Quantum Occurring in Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’

Virginia Woolf was a woman of varied interests and talents. Her work explored radical ideas, as well as innovative forms. She read widely, following scientific journals, as well as contemporary literature, philosophy and arts. Therefore, her experimentation with both how we write, and how we understand, reality in The Waves is well founded in an eclectic education. Woolf used this to break boundaries in fiction, experimenting with literary forms to explore emerging ideas on the nature of realty. Woolf’s literature reflected the move away from objective realism growing in science and philosophy.

The wave-particle debate had been raging a long while before Woolf wrote ‘The Waves’. In 1630 Descartes decided light was waves, while beginning in 1670, and stretching over 3 decades, Newton’s work hypothesized light consisted of particles.

In 1803, Young’s double-slit experiment saw light behave as waves again, as the diffraction of light through the two slits showed interference, which wouldn’t happen if light had moved through the slits directly in a beam of particles.

Young’s findings made the wave model regain popularity. By the end of the 19th century light was thought to consist of waves of electromagnetic fields, and matter to consist of localized particles.


Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was published in 1927, 4 years before The Waves, and deals with the problem of interrelation between pairs of physical qualities, like the position and momentum of a particle[1]. Heisenberg’s theory shows a trade off; the more we know about the particle’s position, the less we know about its momentum, and vice versa. This is due to the nature of waves and particles – it’s virtually impossible to find momentum and velocity of particles within a wave, as their positions aren’t fixed. Bohr’s principle of uncertainty – which is more widely accepted– is not that we cannot know momentum and velocity simultaneously, but that they do not have determinate values of position and momentum simultaneously. This began the full collapse of wave-particle duality. Young’s experiment was later investigated with more precise equipment and showed that the dark and light bands shown on the viewing screen are formed of absorbed light – in particle form – with their varying density showing the pattern of interference. Using detectors, physicists found each photon went individually through the slit (as a particle), rather than both slits (like a wave). Light was both states simultaneously.

Reports on Young, Heisenberg and Bohr, and this shift away from the 19th century’s belief in light and matter’s set boundaries, were published during Woolf’s lifetime. Woolf’s diaries showed her interest in this work, and Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, scholarly interests included relativity[2]. He believed in objective reality, and saw objects as a product of sensation; a table is only present when observed. He challenged some of the duality between the physical table and the mental sensation, by relating the experience of seeing a table to that of having a toothache[3], but never refuted objective relativity. Woolf’s position, as a non-formally educated daughter, caused her and her sister to devower Stephen’s library, so an intellectual background in objective relativity, and its criticisms, formed part of their self-education. She was inspired by it too. The breaking of subject/object boundaries is a key feature of The Waves.

The Waves was published in 1931, and is seen as Woolf’s most formally experimental work. As objective realism was being questioned in physics, Woolf challenged realist writing, which assumed this objectivity, instead creating a text with fluid characters, shared consciousness, and a lyrical style which was neither narrator, third person, nor a character’s voice. At the start of the text, when the characters are children, the same poetic correlative is used as when they are adults, with no change in tone or vocabulary.

The Waves presents Monism; each character is an element of one whole.

‘The six characters were supposed to be one. I’m getting old myself – I shall be fifty next year; and I come to feel more and more how difficult it is to collect oneself into Virginia; even though the special Virginia in whose body I live for the moment is violently susceptible to all sorts of separate feelings. Therefore I wanted to give the sense of continuity (Woolf. Letters IV, p397[4])

