The Waves: Bernard as a Pattern (and Story-) Maker and Principle Spokesman - Bernard's Search for Identity

Seminar Paper, 2006

15 Pages, Grade: 2.3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Bernard’s Key Position in the Novel

3. Bernard and the Question of Identity
3.1 Bernard at College
3.2 Androgyny and Identity
3.3 Time and Identity
3.4 Bernard and the Audience – Narrative and Identity
3.5 The Epilogue

4. Bernard – The Framing and Unifying Character

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The experimental novel The Waves by Virginia Woolf was published in 1931. By describing the search for identity Woolf has the aim to show that identity consists of a variety of selves.[1] For that reason the question “Who am I“ is central to all characters in the novel.[2]

Woolf introduces a circle of friends that consists of seven people and describes the lives of the characters from childhood until they are old. Six characters, three men and three women, get voices and express themselves. The seventh, a man called Percival, does not speak, he is introduced by the other characters Susann, Jinny, Rhoda, Neville, Louis, and Bernard. The friends present themselves through their monologues, but they do not talk to each other, they just tell their own thoughts.[3] The reader moves from consciousness to consciousness and only by the inquit formula “said [name of character]“, one can recognize who is speaking. Stylistic similarities of the monologues hint that Virginia Woolf actually intended to present the consciousness of a single person and not of six different individuals. Therefore this stylistic feature serves to illustrate the concept of a multiple self.[4]

The focus of this essay will be on Bernard because he is “[…] the primary voice in the novel“[5]. His search for identity will be shown and it will be illustrated how Virginia Woolf’s uses this character to illustrate the concept of an identity that consists of various elements. At the beginning Bernard’s key position in the novel will be considered. Then some aspects of Bernard’s search for identity will be discussed and at the end Bernard’s function for the unity of the novel and of identity will be shown.

2. Bernard’s Key Position in the Novel

Bernard has a key position in The Waves in terms of quality and quantity. This special role is mainly based on his linguistic ability. His monologues constitute one third of the novel and are written in a better linguistic style than those of the other characters. Except the fifth and sixth, Bernard introduces all chapters and gives an overview of the topic of the new chapter. He also is the first and the last character who speaks in the novel. Due to his key position Bernard has the function of a commentator, who sums up and interprets important events and thoughts.[6]

A reason for Bernard’s keyposition in The Waves are the two roles he has. On the one hand he is one of six characters, whose consciousness is described and on the other hand he functions as a writer and represents the other six characters.[7] In contrary to Louis and Neville who are poets, Bernard writes prose. He makes up stories from common perceptions and situations and writes about the other characters, who are contained in his consciousness. Bernard is not just able to put himself in the positions of the other persons and feels like them, he embodies the other characters when writing about them.[8] By having written the statements of all characters in a similar style, Virginia Woolf makes it more plain to the reader that the voices are represented by one character. In this way, by combining all the voices within the consciousness of one character, a multiplicity of self is shown. When finding the voices unified in Bernard, who comments and sums them up, the reader combines the different voices to one meaningful narrative, because the connections between the thoughts and events get more recognizable.[9]

As the main voice in The Waves Bernard can be regarded as the most comprehensive and stable character in the novel.[10] Besides that he seems to be the most self-conscious one of the seven friends.[11]

3. Bernard and the Question of Identity

Bernard is a character who tries to define his self by defining everything that he perceives and that can be recognized as not being his identity. “He seeks to define his self by defining all that is Other”.[12] When Mrs. Constable, his nursemaid, squeezes the sponge above him when he is a child Bernard realizes the first time that there exists something outside his self, which is distinct from him.[13]

3.1 Bernard at College

During his time at college Bernard experiences the main stage of his individualisation and separation from the other characters. Here the focus is mainly on himself.[14]

When entering college Bernard asks the first time, “What am I?”[15]. He recognizes that his self is complex and multiple and puts much emphasis on his multiplicity during college-time. He says: “I am not one and simple, but complex and many.” (56).[16] In this stage of his life Bernard very much tries to define what the “Other” is, that does not constitute his identity. He asks: “What am I? […] This? No, I am that.” (56). While searching for his self Bernard mainly uses historical people like Tolstois, Byron, Hamlet or Shelley to identify with. These identifications take place particularly during his time at college.[17] But finally he is not able to define his identity, he says: “But now let me ask myself the final question […] which of these people am I?” (60).

