After tracing Virgina Woolf's increasingly complex modernist experiments - 'Mrs. Dalloway', 'To the Lighthouse', 'The Waves' - reading 'The Voyage Out', her first novel, is like finding a missing link between 19th and 20th century literature. Published in 1915, 'The Voyage Out' contains many of the familiar themes and ideas of Woolf's later work, but it is in the shape of a conventional, 19th century novel - the form that she would later break away from and ultimately abandon completely.
In a kind of Victorian coming of age story, we follow the young and dreamy-eyed Rachel Vinrace, who embarks on a voyage to South America on one of her father's ships. Among the other passengers is her eccentric aunt, Helen Ambrose, who takes her niece under her wing. On the way, Richard and Clarissa Dalloway make a brief appearance, though here they are only two of a great many peripheral characters, all academic, literary and leisure class types, who Woolf sketches with subtle satire.
Once there (it never becomes quite clear where in South America), Rachel falls in love with an aspiring writer, the equally dreamy Terence Hewlett. Against the background of a group of English upholding their etiquette in the heat of the jungle, their slowly developing relationship occupies most of the book. But however romantic, it is doomed to be thwarted by a sudden, tragic ending.
Though the story is conventional, Woolf's style already has that uniquely fluid, meandering quality, lighter than air, full of commas, touching upon this and that, and meanwhile almost imperceptibly shifting the perspective from third person narration to the subjective experiences of her characters. Here, for example, is the moment when Rachel has just started on her journey and she watches England receding behind her.
(Characteristically, it isn't clear at first that these are the impressions of Rachel, who imagines herself to speak for all the passengers, not just of this particular ship but of all who ever embarked on a voyage and saw England disappearing behind them. Note the shift of person halfway through.)
Not only did it appear to them to be an island, and a very small island, but it was a shrinking island in which people were imprisoned. One figured them first swarming about like aimless ants, and almost pressing each other over the edge; and then, as the ship withdrew, one figured them making a vain clamour, which, being unheard, either ceased, or rose into a brawl. Finally, when the ship was out of sight of land, it became plain that the people of England were completely mute. The disease attacked other parts of the earth; Europe shrank, Asia shrank, Africa and America shrank, until it seemed doubtful whether the ship would ever run against any of those wrinkled little rocks again. But, on the other hand, an immense dignity had descended upon her; she was an inhabitant of the great world, which has so few inhabitants, travelling all day across an empty universe, with veils drawn before her and behind. She was more lonely than the caravan crossing the desert; she was infinitely more mysterious, moving by her own power and sustained by her own resources. The sea might give her death or some unexampled joy, and none would know of it. She was a bride going forth to her husband, a virgin unknown of men; in her vigor and purity she might be likened to all beautiful things, for as a ship she had a life of her own.
Like Woolf's later work, 'The Voyage Out' is ultimately not about the relationships between people, but of people with reality. Reality, which to Woolf, as she put it in 'A Room of One's Own', appeared to be "something very erratic, very undependable". As if to illustrate this, we find these small jolting moments in the story when reality becomes strange and incomprehensible to the characters:
...and they found it unexpectedly difficult to do the simple but practical things that were required of them, as if they, being very tall, were asked to stoop down and arrange minute grains of sand in a pattern on the ground.
A similar sense of strangeness pervades the relationship between Rachel and Terence, which isn't passionate in the usual sense, but seems to be a much deeper, hesitant outreaching of two souls who aren't fully convinced the other is real. If this sounds sentimental, Woolf's treatment of it is anything but. Take the following scene, when during an expedition into the jungle they wander off from their party, so overwhelmed by their own feelings that Rachel feels they are enveloped in a mist.
"What's happened?" he began. "Why did I ask you to marry me? How did it happen?"
"Did you ask me to marry you?" she wondered. They faded far away from each other, and neither of them could remember what had been said.
"We sat upon the ground," he recollected.
"We sat upon the ground," she confirmed him. The recollection of sitting upon the ground, such as it was, seemed to unite them again, and they walked on in silence, their minds sometimes working with difficulty and sometimes ceasing to work, their eyes alone perceiving the things around them.
Perception - which again has to do with the relation of the observer with reality - would be a lifelong theme in Woolf's work. Here it takes on an almost hallucinatory quality when Rachel falls ill. The vivid descriptions of Rachel lying in bed, lost in fever dreams, seem to mirror the earlier scenes in the misty jungle, though framed in tragedy.
The sights were all concerned in some plot, some adventure, some escape. The nature of what they were doing changed incessantly, although there was always a reason behind it, which she must endeavour to grasp. Now they were among trees and savages, now they were on the sea, now they were on the tops of high towers; now they jumped; now they flew. But just as the crisis was about to happen, something invariably slipped in her brain, so that the whole effort had to begin over again. The heat was suffocating. At last the faces went further away; she fell into a deep pool of sticky water, which eventually closed over her head. While all her tormentors thought that she was dead, she was not dead, but curled up at the bottom of the sea. There she lay, sometimes seeing darkness, sometimes light, while every now and then someone turned her over at the bottom of the sea.
Note how distant the only objectively real event ("someone turned her over") appears here. Scenes like these reveal the direction Woolf was to take, submerging further and further into her characters' inner worlds, and viewing reality as a distant and "erratic" affair. 'Stream of consciousness' is a poor and inexact term to describe her ventures into this utterly subjective, phenomenological realm.
Usually described as one of Woolf's most accessible books, 'The Voyage Out' foreshadows, in both style and themes, Woolf's radical departure from the classic novel. At the same time it provides a uniquely sensual reading experience, with an intensity and vividness comparable to 'War and Peace' (perhaps the pinnacle of the classic novel).