I have to own up. The first time I read The Waves I didn’t notice that Rhoda had died. I must have blinked on p202 when Bernard recalls that “she had killed herself”.
Rhoda is a Hebrew name and it comes from the Greek rhodon which means rose. There is a maid called Rhoda who appears once in the New Testament (Acts 12: 12 – 15). She is the first person to see Peter after he is released from prison but no one believes her when she says he is at the gate: her social status is lowly and she is told she is mad.
So now there are two deaths in The Waves. The death of Percival brings the novel to a cold, hard standstill. The world stops. We know exactly what happened: that he fell from his horse and was trampled in India.
At the farewell dinner for Percival the friends gather round a dinner table with a single red carnation in a vase: a “seven-sided flower, many petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded”. The colour of the gathering is vivid, even lurid. Woolf makes sure that the last time the friends are with Percival is burned onto our eyeballs.
When Rhoda dies no one speaks or thinks of it. The experience for the friends is very like the / this reader’s experience. How can we all have become so heartless?
Even Woolf’s syntax has something to tell us. Bernard’s recollection that “she had killed herself” is framed in the past perfect (pluperfect) tense. This is the tense used for an action that occurs prior to an aforementioned time. Even at the moment of being set down on the page, Rhoda’s death belongs to pre-history – things have already happened since. The same is true of her failed romance with Louis. We do not know it is there until it is over.
In contrast, Percival dies in the simple past: “He fell. His horse tripped. He was thrown.”
More simply put: Percival is dead; Rhoda was dead.
It seems that Rhoda jumped under a bus. Afterwards (and we don’t know how long afterwards) Bernard imagines himself taking her arm as they cross a busy street together:
“Wait until these omnibuses have gone by. Do not cross so dangerously. These men are your brothers.”
This is a strange thing to say to someone who is merely crossing the road. But it is not a strange thing to say to someone who is thinking of taking their own life, who always has “fear in her eyes”. This is what Bernard wishes he had said to Rhoda before it was too late.
When we hear that Rhoda has died we are already in the midst of Bernard’s summing up. He remembers her thus:
“… the figure of Rhoda, always so furtive, always with fear in her eyes, always seeking some pillar in the desert, to find which she had gone; she had killed herself.”
I am trying to imagine what the pillar in the desert might be. There are the five pillars of Islam – the beliefs to which good Muslims must cling. A pillar in the desert also makes me think of a vertical line among horizontals, an interruption that might be a place to aim for. It also makes me think of hardness versus softness, an edifice amid sifting sands.
At the beginning of the novel (in the school-room) Rhoda conjures in her mind a desert through which the hands of the classroom clock move like a convoy. A few pages later, she stretches out her toes in bed to touch the rail:
“I will assure myself of something hard.”
Much later when she fears falling from the world into nothingness she has to bang her hand against “some hard door to call herself back.” At a party she steps out onto a balcony and is comforted by seeing two lovers below because they look like statues:
“There is then a world immune from change” she says to herself more than once.
A pillar in a desert may be something solid to cling to.
When Rhoda arrives at the farewell dinner for Percival it is Louis who sees her:
“Rhoda comes now, from nowhere, having slipped in while we were not looking. She must have made a tortuous course, taking cover now behind a waiter, now behind some ornamental pillar.”
On the way to Hampton Court Rhoda notices the trees:
“There were lamp-posts and trees that had not yet shed their leaves on the way from the station. The leaves might have hidden me still.”
A pillar in a desert may be something to hide behind.
In the few short passages before her last thoughts on page 166 (where she is afraid that her purpose may be shaken by meeting with her friends), Rhoda reflects that her life has been uphill:
“My path has been up and up towards some solitary tree with a pool beside it at the very top.”
“If we could mount together, if we could perceive from a sufficient height, if we could remain untouched without any support…”
A pillar in a desert may be a place from which to look down (and find solace in the world’s smallness).
What do the two deaths amount to? It’s impossible to look for meanings in The Waves without feeling like a bull in a china shop.
Perhaps all we can do is notice what our nerve-ends tell us. I instinctively feel that what we sense about Percival and Rhoda dying is that death is everything and death is nothing. As the French say l’un n’empêche pas l’autre – which we might translate as contradictory things can be true at the same time. The Waves is a novel in which opposites swim around each other beautifully, and as if they are entirely at peace.
Death is an extraordinary and an ordinary thing. The world must stop and the world must carry on. The dark hole left by a person should be fallen into and should also be stepped over. We must stare in horror and we must also blow our noses and finish the washing up.
Rhoda slipped out while we were not looking.