About David Scott

Writer, Author, Literature Lover

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Christmas Banquet

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Christmas Banquet” derives from a notebook entry of his, circa 1836-37, later to be revised and published in the Democratic Review in 1844 (Cody 1), where it ultimately finds its way into a collection of tales entitled Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). Google Books has the story listed as being randomly published in 2017, by someone unknown from CreateSpace, who characterizes Hawthorne’s content as “VERY funny,” with sections that read “sharp and hilarious” (Source). This perception of the story is certainly something to ponder, testament to the sometimes quirkiness of reader-response theory, in that Hawthorne’s story reads as anything but a literary piece at which to laugh.

The premise concerns a man named Roderick, his wife Rosina, and a sculptor as they consider the description of a person, or a group of people, who are a “hopeless puzzle.” In this day and age when storytelling is mired in the sheer demand for plot, Hawthorne’s piece reads like an article from a pre-Freudian psychiatric journal; its linguistic, descriptive power instead propels it into what has been anachronistically termed an “allegory of the heart.” To read the piece in the modern age is to understand it as a meditation on the phenomenon of depression.

In the attempt to describe the “hopeless puzzle,” the character of Roderick draws on a manuscript in his possession. It outlines the story of a man who seeks to define society’s depressive types by funding an annual Christmastime banquet that invites “ten of the most miserable persons that could be found.” The fictive element of interest involves how the man’s estate continues to pay for the banquet, and how his corpse is displayed at the head of the table at each subsequent banquet. This man is noted for his “melancholy eccentricity” during life, where his purpose in founding the banquet reads as follows:

“It seemed not to be the testator’s purpose to make these half a score of sad hearts merry, but to provide that the stern or fierce expression of human discontent should not be drowned, even for that one holy and joyful day, amid the acclamations of festal gratitude which all Christendom sends up. And he desired, likewise, to perpetuate his own remonstrance against the earthly course of Providence, and his sad and sour dissent from those systems of religion or philosophy which either find sunshine in the world or draw it down from heaven.”

Much of the reading is spent in going over the details of the many different guests, year after year, ten per year, how wretched they are in their lives. And with the figure of death at the table’s head, the whole thing comes off as a grotesque exercise in anthropological cynicism. But there is beauty in everything Hawthorne creates, “dark beauty” as Herman Melville might’ve called it. The character of Gervayse Hastings is introduced as the foil to depression, representative of the worst of all human conditions known to mankind: the state of being indifferent. Through this character, by the end of the narrative, we come to feel relief in the notion that we as readers are not icicles of society, that no matter how bad or good things can get, it’s the ability to feel that is most important.

Themes vary from this point. For Hawthorne’s time, the text is a sketch that builds on the introduction of mental health as a situation to be addressed. In light of the era’s lack of research, the idea that a person was expected to mask their psychological problems is evident. Roderick suggests: “He [the depressive] looks like a man; and, perchance, like a better specimen of man than you ordinarily meet.” This translates into our day and age into the notion that clinical depression is a condition that is to be recognized, diagnosed, and treated. The need to wear a mask is no longer necessary as society comes to understand conditions of mental illness, psychological or psychiatric.

We also get the idea that Quixotic ideals are self-help concepts to pursue and embrace. To realize a dream is to follow that dream no matter the amount of failure that we face. As Thomas Edison once put it: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work.” People are often quick to give up on goals when they realize frustration, which in turn leads to the passage of time, depression, and the notion that a person was never good enough. Perseverance, then, is a way to keep the devils of depression at bay.

There is some of Thoreauvian philosophy to read into this. We find people bogged down by the way society has driven them mad with the hustle of trying to make life work. Thoreau suggested that people not forget their connection with nature, and to seek out that connection to bring spiritual health to the mind and body. Getting caught up in the game of living to get by is to survive; balancing our responsibilities and necessities with our deeper and divine selves, preferably by seeking to be in tune with nature, leans more towards harmony.

