Behind it, too, the sky cleared as if the white sediment had sunk, or as if the arm of a woman couched beneath the horizon had raised a lamp and flat bars of white, green and yellow spread across the sky like the blades of a fan. Then she raised her lamp higher and the air seemed to become fibrous and to tear aware from the green surface flickering and flaming in red and yellow fibres like the smoky fire that roars from a bonfire.
White, white, green, yellow, green, red, yellow… How can the colours of things be so simple? This is a child’s colouring book.
There is nothing recherché in Woolf’s vocabulary here. In this interlude (which is the first) there are fifteen instances of a colour being mentioned. Later, the sky is grey and blue and the sea turns gold.
One might feel disappointed by Woolf’s palette. Where are the umbers and sepias, ochres and turquoises, vermilions and maroons? Why this insistence on a vocabulary that seems almost (if I dare say it) unimaginative?
I do not mean that this passage is not exciting and compelling. But its interest does not lie in the colours of things. The interest lies in the fact of the air becoming fibrous and tearing away from the green surface. It’s as if the strange abstractness of what’s happening is made into something we can more readily picture by the use (and repetition) of ordinary colour words.
Most of Woolf’s colour words are in the interludes. But skipping through the rest of the novel, we come across the thick black stockings on the legs of Mrs Constable. Here is Rhoda with a brown basin containing petals. The basin appears over and over again and it is always brown and we are always told it is brown, although surely Woolf could rely on us to remember.
Here is the end of the second interlude in which we have been shown the yellow excretions of slugs, a black cat, a grey cathedral and a red-edged curtain:
The wind rose. The waves drummed on the shore, like turbaned warriors, like turbaned men with poisoned assegais who, whirling their arms on high, advance upon the feeding flocks, the white sheep.
If this were a poem the word white would be strictly forbidden. Only mention the colour of something if it is not what you would expect it to be: nothing wrong with saying that sheep are yellow or grey. But white sheep? It is almost Bo-Peepish. Then again, who does not need to hear a nursery rhyme when they have seen warriors waving their poisoned weapons on a beach?
The most complicated artefact in the novel is the carnation on the table around which the friends sit for the famous dinner:
A seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves – a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.
Woolf has several goes at the colour. (In my Thesaurus the entry for puce sends me to both brown and purple. According to the OED puce is ‘ a dark red or purple-brown colour’ associated with rage. Puce derives from the French for flea, so something that is puce is flea-coloured.)
I think it might be true that the carnation is the only example in The Waves of a thing that is itself as well as being a symbol. It’s terribly obvious that the flower’s seven petals stand for the seven friends, soon to become six. What if its puce is the puce of rage: the rage the friends will feel when Percival is so stupidly killed? And is the carnation’s difficult-to-describe colour connected with its being both real and more than real?
In a later interlude the sun reaches its full height:
Now the sun burnt uncompromising, undeniable …. It gave to everything its exact measure of colour.
This interlude goes into an over-drive of colour words, yellow awnings, a white gull, red plums, a green lamp, dark-green jungle trees, grey-blue air, grey hills, grey stones (for Woolf is not above repetition).
In the intense light of midday, all things become more acutely themselves and Woolf doesn’t mind if we know that she is running out of words. She must say that the hills are grey because they are so. She must say that the stone is grey because it is. There is nothing for it. The world is itself and it is not her fault if it repeats itself.
We have seen that the same simple colour words are used again and again, especially in the interludes. We have seen that Woolf doesn’t mind being unimaginative or stating the obvious. We have seen that everyday objects insist on being the same colour whenever they appear. We have seen that different objects can be the same colour – which is of no importance.
After all this, a simple thought strikes me: that the exact measure of colour of an object is an aspect of its thing-ness. And the thing-ness of things is a succour when all seems to be moving and flowing too fast.
When Woolf says that a plum is red or a sheep is white, she is grasping hold of something that can be relied upon in its unchangingness. This is the opposite of frightening. A white sheep is not interesting, but it is true and it will always be so.