“Love. Hate. Peace. Three emotions made the ply of human life.”
A deep sense of foreboding and anxiety underlies Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts—her last novel published a few months after her suicide. Stylistically, it falls somewhere between her early ‘traditional novels’ and experimental phase but as the swan song of her literary career, I believe it falls short of an artistic success. Surely, it can be argued that Woolf did not have the opportunity to properly revise the final draft for publication, which therefore contributed to unevenness or unfinished composition. A certain level of narrative cohesion does exist but viewed within the larger context of the novel’s thematic framework, there seems to be lacking a sense of complete harmony that connects all of its disparate elements and ideological concerns together. A counter-argument could be that this fragmented approach is intentional—that is to say, Woolf is attempting to present a civilization on the brink of total ruin with the onset of WWII, the instability of social order along with the disappearance of traditional class hierarchies. One of the recurring statements throughout the novel is “Dispersed are we” and serves as an extended metaphor underlying much of the text: English social hierarchy is breaking down, permanence is fleeting and as Woolf writes, “scraps, orts and fragments” will be all that remains (221). As a conservative, she believes strongly in upholding traditional values, fearing that the aftermath of WWII will bring a disruption to social order and ultimately, chaos. Perhaps it is presumptuous to speculate that this dread accompanying such drastic social change had an effect on her decision to take her own life but it is entirely possible.
The novel takes place over the course of one day in 1939 at Pointz Hall, a large country estate in England where the villagers put on a pageant to raise money for the local church. Thus, the title takes on several meanings, since it not only refers to the commotion and conversations amongst various characters during the intermissions but rather ostensibly, it represents the novel’s preoccupation with the dichotomy between private feelings of a psychological nature (a familiar subject for Woolf) and the action or non-action as a result of that particular impulse. Similar to her other novels, she places a great deal of emphasis on inner-consciousness, inner voice vs. outer voice, self-reflection and repressed feelings. The exploration of art and artistic expression takes on a very important and complex role in the works of Virginia Woolf but in this particular novel, it functions profoundly in contradistinction to the assessment of English history—the precocious fragility of social order with the threat of fascism. Woolf is suggesting here that art can be a lens to view the world; a way to interpret meaning (she makes this explicitly clear in Act IV of the pageant when the players hold up mirrors so the audience members can see their reflection to represent “the present time: ourselves”). For example, here is one of the famous lines in the novel: “Books are the mirrors to the soul” (22). She also goes on to write: “For I hear music, they were saying. Music wakes up. Music makes us see the hidden, join the broken. Look and listen” (143). Art cannot escape life; possessing the power to influence personal beliefs and ideologies; it can produce compassion to take action but can also be a way to connect people together. Additionally, the lines between art and reality become blurred.
I have barely glossed the surface and there are so many layers of subtext to analyze. Other interesting aspects to consider might include: Nature vs. civilization, nature vs. art, sexual desire vs. savagery, past vs. present, alienation, the paradox/dialectical framework, fish and water imagery, the play within the play or the pattern of cycles. It is not uncommon for Woolf to be oblique and often frustrating to read in her sophisticated approach to narrative but I have always admired her aesthetics—she is inimitable, her words flow with such beauty, passion and pathos; a perfect blend of prose and poetry. Between the Acts is no exception and contains her trademark writing style that she is famous for and this saves it from being a total waste of time. My dissatisfaction stems mostly from the inability to comprehend the overwhelming perplexities and implications raised by the novel. Essentially, it left me feeling quite indifferent and I lack the patience to produce a thorough close-reading of the text. It seems to reason that those of a more intellectual persuasion, Woolf aficionados or literary scholars are bound to appreciate the complex intricacies with a much higher level of enjoyment than I could ever muster.