Additionally, the Banquet highlights the statistical probability that not everyone is a joyous chap during the holiday season. The presence of such pervasive festivity can bring on the harbingers of depressive, even suicidal ideation in those who have no family, nowhere to go, no one to turn to in loneliness. The season of peace demands that we consider the plight of those who are less fortunate or alone, possibly even to entertain the notion of lending a comforting, helping hand.

The curiosity is that somehow, the crafting of literary dread is how Hawthorne ignites these underlying themes of constructive positivity. Again we have the art of literature performing work for the greater social good, of which Hawthorne was an indisputable master. Here is the author who brought us Hester Prynne, America’s beloved heroine of the Puritan Age, Miles Coverdale, professed supporter of women’s rights, and Young Goodman Brown, whose experience encourages us to keep a careful eye on our leaders. “The Christmas Banquet” may be weighty thematic material for someone who isn’t used to peering into the abyss of human despair, so condensed and refined as it is in such a short space of writing; yet it’s Hawthorne’s keen eye for the human condition paired with his genius skill for language that has scholars continuing to examine exactly what it is, the difference between a standard story of plot and that which constitutes a unique specimen of literature.

Cody, David. “Invited Guests at Hawthorne’s ‘Christmas Banquet’: Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 1980, pp. 17–26. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3194164.

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Carmilla (1872)

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla concerns the vampiress we know and love, because she loves us more than we love her. That is, if you’re the object of her desire. If not, then there’s no hope. Carmilla will drain you of life and you will die. Of course, as the novella would have us know, she seems partial to women, so the guys don’t have much to worry about. Unless they’re Victorian men and they feel threatened by feminine power. In this case the subtextual message runs its course as the men gather and plot to destroy this out of control woman and her wily ways.

Without delving into the problem of the patriarchy, Carmilla is known for the road it paves for lesbianism. Carmilla is insinuated as being responsible for the epidemic death that flourishes in the countryside, but she is seen pouring out her affections for the lovely Laura. Curious is Laura’s reaction for the way it mirrors the true-to-life phenomenon when a person confronts the possibility they may be homosexual. Laura is alarmed by Carmilla’s raptures but is not entirely put off by them. They stir her thoughts in ways that come off as though she has to consider how she really feels, where “the sense of attraction immensely prevailed.” The notion that Laura and Carmilla had the same dream-visions as children, and that they were destined to meet later in life, speaks to the modern scientific hypothesis that some people are predestined to be homosexual, determined by genetics even. What is certain concerns how modern media storytelling outlets (e.g. Hollywood television and movies) capitalize on the Carmilla story to usher in, as they do with any hot social topic, modes of social acceptance regarding the LGBTQ community. Bram Stoker may have penned an ultimate vampire legacy which addresses repressed sexuality but in truth, Le Fanu one-ups him by introducing the progressive angle — and the rest is history.

Julia Pietrucha as Carmilla and Eleanor Tomlinson as Lara in Styria (2014).

Carmilla as a story certainly has some oddities. Perplexing is Carmilla’s so-called mother who in doubling instances, sets about the task of unloading the vampiress upon unsuspecting older men with daughters and nieces. We never know who this woman is nor how this activity she engages in serves any specific purpose. Does she know that Carmilla is a vampire? What is her purpose if she doesn’t? What does she stand to gain if she does? The information is never conveyed. And then there’s the added mystery woman who was spotted the night of the accident…

“…with a sort of colored turban on her head, and who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury.”

The answers never come as we are presented only with the mother vanishing off to towns that are leagues away, and the woman with the turban is only mentioned once. There is one scene in which the mother declares she knows General Spielsdorf, but since they meet at a masquerade, she wears a mask, refuses to disclose who she is, leaves Millarca (Carmilla) with him, and is never seen again. So I’m throwing my hands up in the air on these.

Elise Bauman as Laura and Natasha Negovanlis as Carmilla in the television show Carmilla (2014-16).

