Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Our Representative, Our Spokesman": Modernity, Professionalism, and Representation in Virginia Woolf's between the Acts

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Our Representative, Our Spokesman": Modernity, Professionalism, and Representation in Virginia Woolf's between the Acts

Article excerpt

In Between the Acts Virginia Woolf confronts many of the same binaries that had already preoccupied her in Three Guineas; such binaries as those between the public and the private, the professional and the domestic, the local and the global. Both texts identify the personal with the political in ways that anticipate subsequent developments in literary, cultural, and feminist theory. In Three Guineas, however, Woolf's tone is more overtly polemical than it is in Between the Acts. Deceived by this apparent transparency, critics regularly describe Three Guineas by means of conventionally political vocabularies. For instance, Jane Marcus claims that Three Guineas "is a major contribution to political science," Shari Benstock claims that it "arrives at a socialist-feminist critique of patriarchal institutions," and Erin Carlston claims that it "adds a vital dimension ... to our current analyses of fascist ideologies."(1) Yet Three Guineas is considerably more ambiguous and internally conflicted than such interpretations imply; written in a fashion that at times recalls the equivocations of the epistolary novel, Three Guineas is characterized, as Marie-Louise Gattens points out, by a "shifting and problematizing of historical terminology" and by a variety of "complicated reading strategies."(2) If we look to Three Guineas for a definitive expression of Woolf's underlying ideological assumptions, we are liable to fall prey to a perspective that, in Alex Zwerdling's words, "plays down the importance of [Woolf's] divided motives and turns her into a more consistently militant, self-righteous polemical writer than she was."(3)

Between the Acts lends itself even less readily than Three Guineas to interpretation as a straightforwardly political statement. Nevertheless, critics have regularly been inclined to approach it, too, in a politically reductive fashion. Thus Patricia Cramer claims that Between the Acts represents a "study of ritual and group formations," Kathy J. Phillips claims that it anatomizes (by means of Miss La Trobe's pageant) the "historical events and attitudes that have led to England's ... role in fascism and disaster," and Douglas Mao claims that it teaches us "how the abstract `domination' of objects can converge with the actual domination of humans and the actual destruction of the object world."(4) Such interpretations ignore the extent to which Woolf, in her strongest moments, challenges conventional descriptions of the political by refusing to ascribe to political concepts the purity of categorical abstractions. Although Woolf is indeed an acutely political writer, her politics do not readily conform to those tired binaries of left and right-progressive and reactionary--that would seem, at times, to have condemned us to endless reiterations of the French Revolution and of the Enlightenment principles with which it is associated. In a variety of contingent ways, Woolf is thoroughly immersed in the macropolitical conflicts of her particular era. Ultimately, however, her work speaks just as directly--and perhaps more directly--to an array of persistent micropolitical conflicts: conflicts that pertain, first and foremost, to the interests and appetites that dominate the constantly proliferating struggles over matters of personal, professional, and institutional identity.

If we insist on tethering Between the Acts to binary models of revolution and reaction, we run the risk of simplistically judging the novel on the basis of its supposed ability either to promote or to defeat what we consider to be a virtuous political agenda. Falling prey to this temptation, Elizabeth Abel, for instance, chidingly proposes that, in the closing moment of Between the Acts, Woolf's character "Miss La Trobe replaces a fully discredited matricentric narrative with the heterosexual plot that originates, for women, with the father."(5) Also falling prey to this temptation, Stephen Barber admiringly proposes that "Woolf's text . …

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