Choral Voices

First edition of Virginia Woolf’s
The Waves (1931)

The character of Louis in Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) is often assumed to have been inspired by T. S. Eliot. Louis is a foreigner in England, always self-consciously trying to fit in; he is characterised by his need for order, and by his sense of history and tradition; he has a clerical job, but shows a profound literary sensitivity. Eliot shared these traits – and was born in Saint Louis.

The Waves is essentially a choral novel in which six friends (Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny and Louis) express their thoughts and relive their memories, without directly interacting. They are, to use Henry James’s term, “centres of consciousness,” and the projections of their minds overlap. In the final section of the novel, the six voices become one as Bernard, the writer in the group, blurs perspectival distinctions.

When we first hear them, the characters speak short statements – like verse lines – conveying elemental visual and auditory images:

“I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”
“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”
“I hear a sound,” said Rhoda, “cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and down.”
“I see a globe,” said Neville, “hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.”
“I see a crimson tassel,” said Jinny, “twisted with gold threads.”
“I hear something stamping,” said Louis. “A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.” [*]

Four characters integrate the chorus in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939): Ivy, Violet, Gerald and Charles. A single choral voice alternates with four voices that, despite fulfilling a common purpose, are distinct. Although this alternation was an innovative dramatic device, the critic Desmond MacCarthy dismissed it as “a violation of auditory psychology” [**]. The members of Eliot’s chorus comment on the action collectively, but they also show concern on trivialities or attack one another, as if voicing their thoughts:

IVY. I do not trust Charles with his confident vulgarity, acquired from worldly associates.
GERDALD. Ivy is only concerned on herself, and her credit among her shabby genteel acquaintance.
VIOLET. Gerald is certain to make some blunder, he is useless out of the army.
CHARLES. Violet is afraid that her status as Amy’s sister will be diminished.

Eliot’s chorus is very different from Woolf’s dramatis personae. The former are secondary characters lacking any depth, they are relatives with strained relationships and not friends, and they are satirised by Eliot for their meaningless mundane priorities. Yet, the cadence and diction of their language, the way their voices are alternatively integrated and individualised, are reminiscent of the opening of The Waves, in which the six voices emerge, almost with an incantatory effect.

[*] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 2.
[**] Desmond MacCarthy, “Some Notes on Mr. Eliot’s New Play, New Statesman, 25-03-1939.” T. S. Eliot. The Contemporary Reviews, ed. by Jewel Spears Brooker (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), pp. 381-84 (p. 382).

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