Ecological Concerns and Novelistic Art of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out

G. D. Ingale

Virginia Woolf is a novelist with ‘modern’ sensibility in the sense that her experimentation with the novel form includes the voice of the Nature too. The Voyage Out is her first novel, but it is written with an unusual sense of the organic unity between man and nature. In the days of British imperialism, she raises her voice in the novel against the same with a warning about its disastrous consequences for the existence of human life on the Earth. The novel tells the story of a young woman and her sudden death on an expedition up a tropical river in the Santa Marina Island. Woolf’s ecological concerns are reflected not only in the content, but in the formal aspects of the novel too such as plot construction, characterization, setting, imagery and symbolism. Woolf’s philosophy of life includes her attitude towards nature.She accords superior status to nature and portrays it as existing independent of human beings, shaping and influencing their lives. Nature is humanized and demands to be treated with respect. Her novel reveals ecofeminist concerns too.

Key Words: ecology, experimentation, imperialism, novelistic art

Bio Note: Dr. Smt. G. D. Ingale is an Associate Professor and has put in 29 years of experience in Devchand College, Arjunnagar, Dist: Kolhapur, Maharashtra. She has written text book units and self-instruction material for students which have been published by affiliated university; has nearly 20 research articles published in international journals and completed UGC funded Minor
Research Project. She has been appointed as a Member, International Advisory Editorial Board
in Linguistics, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge in 2018. She is the recipient of
Manini Award.

                        Academicians have studied many aspects of Virginia Woolf’s (1882-1941) novels. However, her concern for nature and the relationship between man and nature remained unexplored until the end of the 20th century. Elizabeth Waller (2000; quoted in Kostokovska (2013) studies Woolf’s ‘process of environmental awakening’ and her development of ‘an entirely different form of narrative that linguistically suggests an ecology beyond the backyard- a pulsing rhythm within an ecology of language’. Charlotte Zoe Walker (2000; quoted in Kostokovska (2013) defines Woolf’s relationship with nature as a conservation which she discovers at the core of Woolf’s search for a language better suited to her novels. Bonnie Kime Scott traces in Virginia Woolf and the Uses of Nature(2007; quoted in Kostokovska (2013) Woolf’s relationship to ‘others in nature’ from her early diaries to the garden in To The Lighthouse and nature in The Waves. She concludes that Woolf questions abuses of living beings and ‘constructs solidarity across distant species’. Justyna Kostkowska in Ecocriticism and Women Writers (2013) presents ecological reading of her form and that of her influence on contemporary British women writers. A few others discovered in depth connections between Woolf’s narrative practice and her relationship with the non-human. The present study analyses her first novel,The Voyage Out(1915), from the point of view of ecological concerns.
One of the aspects of her novel, among others, which makes her a distinctive novelist, is the problem of not only the survival of humanity in the era of competitive capitalism but also of the survival of the Earth in an era of intense exploitation of nature. She was living in the era when imperialism was at its peak and England was the mistress of approximately two thirds of the habitable world. She achieves this purpose in the novel by presenting nature in the following ways:
 1. Nature has independent existence irrespective of its inhabitants.
 2. Nature is eternal whereas human life is temporary.
 3. Nature influences the course of human life.
 4. The unnatural ambition of man to conquer nature/alien territories in the name of imperialism and exploiting the same for materialistic pursuits is disastrous for both Man and nature.

