangling” (Woolf, Waves 11, 26, 97) also occur repeatedly across characters. The ability of the consciousness in The Waves to incorporate and interact with thoughts of other characters evinces another level of consciousness that transcends the individual. 

This shared consciousness also includes images and memories from beyond the chronology of the novel and the lifespan of its characters. As a child, Louis seems in tune with an ancient consciousness, soliloquizing: “…my eyes are the lidless eyes[1] of a stone figure in a desert by the Nile. I see women passing with red pitchers to the river; I see camels swaying and men in turbans” (Woolf, Waves 6). Bernard similarly experiences a “sudden vision of immortality” in which he possesses the knowledge of Shakespeare (Woolf, Waves 167). With these visions, the characters in The Waves do not simply channel the individual consciousness, but participate in a collective human consciousness that has existed long before their birth. This timeless consciousness explains why Woolf’s characters, even as children, think in highly sophisticated figurative forms far exceeding the capacity of their age. The characters themselves do not compose these figures, but inherit them pre-formed and access them unconsciously.

In “The Waves as an Exploration of (An)aesthetic of Absence,” J. Hillis Miller makes similar observations. He too notes “motifs that are present in more than one character’s mind,” and recognizes the “peculiar…eloquence” of the soliloquies, which he attributes to an inherited consciousness (Miller 5, 7). Miller, however, defines this shared consciousness in abstract, immaterial terms, as “a vast impersonal memory bank that stores everything that has ever happened, every thought or feeling of every person” to which the characters in The Waves have indirect access (Miller 10). This definition, while accurate, fails to highlight the relationship of the inner consciousness to its physical environment, which is critical to a geopolitical reading of The Waves. For this connection, I turn instead to the terminology of psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

The interpersonal and inherited consciousness of The Waves greatly resembles what Jung defines as the “collective unconscious”: an “extension of man beyond himself” that derives from “inherited brain structure” (“Role of the Unconscious” 10). Through this collective unconscious, human beings experience “man as he was… and always will be” (Jung “Role of the Unconscious 10). This explains why Louis and Bernard, among other characters in The Waves, fleetingly access memories that seemingly predate their own existence by centuries or even millennia. The memories stored in this collective unconscious represent a virtually limitless timeframe of human experience, structured by what Jung calls “archetypes,” or “images and emotions” that “compose the hidden foundations of the conscious mind” and link humans to the earth around them (“Mind and Earth,” 31). This union between earth and consciousness lends both physical and spiritual significance to the interior monologues of The Waves. Moreover, the collective unconscious, by its nature, must evolve to incorporate more and more memories with the passage of time, forming new or adapted archetypes that are both geographically and chronologically distinct. As Jung himself suggested, “the soil of every country holds some such mystery” (“Role of the Unconscious” 13). Within the collective unconscious of The Waves, then, it is possible to distinguish images and archetypes that align with a particular region, time period, and culture—Great Britain in the early 20th Century—and witness how changing relationships to these archetypes illuminate changes in the collective attitude of the British race.

The archetypes that Jung identifies as “most immediate” are the images of the mother and the father (“Mind and Earth,” 34-35). As such, it is not surprising that the most conspicuous archetype in The Waves assumes the form of a person. This person, named Percival, is a seventh character to whom the six soliloquists frequently refer, but who never contributes his own soliloquy to the shared consciousness of the novel. Thus, his character is constructed entirely by the impressions of others. He is a series of shared images and ideals projected upon an absent center—an archetype incarnate.

As an archetypal figure, Percival embodies an accumulated sense of Western strength and nobility. Neville aligns Percival with classical Greek and Roman ideals, citing a “pagan indifference” in his “blue eyes” which allies him with “the Latin phrases on memorial brasses” (Woolf, Waves 24). As the characters age, this identity evolves to incorporate British Imperialism and its underlying ideologies. In Bernard’s imagination, Percival heroically solves “the oriental problem” by steering an Indian cart back onto the road; in doing so, Percival applies “the standards of the West,” civilizing the idle and incompetent native Indians (Woolf, Waves 98). Percival’s prestige and beauty is at times archaic and at other times prospective. Louis, for example, assigns him the “magnificence” of a “mediaeval commander,” but also remarks that Percival “inspires poetry,” which suggests future beauty to be derived from his character (Woolf, Waves 25, 27). In this fashion the six soliloquists construct Percival as an archetypal ideal Westerner who personifies both the idyllic past and hopeful future of British imperial strength.

This future is placed in tension, however, when Percival dies rather ignominiously on an imperial mission in India.[2] After his death, Neville mourns not only for Percival as an individual, but for the Western civilization for which Percival was custodian: “All is over,” he says. “The lights of the world have gone out” (Woolf, Waves 109). Bernard seems to perceive a similar decline in Western civilization: “We sit in the Italian room at the National Gallery…I doubt that Titian ever felt this rat gnaw” (Woolf, Waves 113). And Rhoda remarks more directly upon the symbol of Percival itself: “The figure that was robed in beauty is now clothed in ruin” (Woolf, Waves 115). At this pivotal moment, the archetypal Percival—the heroic conqueror, the flag-bearer of the British Empire—no longer corresponds with the real, failed Percival. This represents a cultural shift: the idealized past of Great Britain is interrupted by a deep anxiety for the future of the Empire and the Western supremacy it represents.

