One thing that Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves has in common with Shakespeare’s King Lear is the idea, explored in both works, that justice is, at best, blind. On the surface, these two works would appear to have little in common. However, when examined with regard to their views on the ultimate justice of life, both of these works can be seen as being about the reduction of life, in old age or otherwise, to nothing more than a mindless struggle to assert one’s will against the inexorable approach of death.
King Lear is a little more straightforward than The waves. While it does have a few ambiguous characters, most notably the king, himself, for the most part, we can tell who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. In King Lear, the guilty are punished at the end. Goneril and Regan both suffer the ultimate punishment of death for their various crimes against the other characters in the play (casting Lear out of their home, their blinding of Gloucester, their adulterous yearning for Edmund, etc.). Edmund too is ultimately killed for his attempt to usurp his half-brother, Edgar. So far, so good. Justice has been served.
The problem is it doesn’t stop there. Many of the virtuous (or at least good) characters suffer the same fate. Cordelia has remained true to her own morality, despite the fact that it cost her a share in her father’s kingdom and caused her to be sent away in marriage to the king of France. Cordelia also remains true to her father and even returns with an army to overthrow her sisters and return Lear to his rightful position as king. And yet, she is killed at the end. Her reconciliation with Lear makes her death so much the more poignant and serves to highlight the lack of justice. Of course Lear dies as well, as does Gloucester, after he has been reconciled to his legitimate son, Edgar. The effect of this is to make one wonder whether justice has actually been served, or was Gloucester on to something when he said “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport”
This quote could just as easily have been uttered by Bernard who, at the end of The Waves has come to represent all six of the major characters in Woolf’s novel. Justice is not flawed in The Waves, it simply isn’t there. This is most easily demonstrated by the death of Percival. Although he is not one of the six characters who have speaking roles in Woolf’s novel, Percival nevertheless plays an important role. He is admired (at least that if not more) by all six main characters, and his death is a pivotal event in the story. Percival’s death is the first indication the characters get of the absence of justice in human existence. He is also the first taste of death for the main characters. If Percival, who always seemed super-human to the six, can die, death may strike anybody at any time. As the story nears its end and we read the long monologue by Bernard, we see that the richness of life has largely been lost and the characters are reduced, like the major players in King Lear to a plain and fruitless struggle against death, whether that death be just or no.
The tragic aspect of King Lear may be a little more obvious. Once the bodies start to pile up it becomes hard to deny. The Waves, with its much longer story arc, is not a tragedy in the formal sense. However, the lack of any clear sense of justice in both of these works, as well as the omnipresent sense of death lurking just behind the curtain, show these two works to be similar to the extent that they both ultimately reduce life to a mere struggle against death.