The Voyage Out, is set in the Edwardian era when England was the largest empire and a maritime power. It used to send ships across the globe laden with goods and men to its distantcolonies. MrVinrace, one of the characters in the novel, owns ten cargo ships plying the Atlantic Oceanwhich are all at the sea. His daughter, Rachael Vinrace, a 24 year old girl, is the heroine of the novel. It is the story of this London girl, who goes on a voyage on her father’s ship to a South American island, Santa Marina,and dies suddenly at the end. It is also a love story- between Rachael and Terence Hewitt, an aspiring novelist and an Oxford don-which is cut short by her untimely death. After her death, the clouds gather- ‘…a gust of cold air came through the open windows, a light flashed, followed by a clap of thunder right over the hotel. The rain swished with it and the storm. In the hotel, people assembled, played chess, knitted’ (The Voyage Out, 1992; hereafter VO: 351. All references to the text are from this edition). It was Rachael’s voyage out of home, out of London and out of the world into nothingness.
This deceptively straightforward narrative is imbued with Woolf’s ecological concerns in its formal aspects. The structure of the novel is unconventional. On the surface, the events appear to have been arranged in chronological order. For instance, the voyage of ‘Miss Rachel Vinrace, aged twenty four’ on ‘her father’s ship’ (p.7); her aunt, Helen finding her ‘incompetent’ (p.13); then the fatal ‘kiss’ by Richard (p.66); Helen’s decision to take Rachel to Santa Marina, for ‘a complete course of instruction in the feminine graces’ (p.77); the trip up a river as Mrs. Flushing wants to ‘see the natives in their camps’ (p.222); Rachel’s declaration of love for Terence (266); their subsequent engagement (p.274); Rachel falling ill soon after due to headache (p.304); and her sudden death due to the heat of the tropical sun (p.334).
This apparently humanistic story of Rachael is directly influenced by cosmic forces such as the storm, the heat of the tropical sun and the island. For instance, it is the storm which causes vacillation of the ship and the fatal kiss by Richard Dalloway which makes the 24 year ‘innocent’ heroine feel the pangs of love culminating in her love for Terence Hewet.The tropical island, is a summer retreat for English people during winter season. It is indeed an inferno where the sun beats hot rays. Rachael dies due to the unbearable heat on the island.Woolf prepares the readers for her death by frequent references to the increasing heat that would claim its victim: ‘The day increased in heat as they drove up the hill’ (p.81); ‘The midday sun … was beginning to beat down hotly. … Expeditions in such heat are perhaps a little unwise’ (p.119); ‘She went to the wash-stand and began sponging her cheeks with cold water; for they were burning hot’ (p.233); ‘The afternoon was very hot, so hot that the breaking of the waves on the shore sounded like the repeated sigh of some exhausted creature’ (p.308); ‘Ice-cold at first, it soon became as hot as the palm of her hand’ (p.310); ‘The heat was suffocating. At last the faces went farther away …’ (p.332).Rachael dies (p.341). This naturalistic explanation of death by heat arguably justifies itself as no amount of love or passion could interfere and stop it.Humanity is left to wonder about the meaning of life and death. Evelyn exclaims, ‘Death, I mean. …What did matter then? What was the meaning of it all? (p.346). The narrative incoherence, as pointed out by David Daiches -‘no complications’ (Daiches,1952: 492), Clive Bell ‘discrepancy between the comic and tragic parts’ (quoted in Mujumdar and Mclaurin, 1975:65) is intentional and is caused not by human agency, but by natural agency which is beyond the control of human beings.
Woolf’s novelistic aesthetic is informed by the central vision of the organic unity between humans and nature. The central character, Rachel, embodies this organic unity whereas other characters, including her lover, exhibit aspects of egocentrism, materialism and worldliness. Helen, her aunt, is a ‘normal’ housewife who wants to lead an ‘ordered’ life. She wishes to ‘educate’ Rachael in worldly manners. Terence Hewet, the 27 year novelist, exhibits his manly ego by underestimating Rachael’s musical talent and the inner cravings of her heart. In contrast, Woolf reveals the inner being of Rachael. Her spirit is one with Nature: ‘Inextricably mixed in dreamy confusion, her mind seemed to enter into communion, to be delightfully expanded and combined with the spirit of the whitish boards on deck, with the spirit of the sea, with the spirit of Beethoven, … (29, italics supplied); ‘I feel like a fish at the bottom of the sea’(p.155); ‘It seemed to her now that … she wanted many more things than the love of one human being– the sea, the sky (285, italics supplied); ‘She remembered their quarrels, … and she thought how often they would quarrel in the thirty, or forty, or fifty years in which they would be living in the same house together, … But all this was superficial, and had nothing to do with the life that went on beneath her eyes, … for that life was independent of her, and independent of everything else. … She was independent of him; she was independent of everything elseShe wanted nothing else.' (p 298, italics supplied). Rachel’s autonomous spirit, which she ironically discovers after she fell in love, is in contact with the primordial forces andnecessitates her union with them through death rather than her romantic union with Terence. Her life is her education in the vital powers of nature. She gradually realizes the transience of human life and eternity of time and nature: ‘And life, what was that? It was only a light passing over the surface and vanishing, as in time she would vanish, though the furniture in the room would remain…She was overcome with awe that things should exist at all…’ (p. 114).It was the storm and the sea that awaken her inner being to the highest point, enabling her to undergo enlargement of her soul and spiritual powers. Thus, Rachel’s character becomes a symbol of unity and harmony between human and natural forces.
