7.18.2011

Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out

(Be wary of plot spoilers.)

The Voyage Out
is Woolf's first novel, and it is not brilliant. Indebted to Jane Austen, Forster, and other social realists, this novel attempts to analyze the marriage plot. Unfortunately, Woolf punts the opportunity, creating an uneven story and an aggravating ending. It begins beautifully with scenes of departure from London and intimations of great adventure aboard a stylish yacht bound for South America, but the plot soon takes a jaunt down hill. Rachel, a motherless young woman, is a boring spinster. She has no lust for life, no interest in the workings of the world, no talent for conversation, nothing bright about her personality, and no dreams. In other words, she's a far cry from Elizabeth Bennett and the Schlegal sisters. Perhaps Woolf wanted her to be the opposite of Elizabeth, Margaret and Helen, but the scenarios imposed upon herwould have been far more interesting - for us and for her - if she were more like them and less like a sour-faced bore.

In standard marriage plots, the heroine meets the hero, scuffles ensue, and it all ends well with marriage, but Woolf aims to subvert the plot and show that marriage is unnecessary. Rather than creating a woman who can function on her own, support herself, or at least has the relationship with her father to be able to resist the financial comfort of marriage, Woolf creates a dithering woman with no strength of character and few friends. If Rachel had been more like Elizabeth Bennett, perhaps the aim could have been accomplished. As Rachel stands, however, the only way to get her out of marriage is to have her die - very suddenly - of fever. When I got to that point, I almost pitched the book across the room. What a cop out! What a disappointment! I understand the challenges during this time of creating a heroine who can exist outside of marriage, but did Woolf have to kill her? At the very least, have the novel conclude in ambiguity so that the reader can speculate, to their comfort, on how it ended. It was upsetting and a waste of a good exposition.
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