Virginia Woolf. The Voyage Out. Ed. Judith Boss and David Widger. 1915; Fairbanks AK: Project Gutenberg, 2013. iBook.
Some fiction writers write plot-driven stories. Some write character-driven stories. Virginia Woolf writes word-driven stories. Yes, The Voyage Out has a plot of sorts. People think and do things. Things happen. There is not too much conflict, though, except at the psychological level, and even that is somewhat mundane. Still, it is sadly beautiful, not unlike The Art of Fielding.
Yes, there are characters. They do have some personality, though the author confesses near the beginning that her characters may be symbols:
The conclusion was very welcome. Let these odd men and women—her aunts, the Hunts, Ridley, Helen, Mr. Pepper, and the rest—be symbols,—featureless but dignified, symbols of age, of youth, of motherhood, of learning, and beautiful often as people upon the stage are beautiful. (38)
If the reader understands this, then The Voyage Out is a beautiful story. As it gets underway, the story begins to focus on Rachel Vinrace, a young Englishwoman of solid background who has been educated but fairly sheltered. He mother died when she was young; her father’s shipping business sends him away weeks at a time; so she has been raised by a trio of older maiden aunts.
Finally Rachel takes a “voyage out.” The story is not exactly magical realism, but the trip eventually takes her to an “English colony” in a Latin American country, maybe Brazil, maybe Venezuela, maybe Colombia. It makes little difference.
As the voyage takes Rachel farther from home, she become freer to ask questions and discover things. The ship sails from England to Spain and Portugal, and then across the ocean to “the Amazons.” Each leg of the voyage we encounter different people. Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway, for example, have a small part until they disembark in Spain. They are acquaintances of Rachel’s father.
One very minor character is a Mr. Grice. I mention his name only because he is a “proper Englishman” whose favorite Shakespeare work is Henry V. A Miss Gryce was a minor character, named twice, in Jane Eyre. Was that a conscious connection by Mrs. Woolf?
The Voyage Out continues up a large South American river to the English colony where another varying group of British citizens are taking long vacations at a hotel. At this point they are on the edge of civilization. Letters come to them by weekly steamers. But they can go even farther out, to a mountain overlooking the sea or up the river to a native village and the dense jungle.
While this is no Heart of Darkness, Rachel does go farther out to learn more about herself, but also to ask harder and harder questions.
Philosophically, early in the novel Rachel understands the importance of justice. This is something that seems innate in everyone. Her observation should resonate with American readers as it echoes the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence:
Children never forget injustice. They forgive heaps of things grown-up people mind; but that sin is the unpardonable sin.(79)
She also discovers the frustrations caused by human finitude:
“It is humiliating to find what a slave one is to one’s body in this world.” (86)
Perhaps that is an injustice to blame the Creator for, or perhaps it is merely an observation that all mature people make sooner or later.
She attends church. There is no reaction to its teaching as in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, but she just says about religion, “We shall never understand.” (120) She reacts to the smugness she sees in the Anglican service, and to her it all was “reduced to one chanting sound.” (292) The sermon sounded more nationalistic than religious, and that was that.
Perhaps the theme of the novel, of Rachel’s voyage out, is summed up by Rachel’s plea to herself:
“What I want to know,” she said aloud, “is this. What is the truth? What is the truth of it all?” (151)
A dance at the hotel becomes a romantic set piece—the language seems to suggest fractals and chaos theory:
There was another flourish; and then the trio dashed spontaneously into the triumphant swing of the waltz. It was as though the room were instantly flooded with water. After a moment’s hesitation first one couple, then another, leapt into midstream, and went round and round in the eddies. The rhythmic swish of the dancers sounded like a swirling pool. By degrees the room grew perceptibly hotter. The smell of kid gloves mingled with the strong scent of flowers. The eddied seemed to circle faster and faster, until the music wrought itself into a crash, ceased, and the circles were smashed into little separate bits.(187)
Lovely language, reflecting both the thrill of the dance and fragility of the partnerships it seems to make.
Having been published in 1915, there are discussions about women’s rights, women’s suffrage, and the role of women. She notes, for example:
“A girl is more lonely than a boy. No one cares what she does. Nothing’s expected of her. Unless one’s very pretty, people don’t listen to what you say…And that is what I like.” (275, author’s ellipsis)
Her friend Hewet says, “One goes along thinking one knows, but one really doesn’t know.” (276) Is that, indeed, “what it all means”?
One of the characters believes that in South America:
“There might be prehistoric towns, like those in Greece and Asia, standing in open places among the trees, filled with the works of this early race.” (302)
This has proven to be true, though those “open places” in the rain forest were quickly overgrown when the towns were abandoned. The Lost City of Z tells of such a place.
Rachel’s more “liberated” friend Evelyn predicts a revolution in Russia; “it’s bound to come,” and she would like to be there. (409) This interestingly goes hand in hand with her next “animated” observation that a small number of “people with brains” could “abolish almost every evil that existed.” (409) The Russian revolutionaries proved that such a Utopia is beyond the reach of even the most dedicated humanists…
As the story progresses, one of the young men staying at the hotel becomes attracted to Rachel. At one point he is imagining a social situation back home, “Let him imagine a dinner-party, say at the Crooms.” (310) I wonder if Tom Stoppard got his name for the aristocratic family in his Arcadia from this.
Much of the conversation in typical British drawing-room fashion discusses the relative social status of various people and how everyone seems to fit in society. Still, all this seems vain in both senses of the word:
“We’re all in the dark. We try to find out, but can you imagine anything more ludicrous than one person’s opinion of another person? One goes along thinking one knows; but one really doesn’t know.” (276)
Truly intellectual, but with a sense of melancholy. Like Matthew Arnold, “he thinks he knows,” but he knows he doesn’t.
Yes, there may be different social schemes and even Utopian dreams, but at the core of the story that questions keeps ringing forth—what is it all about? Religion and nationalism fail. Science fails. Does love exist? If so, what is it? What else is left? More echoes of Arnold’s view of modern life:
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
One powerless to be born.
Or perhaps as Eugene O’Neill put it:
The playwright of today must dig at the roots of the sickness of the age as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfactory new meaning to life.
Rachel makes the voyage out, but how far can she go before she’s gone so far that she cannot get back? What does it all mean?
As always with such questions, let us find our themes in Ecclesiastes. “[T]here is no new thing under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
Ah, Virginia, but there is “a time for every purpose under the heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)