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Taxonomy as Social Hermeneutics in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

By Sophie Garnett

Virginia Woolf’s dreamlike novel The Waves (1931) loosely follows six childhood friends, Susan, Jinny, Neville, Bernard, Louis, and Rhoda, shifting between the long, winding, and often abstract interior monologues of each character as they navigate their lives and their adult friendships in interwar London. In the scene that opens the novel, Susan, Jinny, Neville, and Bernard, “(but not Rhoda),” use nets to “skim butterflies from the nodding tops of the flowers” (Woolf 6). This scene is a microcosmic representation of the friends’ dynamic. Rhoda, who is consistently an outlier in social settings, is characterized as a butterfly throughout the novel, positioned not among her friends but among the creatures that they collect as children. The butterfly image, however, resonates beyond its allusion to Rhoda’s exclusion. A creature represented in The Waves as a taxonomic object upon which imperial and patriarchal violence is enacted, the butterfly offers a hermeneutics of how the six children relate to each other within British institutional society. Socially normative characters, most notably Bernard, use the linked discourses of taxonomy and imperialism in an attempt to understand the non-normative characters Louis and Rhoda—inevitably alienating and dehumanizing them in the process. 

As an activity whose impulse to classify the world into named, knowable phenomena is inextricable from the impulse to acquire power, the imperial connotations of taxonomy are self-evident. The novelist John Fowles, for example, writes that “naming things is always implicitly categorizing them and therefore collecting them, attempting to own them” (qtd. in Bartlett 107). Though the term “taxonomy” can serve as a metaphor for any classification system, it is typically associated with the natural sciences as developed in Europe, most famously exemplified by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientists Carl Linnaeus and Charles Darwin (Alt 18). Because of its association with such figures, and its development in conjunction with the height of European imperialism, it is persistently “hooked in with male desires to exploit and dominate” (Bartlett 93). By the twentieth century, moreover, natural history had been incorporated into British academic institutions and professional societies and thus became “largely off-limits to women and people of colour,” affirming the imperial structure implicit in taxonomic hobbies (Kime Scott 42). 

Certain types of writing find a natural taxonomic metaphor. In Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature (2010), critic Christina Alt notes that Woolf “dismisses the cataloguing of features,” a figuratively taxonomic method of writing, “as a futile occupation that brings one no closer to understanding one’s subject” (180). Indeed, the notion that taxonomy might reduce the thing the scientist wants to learn about is inherently tied to the act: by killing a butterfly to preserve it in resin, the scientist loses something crucial to the essence of the butterfly (its flight). In The Waves, the aspiring writer Bernard’s tendency to a taxonomic epistemology is represented by the butterfly. The butterfly, a small creature with many subspecies that is easy to capture and examine, figures prominently both in the turn-of-the-century cultural imagination of the natural sciences and in Woolf’s novel.1 Describing his plan to define the world in a series of phrases that he will keep for reference in a notebook, Bernard declares: “If, in my novel, I describe the sun on the window-sill, I shall look under B and find butterfly powder” (Woolf 21). As Alt suggests, Bernard’s proposal to create a taxonomic reference book for his hypothetical novel is “futile” (187): he never succeeds in finishing the novel. But the project also has a sinister undertone. Motes of sunlight on a windowsill may look like a floating powder, but to add “butterfly” specifically ties Bernard’s classifying impulse to the taxonomic activities connoted by the insect.  The butterfly’s association with literally taxonomic activity emphasizes the figuratively taxonomic nature of Bernard’s project. The phrase “suggests the deadening effect of his alphabetisation of ideas” (Alt 187). It implies that not only reduction but violence (for a butterfly to be in a powder, it has to have been deliberately crushed) is inherent in taxonomic classification.

Bernard, the only heterosexual British male in The Waves’ core group of friends, is a model collector, often associated with tyrannical systems of classification. In a childhood Latin class, for instance, Bernard is understood to be the best student. Though Louis knows the taxonomic Latin system of “cases and genders…by heart,” he refuses to “conjugate the verb” for the class because he is self-conscious of his “Australian accent” (10). He resolves instead to wait “until Bernard has said it,” and to “copy Bernard” because “he is English” (10). For Louis, Bernard, who is the “son of a gentleman” (10), is the model example of the bourgeois and heteronormative British boy. He is the natural authority on the Latin classification system and so too the natural embodiment of the Western classical tradition, despite the fact that he sloppily “sucks on his pen” in class and speaks Latin with a “soft lisp” (11).

