Virginia Woolf is perhaps best known for her explorations and depictions of human consciousness. However, more contemporary science reveals that consciousness is only a small part of what constitutes our brain function. Rather, there are a dual functions within the human brain: consciousness and cognition. This nonconscious cognition is what allows us to see patterns, to make judgements, and to act reflexively, while consciousness is the function that shapes our individual identity and the story we tell about ourselves. Though previous studies have focused primarily on Woolf's representations of consciousness in her short stories and novels, there is much left to be explored when we look at her works through the lens of nonconscious cognitions, or as Woolf might call them, "moments of non-being" (Sketch 70). In my reading of The Waves, I leverage cognitive theory and new materialism to demonstrate how Woolf creates a world in which humankind--and therefore consciousness--is not entirely absent, but radically decentered. What remains is a world that is purely nonconscious cognition: still full of life and movement, but resistant to the individual identity and narrative structure so deeply sought after by humans. This cognitive project becomes especially apparent in the juxtaposition to the human characters' consciousness-driven narratives about their individual views of the world. I suggest that in the italicized interludes interspersed throughout The Waves, Woolf is writing moments of non-being, what Bernard calls the "world seen without a self"--a world in which human life is only marginal, leaving a quiet scenery full of microscopic action that often remains unseen in the self-focused, stream-of-consciousness narration of the chapters (Waves 287). I argue that by marginalizing humankind and shedding consciousness in the interludes of The Waves, Woolf places humans on the same ontological plane as the rest of the world. In this process, the scenes lose individual identity and traditional narrative, but reveal a connection with lively materials outside of the human self and with the rhythmic circularity of the universe.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Lewis, Morgan Ashley, ""The World Without a Self": Non-Being and Ontological Leveling in Virginia Woolf's The Waves" (2020). Theses and Dissertations. 9209.
Virginia Woolf, cognition, consciousness, The Waves, interludes, ontology, form