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The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Ernest Dempsey gives a feminist analysis of Virginia Woolf’s first novel.

“You can never know women,” says Lenehen to his friend Corley in ‘Two Gallants’, one of James Joyce’s stories in his acclaimed Dubliners. Straightforwardly but not brusquely, the man is demonstrating the rift across which some unknowable species lives. To Joyce’s men a great deal of knowledge seems matter of fact, so thinking that woman is knowable would have exacted unimaginable pains. A careful look can readily grasp that more is at work in Lenehen’s adage: the implication is that woman is not worth knowing, and hence there’s no need to bother about trying to cross the eternal rift. But what the proclaimed unknowable figure has on her mind is rather complex; as explored in Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out (1915).

It can hardly be a coincidence that the first third of The Voyage Out has an ‘immobile’ plot. We get to know about Rachel Vinrace, who sets out on a voyage with the Ambroses, her uncle and aunt, and is introduced to a few people without much interaction. Rachel’s character at twenty-four is little described beyond that of a ‘person’, having virtually no knowledge of men and the temptations of entering into a relationship with one. Rachel Vinrace is simply not a woman yet. The initial lack of any stimulating interaction with men seems to be Woolf’s deliberate attempt to preserve the person of Rachel, lest she turn into a ‘woman’, an inevitability which the author allows to subsequently happen.

As the voyage proceeds, Rachel’s own transformation towards becoming a woman progresses on a minutely conscious level. The symbolic voyage of the book’s title starts an inevitable clock going, every tick of which pushes Rachel a little out of her ‘person’. Rachel’s meeting with Evelyn and Terence Hewet make the transformative clock tick louder and faster. Evelyn is a woman, conscious of her femininity as well as of the opposite gender, living in whose circle is not her pleasure. The gender issue is explicitly put forth in her words about men: “they’ve nothing but their beastly passions and their brute strength! We’ve too much self-respect; we’re infinitely finer than they are.” Evelyn’s ideas about men are surely not meant to stop Rachel’s voyage of her changing being. Rather, they play two conflicting roles in careening the twenty-four year old’s ‘existential boat’, first as Rachel the ‘person’ travels towards Terence Hewet. On the other hand, Evelyn’s approval of Terence drives Rachel further on towards the ‘woman’ she is going to be. It is significant that while driving her onwards, Evelyn some times masks Terence’s gender with her own. Approving of Rachel’s budding love for Terence, she remarks, “There’s something of a woman in him.” As a woman, Evelyn allows Rachel’s transformation from neutral to her gender, even though she knows that it is, speaking in radical feminist terms, servile – becoming woman for a man!

The transition of Rachel’s being towards womanhood is, as hinted, driven by Terence Hewet, the ‘man’ of the piece, as a manifest necessity. In the first instance, the burden of change is placed on the female. Letting ‘man’ remain a silent, stable spectator, Woolf pities the woman’s position and her lack of permanence. Explaining things on Rachel’s behalf, Woolf appeals to the experience of the emotions which sets her on the track of transformation. Of Rachel we read, “She had always found that the ordinary person had so little emotions in his life that the scent of it in the lives of others was like the scent of blood in the nostrils of a bloodhound.” The bias in this bit of information about Rachel is not invisible: in showing the plasticity of the female, Woolf shows she resents that the woman be the one to step out of (or into) herself, merely to experience emotions which are servilely associated with men. Rachel knows the power of emotions and has kept herself distant from them by remaining just a ‘person’. Now, at the sight of Terence, she is ready to compromise her good sense and step into the slavish ranks of ‘womanhood’.

Whether Virginia Woolf was attempting to preserve her respect for herself in particular, or for the second sex in general, she interferes with Rachel’s degrading transformation. Before Rachel can take the final step in yielding to the man she desires, we read of a sudden indisposition which confines Rachel to her room. The plot’s epitasis comes into play. Rachel’s recovery would mean the triumph of the anti-female force, bent on making her a ‘woman’, for it is her conversion which can sate the male instinct, ‘woman’ meaning ‘slave’ in a patriarchal world. Conversely, if Rachel dies, her death will be the triumph of her femininity: true womanhood requires her to be what she is, and not flow into the mold of patriarchal expectations. It is natural for Woolf to subject her heroine to this second option. Rachel Vinrace dies.