Such imperial discourses are as present in the children’s play as they are in the classroom. During their games, the boys of The Waves enact casual violence on butterflies in a way that explicitly links taxonomy to British imperialism. Observing his schoolmates on their way to play cricket, Louis yearns to join their social group: 

How majestic is their order, how beautiful is their obedience! If I could follow, if I could be with them, I would sacrifice all I know. But they also leave butterflies trembling with their wings pinched off; they throw dirty pocket-handkerchiefs clotted with blood screwed up into corners. They make little boys sob in dark passages…yet that is what we wish to be, Neville and I. (Woolf 27)

Louis, whose defining trait is an inferiority complex engendered by his Australian identity, treats the boys’ games as metonymy for their Britishness. No reason is offered for Louis’ and Neville’s exclusion from the all-male group of boys with comically British names, “Archie and Hugh,” and “Larpent” whose “brother played football for Oxford” (26). But the most likely conjecture is that neither he (Australian) nor Neville (homosexual)2 fit the normative social classification of the British male. Louis’ desire to participate in the cricket match suggests his belief that doing so would somehow make him British, in the mode that Ian Baucom theorizes “British” locations such as the cricket field have the power to do for colonial subjects. In an account from Ford Madox Ford, Baucom quotes, “We felt intensely English. There was our sunshine, our [cricketing] ‘whites,’ our golden wickets, our green turf,” (Out of Place 17).3 Louis’ wish to join the boys’ game implies a wish to become British “not by virtue of having been born in England but by virtue of having come into contact with … English traditions, English schools, and an English cricket field” (18). But the conditional tense (“If only I could join them”) suggests that he recognizes his accent is insurmountable. Cricketing or not, his accent will always mark him as a social outsider. Louis, then, cannot truly join the ranks of the “officers of the Natural History Society” (Woolf 27) of which the prep school cricketers are a part—​​as Bernard presumably could. The fact that Louis mentions the cricketers’ association with institutionalized natural science at the moment of his social exclusion clarifies the link that Woolf perceives between the imperial and the taxonomic attitudes. 

 According to Louis’ account, being British also necessitates embracing a violence that is conjured as quickly as the boys’ “majestic order” is evoked. The cricketers “leave butterflies trembling with their wings pinched off” when they capture them, and toss aside crumpled “pocket-handkerchiefs clotted with blood” (27). In addition to its presence in scenes of collecting and imperial violence, the butterfly is symbolically attached to Rhoda, a character who has a “fragile” body and who, “like a butterfly, will die after a relatively short life” (Bradshaw xxiv). Similarly, the balled-up handkerchief is symbolic of Susan, who tends to “wrap [her] agony inside my pocket-handkerchief” (Woolf 7) whenever she is in distress. The confluence of these symbols in the boys’ cricket game illustrates that the “majestic” British social organization is also misogynistic, not just exclusive of women but violent towards them. Nonetheless, Louis, ever eager to fit in, remarks that “that is what we wish to be, Neville and I” (27).

While Rhoda and Susan are both excluded from the cricketing scene (and the other female friend, Jinny, not even mentioned), it is Rhoda who is an especial outsider in the social milieu of The Waves. Susan and Jinny, who are both collectors in the novel’s original taxonomy scene, each fit into paradigms of British female behaviour. Susan is maternal—so rooted to her children and her farm that she “thinks she is the field, the barn” (56). Jinny, who “wants to be admired” (31), expresses herself through her physical beauty and sexual identity. Both women are embodied. Rhoda, on the contrary, “has no body” (12), or, at best, an “ill-fitting body” (61). A cerebral figure who suffers from crippling shyness, she detests being interpreted even by herself, and recoils at “looking-glasses which show me my real face” (25). She is terrified of social interpretation because she is afraid it will result in mockery, and that she will be “derided all my life,” battered by “these men and women, with their twitching faces, with their lying tongues, like a cork on a rough sea” (62). Because of her resistance to identification or even identity, she cannot fit into any normative social circle. As a result, she is something of a curiosity among her friends, all of whom have an identity with which to ground themselves even if that identity marks them as an “other” in the British social hierarchy. 

