Charlotte Vale (Davis) is a young spinster who has absolutely no self-confidence at all. Her mother, a wealthy Boston dowager who rules over her house with an iron fist, has made all of the decisions in her daughter’s life for good or ill, leaving Charlotte with no say in anything at all. Charlotte’s sister-in-law, Lisa, concerned for Charlotte’s welfare, brings psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Rains) to the house. When he meets Charlotte, he sees how depressed she is and recommends that she stay in his sanitorium to recover.
Away from her mother, Charlotte grows into her own and becomes a confident, self-possessed woman. After her stay is over, she takes a cruise, where she meets married architect Jerry (Henreid). They bond over the duration of the cruise, and Charlotte is touched by Jerry’s devotion to his gawkish daughter Tina. Jerry and Charlotte take a trip to Sugarloaf Mountain while in Rio de Janeiro, but their trip takes an unplanned turn when their car crashes. They end up spending five days in Rio de Janeiro, during which time they fall in love. They decide not to continue their affair, and Charlotte returns home.
Upon arrival in Boston, Charlotte’s family is thrilled by her change in appearance and demeanor, but she has to overcome her biggest fear: facing her mother. Despite her mother’s attempts to control her life again, Charlotte remains bound and determined to be her own woman. She becomes engaged to a widower, but they break the engagement when they find that they wouldn’t be happy together. Charlotte’s mother, angry that the engagement has been broken, dies of a heart attack, leaving Charlotte an independently wealthy woman. Charlotte, though, is shaken by the loss and blames herself for it, so she returns to Dr. Jaquith’s sanitorium to recover. It’s here that she meets Jerry’s daughter Tina, and she realizes that in helping Tina,she can help herself.
“Now, Voyager” tackles the subjects of mental illness and a woman’s autonomy and how the two are related. Charlotte is miserable while she’s under her mother’s thumb, yet once she is out of her mother’s sphere of influence, she’s able to find out who she is without anyone telling her who she ought to be. She finds that once she’s comfortable with herself, people like her for who she is and that there’s nothing wrong with her. Perhaps her greatest victory is breaking away from her mother’s suffocating hold and choosing to live up to the potential she was born with. She is able to bring everything full circle by helping a young girl whose childhood is much like hers and offering Tina the guidance that she never had.
Olive Higgins Prouty, who wrote the book, suffered from mental illness herself and spent some time in a sanitorium. It’s also interesting to note that she financially sponsored Sylvia Plath while the young writer was being treated for her first bout of depression, much like Charlotte helps Tina in the movie. It’s a wonderful case of life imitating art and also adds a bit of credence to the story itself.