I have struggled with what to say about The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, which is perhaps fitting for a novel about Things People Don’t Say. The novel is fairly bursting with ideas and observations. It is nearly impossible to find the right umbrella under which to discuss them all. I can’t seem to come to any comprehensive theories or conclusions about the novel as a whole. Reading other #Woolfalong reviews of The Voyage Out showed me that other reviewers found the novel as difficult to write about as I did. Their efforts convinced me to try again to write about this book.
Rather than attempt to argue some all-encompassing thesis, I will follow the lead of some of the #Woolfalong reviewers and simply (at long last) offer a random sampling of some of the items I most wish to discuss.
HALT! Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t read The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf and don’t wish to be spoiled, please turn back now (but please come back after you’ve read it). If you can’t resist, proceed at your own risk.
Sappho’s Cameo Appearance. One of my absolute favorite passages in The Voyage Out was when Mrs. Flushing caught St. John Hirst reading Swinburne’s translation of Sappho’s poetry during the Anglican service at the hotel chapel. I smiled at the coincidence of meeting Sappho again in a different book so soon after studying her poetry myself. I loved Mrs. Flushing’s reaction when Hirst holds out his book for her:
Mrs. Flushing could not resist such an opportunity. She gulped down the Ode to Aphrodite during the Litany, keeping herself with difficulty from asking when Sappho lived, and what else she wrote worth reading, and contriving to come in punctually at the end with “the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection and the body, and the life everlastin’. Amen.” (p. 239)
Mrs. Flushing is fortunate they were in church or she might never have escaped being ordered to read Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Jane Austen’s Influence. The first hint of Jane Austen’s influence in this novel is Clarissa Dalloway’s copy of Persuasion, which she was reading during her trip and recommended to Rachel.
Then there is Susan Warrington. Susan resembles nothing so much as the precariously placed genteel poor secondary characters in a Jane Austen novel. When she first appeared in the novel, she was traveling as the companion of a wealthy elderly relative and was dependent upon her charity. Arthur’s proposal presented Susan with the prospect of a home of her own. Susan is no Charlotte Lucas, though. Arthur and Susan were genuinely in love with each other. She happily accepted his proposal. Ms. Woolf, however, did not shy away from the fact that Susan’s joy was mixed with a certain relief and a certain gratitude to Arthur for providing an escape from servitude to her petulant aunt.
Mrs. Flushing seemed to me to be a modern, slightly more vulgar version of Mrs. Jennings from Sense and Sensibility. I could also see a strong parallel between Rachel Vinrace and Marianne Dashwood, each so convinced of her superior sensibility to that of everyone around her.
Marriage and the Modern Young Woman. One thing surprised me a bit about this novel. In time when marriage was still practically compulsory for women and in a culture that did and still does present women as eager to the point of desperation for marriage, two of Ms. Woolf’s eligible young women were positively riddled with ambivalence. Only Susan Warrington was entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of marriage. By contrast, both Rachel and Evelyn were nearly paralyzed with ambivalence about marriage.
Within the novel, there is talk about the new opportunities for women that opened up as a result of the war and of the woman suffrage movement. These new opportunities meant that young women like Evelyn and Rachel had more options for what to do with their lives and both characters seemed eager to seize the chance for a larger life. This desire for a larger life also seemed to drive their ambivalence toward marriage, as if they were not quite able to work out how to reconcile marriage with these wider opportunities.
Evelyn’s Response. Here is Evelyn’s reaction to the engagements of both Susan and Rachel in The Voyage Out:
Love was all very well, and those snug domestic houses, with the kitchen below and the nursery above, which were so secluded and self-contained, like little islands in the torrents of the world; but the real things were surely the things that happened, the causes, the wars, the ideals, which happened in the great world outside, and went on independently of these women, turning so quietly and beautifully towards the men. She looked at them sharply. Of course they were happy and content, but there must be better things than that. Surely one could get nearer to life, one could get more out of life, one could enjoy more and feel more than they would ever do. (p. 332-333)
I believe this passage does double duty for Ms. Woolf. It is obviously an expression of Evelyn’s ambivalence about marriage. In the novel, Evelyn wrestled with how to make a meaningful life for herself and what that would entail and these reflections are certainly part of that. It also is an expression of the arguments often made against Ms. Woolf’s novels and against women’s writing in general: that domestic themes are not important enough to be worthy of great literature. Hewet has served as the voice of Ms. Woolf’s side of the argument and now Evelyn serves as the voice of Ms. Woolf’s critics. I found that interesting, too, the way that Ms. Woolf granted the traditionally female view to a male character and vice versa.
