Final Curtain on the War: Figure and Ground in Virginia Woolf's between the Acts

By Wirth-Nesher, Hana | Style, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Final Curtain on the War: Figure and Ground in Virginia Woolf's between the Acts


Wirth-Nesher, Hana, Style


"X I make this mark to show the point at which a bomb shook the window so violently that the pen jumped out of my hand. There's an air raid going on--"

(Virginia Woolf, Letter to Hugh Walpole, 29 Sept. 1940, Letters 6:435)

Virginia Woolf wrote Between the Acts during the Blitz. She wrote it during the Dunkirk invasion, during the battle of Britain, and while London was being bombed. During that time her Bloomsbury home was damaged and her sister's home was destroyed. With every bomb that fell on London, with every donning of her gas mask, Woolf dug in deeper, as the manuscript absorbed the shock waves. Rather than retreating from artistic experimentation, Woolf invented literary strategies for registering the experience of war on the homefront, for resistance through art. Reviewing James's response to the outbreak of World War I, Within the Rim, Woolf wrote in 1919:

A moralist might object that terms of beauty and ugliness are not the terms in which to speak of so vast a catastrophe nor should a writer exhibit so keen a curiosity as to the tremors and vibrations of his own spirit in the face of the universal calamity. Yet, of all books describing the sights of war and appealing for our pity, this largely personal account is the one that best shows the dimensions of the whole. (The Death of the Moth 131)

Woolf's commentary on James's essay, in which he takes a steady and elegiac look at an endangered English civilization, is an apt description of her own last work as it constitutes an artistic response to the onset of World War II. Although war was a major motif in her earlier works, such as Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To The Lighthouse, Between the Acts, composed and revised when war was imminent and then actual, is haunted by it. In that novel Woolf addresses directly the question of the place of art in time of war and the responsibility of the writer. "The only contribution one can make," she wrote, "--this little pitter patter of ideas is my whiff of shot in the cause of freedom. So I tell myself" (Diary 236).(1)

For Woolf the sense of inadequacy as an artist in the face of the compelling reality of war was compounded by her being a woman writer. In her nonfictional writings of the same period she explores the particular anguish of women who lie "weaponless" ("Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid") and who, when faced with patriotic emotions, will ask themselves what "our country" means to one outside the patriarchal nation.(2) Therefore, she had to contend with a double sense of ineffectuality during war time, that of the artist and that of the female civilian. In most societies women are protected from the battlefield, or, to put it another way, in exile from the experience often upheld as the most authentic measure of reality. If defense of patria takes place on the battlefield, women need not leave home to be expatriated. For women on the homefront in England during the Second World War, Virginia Woolf among them, war consisted of imaginary trenches, of air raids and bombings, of the "slowness, cadaverousness, grief of the long heavy [hospital] train, taking its burden through the fields" (Diary 289). Yet technology brought the battlefield to the skies of the homefront and the voice of the enemy to the parlor, so that unlike Jane Austen, who could ignore the Napoleonic wars in her fiction, Virginia Woolf joined her contemporaries in hearing "Hitler's voice as we sit home of an evening" ("The Leaning Tower" 107). My main concern in this essay is the dialectic between the circumstances of the composition of Between the Acts as recorded in Woolf's nonfictional writings of that time and the formal artistic strategies in that last unfinished work of fiction. What effect did the London Blitz have on the artistic process, particularly in Woolf's experimentation with figure and ground? How did the war call into question the very enterprise of art and particularly creation by women on the homefront? …

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