What physically causes Rachel’s death is not the point. The important thing in Woolf’s narrative is that she dies in the conflict of patriarchal and feminist forces. As the death scene approaches, the story sees its climax in the thirty-fifth chapter, in the visit of a woman with a candle to the ailing Rachel: “Rachel kept her eyes fixed upon the peaked shadow on the ceiling and all her energy was concentrated upon the desire that this shadow should move. But the shadow and the woman seemed to be eternally fixed above her.” Then she dies.

The symbolism employed here is doubly complex. That the visitor is a woman with light (the candle) is a fairly comprehensible symbol. She is there to ensure that Rachel dies with the dignity of a self-respecting woman, or at least, as a person not yet corrupted beyond recovery. She represents her gender, present to show Rachel the way ‘into the light’. Her presence would have achieved its goal if Rachel’s last thought was that of resentment over her attempted conversion. If she felt sorry for the foray into the darkness, she would have passed away in the light. But the fact that she does not fix her stare on the woman but on the “peaked shadow” betrays the simplicity of the symbolism. If the woman with the candle represents the feminine spirit, her dark shadow on the ceiling represents nothing less than the despotic patriarch. It is worth noticing that the shadow is “peaked” and is the focus of Rachel’s attention – masculine values are dominant and they charm the woman grovelling after them.

That Rachel has become patriarchally possessed is clear enough. What makes her character still dubious is our lack of knowledge about her last thought. It is conveyed that she desired that the shadow should move, though it did not. If only Woolf had spared another adjective to specify just how Rachel wanted the shadow to move, eg ‘towards’ her! The woman with the light failed in her purpose, since she could not take Rachel’s mind off the patriarch’s charm. But then her light indirectly works its effect. By showing the patriarchal force in the form of a shadow to a lady who cannot move, the light has switched the roles of the lady and her idol: now she is not moving towards the idol, rather she is demanding it to flow to her, to make it her subject. Alternatively, Rachel’s desire that the shadow should move cogently reveals her potential emancipation at the hands of her savior angel. In any case, Rachel’s death ends her transience for good.

The responsibility for Rachel’s loss of life might be thrown on the symbolized femininity which retaliated against her for trying to become a patriarch-charmed woman: a state of existence not worth living. One might well charge Rachel herself with the responsibility. After all, it was she who set out on the voyage. As Mr Flushing puts it in the thirty-sixth chapter, after Rachel’s death; “My wife feels that she was in some way responsible. She urged poor Miss Vinrace to come on the expedition… But she [Rachel] was set on going. She would have gone whether you asked her or not, Alice.”

Woolf’s mastery of symbolism does not end with Rachel’s death. Her feminine eye turns to the ‘first sex’, which in this case is represented by the character of Terence Hewet. The scanty treatment of Hewet as a character is in itself an attitude against the big HE which Woolf has attempted to show as cowardly and insignificant. The way Terence reacts to Rachel’s death is a slight against the ruling gender and its ‘support team’. Of Terence we read: “‘Rachel! Rachel!’ He shrieked, trying to rush back to her. But they prevented him, and pushed him down the passage and into a bedroom far from her room.” Terence’s attempt to get to Rachel’s dead body is a mockery of the futility of his masculine care for a woman who lost her life in trying to get to him. He did not budge until she had turned into a corpse, and then he realized he could move to her. Even then, there are the ‘they’ who make sure he keeps his distance: the patriarch-supporting ‘they’ drive Terence away from pursuing the woman who had died for him. ‘They’ will not save a woman; and ‘they’ will not let a man die.

The injustice of the case is again given voice in Evelyn’s words. Crying over Rachel’s death, she utters effusively, “It can’t only be an accident… Why should these things happen? Why should people suffer? I honestly believe (she went on lowering her voice slightly) that Rachel’s in heaven, but Terence…” Evelyn truncates her speech but what is unsaid is heard in full.

Rachel’s attempt to cross the intergender chasm is akin to a pilgrimage. Death means martyrdom to her sex. Her position is clear and honored. What is put to question is Man’s honesty. To keep his earthly existence, he cannot follow her. His interest sees little beyond the pleasures of his carnal self, for which he needs a female body. The truncation of Evelyn’s speech here is the final argument in Woolf’s case against gender inequality: A person dies, a gender lives – a gender that is not a Woman.

© Ernest Dempsey 2007

Ernest Dempsey is the author of The Biting Age and Islands of Illusion (World Audience Inc) and is working on a novel. His books can be found at www.powells.com.

• Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out is available in various editions, paperback and hardback.

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