Study Guide


In London, Helen and Ridley Ambrose board the Euphrosyne, which will take them to Santa Marina in South America, where they plan to vacation. On board the ship, the Ambroses meet their niece, Rachel, whose father owns the ship and whom they have not seen in several years, and Mr. Pepper, an old family friend. The ship is soon under way, and as they sail, Helen studies her companions. She judges Rachel to be unformed, a character defect she attributes to her sheltered existence; Pepper she considers somewhat of a bore.

Rachel is indeed an unformed young woman. Her mother is dead, and she lives with her aunts and is seldom in society. She knows virtually nothing of the relations between men and women and has no confidants; her questions such as “Are you fond of your sister?” are judged inappropriate by her aunts and left unanswered. The things she does hear her aunts discuss seem to Rachel to have nothing to do with life. She deduces that no one ever says anything they mean or talks about anything they have felt. By the age of twenty-four, Rachel is confused but wondering and inarticulate about her feelings and observations. Unable to express her inner life through language, she instead plays the piano, believing that music expresses all the things one means and feels but cannot talk about.

While the ship is in port at Lisbon, Willoughby Vinrace, ashore on business, learns that an English couple have overwhelmed his clerk with their persistence and won a short passage aboard the Euphrosyne. The presence of the Dalloways introduces quite a change into the group. Clarissa energetically and skillfully fosters conversations and shows interest in everyone; Richard enthusiastically and sincerely discusses his political ideals.

The short time spent with the Dalloways affects Rachel profoundly. The couple talk with her about art, sexism, suffering, and making the world better for the poor. One day, during a storm, Richard kisses Rachel while they are alone together. Rachel has never been kissed, and the experience bewilders and terrifies her. Soon after this incident, the Dalloways depart. Helen perceives a change in her niece and is determined to learn the cause, suspecting that it has something to do with the Dalloways. When Rachel blurts out that Richard kissed her and tells the effect the kiss had on her, Helen realizes the depth of Rachel’s ignorance about sexual matters and attempts to illuminate her.

In her new, self-appointed role as Rachel’s mentor, Helen asks Willoughby to leave Rachel with her and Ridley in Santa Marina rather than take her with him. He consents, and shortly afterward he leaves them and Mr. Pepper at their destination.

Helen and Rachel develop a ritual they call seeing life, an evening walk through Santa Marina. On one of these walks, they find themselves at a hotel that houses foreign travelers, among them two young Englishmen named Terence Hewet and St. John Hirst, who befriend Rachel and Helen. Helen is glad of this connection and hopes that the young men will contribute to Rachel’s education. Hirst’s prejudices against women lead him to offend Rachel, but Terence believes that people can break through divisive boundaries, and he and Rachel quickly form a solid friendship. Rachel is encouraged to inquire, speculate, and articulate her thoughts and feelings. She ponders existence, self, and truth.

When Susan Warrington and Arthur Venning, two of the other English travelers at the hotel, become engaged, Rachel wonders what it is to be in love. She and Terence talk at great length about the subject and about men and women in general: their separate spheres, their respective perceptions and powers, woman suffrage, and the changes marriage brings to people, creating wives and husbands where once there had been individuals. They watch such changes come over Arthur and Susan.

Rachel and Terence wonder about their own relationship and whether they feel love for each other. With Hirst, Helen, and Mr. and Mrs....

(The entire page is 1,028 words.)

Owl Eyes subscribers get unlimited access to our expert annotations, analyses, and study guides on your favorite texts. Master the classics for less than $5/month!

🔒Become a member to unlock this study guide »