Virginia Woolf's Matriarchal Family of Origins in 'Between the Acts.'

By Cramer, Patricia | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Virginia Woolf's Matriarchal Family of Origins in 'Between the Acts.'


Cramer, Patricia, Twentieth Century Literature


Virginia Woolf began writing Between the Acts in April 1938 at her country home, Monks House. As she was writing, bombers flew overhead, and a Nazi conquest of Europe seemed imminent. Her diaries during this period record her anger at the success of Nazi and Allied propaganda to arouse mass enthusiasm for war. As Patricia Klindienst Joplin notes, "To achieve the goal of creating [the Nazi] folk community (identified with structure), the Third Reich redefined every occasion which used to offer the people a taste of communitas, or release from official structure: folk celebrations, religious ritual and art" (93). Woolf witnessed Nazi demonstrations in spring 1935 when she traveled to Germany with Leonard Woolf (Bell 2: 189). The Nazi phenomenon and her observation of the "hero-making" rituals in England (Diary 5: 292), led to her study of ritual and group formations in Between the Acts.

Although the dynamics of group formation became the particular focus of this novel, Woolf was long familiar with discussions of group psychology. As Allen McLaurin notes, "Ideas about a |group mind,' about |crowds'--in other words, notions about group psychology--were very much in vogue at the time when Woolf began her writing career, and continued through the early decades of the century" (34). In 1913 Woolf reviewed a book by Jules Romains, praising its ability to "trace the mysterious growth, where two or three are gathered together, of a kind of consciousness of the group in addition to that of each individual of the group" (Essays 2:17), and she owned and referred in her diary to Wilfred Trotter's 1916 Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (Diary 1:80)

Woolf's particular interest in group psychology during the composition of Between the Acts is suggested by the fact that she was reading Freud for the first time and had selected his works on social psychology, Civilization and Its Discontents and The Future Of an Illusion to read (Diary 5: 250). In these works Freud, like Woolf in Between the Acts, tries to explain Hitler and the Second World War by analyzing group formations. Both saw the family as key to the origins of civilization and public acts and history as collective reenactments of family roles. Freud posited a myth of the murder of an all-powerful father by his jealous sons as the origin of civilization, and he described past and contemporary history as a continuing struggle for power among guilty sons who wish to take the father's place and imitate his tyrannical behavior. Woolf also recognized the father-son struggles for power as the core of patriarchal history, but, unlike Freud, she did not accept patriarchal reality as the only possible model for human society.(1)

Jane Harrison's matriarchal theories and Ruth Benedict's Patterns Of Culture were more important influences on Woolf's ideas about group psychology. Adopting Benedict's configurational approach to the study of culture, and Harrison's research on matriarchies, Woolf identifies emotions which sustain patriarchal social groups by focusing on the unspoken loyalties, socially constructed sexual fantasies, and values that bind characters in the novel to Giles, and she represents our potential for a non-warlike, matriarchal society by highlighting and valuing the qualities which attract characters in the novel to Lucy. She contrasts patriarchal with matriarchal configurations in order to provide a model for an alternative "family of origins"--centered on women's values rather than on violent, dominating men. The patriarchal group is represented by Giles--the "quintessential man" in this novel--and his "co-conspirators" Mrs. Manresa and Bart, and the matriarchal group is represented by Lucy--the Great Goddess as Tragic Queen--and her "family," Isa (Giles's wife) and Dodge.(2)

Woolf read Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture at the time she was composing Between the Acts. Woolf writes, "I'm reading Ruth Benedict with pressure of suggestions--about Culture patterns--which suggests rather too much (Diary 5:306). …

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