There are some writers whose famous lives can intimidate readers. For a long time, Virginia Woolf has been one of those writers to me. Perhaps this stems from the extensive examination and discussion in class when we read The Hours. There is a reason for the reverence but, as usual, no reason to have been intimidated. Woolf examines interpersonal relationships with great depth while establishing a rapport with the reader that progresses from formal to familiar and comfortable, not at all the daunting feat I’d built it up to be in my mind.
One of Woolf’s earliest novels, The Voyage Out follows the young and naïve Rachel Vinrace as she travels with her uncle and aunt to South America for a holiday. After a rough patch on her father’s ship and some unexpected visitors (a primitive version of Woolf’s most recognizable Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway and her husband Richard), Rachel finds a friend in her aunt, Helen Ambrose. Helen talks Rachel into staying with them at the villa rather than continue up the Amazon with her father, a decision that throws the inexperienced Rachel into the company of the dozens of other Englishmen and women visiting as well.
At first I was a little puzzled by Woolf’s decision to set the novel in South America when so many of the characters are English, but after a greater consideration of what Woolf is examining, what conclusions she draws, a non-European setting underscores what she is saying. Though there are those who would consider The Voyage Out to be a romance of sorts, what strikes me most about the book is the way Woolf examines intimacy. She emphasizes both the exhilarating freedom and terrifying loneliness that stem from the idea that, no matter how much we try to share about ourselves, even with those we love, we can never fully know one another.
The novel’s main couple find, even in their initial happiness, that there will come a time when the independence of their private thoughts will come between them, that it has already come between them on several occasions and they can only wonder what it will do to them in time. A sense of bittersweet peace comes with the tragic climax as they realize that they will never have to test the happiness they found and risk losing it.
The idea was a little depressing initially (actually, my first thought was whether I was reading too much into it because I already know that Virginia Woolf would one day commit suicide or if a modern psychologist would look at it as some kind of warning sign; it is not the only incident where characters romanticize the morbid but there are just as many characters who reject such thoughts vehemently). After finishing the last few chapters, however, I realized that it’s just a slightly darker side to an idea that I have myself examined in my short stories (I just take a more light-hearted and ambiguous approach in “Second Guessing”).
As engaging as I found the debate regarding the circumstances and perceptions of intimacy especially those between men and women, it would have been difficult to follow and enjoy if not for Woolf’s appealing prose and witty dialogue. Even the pretentious and misunderstood St. John Hirst grows on the reader through his discussions with the sympathetic and patient Helen. Woolf’s approach to introducing the myriad of characters is encouraging as she uses primarily last or full names until a level of familiarity has been established, not just between the traveling strangers but with the reader as well.
Melancholy and thought provoking, Virginia Woolf shows with The Voyage Out that it isn’t necessary to show off to a reader that your writing is deep and profound. Such pretensions can put a reader in a less receptive mindset. Instead, Woolf captures in her group of traveling strangers the social settings and interactions that lead to those moments of individual insight and the intimate occasions when two or three people strike upon such philosophical ideas naturally. There is a sense of normalcy to her characters that readers can identify with and which allows her messages to linger.