In the choice of themes for The Voyage Out, as in the later novels, Woolf is guided by the deeper significance of things which manifests itself in the form of duality between order and chaos, life and death, degradation of modern materialistic world and the inner cravings of the human heart, the eternity of nature and the human insignificance. Several utterances illustrate this: ‘This reticence– this isolation– that’s the matter with modern life!’ (66); ‘a certain dryness of the soul’ (84); ‘bodies without souls’ (107); ‘the universal silence’ (114); ‘chaos triumphant, things happening for no reason at all’ (209); ‘why was it that relations between different people were so unsatisfactory, so fragmentary so hazardous …’ (178); ‘would there ever be a time when the world was one and indivisible?’ (279). These reveal Woolf’s agonizing cry for cosmic unity.
Nature provides the context for the narrative of the novel not only by providing geographical setting- the sea and the island for the action, but contributing to the central thematic concern of the novel viz. the existential need for the well-being of Mother Earth in the context of exploitative imperialism as nature is the cradle of human civilization. Woolf emphasizes the interdependence of human and natural world; the vastness, eternity and mystery of Nature in comparison with the smallness, insignificance and evanescence of human life; and above all, the power of nature to influence the course of events and even to strike a cruel blow indiscriminately to human life. These assertions make it amply clear: ‘The wind at night blowing over the hills and woods was purer …, more mysterious than the earth coloured and divided by roads and fields’ (100); ‘Before them they beheld an immense space– … A river ran across the plain, … They felt themselves very small … (120)’; here the view was one of infinite sun-dried earth, earth pointed in pinnacles, heaped in vast barriers, … earth chequered by day and night, and partitioned into different lands, where famous cities were founded …’ (194); ‘Does it ever seem to you, Terence, that the world is composed of vast blocks of matter and that we’re nothing but patches of light– …? (276).
The main characters glimpse into the world of the South American jungle, the setting for the declaration of love between Terence and Rachel and realize Nature’s insensitivity towards and its interference with human life. As they go up the river, the chaos of the jungle undermines their sense of the natural world as an ordered and purposive setting for their own lives. St. John Hirst voices this concern when he says, ‘These trees get on one’s nerves– it’s all so crazy. God’s undoubtedly mad. What sane person could have conceived a wilderness like this, …’ (260). All the characters are overwhelmed by this sense of human vulnerability to the hostile forces of nature. No wonder then, Rachel’s death by heat, soon after their sojourn up the river, proves this thesis. Nature,thus, emerges as structural necessity in the novel.
Woolf’s indictment of British imperialism is clear in the statements scattered over the novel. Woolf briefly narrates the story of the British occupation of the island: ‘Three hundred years ago five Elizabethan baroques had anchored where now the Euphrosyne now floated. … ‘The country was still a virgin land behind a veil’. Later the English sailors bore away bars of silver, bales of linen, timbers of cedar wood, golden crucifixes knobbed with emeralds. … The English ‘greedy for flesh’ ‘fingers itching for gold’ soon reduced the natives to a state of superstitious wonderment. A settlement was made; women were imported; children grew…. the English dwindled away…Somewhere about the middle of 17th century, the British colony came to an end except a few men, a few women and perhaps a dozen dusky children. English history then denies all knowledge of the place. …In the last 10 years the English across the sea founded a small colony on the island…. (79-81).Woolf comments in the novel, ‘One thinks of all we’ve done, …and how we’ve gone on century after century, sending out boys from little country villages– and of men like you, Dick, and it makes one feel as if one couldn’t bear not to be English! Think of the light burning over the House, Dick! When I stood on deck just now I seemed to see it. It’s what one means by London’ (42).The theme of England’s colonization of the world, which, at the metaphorical level, amounts to colonization of human spirit by materialistic forces imprisoning and destroying it resulting in ‘certain dryness of the soul’ (84).
 Woolf exposes the modern world and its materialistic civilization– its severance from nature, indulgence in power and pelf as embodied in Mr. Dalloway, its material pursuit to the utter disregard of art, music, beauty and cravings of human heart, and above all, its systems and institutions, instead of fulfilling the needs of the individual, crush the human spirit and force it into acquiescence and silence– echoing the theme of silence. The novel reveals Woolf’s genuine civilizational concerns and the urgent need to rectify and arrest its deterioration. Her scathing remarks on the world of London, the microcosm of modern civilization, illustrate this.She equates London with Hell-‘a circumscribed mound, eternally burnt, eternally scarred’. The double contextualization of the word– one as the emblem of modern materialistic civilization, London, and the other, the Biblical myth of Inferno– instantly connect the two points of time– the past and the present– which bring out the meaning of the context forcefully and vividly. The unequivocal relation established between Hell and the modern world reflects Woolf’s indictment of the latter for its mindless indulgence in materialistic pursuits.
