‘The Waves’ and saying goodbye

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When thinking of goodbyes and leave-takings, the end of a term, or the end of an era, one of the novels that I end up coming back to is The Waves. Written by Virginia Woolf in 1931, the book captures the bittersweetness of moving on and letting go, the reoccurring senses of new beginnings and approaching ends. Just as the eponymous waves flow back and forth, the characters mourn the past yet beat on, ever towards the future. The cycles of life continue; Jinny must eventually go to tea:

‘Now the tide sinks. Now the trees come to earth; the brisk waves that slap my ribs rock more gently, and my heart rides at anchor, like a sailing-boat whose sails slide slowly down on to the white deck. The game is over. We must go to tea now’.

Focusing on six characters, the book alternates between spoken monologues of their lives, forming a melancholic Greek chorus. The act of vocal mourning grants meaning to what they have lost, structuring each goodbye as a part of who they eventually grow to become. Upon leaving boarding school, Susan states: ‘I shall […] unfold and take out whatever it is I have made here; something hard. For something has grown in me here, through the winters and summers, on staircases, in bedrooms’. Woolf’s language of gestation speaks to the invisible influence our environments have on our selves, the pieces of us which are formed in each era of our lives.

Wherever one goes next, a piece of Durham will travel with them

With Easter term ending in Durham, this will be the last time many students will have on these cobbled streets. A last time which is (thankfully) in sunny weather, but which will still be hard for many to move on from. Wherever one goes next, a piece of Durham will travel with them, one which is unique to each person and an essential part of who they will grow to become. 

Yet, despite these contemplative thoughts, perhaps it is still important to stay in the present moment. While ‘Silence’ closes in on her past, Susan remarks: ‘This I say is the present moment; this is the first day of the summer holidays.’ With the holidays approaching and many courses finished for the year, it is important to acknowledge the present: a time to finally socialise, enjoy the sun, and take your mind off pasts and futures. 

However, saying goodbye is hardest when it is to our friendships and relationships. With the flow of time pushing people away, Woolf illustrates the difficulties of keeping these ships afloat. As Louis poignantly states on ‘the last day of the last term’: ‘Life will divide us. But we have formed certain ties.’ While life inexorably leads people in different directions, these ‘ties’ will always connect us. In an increasingly digitalised age, it is much easier to renew old connections once more. If Woolf had access to Zoom or Messenger, the dark clouds she condenses over each farewell might have had silver linings.

If Woolf had access to Zoom or Messenger, the dark clouds she condenses over each farewell might have had silver linings

As well as being able to reconnect (digitally and in-person), the memories we have remind us of moments shared, of people who have informed our present. In Bernard’s narrative of his life, he states: ‘it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people’. His memories of others lead to a philosophical realisation about himself: his present self is both formed and constructed in relation to his friendships and relationships. Woolf indicates the importance of understanding ourselves in relation to others. Saying goodbye does not create a point of cut-off, it does not make an untraversable gulf. It instead represents a moment of moving on, one which simultaneously acknowledges the influence one’s past will have on possible futures, while also leaving possibilities open for reforging connections. 

While melancholic, Woolf’s The Waves captures the brightness of individual moments of joy, the importance of remembering these bright specks in life, and the imprint which these past relationships have on the self. Bidding farewell to an era is a necessary step in the rhythms of life, a mournful, yet hopeful, step towards a possible future, one which Woolf symbolises through the cyclical and reassuring motions of the ocean:

The waves breaking spread their white fans far out over the shore, sent white shadows into the recesses of sonorous caves and then rolled back sighing over the shingle.’

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