Who’s haunted by Virginia Woolf


On one level Virginia Woolf’s first novel is essentially a poignant story of love and loss. On another it is an exploration of the working of human consciousness across a range of characters thrown together over a period of several months. The smaller group voyages across the Atlantic and takes up residence in a villa in a Latin-American town at the mouth of an unspecified great river in an unnamed county. They then form a larger group when they meet up with a randomly assembled coterie of British ex-patriates and holiday-makers in the town’s hotel.

Among these people are two couples who fall in love and others who search unsuccessfully for what they think – but are not quite sure – is love. Woolf’s journeys into the minds of her characters is rich in its observation of thoughts, half-thoughts and human emotions.

But there is a third level, the level which is the creation of the reader much more than it is the work of the author. Some books are like that. They are not just contained within the hard or soft covers of their binding. They are more than fiction. They are created in part by the reader – and sometimes long after they are written, completed for each new reader by the document of the life of the author which they constitute. So it is with The Voyage Out.

The emotion evoked by Virginia Woolf in the heartbreak denouement of The Voyage Out is powerful. But for a reader of the book reflecting on its biographical elements the impact is more powerful still. When we read, aware that the explorations of human consciousness within it is in large measure the consciousness of the tragically flawed author herself, then the pain of loss goes deeper still.

Reading texts, and reading into texts, are of course contentious issues. But we are what we are, the world is what it is and there is no escape from history, personal and otherwise. Professor Denis Donoghue, in his discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in The American Classics, remarks how his reading of the novel does not articulate a common sense of the book. Talk of sin, repentance, and confession is alien to the ‘spirit of the age’. I gather, on informal evidence, that most readers of the book take the book as a parable of civil disobedience and revere Hester for exemplifying it and for triumphing over a community they regard as undemocratic, ‘un-American’. He rejects such interpretations as reductionist and meretricious.

But reading The Voyage Out and responding to it in the way suggested is not interpreting it in a way which has no bearing on the meaning Woolf ascribed to it. It is simply bringing to it a consciousness of a reality which does have a bearing on the novel, namely the life and death of the author herself and in so doing experiencing a sense of tragedy which goes beyond the author’s intention.

The story told by Woolf is the story of young people falling in love and the story of abandonment of faith in God. Escaping a consciousness of the autobiographical and the biographical elements in a novel like this is well-nigh impossible. This is not a description of everything that Bloomsbury represented but it is a description of many things which contributed to what the Bloomsbury group became for the Moderns. It is not a story of decadence. But it is a story in which one sees the elements in a culture which were to lead to the destruction of the framework of faith in God which held a Judaeo-Christian civilization in place for thousands of years.

The loss of faith is as much a mystery as the gaining of faith. Rachel Vinrace, the central character in The Voyage Out has something of Virginia Woolf in her. A conversation takes place about one third of the way through the novel. Each of the characters is introducing themselves to the others when at one point in the process one of them says,

“That’s all very interesting… But of course we’ve left out the only questions that matter. For instance, are we Christians?”

“I am not,” “I am not,” both young men replied.

“I am,” Rachel stated.

“You believe in a personal God?” Hirst demanded, turning around and fixing here with his eyeglasses.

“I believe-I believe,” Rachel stammered, “I believe there are things we don’t know about, and the world might change in a minute and anything appear.”

At this Helen laughed outright. “Nonsense,” she said. “You’re not a Christian. You’ve never thought what you are.”

Towards the end of the novel Rachel agrees. She does so under the pressure of a religious experience with which she cannot cope – a mixture of bad preaching and what she sees as sanctimonious posturing by those around her. She has continued to attend church but on this occasion and in a fit of frustration born out of that failure she rebels against it all and is vehemently no longer a Christian or a believer.

Was this Woolf’s own passage to atheism? It may be significant that the Helen of the story is taken by many to be partly based on Woolf’s own sister, Vanessa. Was this conversation some version of an actual one between the sisters? Whatever the answer to that might be we cannot read this sad story of loss without bemoaning the destruction wrought by bad religion.

Romano Guardini writes:

As soon as a religious consciousness that preaches ‘pure doctrine’ comes into being, and with it an authority ready to spring to its defence, the danger of orthodoxy becomes acute. For what is orthodoxy but that attitude which considers obedience to the Law already salvation, and which would preserve the purity of the Law at all costs— even at the price of violence to the conscience?

The moment rules of salvation, cult and communal pattern are fixed, one is tempted to believe that their strict observance is already holiness in the sight of God. The moment there is a hierarchy of offices, and powers, of tradition and law, there is also the danger of confusing authority and obedience with the kingdom of God.

The moment human norms are applied to holiness, inflexible barriers drawn between right and wrong, the danger of laying hand on divine freedom, of entangling in rules and regulations that which falls from God’s grace alone becomes considerable.

No matter how noble a thought may be, once it enters the human heart it stimulates contradiction, untruth and evil. The same fate awaits that which comes from God.

Order in faith and prayer, in office and discipline, tradition and practice is of genuine value; but it opens up negative possibilities. Wherever a decisive either-or is demanded in the realm of sacred truth; where the objective forms of cult, order and authority are all that count, there you may be sure, is also danger of “the Pharisee” and his “Law.” Danger of accepting outer values for intrinsic; danger of contradicting attitude and word; danger of judging God’s freedom by legal standards— in short, danger of all the sins of which Christ accuses the Pharisees.

The religious possibilities left to Virginia Woolf’s generation by the degeneration of Protestantism to the pathetic offerings it made to Christian believers by the end of the nineteenth century makes us very loath to judge the anger and the frustration depicted as the experience of poor Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out. This is the haunting tragedy which stalks the pages of this novel, as much or more than the sad fate of the fictional story’s protagonists.

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