The Voyage Out

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by Anthony Domestico

Virginia Woolf began her first novel sometime during the summer of 1906 or the fall of 1907, and did not finish it until nearly nine years later in the first year of World War I on March 26, 1915.[1] Originally entitled “Melymbrosia,” the work underwent a number of technical and thematic changes during its long gestation, as Woolf pruned away autobiographical parallels and struggled to find a voice and style that would balance social critique and a nuanced portrayal of the vicissitudes of consciousness.


Many parallels exist between this, Woolf’s apprentice novel, and her later, mature works, at the level of character, scene, and style. When Woolf describes Ridley, the classical scholar and poet, as similar to “a commander surveying a field of battle, or a martyr watching the flames lick his toes” (98), one cannot help but think of the domineering, self-pitying intellectual nature of Mr. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse.[2] The great scene in which Rachel, Hewet, and the other picnic goers direct the frenzied ants’ movements in God-like implacability (134) seems to presage Lily Briscoe similarly ordering and disordering the microworld of insects by “rais[ing] a little mountain for the ants to climb over” (197), “reduc[ing] them to a frenzy of indecision by this interference in their cosmogony” (197-198). Finally, the temporary unity wrought of disparate people and forces at the picnic, the ordered but necessarily transient sense of community and communication that exists between the aloof Hirst, the romantic and temperamental Evelyn, the prissy Mrs. Eliot, and others (134), reminds one of Mrs. Dalloway’s triumphant dinner and Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to bring together the many strands of her social existence into brief coherence at a meal. From the beginning, Woolf displayed the preoccupations – the need of the masculine intellect to subjugate all in its path, the creation and dissolution of order and form in both social and aesthetic existence – that she would more fully develop in her later works.

Woolf’s representation of consciousness within her first novel is certainly less audacious than in her later work; it was arguably not until Jacob’s Room that Woolf would so expertly track, as Auerbach writes, “the flow and the play of consciousness adrift in the current of changing impressions."[3] Even within The Voyage Out, however, we can see Woolf begin to experiment – with narrative perspective, with dream-states in which the mind is in inexorable flux, and, most importantly, with free indirect style – in ways that foreshadow her later nonpareil tracing of the mind in thought.
In particular, perspective and distance play a great role in the representation of character and mind throughout the novel. As Rachel’s ship moves away towards South America, the passengers take a far different view of England and the urban life than when they were in its midst: “Not only did it appear to them to be an island, and a small island, but it was a shrinking island in which people were imprisoned” (32). Distance gives a new perspective; we can see the destabilizing tendencies of modernism – its questioning of Europe as the essential center of world culture, its interest in how a certain angle of vision shapes subjectivity – begin to appear. Similarly, while thinking in South America of the Cambridge intellectuals that he oftentimes finds so spiritually desiccated and loathsome, Hirst thinks, “Far away on the other side of the world as they were, in smoky rooms, and grey medieval courts, they appeared remarkable figures, free-spoken men with whom one could be at ease; incomparably more subtle in emotion than the people here” (208). Hirst’s fellow scholars can be admired only at a remove: it is precisely because their image is smoky, grey, unclear, that they appear clever, sophisticated, delightful. As Lily Briscoe later thinks in To The Lighthouse, “So much depends…upon distance."[4] Woolf realized the perspectival nature of reality even within her comparatively conservative first effort.


Despite this connection, the sharp distinction between Woolf’s early and late stages can be seen in the end of the novel’s second chapter, after Helen Ambrose has seen Rachel lying, dreaming, in an apparently inviting and vulnerable position within her room on the ship: “The sight gave rise to reflections. Mrs. Ambrose stood thinking for at least two minutes. She then smiled, turned noiselessly and went, lest the sleeper should waken, and there should be the awkwardness of speech between them” (37). Thought is blaringly announced rather than quietly portrayed; two minutes of thinking are condensed and elided rather than expanded and exposed. The closest we get to stream-of-consciousness, as critic James Wood points out, is when another character, Clarissa Dalloway, begins to think of Pascal and her husband before drifting off to sleep: “She then fell into a sleep, which was as usual extremely sound and refreshing; but, visited by fantastic dreams of great Greek letters stalking round the room, she woke up and laughed to herself, remembering where she was and that the Greek letters were real people, lying asleep not many yards away” (52). Again, thought is not given free play but is stringently reined in; as Wood writes, “Random thought, at this stage in Woolf’s career, can only exist as drowsiness or as dream. It is not yet daydreaming. In this first novel, if you forget yourself, you must fall asleep” (113). Untrammeled thought as falling within the province of sleep and liminal psychic space rather than everyday reality: this is a far cry from Mrs. Ramsay’s mind traveling over expansive spaces while performing the most mundane of tasks.


Where Woolf seems boldest, however, and where we can see signs of the technical mastery that is to come, is in Woolf’s occasional use of free indirect style. Sometimes she uses this technique as a Flaubertian tool of irony, exposing the distance between her characters’ thoughts and her own, as when describing the Emma Bovary-like romantic dreams of Evelyn: “‘D’you think Garibaldi was ever up here?’ she asked Mr. Hirst. Oh, if she had been his bride! If, instead of a picnic party, this was a party of patriots, and she, red-shirted like the rest, had lain among grim men, flat on the turf, aiming her gun at the white turrets beneath them, screening her eyes to pierce through the smoke” (130). More complexly, Woolf sometimes uses free indirect style to render the voice of the community and its standards, what Roland Barthes called the reference code. Here, we see the recently engaged Susan thinking: “Marriage, marriage, that was the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by every one she knew…” (179). This is Woolf’s subtlest melding of different voices within the novel. Woolf writes in the authorial third person, but the words appear to be Susan’s. Perhaps more accurately, the words seem to be those of the community and culture from which Susan comes. We thus have the language of the community filtered through Susan filtered through Woolf. Franco Moretti describes Jane Austen’s use of free indirect style as “the composed, slightly resigned voice of the well-socialized individual," a language “halfway between social doxa and the individual voice."[5] Even at this early stage, Woolf was accomplishing this balancing act between the voice of the community and the voice of the character. Her intermingling of voices would only become bolder in her future writing.



  1. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), p. 215.
  2. Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out )New York, Harcourt, Inc., 1920), p. 98. All subsequent references are to this edition.
  3. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 535.
  4. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1927), p. 191.
  5. Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (New York: Verso, 2005), p. 82.
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