The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

“As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm.”

O at Behold the Stars is a Virginia Woolf aficionado and when she suggested a read-along of Woolf’s, The Voyage Out, I was immediately on board (excuse the pun!).  I’d loved To The Lighthouse, but Mrs. Dalloway had left me in a rather uncertain and confused stupor, while Orlando somehow didn’t resonate with me at all, so I wondered how I would react to this novel.  It could have gone either way.

The Voyage of Life Childhood (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

“The voyage had begun, and had begun happily with a soft blue sky, and a calm sea.  The sense of untapped resources, things to say as yet unsaid, made the hours significant, so that in future years the entire journey perhaps would be represented by this one scene, with the sound of sirens hooting in the river the night before, somehow mixing in.”

The Voyage of Life: Youth (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

In The Voyage Out, we meet a myriad of characters, but the main focus is on Rachel Vinrace, a young sheltered English girl who departs on a voyage with her uncle and aunt to South America.  The only accomplishment in life that she has mastered is playing the piano, which she does with artistic efficiency.  During the voyage and at their destination she encounters a number of characters, from Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway (do they sound familiar?  Yes, these are the characters from Woolf’s later novel, Mrs. Dalloway) on the ship, to Hirst and Hewet, two young men who capture her interest and stimulate her introspection, as well as various other male and female characters.  Through this cast Woolf conducts an examination, from the microscopic world of human nature, giving the reader an insightful tapestry of the faults and dreams of the various personalities, to the macroscopic world of Edwardian England with all its characteristics of pleasure, luxury and hope. Just as the era brought a change in social structure, we can see changes in Rachel, as she is rather abruptly pulled from her sheltered, unadventurous world and introduced into active society and more pointedly, the admiration of men.  Still, the alterations in Rachel’s character from her experiences, happen in a rather muted and introspective manner and one must wonder at the end, if any true changes occurred at all.

The Voyage of Life: Manhood (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

The sense of isolation seeps and oozes out of the pages of the novel and its characters appear immersed in it, as if in a fog.  The voyage itself isolates the characters from the society with which they are familiar, the country they visit being new and exotic, yet the book also indicates an emotional detachment from each other and even oneself.

“…… To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and others who feel strongly perhaps but differently ….”

“….. What solitary icebergs we are, Miss Vinrace!  How little we can communicate! ….”

“….. A feeling of emptiness and melancholy came over them; they knew in their hearts that it was over, and that they had parted forever, and the knowledge filled them with far greater depression than the length of their acquaintance seemed to justify.  Even as the boat pulled away they could feel other sights and sounds beginning to take the place of the Dalloways, and the feeling was so unpleasant that they tried to resists it.  For so, too, would they be forgotten ….”

” …… She became a ship passing in the night — an emblem of the loneliness of human life, an occasion for queer confidences and sudden appeals for sympathy…..”

“Although they had talked so freely they were all uncomfortably conscious that they really knew nothing about each other.” 

A sense of beginnings and endings also permeate the pages, and while Woolf’s delightful prose and descriptions can bring a lightness to the situations, there is an uncomfortable sense of the unknown that hovers just outside of our sight.  It is life, life in an essence that Woolf is a master at capturing.

The Voyage of Life: Old Age (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

The word that jumps out at me when I think of this novel is capricious.  Woolf stream-of-consciousness style of writing allow ideas and images to float in and out of the narrative, weaving a tapestry of a story, and like a tapestry, the picture is not always crystal clear.  As the character of Rachel does not settle comfortably into her society and her surroundings, neither does this novel sit comfortably with a recognizable label or description.  It exemplifies the Woolf I’m beginning to know, and while I’m not yet at ease with her writing, I can certainly say that I’m getting used to it and am developing an enthusiastic appreciation.

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21 thoughts on “The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

  1. I have yet to read V. Woolfe.
    Great review and powerful quotes selected.
    I will have to read Woolfe eventually …I just keep putting it off.
    Which author do you keep 'putting off'?

  2. One piece of advice from a reluctant-Woolf-almost-convert …… read her with an open mind and, if you dislike one of her novels, it certainly doesn't mean that you will dislike all of them. In fact, I could see a reader loving some and hating others. She's a real enigma.

    Oh, that question is easy. Thomas Hardy. I've just not been in the mood to be depressed. I also avoid 20th century lit, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Joyce, Faulkner, etc. That doesn't mean that I won't read them, but boy, do I look for excuses!

  3. Yay, now I can add you to my list of reviews, too.

    So, you warmed to Woolf with this novel? I did, as well. I really wish I would have read it from a hard copy, not my lap top. I think it would have been an even better experience.

    I like your one-word description. It works very well.

    And I love those paintings by Cole. They serve as a visual for the story of Rachel, even though she did not grow into Old Age – although death is considered something that happens in old age.

  4. I agree….Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, I keep saying " maybe next year".
    Steinbeck: loved Grapes of Wrath
    Joyce: I got burned by Ulysses….enjoyed Dubliners very much. As you said you can dislike some of their books….but not all. ps: read 2 T. Hardy books ….that is enough.

  5. This is such a good review, Cleo – you've done it justice! I'm glad you got into it 🙂

    So… which Woolf novel next? 😉 Seriously, I always need a little break, could never read one after another, not with Woolf!