It’s only ‘what is behind [bodies that] differs – the perspective’[5]. Monism dictated that everything was made up of one thing. Discoveries by physicists continued to show unexpected reactions between particles, even changing states. Einstein in 1930 proposed the cyclic universe theory – that the universe broke down and then expanded again – a year before Woolf published The Waves. While Woolf may not have directly read this work, similar ideas of all matter being made of one basic thing (later supposed to be quarks) were contained in Monism. Woolf, and the Bloomsbury group were intrigued by Monism. In most fiction before this point, the sensate physical body, and the images of the mind, were separate. Woolf shows the sensate body to make up the mind; Bernard needs ‘words of one syllable…a howl, a cry’[6], symbols, to convey his sensations, while Jinni is intensely physical and uses her body in conversation with sensation. Woolf wished to base her work on ‘feeling and not upon conviction’[7], by focusing first on the sensory body and then displaying ‘feeling’ through associations; reading the mind through the body. The body reacts to a shared world but does so subjectively, being both individual and part of a wave of sensation drawn from one point (shared experience). In her essay The Common Reader, Woolf’s Monist ‘luminous halo’[8] replaces the symmetrically arranged ‘gig lights’ – an image of objective realism’s incomplete viewpoint – as dualities creating object boundaries, like those separating sensation and thought, are collapsed. The ‘luminous halo’ breaks down the binary of consciousness and body; characters are individuals and part of a wave facilitated by sensory experience that is no longer restricted to an internal mental space. The calls to ‘see’ and ‘hear’[9] in The Waves connect characters sensations; Jenny says ‘our bodies communicate’[10], and it’s the ‘sensation’[11] of the water, which creates their ‘sensitive’[12] bodies. Like Einstein’s theory of a cyclic universe, the characters in The Waves are being ‘made and remade continually’[13] . This shown explicitly in Woolf’s draft, where ‘new born babies’ are ‘tossed from the top of the waves’[14].

Shared consciousness is shown in The Waves, as exact lines of thought are repeated in the characters poetic correlative. These pseudo-characters could be ‘facets of existence’[15], moving as one wave, while also retaining individuality. While collective consciousness is not an accepted part of quantum physics – mainly due to difficulties defining consciousness – particles in interaction going beyond their previous objective boundaries is. For Woolf, who saw mental phenomena as equal to physical, the movement of light particles in Young’s double slit experiment may have led her to hypothesize humans creating a larger form of this effect, moving as a wave of bodies and thoughts outside of physical boundaries (as in artistic, literary or philosophical movements), while also remaining individuals with different sensory reactions.

Individual traits pass through the group, highlighting their different interactions to stimuli, as they rise as individuals (as the waves separate) and sink back into the collective self. Bernard’s fear that he ‘need[s] the illumination of other peoples eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self’[16], shows human selfhood to only become whole through interaction. Woolf’s work paints a cyclical, holistic, universe through extrinsic poetic narration, inhabited by voices imbued with quantum tendencies. The desire ‘to make one thing…seen by many eyes simultaneously’[17] is symbolized through ‘a single flower…but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled…a whole flower to which every

[1] The momentum of a particle is related to its velocity; in particular, momentum is mass times velocity

[2] Particularly in his book ‘A History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century.’

[3] p46-7, Stephen, Leslie. History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century.

{C}[4]{C} Woolf, Virginia. . Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Vol. IV. New York: Harcourt, 1977-1982.

{C}[5]{C} p86, Woolf. The Waves

{C}[6]{C} p166, Woolf. The Waves

{C}[7]{C} p119, Woolf, Virginia. ‘Modern Fiction’. Virginia Woolf: ‘Selections from her Essays’ Ed. James, Walter. (London: Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1966)

{C}[8]{C} p120, ibid.

{C}[9]{C} from p4 onwards,Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[10]{C} p56, Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[11]{C} p13, Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[12]{C} p163, Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[13]{C} p74, Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[14]{C} qtd on p156, Minow-Pinkney, Makiko. Virginia Woolf and The Problem of The Subject: Feminine Writing in the Major Novels. (Sussex: Harvester Press Ltd, 1987)

[15] P5-6, Rodal, Jocelyn.’”One World, One Life”: The Politics of Personal Connection in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves’ (US: DSpace@MIT, 2006) web:http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/35703/71248827.pdf acc: 7/11/13

[16] p64, Woolf. The Waves

[17] p70, Woolf. The Waves


2 thoughts on “Quantum Occurring in Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’

    1. Thanks for the support ! Glad to see a fellow Quantum Woolf fan – this piece was so enjoyable to write and research. I’ll be uploading more academic pieces soon so do keep reading, and I’ll keep posting x


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