smoke rings and bubbles

Thoughts are round like bubbles, or at least certain thoughts in The Waves are. The thoughts that go into this shape are the ones where something is knowingly being put into words.  This might sound an odd thing to say – surely the whole novel is people doing just that?  What I mean is that there are particular characters who cannot notice something without wanting to turn it into a literary artefact to be kept safe in a notebook.  

Early in the novel there’s a scene where the children are looking around the garden in the morning and reporting what they see using the most extraordinary images (leaves like pointed ears etc.).  These observations are the spontaneous and ‘naturally’ poetic outpourings of children – not sought after and unlikely to be remembered.  I don’t think this is an example of bubbles. What I am thinking of are the moments where finding the right words is an altogether more conscious (even literary) event.

Bernard is the character who most ardently and assiduously wants to write. Over and again, he describes the images his mind offers him as bubbles or smoke rings. From a young age he notices this happening – for example on page 34:

“The bubbles are rising like the silver bubbles from the floor of a saucepan, image on top of image.”

In fact, The Waves contains far more than the average quota of writerly characters. There is also Louis the banker who is always reading and is also slightly obsessed with trying to write the perfect poem: “one poem on a page, and then die.” He reads and rereads the medieval lyric ‘O Westron Wind’ as if by immersing himself in a single poem he might learn how to write just one. He can never quite bring himself to give up.

Then there is Neville whose fantasies of being a great poet are far more as-and-when. We find him as a young man lounging beside a river and coming up with the line “the falling fountains of the pendant trees”.  Soon he is rejoicing at his own literariness. But it is only a matter of moments before he feels the image overheat and hiss away: “it foams, it becomes artificial, insincere.”  And that seems to be that.


It’s significant that Bernard’s bubbles and smoke rings are not only apparent to him. Neville knows what Bernard is like and describes his storytelling as ‘burbling.’ More compellingly, this is how he describes listening to one of Bernard’s ‘foolish comparisons’:

“One floats, too, as if one were that bubble; one is freed; I have escaped, one feels.”

Later in the book Bernard reassures himself in similar terms:

“The little boys used to feel “That’s a good one, that’s a good one” as the phrases bubbled up from my lips under the elm trees in the playing-fields. They too bubbled up; they also escaped with my phrases.”

Of course, a bubble is only a bubble if everyone agrees it to be so. In the same way, a metaphor or simile cannot be pleasing only to the writer. Bubbles of that sort don’t float up but sink down to the ground with a piteous clatter. bubbles make it as exciting to read as to write. A perfect bubble carries away its idea, along with the mind.


What might it be about bubbles and round things that makes them so akin to metaphors or similes (or vice versa)?  Why would Woolf make this such a loud leit-motiv in the novel’s symphony?

The quality of bubbles is to be both strong and fragile. They have no weight. Bubbles escape us, moving away and up into the air. They are held intact by a surface tension that is all or nothing.  If you poke a bubble it will pop and disappear.  Either it is perfect or it does not exist at all.

I would love to think that this is Woolf’s own idea of a perfectly-made image: something that is whole and pure, sealed into itself and so unarguable.  Something that is exact and true, that is there but that has no need of us.

And, of course, bubbles can never be still. They have the airy fleetingness that is so important to Woolf’s own aesthetic.  A bubble will leave us stuck to the earth as it flies away to find its own private life. 


Bernard’s bubbles / smoke-rings only arise when he is in the world.  Solitude is his undoing, he tells himself. He requires the stimulus of seeing and listening to jolt his mind into aliveness:

“If I find myself in company with other people, words at once make smoke rings – see how phrases at once begin to wreathe off my lips… Then how lovely the smoke of my phrases is, rising and falling, flaunting and falling…”

Being in the world is to be in hot pursuit of the words and phrases that make it real. Being alive means putting things into words and thinking about doing so. Terrifyingly, not writing is a sort of non-existence.

Towards the end of the novel Bernard experiences a bleakly terrifying episode when language deserts him. It’s a kind of worldless death (or deathly worldlessness). He leans on a gate looking over fields and sees a self that has nothing to say. This self is dissociated into a he who ‘attempted no phrase’ while the I listens and waits.

By the bottom of the page, Bernard has become a man without a self:

“But how describe the world seen without a self? There are no words.”

This passage is so mysterious and beautiful and perplexing. I hesitate to use the term ‘existential crisis’ because it sounds too modern / glib. I’m not even entirely sure what has let Bernard down – is it the world or is it words? And which would be worse? What is clear is that each hinges upon the other – the world is not there if it cannot be put into words, and Bernard is not there if he can’t find words for the world.

This is not mere ‘writer’s block’ but a profound moment of non-existence, of non-ness. A man looks at a field and the field looks back and offers him no language. Life has destroyed him.

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