The action of the novel is set partly on the sea and partly on the island. There are beautiful sights and natural flora and fauna: river, sea, mist, the Sun, rain, sea-gulls, pinnacles, smoke, hill, gale, etc. The island is beautiful. Behind the crescent of land there was a deep green with distinct hills on either side of valley. On the slope of the right-side hill white houses with brown roofs nestled; mountains with bald heads rose as a pinnacle. There is a river ‘that great stream’. Trees are intense.For Woolf, nature is changeless whereas human life changes in the flux of Time:‘Since the time of Elizabeth, nothing has changed there- the river was the same for Elizabethans and now in the 20th century. The waving green had stood there century after century …while in other parts of the world one town had risen upon the ruins of another town’ (250). Seasons of nature change from place to place. Most of the characters in the novel do not understand the mysteries of Nature. They criticize it instead: ‘Oh, but we’re all agreed by this time that nature’s a mistake. She’s either ugly, appallingly uncomfortable, or absolutely terrifying(110).
In Woolf’s aesthetic, the rhythm of Nature assumes central importance. Woolf incorporated her vision of rhythm in the text not only at the linguistic level, but also as part of the central vision of the novel to express the rhythmic tension between chaos and order, silence and speech, transience and eternity, the natural and human world, life and art– the concerns which were extended to her later fiction as well. In the novel, the rhythmical processes of life and the mind are recreated in concrete set of images in the text, particularly of the human body: ‘Screening her face she sobbed more steadily than she had yet done, her shoulders rising and falling with great regularity’ (4); ‘Raising herself and sitting up, she too realized Helen’s soft body … swelling and breaking in one vast wave’ (268); ‘She looks at once up and down, up and down, as if one were a horse’ (278); ‘As she walked, they could see her breast slowly rise and slowly fall’ (338). These utterances illustrate the fact that the sense of rhythm is innate and an integral part of the novel.           
Woolf makes abundant use of imagery at the level of discourse as well as thematic level. For instance,‘The afternoon was very hot, so hot that the breaking of the waves on the shore sounded like the repeated sigh of some exhausted creature …’ (308). The example could be elaborated by using linguistic terms:
            Tenor:             the waves breaking on the shore in the afternoon sun
            Vehicle:           the repeated sigh of some exhausted creature
The heat of the tropical sun in Santa Marina was so high that the waves, instead of energetically and rhythmically breaking on the shore, were sighing repeatedly like some exhausted creature. The tenor and the vehicle are compared on the grounds of the energy of the waves being sucked out, and thus, deenervated and in imminent danger of being reduced to the helpless state of stasis, instead of roaring in youthful force. The metaphorical animation of the waves– ‘some exhausted creature’– unlike the deceptively naturalistic description, requires figurative interpretation in the context of Rachel’s death by heat.Since Rachel’s spirit habitually ‘kisses the spirit of the sea’ (20) and thus, closer to natural forces, she also feels the heat of the tropical sun as in ‘… her cheeks … for they were burning hot’ (233). By metaphorical extension of meaning, Rachel was also sighing ‘like some exhausted creature’, thus, her life-energies being drained out and in danger of being in the motionless, life-less state of stasis. It is no wonder then that Rachel dies by the same heat a few pages later (334). The example reveals Woolf’s skill and art in integrating even the naturalistic, descriptive details into the central narrative.
Woolf organizes her texts around symbols. Natural elements such as storm, birds and trees acquire symbolic value in their contexts of use. The tree symbol is significant, since it is used to symbolize eternity in contrast to human impermanence: ‘She [Rachel] might have walked until …, had it not been for the interruption of a tree … It was an ordinary tree, but to her it appeared so strange that it might have been the only tree in the world. … Having seen a sight that would last her for a lifetime … the tree once more sank into the ordinary ranks of trees …’ (159-60).However, the significant symbols having a bearing on narrative structure and thematic structure are the sea and waves.They acquire meaning and significance with reference to Rachel’s relationship to them in various contexts of use.
 To sum up, the discussion above amply justifies the claim that Woolf arguably is one of the modern writers who expresses ecological concerns in her novels seriously.


Daiches D. (1942), Virginia Woolf, Norfolk, Connecticut.
Majumdar, R and McLaurin, A. (eds.), (1975), Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and Boston
Kostkowska, J. (2013), Ecocriticism and Women Writers, Palgrave Macmillan.

Woolf, V.        (1992 [1915]), The Voyage Out, Penguin Books, London.

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