Other critics have long recognized Percival as an embodiment of Western ideals and British imperialism. Vicki Tromanhauser, in “Eating Animals and Becoming Meat in The Waves,” suggests that Percival represents a “particular mode of being English, masculine and part of the governing class,” while noting his characterization as a “deified imperial lawgiver” (Tromanhauser 82). Likewise, Geneviéve Brassard and Marianne Guénot-Hovnanian, in “Colonizing an Anti-Imperialist Text,” interpret Percival as a “Saxon hero,” a sort of caricature of the ideologies of patriarchy and imperialism (Brassard & Guénot-Hovnanian 144). Nevertheless, my purpose in this essay is not simply to identify Percival as a symbol, as these and other scholars have already done, but to demonstrate Percival’s archetypal role within the collective consciousness of The Waves, and to link his archetype with real historical change. Aside from a symbol, Percival is an inherited set of beliefs, values, and images shared among a distinct race of people. This archetypal Percival serves as a historical reference point: an embodiment of the romanticized British past to which we can compare present observations by the other six characters (“The lights of the world have gone out,” etc.) and perceive a genuine shift in the British collective consciousness.

Several of the recurring motifs mentioned earlier in this essay, by their shared and pre-formed nature, can also be identified as archetypes. Of particular significance is the image of the “string,” which appears predominately in association with Bernard’s character. Bernard is a natural storyteller who continually creates “phrases” by which he orders a chaotic environment: “I must open the little trap-door and let out these linked phrases in which I run together whatever happens, so that instead of incoherence there is perceived a wandering thread, lightly joining one thing to another” (Woolf, Waves34). To Bernard, the archetypal image of the “thread” signifies the unification and order granted by language. The other characters, however, fail to reach this “thread,” or “string”; Bernard’s phrases leave them wanting something, some resolution. Susan observes: “Now you [Bernard] trail away…making phrases. Now you mount like an air-ball’s string, higher and higher…out of reach” (Woolf, Waves 11). Likewise, Neville complains that Bernard’s stories “tail off absurdly and he gapes, twiddling a bit of string” (Woolf, Waves 35). As Bernard ages, he himself laments his inability to finish his ideas: “I shall fail and shall leave nothing behind me but imperfect phrases littered with sand” (Woolf, Waves 65). Bernard searches for a “true story” that will unite and give purpose to his various phrases, but admits that such a story may not exist, and so leaves his phrases “hung like clothes in a cupboard, waiting for someone to wear them” (Woolf, Waves 160). Bernard’s disillusionment reflects a newfound skepticism of storytelling and language as unifying forces; the archetype of the “string” that neatly ties all ends becomes a problem rather than a solution. 

As with Percival, the failure of this archetype—the “string” of language—implies a broader shift in British geopolitical power and national identity. The English language was and still is a powerful tool of Western Imperialism, a means of “civilizing” native peoples and unifying these various peoples in subservience to a mother country. If the “string” of language cannot unify the disparate elements of Bernard’s life, then this same language cannot impose unity among the multitudinous colonies of the British Empire; the Empire thus dissolves, just as Bernard’s stories ultimately do. But these linguistic concerns suggest more than a loss of imperial power. The English language originated in Great Britain and remains both its most valued cultural export and an inextricable facet of the national identity. A revaluation of this language places the very identity of England in flux. The use of “string” as an archetype highlights these political and cultural shifts: the archetype—an accumulation of past concepts of language—fails to align with Bernard’s actual experiences, indicating newly formed anxieties within the British collective consciousness regarding linguistic unity, imperial power, and cultural decline. 

Prior to any further analysis of archetypes in The Waves, it is necessary to address the aforementioned interludes, or ekphrases, which punctuate Woolf’s narrative. These ten brief interludes do not represent the individual consciousness of any one character, but depict one set of images—including a house, a garden, a group of birds, and the titular ocean waves—at various times of day, following the rise and fall of the sun. With their highly imagistic and gradually evolving language, Woolf’s ekphrases strongly evoke another collection of symbols that change with time: Jung’s collective unconscious. I argue that this is no coincidence; that Woolf attempts to directly portray, with the rising and falling of the sun and tide, the evolution of the British collective unconscious over time.

This theory rests upon the extent to which the characters in The Waves borrow imagery from the interludes. Bernard, for instance, in his final soliloquy, attests to having seen “the house, the garden, and the waves breaking,” three images that appear repeatedly in the ekphrases (Woolf, Waves213). And earlier in the novel, Susan reflects: “Life stands round me like a glass round the imprisoned reed,” which virtually mirrors the image of “reeds…fixed as if glass had hardened around them” in an earlier interlude (Woolf, Waves 140, 121). If Woolf’s six soliloquists indeed derive their figurative phrases from some larger consciousness, and demonstrate a similar ability to draw images from the ekphrases, it follows that these ekphrases are representations of that larger consciousness, i.e. the collective unconscious.

