Animal Life and Human Sacrifice in Virginia Woolf's between the Acts

By Tromanhauser, Vicki | Woolf Studies Annual, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Animal Life and Human Sacrifice in Virginia Woolf's between the Acts


Tromanhauser, Vicki, Woolf Studies Annual


For the local villagers in Between the Acts, tormented by their dread of the coming war--"The doom of sudden death hanging over us" (70)--the annual pageant play and its depiction of scenes from English history offer a welcome relief from their present reality in June 1939. Like Mrs. Manresa and William Dodge, who are "lured off the high road by the very same instinct that caused the sheep and cows to desire propinquity," the villagers flock to the country house of Pointz Hall where the pageant is to be held (25). Having surveyed the grounds of Pointz Hall earlier that year, the pageant's director Miss La Trobe staked out the perfect site for her stage in a grassy terrace or "stretch of high ground" that "Nature had provided" (9). The natural stage drops off into a field where cows bellow and swallows dart between the trees, so that as the villagers take their seats on the lawn to watch their history play out, "The very cows joined in. Walloping, tail lashing, the reticence of nature was undone, and the barriers which should divide Man the Master from the Brute were dissolved" (109). In placing her theater outside, La Trobe shows the distinction between human mastery and animal nature to be illusory. Gazing past the actors onto grazing cows and darting swallows, the village audience loses its stretch of cultural "high ground" and encounters the prospect of humanity joining the herd.

In the face of imminent German invasion and cultural obsolescence, La Trobe's pageant, like the novel itself, confronts its audience with the question of how the human species understands its life and the limits of its qualitative difference from its animal neighbors. La Trobe's parodic production of England's past begins to tell against a concept of cultural identity as necessarily grounded in hierarchies of class, gender, and species: commoners are cast in the roles of monarchs and other prominent national figures; costume and style replace monumental events as markers of period; the Grand Ensemble and its homage to the imperial army are silently dropped; and the cows take their part in the choral song. For Woolf the coming war was not simply about geographical or national borders, but about the borders of the kind of life that is to be considered properly cultural, and thus inscribed within history's pageant, and the kind of life that must be purged, or even sacrificed, from its midst.

Between the Acts stands at the threshold of the demystification and exposure of sacrifice in the mass exterminations of the Second World War. (2) If the act of substitution at the root of the sacrificial transaction entails the exchange of an animal, such as the original scapegoat, for a human victim, Woolf's last novel asks: what happens to the culture that halts this sacrificial substitution and turns instead upon its own members? In his investigation of Western culture's conceptual and literary fascination with sacrifice from ancient Greece through the present, Derek Hughes traces the rite's symbolic power as the enactment of humanity's special place between gods and animals within the cosmic order. Yet Hughes's account of the sacrificial tradition underscores its fragility by exposing the contradiction upon which its ritual logic rests: "sacrifice...distinguishes man from the animal yet expresses itself in that which most closely unites them: the capacity for lethal violence" (Hughes 9).

Animal imagery has been a persistent focus of Woolf scholarship. In Harvena Richter's analysis of Woolf's symbolic modes, animal metaphors comprise a unique species for their metamorphic potential, offering the most vivid means of delivering the "shock content" of emotion and of capturing its instinctive and volatile nature (Richter 190-3). Yet Woolf's concern with animal life and the animality of human behavior extends beyond this imaginative strategy and, as Natania Rosenfeld has shown, became one of the principal means by which Woolf, like her husband Leonard, expressed her frustration with the political developments of the 1930s, from the failure of the League of Nations as an arbiter of peace to the rise of fascism in Europe and England's consequent rearmament (Rosenfeld 153-81). …

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