The Novels of Virginia Woolf #1: The Voyage Out

I’m doing an independent study for my graduate program – it’s just called “Virginia Woolf Independent Study.”  So the obsessive completist in me was like “I know I’ll just do what I did with Dostoevsky (i.e., read everything he wrote and blog about it) with Woolf.”  But that turns out to be way, way more than I could possibly complete.  There are 9 novels, 6 short story collections, 2 biographies (not counting Orlando, which I put under novels), 13 nonfiction works published as books, and then when it comes to modern compilations, there are 6 volumes of collected essays, 6 volumes of letters and 6 volumes of journals.  I.e., too much to do in any kind of time I have right now.

So instead I’m just focusing on the 9 novels, about half of which I’ve read before. I’m supposed to write 2-3 page response papers for each novel, so I’ll just put those up here in case you’re interested.  I have no particular approach to what I’ll write about – probably just first impressions or ideas for longer papers I could come back and write later (I need to write a longer term paper eventually).

I’ll be reading them chronologically, so I began with The Voyage Out.

The Voyage Out (here’s an online text) is a realist study of a group of expatriate British tourists in South America, but also a study in the aesthetics of writing and its relationship to music. We are given an in-depth look at the evolving relationship between Rachel Vinrace and Terence Hewet, a look that is both novelistic in its depiction of the dynamics of the couple’s courtship, but also symbolic of struggle between two modes of creative expression.  To advance both of these projects, Woolf’s text weaves a complicated tangle of both literary and musical allusions and references: foremost among these is Rachel Vinrace’s love a certain “very late Beethoven sonata” (ch xxii), the semi-fictional “opus 112,” (ch ii) a recurrent motif which reveals a structure of resonances which allow both the struggles of human relationships and reaction to tragic death, as well as the difficulty of the artistic creation of a satisfying ending that adequately reckons with the emotional issues raised therein.

In an early description of Rachel’s inner life, we are told that it is “inextricably mixed in dreamy confusion… with the spirit of Beethoven Op. 112” (ch ii).  This novel is chock full of allusions and references to works of literature and music, some fictional, others real.  “Beethoven Op. 112” lies between those categories: Beethoven is known to us, but there is no opus 112 (in the 1920 American edition, this was corrected to “111.”  It is almost as though by using 112, the narrative gives itself poetic license to idealize a late-Beethoven-like sonata, one it can narrate without being wedded to an actual antecedent.  As a reader who has listened to sonata Op 111 many times, I was left after this passage with it ringing in my ears through the rest of the book.  This is one of Beethoven’s final compositions, and wrestles through chromatic scale progressions that re-appropriate classical forms, moving toward moments of intense epiphany (Glenn Gould’s recording of its second movement captures this well).

Something else significant about opus 111 is that it is, in some sense, incomplete.  It consists of only two movements: an initial sonata-form allegro and a second variations-on-a-theme adagio, lacking the customary third, resolving rondo (the claim of its incompleteness is a matter of contention within Beethoven scholarship, but Beethoven is said to have announced that he “didn’t have time” to write a third).  Just the same, The Voyage Out is a story that would seem similarly to lack such a third movement: we have an introductory “voyage out,” then a lengthy middle section, punctuated by the death of Rachel, and a very brief denouement.  We might expect a return voyage to London, but instead we get only the barest suggestion of the future, and whatever peace Terence has come to is tenuous and fraught with unstable explosiveness.

The relationship between Rachel and Terence is, among other things, the intersection between a literary and a musical personality.  Their halting courtship includes several impassioned aesthetic discussions.  Right after Hewet “realised that, far from being unattractive, her body was very attractive to him,” Rachel says “why do you write novels?  You ought to write music.  Music goes straight for things.  It says all there is to say at once.  With writing it seems to me there’s so much… scratching on the match-box” (ch xvi).  We can read their ongoing discussion as something beyond the sympathetic portrayal of two awkward but sincere lovers (though it works very well at that level too): they are allowing the text to explore the nature of writing and its relationship to other art forms.  Their coming together is also Woolf’s bringing together of two approaches to creativity: the musical and literary.  Rachel’s commitment to musicality speaks to a lingering anxiety on the narrator’s part as to the inadequacy of so much “scratching on the match-box” instead of a work that “goes straight for things.”

After Rachel and Terence are engaged, we are given a scene with him writing and her playing: “Rachel said nothing.  Up and up the steep spiral of a very late Beethoven sonata she climbed, like a person ascending a ruined staircase, energetically at first, then more laborious advancing her feet with effort until she could go no higher and returned with a run to begin at the very bottom again” (ch. xxii).  This is undoubtedly a narrative description of Op. 111’s second movement, a adapted sarabande that ascends more and more rapidly, chromatically and with accelerating rhythmic augmentation to transcendent heights, and has only the briefest and least elaborated of codas.  The novel’s ante-penultimate chapter’s narration of the death of Rachel is an analogous sort of spiral: rather than an abrupt death like Mrs. Ramsey’s parenthesis or Septimus’s sudden leap, here, Rachel’s fading out from life ends in a moment that duplicates the feeling of the final bars of Beethoven’s Op 111 C-minor sonata.  As shocking and upsetting as that chapter is to read, it is also a profound meditation on just how beautiful and liberating, even while at the same time devastating and horrible, death can be for those who survive.

Rachel’s death punctuates the end of the story, though it lacks a balancing third part like we find in To the Lighthouse.  After Rachel dies, we read two more chapters that sublimate the musical urge to “go straight for things” into an act of literary accommodation.  Terence’s final, brief sensation that “nothing they could do would disturb his happiness” is met almost immediately with a terrifying moment that breaks through all his Victorian reserve: “‘Rachel! Rachel!’ He shrieked, trying to rush back to her.  But they prevented him, and pushed him down the passage and into a bedroom far from her room.  Downstairs they could hear the thud of his feet on the floor, as he struggled to break free; and twice they heard him shout ‘Rachel, Rachel!” (ch. xxv) We can read in this also Woolf’s own agony at a failure to discover a style that reconciles the literary and the musical, but also, as with Beethoven’s sonata, the sense that this non-ending somehow does justice to what has preceded it: death, especially the death of a young person, does suggest a well-formed coda.

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One Response to The Novels of Virginia Woolf #1: The Voyage Out

  1. Pingback: The Novels of Virginia Woolf #3: Jacob’s Room | Original Positions

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