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Narrative 13.2 (2005) 160-181

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Transforming Musical Sounds into Words:

Narrative Method in Virginia Woolf's The Waves

"Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

(Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being 72)

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was fascinated by the connections between literature and music. From the start of her discussions about the sonorous art, Woolf is concerned with its imbrication in social circumstances. Her early essays—"Street Music" (1905), "The Opera" (1906), and "Impressions at Bayreuth" (1909)—deal with music as subject-matter and address its affect on community. Often Woolf explores the different reactions of the audience members to the sounds of the music or the behavioral expectations of such events. In her fiction, Woolf frequently uses traditional Western music figuratively, from The Voyage Out (1915)—the protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, is a passionate amateur pianist—to the scraps, orts, and fragments of Between the Acts (1941).1 From The Waves (1931) onward, I shall argue, Woolf deliberately attempts to reconstitute novelistic methods by looking to the "classical" tradition of music as a potential model.

In 1940 Woolf acknowledges explicitly to Elizabeth Trevelyan2 that she conceives of all her writing as music before she pens it, explaining that Trevelyan has "found out exactly what I was trying to do when you compare [Roger Fry] to a piece of music . . . there was such a mass of detail that the only way I could hold it together [End Page 160] was by abstracting it into themes" (Letters 6:426). Similarly, as Bernard, the principal writerly figure of The Waves articulates, music might provide a way "to give the effect of the whole" (The Waves 214), to maintain connection and separateness among the subjectivities that inhabit both the pages of fiction and "this vast mass that we call the world" (Woolf, Moments 72). Referring to his friends' disparate lives, Bernard asserts, "What a symphony with its concord and its discord, and its tunes on top and its complicated bass beneath" (The Waves 214). Bernard's musical insight illuminates several questions I shall explore concerning character and structure in The Waves. In this, her most structurally innovative text, the connections among music (particularly Beethoven's), novelistic form, and "character" are vivid and fundamental. More specifically, Woolf utilizes a particular piece of music, to which she was listening while creating the novel, to reconfigure her compositional methods: Ludwig van Beethoven's late String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130, including the piece's original finale, the Grosse Fuge, Opus 133. Beethoven's chamber work provides Woolf with a model for a new novelistic "form" that reconceives the concept of character.

Several critics have discussed the links between Woolf's writing and its musical attributes. Gerald Levin makes a direct link between The Waves and Beethoven's late quartets, but then relies heavily on a book (that Woolf may or may not have read, J. W. N. Sullivan's Beethoven: His Spiritual Development) to produce his argument rather than a discussion of the music. Put another way, Levin bases his analysis of Woolf's employment of music on writing about Beethoven rather than exploring, to use Woolf's words, "the thing itself" (Moments 72). Similarly, Peter Jacobs provides a comprehensive chronology of the people who affected Woolf's musical thought, and makes some important observations about Woolf's formal innovations in Roger Fry. He also explains that Woolf's favorite listening materials were not "modern" experimental composers, noting that in 1939 and 1940 the Woolfs listened systematically to Beethoven's late quartets on records. As Bonnie Kime Scott has also documented, Leonard Woolf kept a Diary of music listened to, 1939–69, which demonstrates that most of the entries are for Beethoven and Mozart. After the Woolfs obtained an Algraphone in 1925 they listened to music...


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