I have now finished Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, and I just finished reading the chapter on the novel in Julia Briggs’s Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. I enjoyed all this reading very much and would like to continue reading more of her work and more about her, although I’m not sure I’ll pick up another novel really soon. But I can see myself reading through Woolf’s novels slowly over the course of a few years. I always talk about how much I love Woolf’s writing, and yet there’s so much of hers that I haven’t read, or that I should re-read. I read both The Waves and Jacob’s Room and found myself a bit bewildered, and I wonder if I re-read them now whether I would have a different response. I like Woolf’s other novels and essays enough to be willing to give it a try.
The Voyage Out is a more traditional novel than many of Woolf’s later works, although even here she is playing around with narrative conventions. I can’t really describe how she plays around with these conventions or I’d have to give away the ending, but let’s just say that the ending does something quite different from your typical 19C novel.
The story is about a group of English people who travel to South America; among them are Rachel Vinrace, a young woman who has led a very sheltered life, and Helen Ambrose who takes charge of Rachel and attempts to educate her. In South America, they meet a group of people staying in a resort hotel, and the novel describes the interactions among all these people — the love affairs, engagements, arguments, irritations, likes and dislikes, etc.
Underneath all these interactions lies much that is deeper and darker. Rachel has many difficult things to learn; she undergoes a sort of sexual initiation that leaves her shaken. She learns about prostitutes in Piccadilly and realizes:
“So that’s why I can’t walk alone!”
By this new light she saw her life for the first time a creeping hedged-in thing, driven cautiously between high walls, here turned aside, there plunged in darkness, made dull and crippled for ever — her life that was the only chance she had — a thousand words and actions became plain to her.
“Because men are brutes! I hate men!” she exclaimed.
Women’s status in society is a recurring theme — the characters talk about differences between men and women, the possibility that women will gain the vote, and the compromises that marriage requires. The novel considers the various fates that await women; one woman is single and must work for a living, and the other characters admire but mostly pity her. For another character, Susan Warrington, marriage seems to be a way out of a life spent caring for an aging relative, but she is heading into a similar relationship with her husband-to-be. And even Helen’s marriage, which seems to be the strongest, has flaws.
Through the course of the novel, Rachel learns much about the flawed, complicated world Woolf describes — and she only ambivalently finds her own place within it. She’s haunted by dreams that speak to the difficulty of the initiation she is undergoing.
The book has a dream-like quality to it, perhaps partly because of its exotic location; the characters feel adrift in a world that is so different from England — they try to recreate English traditions, but it often feels like play-acting. A group of them take a trip into the interior to see a native village and (in a way that is reminiscent of Heart of Darkness) feel themselves increasingly uneasy and disoriented as they travel inland.
The conversations struck me as odd, although they also struck me as typical of Woolf’s writing; there isn’t the psychological exploration in this novel that she would develop in her later ones, but I do see the beginnings of it in the way the characters often seem to be speaking from the depths of their minds. The dialogue doesn’t seem realistic to me at all, but somehow it captures a truth about these characters’ experiences and it works to create that dream-like mood. To me, Woolf captures what it feels like to exist, to be aware of one’s own mind and the minds of others.