Carmilla herself is a wondrous marvel. Her manner is positively childlike and yet her personality bears the markers of possession. She dazzles with the magnetism of her charm yet she coerces with the spirit of her bloodlust. Plainly speaking, it’s manipulation, which makes her dangerous. Whatever the cloaked message is concerning the freedom for women to love other women, Carmilla is not herself; she is a murderess. She is a cold-blooded killer, though I dare say, her aspect as a vampire is gluttonously impressive when her coffin is discovered, revealing how she reposes in a pool of blood seven inches deep.

Her vampire consciousness controls how she behaves, the classic trope of sexuality leading from death and murder to eternal life, but it’s couched in this odd human/inhuman element in which philosophy is applied to justify Carmilla’s actions. When Laura’s father considers the epidemic that is killing the local young girls, he comforts the group by proclaiming how they are in God the Creator’s hands. Carmilla responds:

“Creator! Nature!…And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature — don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so.”

Lily Cole plays the mysterious Carmilla figure in the movie rendition of Rachel Klein’s 2002 novel, The Moth Diaries (2011).

Carmilla callously simplifies the vampire’s need to prey on humans by implying that it’s merely in their nature to do so. Notions of good vs. evil are lost in a Darwinian maelstrom of psycho-sexual gold where the evolutionary traits of mating by laws of attraction underscores the behavior. For a vampire to survive, in spite of it’s gender, they must entice, befriend, and feed on young and pretty girls. Charm, beauty, poetic passion, youth, intelligence, all comprise the tactical method of operation, and it’s for Carmilla to analogize that it’s nothing more than a viral outbreak’s instinct to spread.

Apart from the delicious intrigue of Carmilla as vampire, it might be worth noting on the side how Laura and her father claim not to be “magnificent people,” that they are supplied by only a “small income,” yet they happen to live in what was known a “schloss,” a great castle-home with no less than “five and twenty” rooms. Excuse me? One theory of reading takes into account how the passing of time will affect reader point-of-view; this is where the constructs of that theory come into play. Nowadays only the notorious one-percent live in such extravagance and so for a book that was written in 1872, it’s fair to say that times have certainly changed. I want my schloss and I want it now.

Carmilla is wonderful reading and stands as the precursor to Bram Stoker’s masterpiece (though it’s odd how Dan Jones didn’t mention that). For the connoisseur of Victorian Horror, it is a must read; for the literary social historian, it is a valuable artifact. It takes models of family structure and social norms and turns them on their head for public display during an age when it was risky to do so. People have been having ideas about how society can change for eons, and we can thank the masters of literary art and art in general for the way we can see how this change can come around to be more than perfectly acceptable.

Transformation (1831)

Mary Shelley’s Transformation is a work of short fiction that bears some interesting similarities to the masterwork that is her magnum opus, Frankenstein (1818/31). It speaks to the psychological undercurrent that writers experience, even as H. M. Jones has suggested, that “our novelists search the subconscious mind…in order to achieve reality, the mode of achieving verisimilitude” (xx). This “search” is the meditative process that extraordinary art requires, which for Shelley is the opportunity to do what she does best, pairing bold, exquisite language with the recurrent themes that linger in her imagination.

Some comparisons go as follows:

1A) Victor Frankenstein is a self-assured student of medicine who through his ambitions, believes he can control the forces of nature, which underscores his character with a sense of arrogance.

1B) Guido of Genoa has an “imperious, haughty, tameless spirit.” He realizes the “wild impetuosity” of his character and states that he was “insolent and domineering,” and possessed of a “rebel heart.”

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2A) After experiencing a drastic chain of events, Victor finds himself scaling the Alps, alone seeking solace from the world and its woes.

2B) Having lost everything as a result of his behavior, Guido finds himself wandering alone the shores of the sea.

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3A) Surrounded by the vast mountainside isolation, Victor encounters the monstrous “fiend” bounding towards him, a sight that is highly unusual. The two end up conversing about the great dilemma Victor has caused for them both.

3B) Along the isolated sea shore, Guido observes a shipwreck from which the sight of a surviving dwarf “bestrding a sea-chest” is astonishing and very strange to see. They come to discuss Guido’s unfortunate predicament.

