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, she misses her father, her pets, and the hay in waving meadows. The sun rises still higher; the birds join in a sharp, shrill chorus--fearful and apprehensive--join in flight, descend, observe. About to leave finishing school in Switzerland, Susan declares her hatred of the unfamiliar--"I hate fir trees and mountains." Anticipating her return home, she asserts, "I cannot be divided, or kept apart" (97) and describes the sensuous pleasures of home and country life.
Further into the novel, the birds' behavior corresponds to Susan's early adulthood, her prime, and her middle age. The birds sing alone, "stridently . . . as if the song were urged out of them . . . as if the edge were being sharpened." They [descend] dry-beaked, ruthless, abrupt" (109), soar in high flights, observe, sever upon encountering a rock. Susan, hating London, comes dowdily dressed--"like a creature dazed by the light of a lamp" (119)--to Percival's farewell dinner. At this reunion she learns that Bernard, whom she loves, has become engaged. Susan thinks that "something irrevocable has happened. . . . We shall never flow freely again" (142). The sun rises to its full height; the birds' "passionate songs addressed to one ear only" (149)...