During college-time Bernard addresses himself with “you”. This “you” seems to be a stable part of his self. In contrary to the various elements that constitute his identity, which are changing, and which he is trying to integrate into his consciousness, Bernard is aware of that “you”:

“[said Bernard] But you understand, you, my self, who always comes at a call […] you understand that I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight. Underneath, and, at the moment when I am most desperate, I am also integrated.” (57)

This part of his identity gives Bernard stability and turns up several times in the novel. During all his life he comes back to this part of his self and talks to it as if it was a real person. Bernard also talks about this “you” as a third person narrator when he is confused by the many roles he slides into.[18] The “you“ does not change during his lifetime, it exists besides all the other selves, which meet in Bernard. It seems that he also tries to define his identity by observing himself from the outside and by characterising this “you”-part Bernard characterises himself and his behaviour:

“[…] I say to myself, “Bernard”, who comes? A faithful, sardonic man, disillusioned, but not embittered. A man of no particular age or calling. Myself, merely.” (60).

Here his self seems disembodied, it is just identity and not the body that constitutes him as a person. Identity can not be named and can not get older, like the body, because it is always developing and renewing through the interaction with other individuals. Only the body can be “fixed irrevocably” (166) and gets the name ‘Bernard’. This image of constant renewal is more recognizable when he states later: “I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.” (100).[19]


[1] See: Kevin Alexander Boon, An Interpretative Reading of Virginia Woolfs The Waves (New

York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1998), 96.

[2] See: Gunilla Neukirchen, „Neue Studien zur Anglistik/Amerikanistik“, Aktive Spiegelungen –

Die Konstituierung des Subjekts im Werk Virginia Woolfs in: W. Erzgräber, P. Goetsch, (ed.), (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 1999), 99.

[3] See: Kate Flint in: Virginia, Woolf, The Waves. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by

Kate Flint (London: Penguin Books, 1992), xiv.

[4] See: Boon, 34-35.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] See: Elisabeth Grünewald-Huber, Virginia Woolf. The Waves. Eine textorientierte psycho-

analytische Interpretation (Bern: Francke, 1979), 74-75.

[7] See: Ingeborg Weber-Brandies, Virginia Woolf. The Waves – Emanzipation als Möglichkeit

des Bewusstseinsromans (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 1974), 97.

[8] See: Howard Harper, Between Language and Silence. The Novels of Virginia

Woolf (Baton Rouge, London: Loisiana State UP, 1982), 232.

[9] See: Boon, 34-36.

[10] See: Harper, 248.

[11] See: Virginia R Hyman, To the Lighthouse and Beyond. Transformation in the Narratives of

Virginia Woolf (New York, Bern: Peter Lang, 1988), 194.

[12] Boon, 26.

[13] See: Flint, xxiv.

[14] See: Weber-Brandies, 98-99.

[15] Virginia Woolf, The Waves. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Kate Flint (London:

Penguin Books, 1992), 56. The following quotes will all be taken from this edition.

[16] See: Boon 98-99.

[17] See: Weber-Brandies, 94-95.

[18] See: Ibid., 96.

[19] See: Neukitchen, 152.

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The Waves: Bernard as a Pattern (and Story-) Maker and Principle Spokesman - Bernard's Search for Identity
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Bernard's kexposition in Virginia Woolf's "The Waves" will be examined in this paper. The character Bernard plays a central and unifying role in this experimental Biography. Besides that the (multiple) identity of Bernard and the development of this identity will be discussed.
Waves, Bernard, Pattern, Story-), Maker, Principle, Spokesman, Bernard, Search, Identity
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Katharina Baron (Author), 2006, The Waves: Bernard as a Pattern (and Story-) Maker and Principle Spokesman - Bernard's Search for Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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