Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In one of her most famous pronouncements on the nature of fiction—as a practicing critic, she had much to say on the subject—Virginia Woolf insists that “life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” In an ordinary day, she argues, “thousands of ideas” course through the human brain; “thousands of emotions” meet, collide, and disappear “in astonishing disorder.” Amid this hectic interior flux, the trivial and the vital, the past and the present, are constantly interacting; there is endless tension between the multitude of ideas and emotions rushing through one’s consciousness and the numerous impressions scoring on it from the external world. Thus, even personal identity becomes evanescent, continually reordering itself as “the atoms of experiencefall upon the mind.” It follows, then, that human beings must have great difficulty communicating with one another, for of this welter of perceptions that define individual personality, only a tiny fraction can ever be externalized in word or gesture. Yet, despite—in fact, because of—their frightening isolation as unknowable entities, people yearn to unite both with one another and with some larger pattern of order hidden behind the flux, to experience time standing still momentarily, to see matches struck that briefly illuminate the darkness.

Given the complex phenomenon of human subjectivity, Woolf asks, “Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spiritwith as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?” The conventional novel form is plainly inadequate for such a purpose, she maintains. Dealing sequentially with a logical set of completed past actions that occur in a coherent, densely detailed physical and social environment, presided over by an omniscient narrator interpreting the significance of it all, the traditional novel trims and shapes experience into a rational but falsified pattern. “Is life like this?” Woolf demands rhetorically. “Must novels be like this?”

In Woolf’s first two books, nevertheless, she attempted to work within conventional modes, discovering empirically that they could not convey her vision. Although in recent years some critics have defended The Voyage Out and Night and Day as artistically satisfying in their own right, both novels have generally been considered interesting mainly for what they foreshadow of Woolf’s later preoccupations and techniques.

The Voyage Out

The Voyage Out is the story of Rachel Vinrace, a naïve and talented twenty-four-year-old amateur pianist who sails from England to a small resort on the South American coast, where she vacations with relatives. There, she meets a fledgling novelist, Terence Hewet; on a pleasure expedition up a jungle river, they declare their love. Shortly thereafter, Rachel falls ill with a fever and dies. The novel’s exotic locale, large cast of minor characters, elaborate scenes of social comedy, and excessive length are all atypical of Woolf’s mature work. Already, however, many of her later concerns are largely emerging. The resonance of the title itself anticipates Woolf’s poetic symbolism; the “voyage out” can be the literal trip across the Atlantic or up the South American river, but it also suggests the progression from innocence to experience, from life to death, which she later depicts using similar water imagery. Her concern with premature death and how survivors come to terms with it prefigures Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves . Most significant is her portrayal of a world in which characters are forever striving to overcome their isolation from one another. The ship on which Rachel “voyages out” is labeled by Woolf an “emblem of the loneliness of human life.” Terence, Rachel’s lover, might be describing his creator’s own...

(The entire section is 8,027 words.)