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4A) A voyeuristic theme emerges in connection with the loss of love, when Victor’s creation is seen peering through the window, where a mate is about to be created for him. Here the loss of love actually comes to take place.

4B) Voyeurism makes an appearance when Guido “hid himself” to watch the window of his love, who is set to marry the dwarf who is inhabiting his body. Here the loss of love is threatened.

Victor Frankenstein’s abhorred creation attempts love in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Both narratives establish characters who experience the “great-is-thy-pride” theme, which translates into the inevitable and subsequent theme, “the greater thy pride, the harder thy fall.” Victor and Guido are dumbfounded by the consequences of their actions, and turn to the sublimity of nature as a means to remedy their inner turmoil. Nature is viewed here as the go-to source for healing and wisdom in the presence of emotional discomfort and confusion. As well, the natural space becomes the metaphorical space of the mind, a natural-world battlefield where the ugliness of the alter-ego is forced to make an appearance for the purposes of confrontation.

Both confrontations are pivotal story points designed to bring forth a resolution, speaking to the human condition which all humans must face, the path of coming to terms with the debacle of self. For Victor, his alter-ego is personified as an unspeakably strong monster, representing the fostered arrogance which has grown to overpower him. For Guido, his cocksure, near-criminally-minded ways are represented and personified as the dwarf-human whose voice was “screeching and horrid, and his contortions as he spoke were frightful to behold.”

The dwarf is a fascinating aspect of Transformation for the way it ushers in the Victorian view of dwarfism, as seen in the writings of other authors. In 1872, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla describes a hunchback with “sharp lean features that generally accompany deformity,” who has a “pointed black beard…white fangs…and a grotesque hat.” In 1891, Oscar Wilde echoes a more startling picture, and the shame it incurs, when he describes what happens at The Birthday of the Infanta — when a dwarf who has never seen himself looks in a mirror, he realizes: “It was a monster, the most grotesque monster he had ever beheld.” Such views have a history, as we see in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762) — when a visitor spots what he believes to be a small zoo, a proprietor answers that the enclosure is an “asylum for those poor creatures who are rendered miserable from some natural deficiency or redundancy,” little people “whose deformity would lead them to wish to be secluded from human view.” Here they are kept from the “monster-mongers” who would display them, where the cost of the “maintenance of the monsters [is] a hundred and twenty.” The notion of displaying little people for money, along with the world of others who look different, reaches into the 20th Century, where criticism has been heaped upon Todd Browning’s notoriously ill-conceived movie, Freaks (1932).

G.R.R. Martin capitalizes on the olden view of dwarfs as undesirable in his book and television series A Game of Thrones (1996-2019). His view is vindicated as he seizes the opportunity to thoroughly celebrate the character and the actor who portrays him, Peter Dinklage.

Shelley’s depiction of a dwarf as “misshapen” is not so much a politically incorrect standpoint as it is, what I would term, a Barthesian Slip. Roland Barthes posited that writing does not need an authorial tag because an author is merely the transfer point between society and the written page (Source). The Great British perception of dwarfism emerges through Shelley’s writing; her mind is but an extension of a larger state of consciousness. Shelley’s authorship, as any author’s might, functions as the interpretation of the social mores of her day, even when judgments as to the exact nature of insensitivity are difficult to define and comprehend.

The form of Transformation is certainly worthy of note. To read it in a day or two sitting as a compact version of the Frankenstein story is to experience in real time the vivid power of language. Written in the first-person, the first few acts consist of Guido “telling” us about the horror he has caused, a combination of conveyed events with heartfelt confessionals that read like intense poetry.

“I arrived in Genoa. I trod the pavement of my ancestral palace. My proud step was no interpreter of my heart, for I deeply felt that, though surrounded by every luxury, I was a beggar. The first step I took in claiming Juliet must widely declare me such. I read contempt or pity in the looks of all. I fancied that rich and poor, young and old, all regarded me with derision. Torella came not near me. No wonder that my second father should expect a son’s deference from me in waiting first on him. But, galled and stung by a sense of my follies and demerit, I strove to throw the blame on others.”

