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Essay on The Importance of Birds in Virginia Woolf's The Waves

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The Importance of Birds in Virginia Woolf's The Waves  


   To emphasize her viewpoint in The Waves, Woolf employs a distinctive style.  She interlocks the dramatic monologues of six characters at successive stages in their lives to tell her story; and prefaces each of the sections with a descriptive passage of sun and waves through a single day.  In these passages descriptions of the sun, the sea, the plants, and the birds make implicit comparisons with the characters' speeches.  The actions of the birds in the descriptive passages most strikingly parallel the developing consciousness of the characters, exemplified by Susan.

The birds' developing singing abilities and early explorations parallel Susan's experiences in childhood and adolescence.  Initially the birds chirp independently.  Later, "the birds [sing] their blank melody outside" (8).  Like the other children in section one, Susan states her observations without integrating them with those of her playmates: "I see a slab of pale yellow . . . spreading away until it meets a purple stripe"; "a caterpillar is curled in a green ring . . . notched with blunt feet" (9).  Later, Susan speaks about herself.  She thinks in concrete terms: "it is black, I see; it is green, I see; I am tied down with single words."  Polarization marks her emotions: "I love and I hate" 16).  The jealousy she feels about Ginny kissing Louis demonstrates Susan's primal lack of sophistication.  Susan reveals that she will not be afraid of life and will experience it fully: "I am not afraid of heat, nor of the frozen winter" (25).  The sun rises higher; the birds occasionally join their voices in a wild strain, grow silent, and break asunder.  Susan goes away to school.  Intensely homesick, s...


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...urely feminine" (248).  He admits that he loved her because she cried with him after Ginny kissed Louis; because her primitivism appealed to the poet in him.

Thus Woolf shows how life resembles the sea: the waves, stages in development, provide a body of knowledge to make sense of the past and to guide future decisions.   The sea, a microcosm, represents the earth, and the birds symbolize mankind.  Woolf realizes that human behavior shows predictability and may be classified in several ways.  Susan represents one possible classification, and Woolf ties the birds' external patterns to Susan's inner reality to demonstrate unity of body and psyche.

Works Cited

Coleman, Elliott, ed.  Poems of Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Garden City, N.Y.: International Collectors Library, 1967.

Woolf, Virginia.  The Waves.  New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1959.


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