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.

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Our Beloved Authors

Call it author irony, or the writer’s paradox, but at its root the phenomenon of the existence of great literary works whose creators have endured hard times, or met with tragic ends, is something marveling, if not deeply unsettling to comprehend. One of the greatest known examples of this kind would have to be the writing of Wuthering Heights (1847), and the subsequent passing of its ever-too-young authoress, Emily Brontë. It seems she had been put on this earth for the sole purpose of writing this novel, and yet her story stands among many others whose lives of writing fell under similar kinds of circumstances.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Because of the infancy in the field of medicine, Mary Shelley was beset by the loss of her children in life, with only one to survive into adulthood. She was lucky that she herself did not die giving birth, like that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the famous feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), who died within days of giving birth to her. With praise that is, at this point, beyond calculation, Mary Shelley is famous for her opus magnum Frankenstein (1818/1831). Yet her efforts as an author are overshadowed by this masterstroke of genius, since she rarely receives credit due for her immense contribution to the field of writing and publishing in general. Yet it is primarily because of her cautionary tale, written with such terror and love for the craft, that she is truly one of literature’s beloved authors, which is why the end of her life seems so tragic. As the Victorian Web tells us, by the time she reached the eldest of her years, she had “lost her will to live” (Source).

Herman Melville (1847–1891)

Herman Melville was a thoughtful, thoughtful man, evidenced in his highly elaborate narrative technique. It seems each and every sentence he ever wrote was endowed with the power of extreme perception, all the more genius in the uncanny notion that he was able to write what he did without the help of a word processor. The creator of America’s greatest novel is another one of those authors of whom, their many other works are dwarfed by the power of their masterpiece, and yet we find melancholy and even sadness in how the man was hardly praised during his day. He looked for jobs like the rest of us, working as a customs inspector for many years to support his family. In spite of his literary output, and whatever contemporary critical acclaim he did manage to attain, his passing evoked but a “single obituary notice” (Source).

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)

The powerhouse writer who produced Don Quixote (1605-1620) once served in the Spanish Navy Marines, but when he was captured by Ottoman pirates, it was his family who paid his ransom after five miserable years, not the Spanish government. It was later that this same government imprisoned him, though it was this very imprisonment which engendered the impetus to create what would go on to become — the novel of all novels. Sadly, “No graciousness descended on Cervantes’s domestic life” (Source). He faced hardship with his family, and though Don Quixote was a success as a publication, copyrights during the age did not work in his favor. The message that Cervantes sends to aspiring writers lay in the scale of his creative output, which began for him at the age of 57, serving to show that no matter the age, it’s never too late to get on the ball and get that novel written. What aspiring writers can also take from the life of Cervantes is that the life of a writer is not an easy one at all.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

My edition of the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe feels like a brick when I hold it. And the font size is tiny. The man passed from this world at the age of 40, which is all to suggest that it was within this brief span of time that Poe produced literature to voluminous effect. We know that he paid to have his first works published, inspiration for Indie Publishers everywhere, but we also know that he struggled financially throughout most of his life. Poe was a gentle man who suffered loss after terrible loss, of the women he loved, and he died under conditions of poverty in the most abysmal of ways. To be simple-minded and non-intellectual in my commentary, I can only remark that it just doesn’t seem fair!

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

To say that Sylvia Plath was brilliant would be an understatement. Natural poetry and prose poured forth from her mind like pure water bubbles from a spring in the mountains. Her case is tragic because she was caught in a time when the odds were stacked against her. Simply speaking, she wanted to write creatively, and she did anything she could to that end, including the rejection of a scholarly career. Her husband left her with two children to care for, and it was at this point that she seemed on the verge of throwing her hands up about it, though we are lucky she did not do so before the writing of The Bell Jar (1963). Plath suffered from depression and her situation, living in London alone with her children, struggling to pay bills, pushed her to the limit. She had a passion for producing literature, but it was the inhospitable life of a writer that drove her to the end. We all feel that her suicide was unnecessary, but we are stuck with the reality of a bitter world and by proxy, the incapability of changing what happens in that world.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

