Author: Virginia Woolf
First published: 1931
Plot: Psychological realism
Time: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
Percival, a childhood friend of the six central characters, who respect, admire, and love him. He is the symbol of the ordinary man, a conventional figure. Rather awkward and bumbling but pleasant and accepted everywhere, Percival forms the light around whom the six-sided flower revolves, as Bernard put it. In love with the natural woman, Susan, he is beloved by Neville, the scholar and brilliant poet. A sportsman, a hale fellow, a poor scholar, and finally a soldier who dies in India, Percival represents a kind of norm in personality and conduct.
Bernard, the phrase maker, the chronicler of the group of childhood friends as they grope toward death, the great adversary of all human life, he thinks. Through Bernard, the rest of the characters see life, because in his attempt to grasp reality, he is able to become whomever he meets or talks with. Although he sees himself as a failure, he does catch essences and makes of these his unfinished stories, tales that Percival once saw through and would not let him finish. Deeply devoted to his best friend, Neville, he nevertheless is all things to all the characters. A husband, father, provider, and friend, he becomes, finally, a seer who tries to sum up the meaning of experiences all have shared.
Neville, a poet, scrupulous artist, lover of a single man, and sensitive genius who keeps his life carefully wrapped and labeled. He is gaunt and handsome, gifted with the tongue of all great men and able to mimic them from Catullus to William Shakespeare. He finds it difficult to survive the shock of Percival's death. He turns first to reproductions of the man and measures his time by the conversations with young, handsome men to whom he is a kind of Socrates. Lonely and introspective, he finally finds diversion with frivolous Jinny. He has the ability to speak to them all, even Susan, who sees him as her antithesis.
Susan, the elemental woman, nature-loving and natural, a born mother and an implement of life. Disliking the pine and linoleum smells of school and civilization, she endures education, even travel, so that she may replace her dead mother, administer love to her earthy father, marry a farmer, and raise a family amid the natural, lovely, rural English sights, smells, sounds, and feelings. She has long loved Bernard and has been the object of Percival's love, but none know of these things until later. She resists social ways, dress, and attitudes, even to the point of boorishness, though she carries human feelings—love, jealousy, admiration, and disgust—to their meetings.
Louis, the son of a Brisbane banker, a self-conscious outcast of the society of his friends but the most brilliant and egotistical one of the group. Endowed with self-knowledge, the result of fine breeding from the Hebrews in their Egyptian bondage through the present, Louis hides his endowments and very real gifts out of shame of ridicule. He finally becomes assertive and makes of business a romance, false but substantial. He fears all the others except Rhoda, whom he makes his mistress after these two outsiders are drawn together by their loneliness. All recognize his supremacy in subtle ways, and he is respected for this fierce inner being in spite of the discomfort it causes the group.
Rhoda, the plain, clumsy misfit who tries to imitate the world that despises her. Alone with her meager self, she longs for anonymity and retreats from reality early. Tolerated by Susan and avoided by Jinny, she has a kind of ease with Bernard and a negative attraction for Louis. Not gifted in any way, she denies the role life has created for her and commits suicide in middle life.
Jinny, the hedonist, the careful cultivator of externals, the one who causes a rustle wherever she goes. Beautiful with physical vitality, which she burns out in a few brief years, Jinny has the superficial drive of appearances as opposed to the elemental in Susan. Assignations are her business; epicureanism is the method, and weariness is the result.