When Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out begins, Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose are making their way from the Strand to the Thames Embankment, where a rowboat will take them to a steamer that will take them across the Atlantic to South America. Helen Ambrose—fortyish, beautiful, hard to please—is quietly weeping. “Mournfully” she regards the old man who rows the boat and the anchored ship he rows them to, for they are “putting water between her and her children.” They are joined on this journey aboard the Euphrosyne—the first voyage out—by Mr. Pepper, a prickly scholar who went to Cambridge with Ridley Ambrose, and twenty-four-year-old Rachel Vinrace, the Ambroses’ niece, whose mother is dead. She’s been raised (to unsatisfactory fashion, in Helen’s eyes) by her father, Willoughby Vinrace, upon whose ship they travel, and her other aunts. Among this group on the ship, Helen fears she’ll be “considerably bored.” (The specter of boredom is important in Woolf’s work; Orlando strikes me as a novel about life’s infinite richness, and how life is still somehow a bore.)
The ship drops anchor again in Lisbon, where they collect two additional passengers for part of the journey, none other than Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, characters Woolf would go on to write several stories and another novel about. The Dalloways’ snobbishness puts Helen off, but they connect on the subject of children. “Isn’t it detestable, leaving them?” Clarissa asks. “It was as though a blue shadow had fallen across a pool,” Woolf writes. “Their eyes became deeper.” Their talk makes moody Rachel feel excluded, “outside their world and motherless.” Helen is consumed with thoughts of her children now, but soon she will seem to forget them almost entirely. It is just one example of the book’s most prevalent theme: the limiting nature of perspective. The people in England and the people on ships are unreal to each other. “But while all this went on by land, very few people thought about the sea. They took it for granted that the sea was calm … For all they imagined, the ships when they vanished on the sky-line dissolved, like snow in water,” Woolf writes. “The people in ships, however, took an equally singular view of England. 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.” Much as it’s nearly impossible to imagine being hot when one is freezing cold, or happy when one is miserable, the passengers on the Euphrosyne can hardly imagine what life is like in London, or that it goes on at all.
Helen and Rachel initially regard each other with mutual underestimation. Scant formal education has allowed Rachel to flourish in music, as she simply pursued her own interests. But she knows almost nothing about the world—her lack of schooling leaves her with “abundant time for thinking,” but thinking is not equivalent to experience—which baffles and frustrates Helen. Meanwhile Rachel’s ageism is such that she imagines the middle-aged are ready to die: “ ‘My aunts said the piano would come through the floor, but at their age one wouldn’t mind being killed in the night?’ she enquired.”
Everything changes when Mr. Dalloway kisses Rachel. This comes as a shock (“Life seemed to hold infinite possibilities she had never guessed at”), a shock so great she’s not sure if she liked it or not. There’s “something wonderful” about it—suddenly she sees herself “as a real everlasting thing, different from anything else”—yet she’s so disturbed she gets up in the night to lock her door; “She could not sleep again.” The following day, the Dalloways disembark, and Helen and Rachel discuss them. Rachel had been mesmerized by their social position, their taste; Helen says Richard was “pompous and sentimental.” Rachel tells her about the kiss, which seems to her inexplicable and terrifying. Helen considers:
From the little she knew of Rachel’s upbringing she supposed that she had been kept entirely ignorant as to the relations of men with women. With a shyness which she felt with women and not with men she did not like to explain simply what these are. Therefore she took the other course and belittled the whole affair.
“Oh, well,” she said, “he was a silly creature, and if I were you, I’d think no more about it.”
“No,” said Rachel, sitting bolt upright, “I shan’t do that. I shall think about it all day and all night.”
At this point, Rachel becomes Helen’s project, a substitute child. She decides it’s her duty to teach Rachel “how to be a reasonable person,” to achieve some awareness of herself and her place in the world, and proposes to Willoughby that Rachel stay with her and her husband when they reach South America, rather than traveling into the Amazon with him. This takes some persuasion, but “Helen prevailed, although when she had won her case she was beset by doubts, and more than once regretted the impulse which had entangled her with the fortunes of another human being.” This is not the first hint that things will go poorly when they reach their destination—but “the moment for presentiments” has passed, or there was never any moment at which fate was not unfolding, fate both random and inexorable.
In Santa Marina, a fictional South American port, Helen and Rachel take up a habit they call “seeing life,” “strolling through the town after dark” to look at strangers. On one of these evenings, the women push open the gate of a large hotel and go up to the terrace, with its “row of long windows open almost to the ground”: “They were all of them uncurtained, and all brilliantly lighted, so that they could see everything inside.” From this viewpoint the hotel people look unreal to them, as if lit up onstage, as if they could not see their audience through the fourth wall. But they can be and are seen, when Terence Hewet turns “his full face towards the window,” where his friend St. John Hirst is sitting, “near to them unobserved all the time.” Discovered, the women flee.
Woolf’s next move is to take us deeper inside the hotel, where Helen and Rachel could not go—all the way into the minds of the guests. It’s one of several key scenes in the novel with a sudden perspective shift, from outside to inside, observer to observed or vice versa. Inside the rooms, the guests are of course real people, from their own perspective, that is—real by virtue of having interior lives. Another concern of the novel is the question of reality versus illusion, the “two different layers” of existence: the “real” world of thought and feeling under the surface world, the theater of pretense. (If The Voyage Out is less experimental in form than the later novels for which Woolf is best known, its characters are all the more moving for the ways they try to break convention from within the conventions of Edwardian fiction—reminiscent of Forster.) Here we meet the rest of the book’s important characters, who end up forming what you might call the women’s karass—Kurt Vonnegut’s term in Cat’s Cradle for a team that forms, beyond rational understanding, to “do God’s will”—more lives whose fortunes become entangled with theirs. Most significant among them is Hewet, an aspiring novelist who falls in love with Rachel.