What more can be said about the great Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway? Every writer who has ever lived wishes they could possess even a fraction of his talent. More so, his life stands at the pinnacle of author intrigue and excitement. He worked tirelessly as a journalist, saw the front lines in both world wars, traveled vastly, wrote seemingly until his fingers bled, and was published to great critical acclaim. His literary output is so impressive that to encapsulate it all within a series of blog posts would be a massive undertaking in and of itself. Which is why the downturn of his life is so inexplicable. After seeing so much, learning so much, experiencing so much, and influencing so much, the tragedy of Hemingway’s end is something that will never meet with a proper sense of understanding, and as mentioned elsewhere, it just doesn’t seem right.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Breaking ground, startling the modern world with a new “stream of consciousness” writing, Virginia Woolf lived the quintessential life of a writer. She started newspapers and literary clubs, ran publishing ventures and completed novels, all the while voicing pro-women’s rights during an age when the understanding of what civil rights even meant was an abstraction. It was an emotionally trying life, bolstered by complications of a sexual identity element and its association to public affairs. By virtue of the nightmarish international world of turbulence around her, Woolf came to connect “masculine symbols of authority with militarism and misogyny, an argument buttressed by notes from her clippings about aggression, fascism, and war” (Source), and with the English way of life under a direct Nazi threat, the turmoil took its toll. We want to imagine how strong people can become, the super men and women of whom we look up to, yet we sometimes fail to see the perplexing conundrum that is the often fragile nature of the human condition.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

The wit of Oscar Wilde is only paralleled by the way it tends to mirror what it reveals in ourselves. Wilde’s seemingly cavalier way of drawing out the nature of self-truth, the abyss no one dares to look into, means that we owe him a debt for revealing it for us. In spite of it all, I like to think of Wilde as having utterly and completely refined the linguistic style of the Victorian Era. To read Wilde is like the partaking of a filet mignon with fine red wine at a five star restaurant. Wilde shows us that reading can be both pleasurable and didactic at the same time. “However, due to his sexuality, he suffered the indignity and shame of imprisonment. For a long time, his name was synonymous with scandal and intrigue” (Source). It is harrowing to imagine that he was exiled. He came to wander the streets of Paris alone where, after having written with such impressive prowess for so many years, he died a broken man.

Considering Character

In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924), Virginia Woolf applies her sensational style of prose to argue that the art of novel writing should begin with the character. Her argument is based on her understanding of literary trends and conventions, that the need for new conventions was urgent during the era in which she wrote. The Mrs. Brown of her title is in fact symbolic for this new way of writing. Deriving from an experience in which Woolf observed an interactive, somewhat dramatic episode between a man and an old woman on a train, she endowed the woman with a fictitious name and used it to symbolize the character of a novel in general. Her point was that previous writing trends tended to focus on the thematic, at the expense of character development, or on a more general level, the novel’s  formal qualities. The distinction suggests a sort of coldness that can be attributed to the thematic writers, the Edwardians who have “never once looked at Mrs. Brown in her corner” (Woolf 33). For Woolf, the novel is a personal space, and Mrs. Brown is the emblem of human nature that occupies that space, the meeting point in which a reader comes to relate to her subject, because they are both human.

virginia_woolf

Woolf read her essay aloud to The Heretics Club of Cambridge, England, obviously during a period of incredible awareness as to the evolving nature of literature. Woolf’s ideas are centered in progress and the advent of modernism, the break from conservative literary scholars who felt that novel writing could be bound by tradition. While Henry James once wrote along the same lines, that the art of novel writing cannot be tied down by conventional constraints, Woolf’s ideas on creating and exploring character would come to change the novel forever, much as she had hoped.

Woolf, Virginia. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. First Edition. Eds.  Hoffman, Michael J., and Patrick D. Murphy. Duke University Press (Tx), 1988. Print.