Monstrous Rot: Fearing Food in Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’

2 October 2020

Guy Webster, Pembroke College, University of Cambridge

A morning meal appears in the opening pages of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931). Mrs. Constable, we hear, is scraping ‘the fish-scales with a jagged knife on to a chopping board’ for breakfast. All the while, the novel’s key characters are playing outside. Louis, Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan and Rhoda are exploring the English countryside beneath the scent of sizzling fish in ‘ripples above the chimney’.[1]It is not long after this that Susan, having seen Jinny kiss Louis, prepares a meal of her own. ‘I shall eat grass’, she says, ‘and die in a ditch in the brown water where dead leaves have rotted’.[2]A few pages later and Neville overhears the cook speak of a man ‘found with his throat cut’; ‘death among the apple trees’, Neville calls it. Suddenly, the knife wielded by Mrs. Constable at the beginning of the novel is imbued with a macabre relevance. As it were, Neville tells us that the dead man’s ‘jowl was white as a dead codfish’, perhaps not too dissimilar to the fish Mrs. Constable is scraping scales off in those opening pages?[3]

Such macabre pairings are found throughout Woolf’s famously experimental novel. They are also an important starting point from which to consider the novel’s interest in food. In the text’s italicised interludes we repeatedly hear of a place similar to that mentioned by Susan above. It is a place ‘down there among the roots where the flowers decayed’, where ‘gusts of dead smells were wafted…The skin of rotten fruit broke, and matter oozed too thick to run’.[4]Often, what follows such an encounter is a description of food that strikes a more appetising note. In this case it is Louis who finds himself amid the ‘vapourish smell of beef and mutton…in the middle of the eating-house’.[5]

Yet Woolf problematises any attempt to contrast these descriptions. Instead, she uses them to draw attention to the similarities of language used to describe the consumption and preparation of food, and death. These pairings force one to notice what is shared between a decomposing corpse and a rotting apple; between a dead body and a piece of mutton oozing ‘on the rubbish heap’. Later in the novel, a delicious breakfast meal follows a particularly gory description of ‘gold-eyed birds’plunging ‘the tips of their beaks savagely’into slug excretions. Later still, we find another pairing, this time between a flock of wrens tapping at a snail‘furiously, methodically, until the shell broke and something slimy oozed from the crack’ and a freshly prepared salad in a French restaurant.[6]Once again, the novel’s italicised interludes offer a decidedly morbid glimpse into the pastoral world explored by its characters in those opening pages. As a result, they inform how we read the novel’s subsequent descriptions of food. A delicious salad at a French restaurant cannot escape a rotten stench created by way of its proximity to something ‘slimy’ and oozing.

In reading these contrasting descriptions one is instantly reminded of Julia Kristeva’s conception of the abject. Kristeva’s treatment of ‘These bodily fluids, this defilement, this shit’, stress an affective experience that bears a relevance to Woolf’s writing. These abjected substances ‘are what life understands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death’; they sit in the ontological ‘border of [our] condition as a living being’.[7]The ‘experience of decay’ that these characters encounter when thinking of mortality connotes ‘the experience of the abject’.[8]In ‘Eating Animals and Becoming Meat in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves’ (2014), Vicki Tromanhauser (State University of New York) argues that these abject pairings heighten the novel’s examination of mortality by representing the dissolution of self, and of body, that comes as a result. Before committing suicide, Rhoda describes herself as something akin to a meal, something that can be consumed ‘like a joint of meat among other joints of meat’. [9]‘O Death!’, Bernard says to conclude the novel, all the while sitting at an empty table stripped of its ‘greasy crumbs [and] slobbered over napkins’.[10]‘Remember you must die’, it seems, is the morbid reminder found beneath every plate and in every bite described in the novel – not long after leaving a French restaurant and we learn that Percival has fallen from his horse and died.[11]

In highlighting the morbid underpinnings of these repeated images of decay, and consumption, Woolf also stresses their association with violence. More accurately, Woolf uses these images to stress the impersonal violence found in the quotidian. A snail torn apart by a hungry flock of wren, and a mutton steaming in the kitchen nearby, make up one moment in a day filled with a myriad of similarly violent instances. Reading these instances of violent consumption side by side, we face the monstrous idea that we are not dissimilar to the bestial wrens or decaying snails, nor are our meals any less brutal. The death of this snail and, implicitly, of this sheep, both describe the preparation and consumption of a meal. ‘We have been taking into our mouths the bodies of dead birds’, says Bernard while sitting at an empty table surrounded by  ‘…greasy crumbs…and little corpses’.[12]Just as the apple rots beside a murdered corpse, or the corpse of a bird is consumed at dinner, so too will we find our bodies stripped of selfhood by processes of decay and rot. In other words, by these everyday processes that transform us into something anonymous, something to be consumed.

By pairing these arresting moments of consumption, Woolf is effectively pairing disgust with terror and so emboldening the ways in which we experience – and feel – the novel’s more metaphysical encounters. The ‘old shivers’ that pass-through Rhoda, when she imagines her body as a consumable product ‘grappled to one spot by these hooks’ in a meat cellar, are of ‘hatred and terror’. The disgust that ‘emanates from Woolf’s descriptions of meat eating’, whether on a table or beneath a rubbish heap, ultimately ensures that the novel’s representation of existential fear is deeply affecting.[13]As Bernard declares, ‘“Lord, how unutterably disgusting life is!”’.[14]

To see one’s self reduced to anonymous food-stuff ‘too thick to run’ is to face an existential conflict at home in the writings of H.P Lovecraft. When Louis encounters these existential terrors in Woolf’s novel, he declares, most nihilistically: ‘“We are gone…our civilisation; the Nile; and all life. Our separate drops are dissolved; we are extinct, lost in the abysses of time, in the darkness”’.[15]Ultimately, Louis faces the existential prospect of seeing ‘Our separate drops’ dissolve like the oozing matter found beside a rotting piece of fruit.[16]He grapples with the inevitability of being lost in ‘the darkness’ where the leaf rots, where the mutton is discarded, and where ‘we’ will find ourselves ‘gone’. In other words, Louis preempts the horrifying moment when we will find ourselves, finally, consumed.


[1]Virginia Woolf, The Waves (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 6.

[2]Ibid., p. 9.

[3]Ibid., p. 15.

[4]Ibid., p. 52.

[5]Ibid., p. 65.

[6]Ibid., pp. 52, 77, 82.

[7]Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 140.

[8]Janine Utell, ‘Meals and Mourning in Woolf’s “The Waves”’, College Literature, 35.2 (2008), pp. 1–19 (p. 8).

[9]Virginia Woolf, p. 114.

[10]Ibid., p. 214.

[11]Utell, p. 8.

[12]Woolf, p. 211.

[13]Vicki Tromanhauser, ‘Eating Animals and Becoming Meat in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves’, Journal of Modern Literature, Disability and Generative Form, 38.1 (2014), pp. 73–93 (p. 85).

[14]Woolf, p. 211.

[15]Woolf, p. 161.

[16]Woolf, p. 52.

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