The language is dense and requires careful reading, yet when the moment arrives when he agonizes at sea, the sudden “showing” of the scene becomes impacting on the mind. We are treated to lustrous visuals along with a sense of alarm, thus drawing in the readership into the stakes of the story.

“Even now my heart fails within me when I recur to this rout of grim-visaged ideas. Now subdued almost to tears, now raving in my agony, still I wandered along the rocky shore, which grew at each step wilder and more desolate. Hanging rocks and hoar precipices overlooked the tideless ocean; black caverns yawned; and for ever, among the seaworn recesses, murmured and dashed the unfruitful waters.”

The key formulaic detail that alters the text from condensed story-telling to the sudden feeling of immersion is found in the dialogue, and the effect which reflects the very title itself becomes complete. The story literally “transforms” from the diegetic to the mimetic, serving to move a claustrophobic texture to that which is open and breathable, allowing for a lightening of the mind, a chance to ride the wave of the plot-line.

Transformation stands in opposition to Frankenstein when the ending unfolds, and for this we are thankful. The sense of tragedy that clung to the lives of people before and during the Victorian Era is hard to fathom — Chartism was a nightmare, civil rights were unheard of, children had it very rough, and the continual presence of death from disease, most notably in tuberculosis among others, must have been a nuisance. To read then a story in which a protagonist changes his ways to become a better person is the kind of writing of which, if Shelley was a conduit of the times, then what she gave back was the notion that matters do not have to remain as they stand.


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Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Essay, 1967. UbuWeb, 2019.

Jones, Howard Mumford. Introduction. Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding, 1742. The Modern Library, Random House, Inc., 1939.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. “Carmilla.” In a Glass Darkly. London, 1872.

Scott, Sarah. Millenium Hall. London, 1762.

Shelley, Mary. “Transformation.” The Keepsake. London, 1831.

Wilde, Oscar. “Birthday of the Infanta.” A House of Pomegranates. London, 1891.

Sharp Objects (2006)

The expert magician knows how to keep his audience focused on a specific object, so as to allow for his magic trick to unfold with precision, in a different part of the visual spectrum he represents, mind you. And so it is with the writer of mysteries, coloring her linguistic canvas with red herring detours of plot so that by the end of her novel, one can only blame oneself for the outcome they didn’t see coming.

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is just such the novel, going so far as to take a page from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to secure that which was unexpected, whether intentionally or not. Even as I suspected from the outset a certain character’s dubious disposition, I have to admit that I, too, was taken in by the element of surprise in the final act, though it’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s what Flynn would’ve wanted. Of course, what followed was the observation of all the markers, replete with the feeling that it all should’ve been so obvious.

With that we have Flynn’s debut into the world of genre writing, impressive as it is. Following on the success of the movie adaptation of her third novel Gone Girl (2012), Sharp Objects was filmed as a ten-part series for HBO, and it was through this medium that I was driven to read the novel, because after the third episode, I was no longer able to allow myself to get strung along for another car ride with a spaced out Amy Adams.

What unfolded was that I had been, indeed, drawn in to reading a genre novel, but additionally, that I was reading something that was slightly more introspective than other genre novels that I’ve read. While the immediate claim is that the protagonist is the subject of focus for her inability to commit to a relationship, the writing does well to delve into the psychological underpinnings which facilitate the issue. Big time money in a small town, hellish coping mechanisms, drug abuse and peer-pressure are among the list of factors which contribute to the murder of two young girls.

If anything, Flynn provides an excellent contribution of thought to the realm of actual police detective work. Throughout the novel, Detective Richard Willis repeatedly insists that he is looking at anyone and everyone, and that it could be an outsider or a local, some transient or even a family member. It points to notions of seeking truth and justice in a manner that is not rushed and hurried; guilt can only be determined by the facts, and when the facts are slim, the need for patience is key. Sharp Objects is nearly an ode to the hundreds even thousands of those who have been wrongfully convicted by pressured detectives in a hurry to solve a case.

