Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Voyage In: On Reading Woolf's First Novel

I've spent the last two weeks reading Virginia Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out. This is not a widely read novel by Woolf. It isn't taught in many courses and it's not considered one of her masterpieces. In fact, there are various aspects of the book that are problematic and don't necessarily work. For me, this made the book even more intriguing to read.

I fell in love with Woolf in the fall of 2002. I was taking a 20th century literature class and we read her novel To the Lighthouse. The book changed me and my ideas of what a novel could do. This class introduced me to Joyce too, who would also become a great part of my education. It was there in that class that I became fascinated with modernism and this period of change in the world and in literature. Nothing would ever be the same again. The goals of so many of these writers connect deeply with me and are reflected in my own work (see the title of my first book). A few months later, I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time, which quickly became my favorite novel. I've read it many times since.

To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway are Woolf's most read and respected works and with good reason. Both books helped define modernism and changed the novel forever. Recently, I decided to dive into Woolf's other work. In December, I read The Waves, which is perhaps her most experimental novel. The book switches between six narrators and is all done in internal monologues. The narrators also go from small children to adults throughout the book. It's a fascinating look at life and death.

This month, I read The Voyage Out, which took Woolf nine years to write. It went through countless drafts and was finally published in 1915. She would never take so long to write another novel. What I loved about reading The Voyage Out was seeing Woolf figuring out her own style and approach to fiction. The novel is her most traditional. It has a straight-forward narrative and a great deal happens in the novel: a sea journey, engagements, and a death. In many ways, she's using the more traditional story to work out how she wants to write.

Even with all of these standards in place, Woolf's novel is not ordinary. Rachel, the main character, is a rather odd and frustrating heroine. She's uncomfortable in her own skin and seems out of place in almost any part of society. She's rather uninformed about many aspects (men and sex) and acts very child-like even though she is 24. The novel follows her doomed journey. Her Aunt Helen, the other main character, is also not a traditional female of the time period. Helen is opinionated, stubborn, and yet gets along well with men (minus her husband who basically fades away through the course of the book). Helen is a rather intriguing character and, in many ways, provides some of the most interesting moments.

What's striking in this novel is how Woolf, right from the beginning of her career, sees the importance of using multiple characters to help tell the story. She lets us get close to various people in the book (often very minor characters) and you can see how she will push this idea further in books like Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf understands that stories happen inside us just as much, if not more, than outside us and that to tell one person's story is to begin to tell other stories. This is made very evident in the fact that Mrs. Dalloway and her husband (Richard) appear in The Voyage Out. They are other passengers on the ship in the beginning and stick around for about fifty or sixty pages. Here they make guest appearances, yet play a vital role in the thoughts of Rachel. A few years later, Woolf will devote a novel to telling their story, which also tells many other people's stories or at least pieces of them.

Woolf's work examines how close, yet distant we can be as human beings. Most of her work asks the question: can we ever truly know another human being? These ideas are very much part of The Voyage Out. The novel focuses heavily on the differences between the sexes and if a man and woman can ever truly be happy with each other.

The heart of this novel is in line with her other books, but she didn't yet know how to deliver these ideas to garner the greatest impact. The novel is a little clunky in places. Much of the discussion about these issues takes place through dialogue. One of the main male characters is a writer and presents some of Woolf's own ideas about fiction writing right there in his speech. Her later work relies less on dialogue and more on the internal thoughts of characters. She trusts the reader a little more than in this first novel where more is spelled out.

The Voyage Out is one of her only novels not set in England. The novel begins with a voyage to South America where most of the action of the novel takes place. This creates some other issues for the contemporary reader. While the novel is set mostly in South America, all of the characters are English people who are vacationing in this colony where many English have made money off of the natives. These are simply facts and clearly not the concerns of the book or Woolf. The only native character that gets any page time is an unhelpful doctor (not a good character). To a contemporary reader, you might think she took great pains to not mention the natives or make any of them into real characters, but I imagine she probably didn't think much about it. The whole world of this book is functioning because of these invisible characters, but one must place the book within the historical context. Woolf didn't not spend much time writing or thinking about other classes of people whether they were South American or English.  

In many ways, reading this novel opened a new window into Woolf. As a writer, it's thrilling to read an early piece by one of your favorite writers and see them struggling with their subject matter, style, and approach. It makes her more human. Her ideas are taking shape here in this first novel and it is well worth the read for any Woolf lover.

-Stephen (Woof)

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