Such an understanding of Woolf’s ekprases is essential an examination of one final archetype: the house. Julia Briggs identifies the country house as a recurring symbol of “Englishness” in Woolf’s work; an idyllic portrait of a traditional English life free from economic or social hardships (Briggs 98-99). Throughout the ekphrases in The Waves, however, Woolf gradually places this image in tension so as to demonstrate an unsettling change within the British collective consciousness. As the sun rises in the second ekphrasis, the house is illuminated, the flowers within are in full bloom, and the waves, muffled, have yet to threaten the halcyon scene: “The sun laid broader blades upon the house…As the light increased a bud here and there split asunder and shook out flowers…the concussion of the waves breaking fell with muffled thuds” (Woolf, Waves 19). This captures the archetype in the prime of its validity, before shadows of doubt have descended upon the English consciousness. Such doubt manifests, however, in a later ekphrasis: “All for a moment wavered and bent in in uncertainty and ambiguity, as if a great moth sailing through the room had shadowed the immense solidity of chairs and tables with floating wings” (Woolf, Waves 133). This darkness of uncertainty eventually spreads outward from the English house onto the furthest reaches of the empire: “girls, sitting on verandahs, look up at the snow, shading their faces with their fans. Them, too, darkness covered” (Woolf, Waves 175). Meanwhile, the waves, which Woolf describes in one early ekphrasis as “like turbaned warriors, like turbaned men with poisoned assegais,” become more powerful and prominent until breaking on the shore in the final ekphrasis (Woolf, Waves 53, 220). The eventual descent of the house into darkness, together with the invasion of the turbaned warriors, signals a simultaneous demise for picturesque English life and a triumph for the foreign powers that threaten English supremacy. In this sequence of ekphrases, Woolf transitions the English collective consciousness from romantic optimism to gloomy anxiety: the glorious sun of empire ultimately sets,[3] and waves of national decay crash upon the shore.

In light of these apparent national anxieties, The Waves can in fact be considered “self-conscious,” but on a national and historical scale as well as an individual scale. Woolf, even while operating within the individual consciousnesses of her six characters, grants access into a larger collective consciousness through which readers witness history turn unfavorably upon the British Empire. The collective unconscious as a theoretical model allows for this extension: by linking the individual to a larger societal consciousness, and this consciousness to a physical environment, Jung provides the vehicle by which Woolf’s characters express not only individual concern for their own futures, but collective concern for the future of the British Empire and all of Western civilization. At once deeply engaged with the individual consciousness and with the external environment, The Waves defies the spiritual/material dichotomy, to use Woolf’s own terminology. Woolf thus succeeds where Bernard fails: she unites two disparate philosophies of modern fiction together with the literary thread that is The Waves. Her archetypal “string” applies, thereby restoring hope for the future of Western civilization—or at least its fiction.

[1] This image is borrowed from part II of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “And we shall play a game of chess, / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon / the door.” (136-138)

[2] From Neville’s fragmented account of Percival’s death, it is revealed that Percival’s horse tripped on a molehill, flinging him to the ground and killing him. The unspectacular nature of Percival’s death emphasizes the inauthenticity of the heroic attributes assigned to him.

[3] “The empire on which the sun never sets,” once a popular moniker for the British Empire, is evoked by Woolf for darkly ironic effect.

Works Cited

Brassard, Geneviéve, and Marianne Guénot-Hovnanian. "Colonizing an Anti-Imperialist Text: Marguerite Yourcenar's Rendering of The Waves into French." At Home and Abroad in the Empire: British Women Write the 1930s. Ed. Robin Hackett, Freda Hauser, and Gay Wachman. Newark: University of Delaware, 2009. Print.

Briggs, Julia. "’Almost Ashamed of England Being So English’: Woolf and Ideas of Englishness." At Home and Abroad in the Empire: British Women Write the 1930s. Ed. Robin Hackett, Freda Hauser, and Gay Wachman. Newark: U of Delaware, 2009. Print.

Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” The Waste Land and Other Poems. Ed. George Stade. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005. 59-81. Print

Jung, Carl. "The Role of the Unconscious." The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerard Adler, and William McGuire. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Vol. 10. Princeton UP, 1970. Print.

Jung, Carl. "Mind and Earth." The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerard Adler, and William McGuire. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Vol. 10. Princeton UP, 1970. Print.

Lawrence, D. H. "The Future of the Novel [Surgery for the Novel--Or a Bomb]." Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Web.

Miller, J. Hillis. "The Waves as Exploration of (An)aesthetic of Absence." University of Toronto Quarterly 83.3 (2014). MLA International Bibliography. Web.

Tromanhauser, Vicki. "Eating Animals and Becoming Meat in Virginia Woolf's The Waves." Journal of Modern Literature 38.1 (2014). MLA International Bibliography. Web.

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. New York: Harcourt, 1931. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. "Modern Fiction." The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. Vol. IV. London: Hogarth, 1987. Web.