Although I mentioned in my earlier post that The Voyage Out was similar to a typical coming-of-age novel, let me give that idea a bit more nuance by tracing the storyline for a moment. In pure story, my statement is true – young Rachel accompanies her aunt and uncle on a journey to South America and in the course of that journey she falls in love and comes to understand one of the great mysteries of life, namely, what will society and what will one man in particular expect from her as she makes the transition from childhood to adulthood.
On the surface of things, this is timeless literary fare. But this is also Virginia Woolf and I think it is the details, the specific Woolfian twist, that makes all the difference.
First, the characters are all very close to being eccentric, without being exactly so. They are almost types: Mr. Ambrose the doddering erudite scholar, the young, unfinished Rachel, Mrs. Ambrose the wise older woman, and Hirst, the pompous academic. There are many, many more. But then each is endowed with such particular, distinct, and sometimes bizarre thinking.
And life, what was that? It was only a light passing over the surface and vanishing, as in time she would vanish, though the furniture in the room would remain. Her dissolution became so complete that she could not raise her finger any more, and sat perfectly still, listening and looking always at the same spot. It became stranger and stranger. She was overcome with awe that things should exist at all…She forgot that she had any fingers to raise…The things that existed were so immense and so desolate.
Why was it that relations between different people were so unsatisfactory, so fragmentary, so hazardous, and words so dangerous that the instinct to sympathise with another human being was an instinct to be examined carefully and probably crushed?
She had now reached one of those eminences, the result of some crisis, from which the world is finally displayed in its true proportions.
Woolf allows her characters to meander and wonder, to question their reality. So much so that their reflections on the state of their world begin to undermine the novel’s seemingly traditional structure. As the story unravels, it starts to become quite clear that this isn’t just Rachel’s story at all. It is everyone’s story, and although each of their stories may not get equal weight, each of their given moments are equally weighty.
And then Woolf upends everything with a final, jarring twist. I think this was the aspect of The Voyage Out that I most enjoyed. Just as I was getting comfortable with Woolf’s wonderfully different version of a young woman’s coming-of-age, she takes that away and offers a radical and almost completely unexpected* alternative. Suddenly, the book is about everything but Rachel. Very clever. All those searching questions become more relevant.
I am coming to realize that this Woolf project will not really ever be complete until I’ve read these novels several times. I’m only just ready to begin Night and Day, and already I want to go back and reread The Voyage Out to catch all that I missed. But all things in their order…I’ll get there, it may just take a few years.
*The foreshadowing about what will eventually happen to Rachel is excellent. It happens about a hundred pages before the end, and it comes from the perspective of Mrs. Ambrose. Although it is pretty high-handed, Mrs. Ambrose is given to extreme thinking so it doesn’t necessarily overwhelm the reader. And it is one of the novel’s most poetic moments.