It’s Hewet’s suggestion, prompted by a comment of Hirst’s (“Did you notice how the top of the mountain turned yellow to-night?”), to haul this karass up the mountain on donkeys for a picnic. This trip up the mountain is the second of three nested voyages in the novel. Like the kiss on the ship, it opens up the sense of the possible. It’s an idea, a whim really, that comes together easily—a decision acted upon, or at least a decision that feels like an action. It’s also an excuse to spend time with the women they encountered at the hotel window. Hirst, a promising, arrogant young scholar who insults everybody, is fascinated by the older, unavailable Mrs. Ambrose, whom he thinks the most beautiful person he’s ever seen. And Hewet is drawn to Rachel, for mysterious reasons; she’s not a beauty or a charming conversationalist; people think of her as “vague.” She doesn’t understand them and they don’t understand her either. But some force pulls him to her.
At the summit, there’s another reversal of perspective. Arthur and Susan, two other guests on the expedition, sneak off alone and become engaged. First, we experience the moment as they do, as bliss: “ ‘Well,’ sighed Arthur, sinking back on the ground, ‘that’s the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me’ … ‘It’s the most perfect thing in the world,’ Susan stated, very gently and with great conviction.” Hewet and Rachel, also walking alone, come across the couple in the trees, and their view of the scene is quite different:
The woman, who now appeared to be Susan Warrington, lay back upon the ground, with her eyes shut and an absorbed look upon her face, as though she were not altogether conscious. Nor could you tell from her expression whether she was happy, or had suffered something. When Arthur again turned to her, butting her as a lamb butts a ewe, Hewet and Rachel retreated without a word. Hewet felt uncomfortably shy.
“I don’t like that,” said Rachel after a moment.
From her angle this moment of radical change in Susan’s life looks like violence. Seeing and being are not the same. (“One doesn’t want to be things,” Hewet says, explaining his chosen vocation; “one wants merely to be allowed to see them.”) Finding their own little clearing, Rachel and Hewet talk, the impression of the lovers still lingering. Rachel attempts to tell Hewet about her life back at home, in Richmond, “overcome by the difficulty of describing people.” “It’s impossible to believe that it’s all going on still!” she exclaims. In some sense “it all” isn’t; what Woolf shows us is all that goes on. She is the “undoubtedly mad” god, to borrow Hirst’s words, in charge of their fate. But even in the world of the novel, Richmond doesn’t quite exist—not in Santa Marina. Do things continue out of sight, so far away, and run on the same clocks? It’s looking, or being looked at, they believe, that makes things real. But looking has limited power.
There is one more voyage. A smaller group—each voyage further separates this cluster from the rest of the world—embarks on a risky expedition up the river, deeper into the jungle. (The wealthy eccentric Mrs. Flushing says to Helen, “If you want comforts, don’t come. But I may tell you, if you don’t come you’ll regret it all your life.”) On this voyage, Hewet and Rachel again break away and become engaged. They unknowingly mirror the earlier scene on the mountain, now as actors, not as audience: “This is happiness,” she says, though doing what before she had only watched now fills her with a “sense of unreality”: “the whole world was unreal.” In one of the novel’s strangest passages, Helen appears to find them walking and then tackles Rachel to the ground, where they roll in the long grasses: “A hand dropped abrupt as iron on Rachel’s shoulder; it might have been a bolt from heaven … Helen was upon her.” It’s an animalistic gesture both affectionate and protective. For Helen has another premonition of disaster: “She became acutely conscious of the little limbs, the thin veins, the delicate flesh of men and women, which breaks so easily … Thus thinking, she kept her eyes anxiously fixed upon the lovers, as if by doing so she could protect them from their fate.” There is the question, now, as to which voyage out will not correspond with a voyage in, which bracket will not be closed.
Helen cannot protect them. They all return from the riverboat, seemingly safe; then disaster arrives in the form of a fever that traps Rachel in bed, separating her from Hewet: “her heat and discomfort had put a gulf between her world and the ordinary world which she could not bridge”; “her bed had become very important.” She is now “alone with her body.” Her bed is her ship, and such is her delirium—an exaggerated form of her usual confusion—that the others are barely visible. As Woolf writes in her 1926 essay “On Being Ill,” “the whole landscape of life lies remote and fair, like the shore seen from a ship far out at sea.” Hewet cannot reach her either, and the abyss between their “real” selves grows, so that being in the room with her, in physical proximity, is torture.
We don’t get the sense that Hewet and Rachel had each found their one true predestined love. Instead there is a sense of contingency, of chaos prevailing. Earlier, reading in the equatorial heat, she’d felt “awe that things should exist at all.” And why these things and not others? And how long can they exist? It’s this underlying meaninglessness that makes Rachel’s life so tragic. Because her knowledge is limited, her desires are small. “It isn’t as if we were expecting a great deal,” Rachel says at one point to Terence, imagining their life ahead, together, back in England, “only to walk about and look at things.” I wrote “No!” in the margin. They want so little, and won’t be allowed to have it.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Word Pretty (Black Ocean). She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, A Public Space, The Nation, and many other venues.
Introduction by Elisa Gabbert to a new edition of the book The Voyage Out, by Virginia Woolf. Introduction copyright © 2021 by Elisa Gabbert. Published by Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.