Ambiguous Discourse: Feminist Narratology & British Women Writers

By Kathy Mezei | Go to book overview

Spatialization, narrative theory, and virginia woolf's the voyage out

susan stanford friedman

Virginia Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out ( 1915), is founded on a basic contradiction. It simultaneously narrates a failed Bildung for its protagonist and inscribes a successful Bildung for its author. Rachel Vinrace journeys on her father's ship from a sheltered London existence to Santa Marina, a former British colony in South America. As a conventional marriage plot, the story charts Rachel's development: her "coming out" into society, her courtship, and her engagement. But before she marries, she suddenly becomes ill and dies. Shockingly, life goes on uneventfully among the enclave of British tourists in the final chapters. Warned by ominous resonances early in the journey, we, the readers, may anticipate the end but nonetheless feel cheated out of the narrative resolution that the text insistently leads us to expect by invoking the conventions of the bildungsroman.

Yet, at the same time, this narrative of failure represents an exhilarating victory over the tyranny of conventional plot as Woolf would later call it in her 1923 essay "Modern Fiction" (153-54). As Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues in Writing Beyond the Ending, the death of Rachel represents Woolf's first attempt to "write beyond the ending" of the marriage plot (47-53). In relation to ideological scripts of female destiny in the nineteenth-century women's bildungsroman, The Voyage Out kills off the traditional life story of upper middle-class British women and thus accomplishes a victory of sorts over the "powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him [the writer] in thrall to provide a plot . . . in the accepted style" ( "Modern Fiction,"153). This story of liberation is fundamentally at odds with the sad tale of a young life ended before it had hardly begun.

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