Summary

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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 objectively and even laugh at herself.

The bulk of this novel consists of conversations and thoughts-as-action, since hardly any noteworthy physical activity takes place in the story. Since this story is essentially Rachel’s, the most significant conversations center on her intellectual and personal development; for example, one of the many lockstep attitudes which she holds, and which Helen and Hirst force her to consider and question, concerns her religious faith. Her new critical perspective causes her, first, “acute discomfort” while she is in church. Then, as she looks around her at “people pretending to feel what they did not feel” and presumably did not think about, she experiences a violent emotion and “rejected all that she had before implicitly believed.” Yet, in both Helen and Hirst, Rachel gradually perceives an overemphasis upon the intellect at the expense of feeling; a natural consequence of her own intellectual growth is not only her scrutiny...

(This entire section contains 1113 words.)

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of them as individuals but also her rebellion against them and what she perceives as their unbalanced lives. Thus, late in the novel, Rachel turns upon Helen and says, “You’re like Mr. Hirst. You see that things [in life] are bad, and you pride yourself on saying so.... You’re only half alive....” Since Helen views herself, to a great extent, as Rachel’s teacher and guide, when she is criticized by her niece she smiles “as if she rather enjoyed the attack.” Her enjoyment is derived from witnessing the emergence of Rachel’s independent self.

The three times in the story in which noteworthy physical activity occurs represent important moments of growth or transition for Rachel. The first, a daylong expedition to the top of a mountain for a picnic arranged by Hewet, proves to be important because Rachel and Hewet discover between them binding affinities; the second, a dance that begins one evening and ends the following morning at dawn, permits Rachel the opportunity not only to perform on the piano for others but also to move beyond memorized musical structures and into improvisation; the third, an expedition of several days up a river into the heart of a jungle (where “MacKenzie, the famous explorer, had died of fever”), becomes the occasion of Rachel’s formal engagement to Hewet and her contraction of the illness that will kill her—this is presumably the same “fever” that killed MacKenzie, Rachel’s kindred spirit in that they are both explorers, he of the external world and she of the internal one.

Although Hewet and Rachel’s feelings for Hewet are positive influences in her quest for greater self-knowledge, and although he is himself liberal-minded and, in theory at least, exceptional when compared to his British society because he believes that women should have rights equal to men’s, he is ultimately a traditionalist. Once they are formally engaged, because he is bothered by the “trash” she reads, he begins to dictate to her what she should read, as well as what—when they are in the same room—she should play on the piano. Hewet, like Rachel’s father, expects her to subordinate her individual tastes and desires to his. Furthermore, Rachel is portrayed as ultimately more self-contained as an individual than Hewet. She intends to marry him although she knows that their marriage will be a ceaseless struggle “for mastery” and that they “will never have,” as Hewet says, “a moment’s peace.” It is clear that the struggle would be an essential condition of their marriage because of what Hewet himself is unable to accept: “She seemed to be able to cut herself adrift from him, and to pass away to unknown places where she had no need of him. The thought roused his jealousy.” Ultimately, she does “pass away” before they are married, and the last glimpse the reader is given of Hewet is of a man broken by grief and hysterically shouting, “Rachel, Rachel!”

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