Study Guide

The Voyage Out

by Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The sad overtones of this novel’s beginning concern Helen Ambrose’s departure from London, where she is leaving her two young children because she and her husband, Ridley Ambrose, are sailing to an unnamed resort on the South American coast, where they will spend the winter season. The omniscient narrator tells the reader that, as they walk through an ugly, industrialized London, Helen’s mind—filled with “misery for her children, the poor, the rain”—“was like a wound exposed to dry in the air.” By the novel’s end, this wound will be opened again by the death of Rachel Vinrace.

The Ambroses are going to sail on the cargo ship Euphrosyne, owned by Willoughby Vinrace, Helen’s brother-in-law, who plans to sail on to the Congo region after allowing the Ambroses to disembark at their resort. Also on board is Vinrace’s daughter Rachel, who is, except for her talent as a pianist, a nondescript young woman when Helen meets her, though “she might be interesting” if she “were ever to think, feel, laugh, or express herself,” Helen thinks. Rachel plans to travel to the Congo with her father—until Helen proposes that her niece stay with her and Ridley at the resort. Rachel hesitantly agrees to Helen’s plan, but her father is more enthusiastic because he believes that Helen, his dead wife’s sister, could help him by helping Rachel, by “bringing her out,” by “making a woman of her, the kind of woman her mother would have liked her to be....” (Vinrace intends to go into politics after he returns to London, and he wants to be able to depend upon Rachel to entertain his “constituents,” to “be of great help” to him; in short, he wants his daughter to be “a Tory hostess.”) Helen’s plan is to help Rachel become a thinking individual. Thus, the literal “voyage out” lasts four weeks and ends where Rachel’s voyage of individuation toward authentic selfhood begins.

Helen, Ridley, and Rachel are at the resort only a short time before the two women become friends with several people staying in a hotel down the hill from the Ambroses’ villa; the two most important of these new friends are St. John Hirst, a scholar from Oxford, and his friend Terrence Hewet, an aspiring novelist. Hirst, who perceives most women as “objects,” finds unexpected pleasure in talking with Helen, though he finds Rachel annoyingly unthinking and unread. Hewet’s relationship with Rachel is based upon an intuitive and emotional, rather than intellectual, understanding, and he spends much time defending Hirst to her, assuaging the pain and anger she feels as a result of various insulting and condescending comments Hirst makes to her, and helping her to look at herself...

(The entire section is 1113 words.)

The Voyage Out Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In London, Helen and Ridley Ambrose board the Euphrosyne, which will take them to Santa Marina in South America, where they plan to vacation. On board the ship, the Ambroses meet their niece, Rachel, whose father owns the ship and whom they have not seen in several years, and Mr. Pepper, an old family friend. The ship is soon under way, and as they sail, Helen studies her companions. She judges Rachel to be unformed, a character defect she attributes to her sheltered existence; Pepper she considers somewhat of a bore.

Rachel is indeed an unformed young woman. Her mother is dead, and she lives with her aunts and is seldom in society. She knows virtually nothing of the relations between men and women and has no confidants; her questions such as “Are you fond of your sister?” are judged inappropriate by her aunts and left unanswered. The things she does hear her aunts discuss seem to Rachel to have nothing to do with life. She deduces that no one ever says anything they mean or talks about anything they have felt. By the age of twenty-four, Rachel is confused but wondering and inarticulate about her feelings and observations. Unable to express her inner life through language, she instead plays the piano, believing that music expresses all the things one means and feels but cannot talk about.

While the ship is in port at Lisbon, Willoughby Vinrace, ashore on business, learns that an English couple have overwhelmed his clerk with their persistence and won a short passage aboard the Euphrosyne. The presence of the Dalloways introduces quite a change into the group. Clarissa energetically and skillfully fosters conversations and shows interest in everyone; Richard enthusiastically and sincerely discusses his political ideals.

The short time spent with the Dalloways affects Rachel profoundly. The couple talk with her about art, sexism, suffering, and making the world better for the poor. One day, during a storm, Richard kisses Rachel while they are alone together. Rachel has never been kissed, and the experience bewilders and terrifies her. Soon after this incident, the Dalloways depart. Helen perceives a change in her niece and is determined to learn the cause, suspecting that it has something to do with the Dalloways. When Rachel blurts out that Richard kissed her and tells the effect the kiss had on her, Helen realizes the depth of Rachel’s ignorance about sexual matters and attempts to illuminate her.

In her new, self-appointed role as Rachel’s...

(The entire section is 1028 words.)