Stylistically speaking, Flynn’s novel moves at steady pace that is in keeping with the fundamentals of standard novel writing, though it must be stated, that the final reveal was out-of-step and awkward. Flynn offers insight into the writing process in her “Acknowledgements,” in which she states that she had “whittled” the book into shape. Multiple readers and readings were involved, along with law enforcement and medical consultations. The ending in this light seems to indicate the desire she had simply to finish the book.

At its heart, Sharp Objects is a “page-turner,” the craft of which is an important one to learn for the aspiring writer in this day and age, for as Stephen King once put it, loosely quoting, “literary fiction no longer sells.”

In the case of this novel, the introspective edge allowing for a glimpse into the darker behaviors of humankind render it something of a unique addition to the genre canon, for make no mistake, Sharp Objects is dark reading. Its tantalizing depiction of rural American Midwest evokes sensations of wariness as to its inhabitants, prompting Flynn herself to remark concerning people she knew in Missouri, of whom she was happy to say “were absolutely no inspiration for the characters in this book.”

Sharp Objects, most pointedly (pardon the pun), draws attention to one of the more confounding of teenage defense mechanisms against the world which traumatizes them. It’s no spoiler to highlight how the protagonist Camille Preaker is a “cutter,” someone who cuts themselves in superficial fashion so as to block the pain of a particular reality. Camille’s distinct style of cutting involves the inscribing of words into her flesh, providing a curious linguistic tension to what is already harrowing authorship. But when we consider the thought of one of our young loved ones taking a razor or a knife, or any “sharp object” to their flesh, it forces us to register, in all the wrong ways, just how painful certain experiences can be for young people. Sharp Objects lays bare what the world can do to the teenage mind, allowing us to consider more thoughtfully how to respond to someone who is young and experiencing trauma.

The Voyage Out (1915)

If any one sentence could describe Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (originally entitled Melymbrosia), it might read, “It’s the book with a protagonist that doesn’t realize it has a protagonist.” I attribute this description to the writing style Woolf applies to her debut narrative form, a kind of specialized version of the third-person omniscient that is observed by one encyclopedia, “While Joyce and Faulkner separate one character’s interior monologues from another’s, Woolf’s narratives move between inner and outer and between characters without clear demarcations” (Source). It is an odd way of writing, but something to be appreciated for its drive to break the so-called “rules” of writing.

The Voyage Out, I must admit, sat on my bookcase for nine years. I bought it believing that I was going to dive right in, joining the ranks of those who’ve been enlightened by the majestic insight that precedes Woolf’s reputation. And then my undergraduate courses began, where I was charged with the task of reading Mrs Dalloway (1925); although it was homework, I simply couldn’t finish it. And after racing through To the Lighthouse (1927), I realized The Voyage Out might be shelved unattended to for quite some time. Woolf’s literary accomplishments may be fascinations of genius, but are nonetheless an acquired taste.

The day finally arrived, however, eight years later, when I sensed that I would have to give The Voyage Out some attention, and I’m glad I did. As it turns out, because it was her first novel, it’s been dubbed the simpler of her works (remarkable in and of itself since it went through seven drafts). As Pagan Harleman tells us, since “Woolf was still writing under the shadow of E.M. Forster and the traditional novel, she was not ready for new terrain. One can see her experimenting, slowly honing the style that was to become her hallmark, but where later she was fearless, here she is tentative, depending on plot, not style, to drive the narrative” (XIII). For this fact I am grateful. I was able to experience the beauty and power of Woolf’s ingenuity and prowess with something like a standard narrative to carry me through.

The surprise came when I discovered how the story does not take place in England, which contributed to my enthusiasm to continue reading. Of course, Woolf’s characteristic style stood out immediately, the intricacies of human behavior, emotions described with such poetic clarity, all replete with commentaries on the conditions and idiosyncrasies of English life at the time.

