Relativity and Quantum Theory in The Waves

Relativity and Quantum Theory in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

By Ian Ettinger

In modernist fiction, several novels enfold similarly complex and indeterminate visions of reality. However, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves pushes the notion that reality is not as it appears further than perhaps any other modern novel. Amid the radical reconceptions proposed by physics, The Waves appears to be the only modern novel to attempt a complete rereading of how identity functions and becomes embodied in the indeterminate flux of space-time.


It is this notion of a “participatory” reality that ultimately distinguishes Woolf’s view of reality from those of her contemporaries. Unlike other early-twentieth-century models, The Waves presents space-time not only as a state of flux, but also as an interpenetrating psychic medium. The characters in both To the Lighthouse and The Waves become capable of transforming and intermingling with the people and objects in their “fields” through immersions of cosmic consciousness, a potential denied by relativity and quantum mechanics. As Paul Tolliver Brown notes, “In contrast to the fields of physics, Woolf ’s characters are bound to one another and to the world via their consciousness . . . [and] direct connections between individuals and individuals and objects appear to be made possible through the mind.” Neither their bodies nor their minds exist independently, and reality thus becomes a co-creation of personalities and relationships between objects and fields in space-time. In this way Woolf pushes beyond both relativity and quantum theory, positing a world in which the indeterminate implications of relativity, wave-particle duality, and entanglement carry over into the realm of the mind.

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