Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: The Voyage Out

The Voyage Out is the first novel Virginia Woolf published. It appeared in 1915 and is strikingly different from a Victorian novel. Much has been written about Woolf’s place in 20th century literature, but I was largely ignorant since this is the first of Woolf’s novels I’ve read.

There are three things I’d like to note about this novel: the characters’ inner dialogues, the depictions of femininity, and the ending. If you have not read this novel consider closing your browser and picking up the book before reading on.

The plot focuses on the emotional and intellectual development (I’m tempted to write ‘coming of age’) of Rachel Vinrace. The main tensions involve Rachel, her aunt Helen Ambrose, and two men they meet in South America, Terrence Hewet and St. John Hirst. Apparently, plot is more important in this novel than in Woolf’s later works. Still, to a large extent, the reader gets into the head of the characters. Woolf deals with emotion and motivation and inner voice in a strikingly modern way. It is difficult to overstate the contrast with 19th century novels. The characters seem human: complex, contradictory, and often unsure of themselves. The novel says something about the nature of emotion and desire and the need to feel something that is both difficult for me to articulate and hard to stop considering.

The story is basically about the relationships Rachel has with her friends, family, and potential suitors. But it is more than that makes it sound. The limitations and opportunities available to women, and the changing social and intellectual boundaries of women are confronted in a direct way. At times, it is clear that Woolf’s own thoughts are directly expressed by the characters. Consider this passage, which could not have appeared in a novel published 30 years earlier:

‘I’ve often walked along the streets where people live all in a row, and one house is exactly like another house, and wondered what on earth the woman were doing inside,’ he said. ‘Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life. Of course we’re always writing about women—abusing them, or jeering at them, or worshipping them; but it’s never come from women themselves. I believe we still don’t know in the least how they live, or what they feel, or what they do precisely. If one’s a man, the only confidences one gets are from young women about their love affairs. But the lives of women of forty, of unmarried women, of working women, of women who keep shops and bring up children, of women like your aunts or Mrs. Thornbury or Miss Allan—one knows nothing whatever about them. They won’t tell you. Either they’re afraid, or they’ve got a way of treating men. It’s the man’s view that’s represented, you see. Think of a railway train: fifteen carriages for men who want to smoke. Doesn’t it make your blood boil? If I were a woman I’d blow some one’s brains out. Don’t you laugh at us a great deal? Don’t you think it all a great humbug? You, I mean—how does it all strike you?’

All thoughts and actions of all of the female characters, particularly Helen, say something about the divergent ways women dealt with the reality of their situations.

The ending was surprising, but I think it is entirety appropriate. Rachel’s death puts a distinct hue on the rest of the novel—especially the discussions of love and happiness. A Dickens-like happily ever after ending simply would not do here. Rachel’s death is random, unexpected and totally disruptive. This seems real. How do Helen and Hewet deal with the aftermath? Life goes on for the living, but we can only imagine how they were changed by their experiences with Rachel. Similarly, how are we, the reader, changed by considering the possibilities and conclusions suggested by Woolf’s novel?

No comments:

Post a Comment