But the story initiates with adventures at sea, the described intensity of the experience intermixed with character activities and reactions that read with a subtle realism that made it hard to believe the authoress had never actually traveled on a ship. When we reach the fictional town of Santa Marina, South America, her descriptive power intensifies, with every conceivable detail attended to with visceral prose that is remarkable to absorb; there is something oddly otherworldly in the notion in how The Voyage Out stands as her “simpler” work, yet requires such keen perception to comprehend the profundity of the writing present within its pages.

The young Rachel Vinrace is the centerpiece of the story but as mentioned, Woolf’s version of the third-person omniscient kept the form from focusing tightly on her. We’re met with an assortment of characters and with them, Woolf brings forth their behaviors and emotions with every mention, distracting us from Rachel’s plot line. The form is so very unusual, abstract and yet revealing for the multitude of ideas Woolf desires to impart, aside from simply telling a story. Luckily for the readership, she is so gifted that the style is not bothersome, much to the extent that the joy of reading is not hindered at all. She even manages to employ that traditionally English writing habit of inserting epigrams, for example telling us that when matters pertain to love, how “That, of course, was what came of looking forward to anything; one was always disappointed” (Woolf 271).

The temptation stands to try and identify the downsides of The Voyage Out, but there are none; great writers often begin their careers with works that are subject to the arrows of criticism (though hers was met with a fair amount of praise). For instance, the English characters are followed throughout the narrative with great avidity while the native peoples of Santa Marina take a serious backseat; the primary peripheral characters are many and they drift in and out so that it’s sometimes difficult to discern them from one another when conversations and descriptions are taking place; and for as thick as the book is, what we learn of Rachel is borderline deficient — but not to the detriment of the novel. To be sure, the novel’s defects are what seem to be the very attributes which render it an exceptional work of literature, its “downsides” to be wholly forgiven.

This may be in addition due to its most peculiar aspect: interwoven throughout its shifting panoramic form there flows a love story. Rachel has been described with the appropriate amount of characterization so that when the moment arrives when we learn how she feels, we find our spirits moved with a sense of intrigue. She’s naïve to the world because of her upbringing, but she is a prodigy at the piano; she’s vulnerable enough to allow the actions of certain people to overwhelm her, but she holds her own when the time comes for intelligent conversation; and she’s old enough to know how marriage is that daunting institution of the unknown, yet her youthful spirit endows her with the inspiration to explore what it might be all about for herself. Rachel’s character development is truly a marvel, because we learn just enough about her to feel that she could be a person taken from the pages of real life.

The finalizing factor that bolsters the novel’s integrity rest not entirely in how the plot line concludes (no spoilers here), because that would’ve been a drastic cliché. It’s in the emotive type of nonchalance that fill the many pages that follow these climactic circumstances that do the grabbing. Where the distracting shifts between characters had once been something of an authorial curiosity, the form appears to have been a strategical maneuver all along. People have to go on with their lives, and of these feelings we are shown. It seems that in reality, we can never tell how people truly feel under such conditions, but with the natural gift of Woolf’s writing, we get as close to the real thing as can possibly be imagined, given especially that such realities can be both heartbreaking as they are unsettling in a disturbing kind of way. With this kind of writing, we can look across the room at someone we love and not only want to reach out and hug them, but we can come a touch closer to understanding them so that we can love them even more.

Harleman, Pagan. Introduction. The Voyage Out. Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. 1915. Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Matthew Gregory Lewis on the Nature of Writing and Criticism

“I was going to say that you cannot employ your time worse than in making verses. An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom every body is privileged to attack: for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them. A bad composition carries with it its own punishment – contempt and ridicule. A good one excites envy, and entails upon its author a thousand mortifications: he finds himself assailed by partial and ill-humoured criticism: one man finds fault with the plan, another with the style, a third with the precept which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing the author. They maliciously rake out from obscurity every little circumstance which may throw ridicule upon his private character or conduct, and aim at wounding the man since they cannot hurt the writer. In short, to enter the lists of literature is willfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment. Whether you write well or ill, be assured that you will not escape from blame.”

– Matthew G. Lewis