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Review: "The Voyage Out" by Virginia Woolf

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The Voyage OutFirst published in 1915, The Voyage Out is Virginia Woolf's first novel.  It begins as Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose embark on a sea voyage for South America. Throughout their voyage and once they reach land there are many characters that float in and out of the text. Indeed, one is not sure who the main characters are until halfway through the novel. Clarissa and Richard Dalloway, the main characters of Woolf's later novel Mrs. Dalloway, even make an appearance.

Once reaching land, Mrs. Ambrose along with her niece, Rachel, explore the environs and make friends with other tourists--notably with two young men, Hewet and Hirst. Here these four friends form several intertwining and interesting relationships that guide us through the rest of the story.

Woolf's style is striking in the almost exclusive use of dialog interspersed with short, vivid descriptions of the characters' inner thoughts. Through this innovative style she is able to communicate, among many other things, a candid and realistic portrayal of the act of falling in love and all emotions that come along with it--heartbreak and loss, desire and contentment, longing and questioning, quiet happiness and quiet despair.

Several interesting details in the novel will strike the modern reader, such as the almost total absence of interaction with the natives. Geographically, the location is supposed to be near the Amazon river system, but Woolf has imagined an Amazon where the natives speak a mix of Spanish and French, the mountains rise majestically out of the sea, and one lights the fire after dinner. While Woolf can easily be criticized for neglecting to research the technical details and for writing only about the upper classes and their manias, to dwell on these issues would be entirely beside the point. E. M. Forster put it best when he described The Voyage Out as "...a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an America whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis." ('The Novels of Virginia Woolf', New Criterion, April 1926, 277.)

On a personal note, I'd like to say that my only previous experience with Woolf was reading Mrs. Dalloway for a class in college. Perhaps one must grow into reading Woolf, because I admit I remember almost nothing of this book except that it was boring and depressing. I picked up The Voyage Out expecting much of the same, but how wrong I was! This book is beautiful, one that you will remember long after you read it. I recommend it highly--but not too highly, as making your own discovery of its worth is part of the charm.


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