 Rhoda’s alignment with the butterfly is always in relation to her social life. When she is called on to solve a maths problem in the classroom, Louis observes that “her shoulder-blades meet across her back like the wings of a small butterfly…she has no answer” to the questions (11-12). She is remarkably fragile here: not just a butterfly but a small one. The continually recurring image of the butterfly violated by the British male taxonomic impulse makes it clear that the injustice done to Rhoda is similar: because she is so shy and her identity so nebulous, her friends are compelled to categorize her somehow. In this moment, Louis finds solace in her anxiety: “I, who speak with an Australian accent, whose father is a banker in Brisbane, do not fear her as I fear the others” (12). Rhoda and Louis are both aligned with objects for collecting, dominating, and observing, while the other students scrutinize Rhoda’s shyness and Louis’ accent in a reductive attempt to define why these two are different from them.

The irony in this scene, of course, is that Louis—himself a chronic outsider—is the one placing a taxonomic label on Rhoda, a mimicry of the kind of behaviour he sees on the fields of the prep school cricketers. Yet Rhoda has no desire to join the order of the British boys, nor to subscribe to Jinny or Susan’s normative female behaviour. Bernard notes that she and Louis “exist most completely in solitude. They resent illumination” (68). Perhaps this is true of Louis, who, despite his wish for Britishness and social acceptance, is most often seen alone at a restaurant with a book propped against a sauce jar. He resents illumination insofar as it marks him as Australian. But he is still eager to erase his difference and assimilate into the British social hierarchy. Even if such a goal is impossible, he, an Australian with a bourgeois banker father, at least has an identity that his friends can classify. 

Bernard’s observation is unquestionably true, however, of Rhoda, who exclaims, “oh life, how I have dreaded you…oh human beings, how I have hated you!” (120) Paradoxically, the very fact that she resents the spotlight compels other characters to try to illuminate her. But her terror of human relationships proves to be so extreme that she commits suicide, an act that is only fleetingly alluded to near the end of the novel. Bernard, who most embodies the normative British social identity, is the only character who says anything of her death: as he mourns, he imagines the “rush of the wind of her flight as she leapt” (173). Characterizing this suicide as a “flight” (173), Bernard calls upon the image of the butterfly a final time and associates Rhoda even in death with an object to be categorized rather than treating her as a subjective human being. In light of his stock phrase “butterfly powder” and its violent taxonomic connotations, this final description of Rhoda is, ironically, another reductive classification of someone who pathologically resists being known. The last word on Rhoda’s characterization is clouded by the oppressive social order that left “butterflies trembling with their wings pinched off” (27). 

Woolf’s essay Modern Fiction urges the reader not to consider life as “a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged” (9). “Life,” rather, “is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding” all people (9). This declaration encapsulates Woolf’s resistance to taxonomic writing. Like insects, a series of symmetrical gig lamps constitute a series of objects that can be organized and defined according to their features. Rhoda decries such classification, lamenting that her life has demanded “a dissolution of the soul in order to get through one day” (120). Rhoda’s butterfly-like fragility and Louis’s Australian nationality do not tell the whole story of either character’s personhood, yet both are so often reduced to these traits by their friends and classmates so as to fit them into a taxonomic scheme of social hierarchy. If such reduction is often unwitting, it is still as deadening as placing a butterfly in a resin case so it can be studied—indeed, for Rhoda, it proves fatal.  

  1. For example, Alt notes that F.O. Morris’s book A History of British Butterflies (1852-3) was so popular in Victorian England that it had gone through ten editions by 1908 (32).
  1. Neville remains closeted throughout the course of The Waves; while Louis suggests here that he is aware of his friend’s sexuality, no other characters allude to it directly. Thus, though Neville may not feel fully integrated into the “majestic order” (27) of the cricketers, he does not experience the same blatant alienation that Rhoda and Louis do, nor is he subject to the same taxonomic discourses.
  1. Ford is white, but in the romanticized account quoted, he observes a West African cricketer on his team and notes his firm belief that the man, while of a non-British race, is nonetheless “intensely English” (17).

Works Cited 

Alt, Christina. Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Baucom, Ian. Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and Locations of Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Bradshaw, David. “Introduction: Imperial Bodies.” The Waves. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 

Fowles, John. The Tree. Quoted in Brian Bartlett, “For Sure the Kittiwake: Naming, Nature, and P.K. Page.” Canadian Literature 155 (Winter 1997): pp. 91-111.

Kime Scott, Bonnie. In the Hollow of the Wave: Virginia Woolf and Modernist Uses of Nature. Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2012. 

Woolf, Virginia. “Modernist Fiction.” Virginia Woolf: Selected Essays. Edited by David 

Bradshaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. First published 1921. 

——. The Waves. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. First published 1931. 

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