Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

In this lesson we'll look at Virginia Woolf's novel titled 'The Voyage Out'. We'll consider the context, themes, style, narration, and plot of the book.

Introduction

Woolf had the opportunity to spend time with some of the greatest thinkers in England.
Virginia Woolf

Sometimes, authors' lives are almost as interesting as the work they produce, and Virginia Woolf's life is a tremendous example of this. As a woman writing in the early 20th century, Woolf offers a unique voice that speaks both to her own fascinating life and to the historical moment in which she was writing.

Woolf was born in 1882 in London, and throughout her life she had the opportunity to surround herself with London's elite thinkers. She began writing early and published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. She would go on to write numerous novels, short stories, and works of nonfiction. Some of her most influential writings include Orlando, A Room of One's Own, and Mrs. Dalloway.

Throughout her life, Woolf suffered from nervous breakdowns and depression, and in 1941, having filled her jacket with stones, Woolf drowned herself in a river. Although Woolf's work hasn't always been popular, it has remained an important part of the 20th-century literary cannon, particularly with regards to feminist literature.

Context

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century brought about the birth of philosophy and science that challenged how people traditionally understood the world. These changes, combined with the human capacity for evil that was displayed during WWI, resulted in many artists believing that it was necessary to disregard traditional art forms and philosophies and to attempt to create new and revolutionary works of art. This revolutionary movement came to be known as modernism. Modernists were eager to experiment and attempted to complicate reality and how we believe that we understand reality.

This painting by Pablo Picasso demonstrates the modernist attempt to complicate reality.
Pablo Picasso

Woolf's own work reflects many of the ideals of the modernist movement. Her narration is defined by its stream-of-consciousness quality; rather than having a fixed narrator with a fixed perspective, Woolf goes in and out of the minds of different characters, making unexpected connections that are not always clear or necessarily rational. This feature of her writing allows her to produce stories that are less driven by the plot than by the beauty of the minute details that make up the experience of life.

Overview

Because The Voyage Out employs stream-of-consciousness narration, there is no fixed narrator. The novel centers on the experience of a 24-year-old woman named Rachel Vinrace as she travels from London to South America in a boat. The story opens in London as Rachel, her father Willoughby, a friend of his, and Rachel's Aunt Helen and Uncle Ridley prepare for their voyage. Once on board, Rachel and her family meet other passengers, and a series of conversations ensue that reveal the complexity of human relationships. For example, as another passenger named Richard Dalloway, the husband of Clarissa Dalloway, gets frustrated by his inability to communicate with Rachel, the reader discovers the ways in which each character's assumptions influence and dictate what is communicated.

As the novel progresses, Helen and Rachel become closer and the boat eventually reaches Santa Marina. Rachel soon meets Terence and they begin a close relationship. At one point, Terence and Rachel explore the island and begin to talk of their future plans, which results in the two beginning to ponder a more permanent relationship.

The group then takes a trip up a local river and visits a local village, which symbolically allows Woolf to further explore the ways that people encounter the world around them. Rachel and Terence soon begin to talk of love and marriage. When Rachel returns from the trip, she is increasingly consumed by the thought of marriage but soon becomes ill. Rachel then dies as a result of her illness, and the novel ends with a storm and the sounds of people coming and going.

Analysis and Themes

One of the most interesting and influential aspects of The Voyage Out is the way that it reflects the inner workings of the mind. One way Woolf depicts the complexity of thought is through dreams, which appear throughout the work. These dreams reflect the ways in which consciousness is created by demonstrating the strange and unpredictable connections the mind makes between ideas, images, and people. This quality of the narration, moreover, allows Woolf to show the beauty of seemingly mundane events.

This theme of consciousness, however, also speaks to the greater theme of the interconnectedness of individuals. Throughout The Voyage Out, the ideas, motives, and emotions of the characters are shown to be intertwined and difficult to separate, despite the clear social conventions that the characters adhere to. The way that wealthy characters, for example, treat those of a lower class is shown to be in contrast to the reality of the nuances within the relationships and the thoughts that the characters experience.

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