The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Rachel Vinrace

Rachel Vinrace, the twenty-four-year-old protagonist, an intelligent and sensitive but only informally educated young woman. She plays the piano beautifully and has considerable musical talent but is socially innocent and naïve, with a weak face and a hesitant character. As an only child, she has led a sheltered life, having been reared primarily by her two unmarried aunts, her mother being dead and her father, Willoughby, a shipping magnate, being a very busy man of affairs. She has been kept ignorant of the relations between men and women. When introduced through her aunt and uncle into the society of Santa Marina, which consists of a group of Englishmen vacationing at the local resort hotel, she meets and falls in love with Hewet after a series of encounters initiated by an afternoon climbing expedition and later a ball. They become engaged during an expedition by boat up the river into the jungle. The main plot of the novel revolves around Rachel’s metaphorical “voyage out” from innocence to experience, from her initially naïve and unreflective state to a greater intellectual sophistication, her first experience of love, and finally her death from a fever, possibly contracted on the journey up the river.

Helen Ambrose

Helen Ambrose, Rachel’s aunt. She is forty years old, tall, and beautiful, not well educated formally but widely read and socially sophisticated. She and her husband, Ridley, a Cambridge scholar...

(The entire section is 607 words.)