  6. Yes, I finally got mine up! Always late to the party. 😉

    I really enjoyed this novel. Could I tell you why? Not really. Just like I can't actually describe why I loved To The Lighthouse. Somehow Woolf is able to create an unusual yet thoroughly realistic world with some of her novels. and as a reader you blend with the characters on a different sort of level.

    I didn't mind reading this one on my Kindle. With Woolf I don't always have tons to say where I want to scribble ideas down. I will often just underline. However, I think when I read To The Lighthouse again, I'll want a book. I have a feeling I'll have lots of ideas with that one!

  7. I liked East of Eden but wasn't thrilled with it …… I thought it contained a number of literary "holes". I'm happy to hear that The Grapes of Wrath is good. I will only read The Dubliners from your recommendation. I got ¼ of the way through Ulysses. I'll try to force myself to finish someday but what a load of garbage. And I often felt he was mocking someone with it …… his readers? …… the critics? I'm not sure, but it was an unpleasant feeling.

  8. Thanks so much! Woolf's books are never easy to review but because I liked this one, it made it easier.

    I'd like to read Night and Day next. Is that the next one chronologically? I actually think it may help to read one Woolf after the other but again, I'm not sure why. To understand her better, perhaps? Are you planning another one soon?

    Wow! I think this is the first book that we said we'd read together and actually accomplished it. A big pat on the back to both of us! 😉

  9. You are incredibly brave to take on Woolf again. Orlando left with an "Eh!' feeling and her independent pieces leave me feeling like I was on to something, but now its lost. However I have heard a lot of great things about To the Light House and the Voyage out also seems like something I will be able to chew….I really must start reading some more Woolf one of these days

  10. I don't know this book, but I am a fan of Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway of course, but especially A Room of One's Own–one of the few things I've read where I finished, and began it again immediately.
    I thought To the Lighthouse to be a profound book.

  11. I wonder if I just wasn't in the mood for Orlando. I would recommend To The Lighthouse and let yourself just float away into the story as you read it. Don't read it if you're rushed or in a bad mood (although I cannot imagine you in a bad mood! 🙂 ) I will await your verdict when you get around to it.

  12. I agree with your assessment of To The Lighthouse. I've read it twice and still long to read it again to try to dig deeper into it. I haven't read A Room of One's Own, so it sounds like I have something to look forward to. I think my next Woolf read will be Night and Day though and I hope it will be as pleasant an experience as this book was.

  13. Being an expert on Virginia Woolf (having read one novel so far), I'm not a huge fan…but I have been IN LOVE with the Voyage of Life paintings by Thomas Cole since I first saw them (the real deal), a few years ago in the National Art Gallery here in D.C. They have all four in one room to themselves and the first time, I was stunned. I spent literally hours in that one room. It's always my favorite exhibit. Marvelous imagery to accompany your excellent review…Bravo!

  14. I'm glad that you liked the paintings! I kind of became distracted with them as well. So lovely! You've very lucky to have been able to see them in person.

    As for Woolf, I think that she's an acquired taste. I firmly think that if one reads all her novels, each person would be able to find one that they liked. I'm happy now to have found two that fall in the category and hopefully there will be more. I hope you can find one that you like too!

  15. This is such a great review and I apologize for not commenting sooner. I have the sudden urge to read this novel again because your review sparked some new ideas and perspectives that I did not consider before, especially in relation to way Woolf explores the "unknown" as you so eloquently put it — the inexplicable mysteries of life, always fleeting, ephemeral. I am glad this novel has encouraged you to warm up to Woolf's writing and who knows, maybe she might even become a new favorite of yours one day. 🙂

  16. No problem! I hope that your little break did you good! You're going to laugh at this, but I get a similar feeling when I read both Woolf and G.K. Chesterton ……….. that there is still an elusive something that I haven't understood but it is hovering close by, tantalizing, if only I could reach out and grasp it. I do think Chesterton leaves that impression because of his genius, yet Woolf on the other hand has an insight into people and life that many of us …….. well, I don't want to say that we're lacking this insight, but perhaps we haven't employed the introspection needed to hone it and therefore we don't quite understand it, yet on another level it is familiar to us …….. Does that make sense? In any case, I'm glad that I've inspired you to consider reading it again; I definitely will some day.

  17. “while I’m not yet at ease with her writing, I can certainly say that I’m getting used to it and am developing an enthusiastic appreciation” – That is exactly how I’m feeling about Woolf. I cannot say that I have loved the novels I have read by her so far, and her style does grate on me, but there is something about the novels and especially about her ideas that make me come back for more.

    • I must admit that I LOVED To The Lighthouse, but do you think I can explain why? It wasn’t the story or the characters, more the feeling that Woolf created. But you really had to let yourself just flow along with the book; if you fought against it, the experience wouldn’t be as rewarding. I didn’t like Orlando but there were so many references that only Vita Sackville-West would have understood, so it was somewhat frustrating, although I remember loving the movie with Tilda Swinton. I’m going to look for my copy of Night and Day tomorrow!

      • LoL. I was the other way around – I loved Orlando (tho couldn’t tell you exactly why) and I found To the Lighthouse such a chore (simply because of her style).

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