Virginia Woolf
The Role of Percival in The Waves

By Karin Riley

Let us hold it for one moment, love, hatred, by whatever name we call it, the globe whose walls are made of Percival, of youth and beauty, and something so deep sunk within us that we shall perhaps never make this moment out of one man again.


In Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931) Percival is the hero, the god, whose death will send a tremendous shockwave through the lives of the six main characters of the novel: Bernard, Jinny, Louis, Neville, Rhoda and Susan. Yet we never enter Percival's consciousness, he only appears through the eyes of the six. So what makes him so revered and admired? What power does he hold over the others by his mere presence or even by the mere thoughts they have of him?

Percival enters the narrative when the six characters first go to school. For them, it is the beginning of a very different life, because it is the first time as children that they become separated, with Bernard, Louis and Neville on the one side, and Jinny, Rhoda and Susan on the other. Percival stands out from among the other schoolmates and starts exerting his influence, unknowingly and by his mere presence, on Bernard, Louis and Neville.  As Louis puts it:

His magnificence is that of some medieval commander. A wake of light seems to lie on the grass behind him. Look at us trooping after him, his faithful servants, to be shot like sheep, for he will certainly attempt some forlorn enterprise and die in battle.

And a forlorn enterprise he will attempt, as Percival will later leave for India where he will meet his fate.

They all realize that the unity they once had has been broken by school, but it feels as if Bernard, Louis and Neville are trying to recreate it through Percival, although, as we will see later, he can only bring this unity to the six when all seven of them are together.

After their time at school, the six characters experience their second bigger split, as Bernard and Neville go to university, Louis starts working in an office, Jinny and Rhoda lead their London life and Susan goes back to the countryside. At that time, Percival is still present, sharing university life with Bernard and Neville, but he is only mentioned a few times, without the worship he got at school. It is only later, when they meet again as adults for Percival's departure to India that Percival's power and influence is shown in full. During the farewell dinner, the six characters start to feel again the unity they had lost at the time of their first split.

Let us hold it for one moment, love, hatred, by whatever name we call it, the globe whose walls are made of Percival, of youth and beauty, and something so deep sunk within us that we shall perhaps never make this moment out of one man again.

And Jinny speaks the truth, as this is the last they will see of Percival. The unity of that evening, the order brought on again by Percival from the initial chaos does not last past Percival's departure. Because they have wandered too far from each other, they cannot go back to the kind of gestalt entity they formed when they were children. However, Percival has the power to bring them back as one as if he could take them back in time. In him they each see the piece of themselves they would like to be and subconsciously know they never will be.

It is at this point in the narrative that the sun is at its peak and so is Percival. He is the sun, they leave him at the brightest point of his life, and they, they are left with the impression they are going to do great deeds. Unfortunately, this does not last. After the farewell dinner, the six characters go their own way again and are only re-united in grief, though not physically, when they learn of Percival's death. A death which happens as the sun starts to go down in the narrative. A death which should contrast with the joy Bernard should feel at the birth of his son. But Bernard only seems to feel the tragedy of Percival's death, nothing else seems to matter that day:

I ask, and do not know, only that I need silence, and to be alone and to go out, and to save one hour to consider what has happened to my world.

The unthinkable has happened: the hero has died, but not of a hero's death. Percival is thrown off his flea-bitten mare; Percival, the god, the reflection of what they all wanted to be, dies in the dirt. Nevertheless, they do not see the fall of the god, they only feel the loss, the emptiness this creates in their lives, it seems as if a part of each of them has died forever.

They all try, each in their own way, to cope with the shock of it all. Neville, whose love for Percival is present throughout the novel, is hit very hard by the loss.

He is dead. He fell. His horse tripped. He was thrown. The sails of the world have swung round and caught me on the head. All is over. The lights of the world have gone out. There stands the tree I cannot pass.

And Rhoda, the most fragile of them all, always frightened of humankind, unhappy of her existence, gathers violets and throws them to Percival. This is her symbol of liturgy, but also of love and affection.

Yet we know that Percival will keep on influencing the lives of the six characters long after his death, as can be seen when they meet again, middle-aged, in Hampton Court, a place chosen by Bernard because he once refused to go there with Percival. This reunion dinner, the final time we will see all of the six together, brings not only nostalgia, but also the plain reality of their lives. In a way, they are still waiting for Percival to come back and lead their lives, or at least enable them to be united again and to feel as they did in their childhood. But this cannot and will not happen   As Neville sadly says:

Honestly now, openly and directly as befits old friends meeting with difficulty, what do we feel on meeting? Sorrow. The door will not open, he will not come. And we are laden . . . Now is our festival; now we are together. But without Percival there is no solidity. We are silhouettes, hollow phantoms moving mistily without a background.

We can also feel the pain, through Bernard's words, the harsh reality they are all trying to avoid, the fact that this unity so important to them is gone, this time forever.

The flower, the red carnation that stood in the vase on the table of the restaurant when we dined together with Percival, is become a six-sided flower; made of six lives.

Despite losing Percival, the man they worshipped, all the characters, apart from Rhoda, survive Percival's death and struggle with their lives. However, none of them seem content with what they have, or as seems likely, have not achieved. As they grow older, they all have doubts about the choices they have made, the lives they have lead. Only Percival remains the beautiful youth he was, unaffected through death by time's corruption, the one whose life they still envy, despite its tragic end.

We saw for a moment, laid out among us the body of the complete human being whom we have failed to be, but at the same time cannot forget.

Reference:  Virginia Woolf.  The Waves.  Vintage Classics

© Karin Riley, November 2010


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