Virginia Woolf believed that most individuals are not static personalities, but are instead fluid and subject to constant changes in being and perception. Most frequently, these changes in personality are brought about—as Woolf was to illustrate most clearly in The Waves (1931)—by other personalities. In Rachel Vinrace, Woolf created the embodiment and expression of the fluid personality. Yet, as a major character, Rachel is unbelievable, seeming more like a bundle of vulnerable ganglia through which pass an almost overwhelming amount of formless sensations. Furthermore, without Helen, Hirst, and Hewet in the story to shape Rachel by helping her to order her thoughts and sensations, she would remain ill-defined.
That Rachel will learn to be a more thinking and independent individual is never in question. Rachel’s growth is predictably the novel’s central focus because, with the exception of her and Helen, all the other characters introduced in the first eighty-five pages are static and essentially flat—including Rachel’s father and Helen’s husband (Woolf dispenses with the former after he and his ship have served their purpose in moving the major characters from Britain to South America, and she dispenses with the latter by isolating him in a room of his villa where he supposedly spends all of his time editing Pindar’s poetry). In fact, even though this story is told by an omniscient narrator who is privy to the past, present, and future details of all the characters’ lives, while on board the Euphrosyne only Helen and her niece are portrayed as possessing engagingly conflicting emotions.
In portraying Rachel as essentially nondescript and thus accepting the artistic task of forcing this young woman to go through a profound transformation, Woolf needed another character-as-catalyst to help her accomplish her task: Hirst, the most ego-centered, pretentious, self-righteously outspoken and unlikable character ever portrayed in her fiction. “Ugly...
(The entire section is 816 words.)