Rachel’s Many Voyages. The Voyage Out is made up of many voyages for Rachel: the sea voyage out to South America, the voyage out to the mountain picnic, the river voyage out to the small village, Rachel’s voyage out into society, and Rachel’s voyage into maturity. One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Rachel finally has a major breakthrough in the way she views others. In the beginning, Rachel is convinced that
Reality dwelling in what one saw and felt but did not talk about, one could accept a system in which things went round and round quite satisfactorily to other people, without troubling to think about it, except as something superficially strange. (p. 30)
For most of the novel, Rachel believes she is the only one with any true feeling or grasp of life and that her experiences and perceptions are superior to that of others.
That any one of these people had ever felt what she felt, or ever could feel it, or had even the right to pretend for a single second that they were capable of feeling it, appalled her … (p.306)
But near the end of the novel, she realizes
…Perhaps, then everyone really knew as she knew now where they were going; and things formed themselves into a pattern not only for her, but for them, and in that pattern lay satisfaction and meaning. (p. 326)
Rachel’s Death. Then she inexplicably fell ill and soon died.
I say inexplicably because I cannot figure out why Ms. Woolf made this narrative choice. I have read several other reviews and no one else seems able to make much sense of it either. The most obvious answer is that this was Rachel’s final voyage, the voyage out of life, but that seems insufficient.
Rachel’s illness strongly reminds me of the near-fatal illness of Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. The difference, of course, is that Marianne Dashwood recovered and dutifully married the worthy (if uninspiring to Marianne) Colonel Brandon. Rachel did not.
My tentative theory is that Rachel’s ambivalence toward marrying Hewet was so profound that she fell ill and died to escape it. There is plenty of evidence in Hewet’s behavior as a fiancé to suggest that the marriage would be confining rather than liberating for Rachel. He was bossing her around, deliberately interrupting her while she was playing piano, criticizing her musical selections, and complaining when her thoughts didn’t revolve around him. Despite his professed feminist views, Hewet started acting like a domineering husband almost immediately after Rachel accepted his proposal. Despite that, Rachel’s ambivalence seemed to be mostly about wanting a larger life than the marriage she was planning with Hewet.
That’s just a possibility, though. I am still not sure exactly why Rachel died at the end of the book or why Ms. Woolf made this choice for the character.
A Glaring Omission. Finally, I’d like to discuss a glaring omission in The Voyage Out. This novel takes place in the fictional city of Santa Marina in an unspecified country in South America, yet the only South American characters are background functional characters (hotel manager and staff, servants, boat crew, etc.) Dr. Rodriguez is the only South American character to figure significantly in the novel.
My point is not to berate Ms. Woolf unfairly. She was writing about a group of mostly English vacationers. She did an excellent job of portraying the attitudes and prejudices of these characters towards the Santa Marina inhabitants in ways which were not always flattering to the English characters. The most obvious example is the way that the English characters immediately distrusted Dr. Rodriguez to the point of speculating that he was just a quack whom the hotel manager passed off as a doctor because they were relatives. Then the English characters instinctively trusted that the French doctor was the real deal as if there were no quacks in Europe. They considered him a superior doctor despite the fact that Rachel’s health continued to deteriorate under his care.
What is missing is any sense of the perspective of the Santa Marina characters. This might be understandable in a different type of novel or from a different type of novelist. Ms. Woolf specialized in taking us into the thoughts, observations, and reflections of even minor characters. So the fact that Ms. Woolf never gave us a single insight into Dr. Rodriguez’s perspective on Rachel’s illness, his situation, or the obvious attitudes of the other characters is a glaring oversight on the writer’s part. The closest we ever get to a Santa Marina citizen’s view is when the river boat crewmen cracked a joke in Spanish about the inappropriate clothing of the English travelers. This was disappointing.
Overall I found The Voyage Out to be a fascinating exploration of a variety of ideas. It would be very easy to write a dozen posts of highlights like this and not really scratch the surface of all the approaches one could take to discussing this novel. It is an impressive first novel by a first-rate writer.
Postscript. I will skip the biography section due to obvious time constraints but will rejoin #Woolfalong for the September/October stage with discussions of A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, two of my favorite books by Ms. Woolf.