Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Balancing Act: Specialization in between the Acts

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Balancing Act: Specialization in between the Acts

Article excerpt

Virginia Woolf's last novel, Between the Acts (1941), is famously composed of scattered scraps of speech, thoughts, music, and past literary works, "often shorn of context or contextual urgency" (Beer, "Introduction" xix), making up an unprecedented broken form in her fiction. Isa Oliver, for instance, is able to quote from one of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poems at one moment, and switch to the more mundane topic of food the next: "'The moor is dark beneath the moon, rapid clouds have drunk the last pale beams of even ... I have ordered the fish,' she said aloud, turning, 'though whether it'll be fresh or not I can't promise"' (14). Words are frequently inaudible during the village pageant which Miss La Trobe directs, breaking up actors' speeches and performances. The gramophone player fails to work properly, coming on and off throughout the play.

Yet at the same time, unity is often presented alongside, or even created out of, fragmentation in the novel. The literary allusions throughout, although they crop up seemingly randomly, assume a shared literary history and tradition. Pieces of language and sound are constantly recycled and repeated in different contexts. Snatches of tunes and nursery rhymes create a sense of affinity, resulting in "[m]uscles loosened; ice cracked" (49). The gramophone sounds "chuff chuff chuff' throughout, "a noise a machine makes when something has gone wrong" (47-48), yet this apparent sign of chaos creates in its insistent repetition and regularity an order of its own, becoming, contrary to its original use, a marker of time: "Chuff, chuff, chuff went the machine in the bushes, accurately, insistently"; "Chuff, chuff, chuff went the machine. Time was passing" (90-91). The phrase "[d]ispersed are we" (117), played continuously in the intervals and at the end of the pageant, thematically signifies fragmentation, but formally creates the backbone of the pageant. The book seems to suggest the two are different sides of the same coin: after dispersal there can be assembly again, and after assembly, dispersal, which the structure of the pageant, with its many intervals, enacts.

This is what Patricia Laurence has called "[t]he structure of oppositions and the rhythm of alternation" in the book. It has often divided critical scholarship; Laurence points out that critics often focus either on the fragmentation or the unity of the novel, and fail to see that both are present and important (Laurence 245). Indeed, Woolf's vision of the novel was "a rambling capricious but somehow unified whole-the present state of my mind?" (D5 135). Many studies have attempted to provide accounts which consider both these forces in the novel. Michelle Pridmore-Brown, for instance, has cogently argued that interruptions by "static or noise" in the gramophone's sounds "serve to fight totalitarianism"

through "short-circuiting the instantaneous connection among rhythm, emotion, and collective action" (411-12). Jane De Gay has similarly written that the novel's "fragmentation of the literary past" undermines "conventional understandings of tradition," which can be used to counter "the rise of Fascism" (210). Such views pose formal fragmentation as a tool used by Woolf to break apart methods of cohesiveness in the novel, be they those of an unthinking collectivism or of literary tradition. Yet Joshua Esty has also pointed out that such communalism in the novel can clearly be seen in both positive and negative light: he writes that, for instance, while "national tradition could easily sponsor stultifying ideologies and mob aesthetics," it also poses "a meaningful shared history against the social fragmentation of the metropolis" (107). Esty concludes that "the novel is designed precisely to express both antinationalist and nationalist sentiments, to reflect both authoritarian and antiauthoritarian possibilities in group ritual" (93). The challenge is thus to find a perspective which does not judge these varying forces as either damaging or beneficial: fragmentation and cohesiveness can be both dangerous and reassuring, both destructive and valuable. …

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