Imagery in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts

Viringia Woolf -Or- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Imagery in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts

Between the Acts is Virginia Woolf’s last published novel and certainly the most lyrical text of all her works. The loose structure, the absence of a definite plot, and the interspersion of verses throughout the text, enhance the lyrical quality of the book. The main achievements of the novel are the narrative form, the linguistic games and the symbolic imagery. The action spans only twenty-four hours during summer in 1939, and takes place at Pointz Hall, the home of the Olivers, where the whole village gathers for the annual pageant, a long play which depicts the history of England from the beginnings to the present. The title of the novel accurately describes its structure: the reader has the impression that the action of the book itself is swallowed up by the action of the pageant. Woolf pins down the thoughts, gestures or actions of the characters between the acts of the play. The verses of the play are constantly interrupted in their turn, or simply muffled by the wind or by other noises. In this way, the author entwines two narrative threads, which are broken and resumed throughout the text, without ever maintaining the continuity. The imagery is the most valuable tool for interpreting the message of the novel. Although there is hardly any dominant imagery, it can be noticed that the sea, the flowers, the clouds and the sky, the wind, the rhododendrons and primitive animals do come back a few times in the text. The imagery is, of course, symbolic and hints at the message of the novel. Thus, Woolf reveals the multiplicity of worlds that we live in every day and that are alternatively united or dispersed throughout our existence.

First of all, the play represented in the novel gathers the people of the village together for one day, and disperses them again the next day. The musical analogies help construct the image of the unity and dispersion: “Dispersed are we, the gramophone informed them. And dismissed them. So, straightening themselves for the last time, each grasping, it might be a hat, or a stick or a pair of suede gloves, for the last time they applauded Budge and Queen Bess; the trees; the white road; Bolney Minster; and the Folly. One hailed another, and they dispersed, across lawns, down paths, past the house to the gravel-strewn crescent, where cars, push bikes and cycles were crowded together.[…]the gramophone gurgled Unity — Dispersity. It gurgled Un… dis… And ceased.”(Woolf)

People do not live in a single world but in many, therefore Woolf gathers all her textual resources to symbolize the idea of dispersity: the text of the play and that of the novel are separated and then united again in the book, the world of the present is interwoven with that of the past and Isa Oliver has thinks she can see the primitive monsters and the rhododendron forests in the place where Piccadilly is the modern world:

She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the dawn like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake. Forced to listen, she had stretched for her favourite reading — an Outline of History — and had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.”(Woolf)

The image the “barking monsters” as well as that of the cows that interrupt the play with their noise at one point, suggests the presence of the primitive world of the past in the modern, civilized world. The theme of the pageant staged in the book, which is in fact a comprehensive outline of the entire history of England, also underlines this idea. The sea is another important imagistic element in this novel as well as in the previous books by Woolf. Talking about the fish that is to be brought and served at the party, Isa wonders how far the see might be from their village. The sea can be seen here as one of the dispersing elements, since it separated when it was formed England from the continent or on the contrary as a symbol for unity, the primordial unity that reigned before the world was divided and civilized: “Are we really,’ she said, turning round, ‘a hundred miles from the sea?’ […]’it seems from the terrace as if the land went on for ever and ever.’ Once there was no sea,’ said Mrs. Swithin. ‘No sea at all between us and the continent. I was reading that in a book this morning. There were rhododendrons in the Strand; and mammoths in Piccadilly.'”(Woolf)

Another important imagery is that of the flowers. For example, the flower that the little boy George holds I his hand for a moment is the symbol of completeness and unity. To see the flower complete as the child sees it is to have again the illusion of a unified world. The entirety of the flower is however broken when the child is frightened by an adult who comes towards him and speaks to him: “George grubbed. The flower blazed between the angles of the roots. Membrane after membrane was torn. It blazed a soft yellow, a lambent light under a film of velvet; it filled the caverns behind the eyes with light. All that inner darkness became a hall, leaf smelling, earth smelling of yellow light. And the tree was beyond the flower; the grass, the flower and the tree were entire. Down on his knees grubbing he held the flower complete. Then there was a roar and a hot breath and a stream of coarse grey hair rushed between him and the flower. Up he leapt, toppling in his fright, and saw coming towards him a terrible peaked eyeless monster moving on legs, brandishing arms.”(Woolf)

The sky and the clouds are also images of unity and dispersity. The randomly and asymmetrically arranged clouds give the impression that they obey no law in their movements, whereas the perfect and blue of sky that is not reflected in anything seems to be an image of the undivided absolute: “There was a fecklessness, a lack of symmetry and order in the clouds, as they thinned and thickened. Was it their own law, or no law, they obeyed? Some were wisps of white hair merely. One, high up, very distant, had hardened to golden alabaster; was made of immortal marble. Beyond that was blue, pure blue, black blue; blue that had never filtered down; that had escaped registration. It never fell as sun, shadow, or rain upon the world, but disregarded the little coloured ball of earth entirely.”(Woolf)

Thus, the imagery of the novel, which is for its most part inspired by the natural elements, suggests the idea that we live in a multifaceted world, where the separated worlds are united and dispersed again. The primordial sea is the symbol of the primordial unity of the land, while the rhododendron forests and the primitive monsters are the symbol of the presence of the past in the contemporary world. Another unifying element is that of the music. As Woolf tells us, music can make us “see the hidden” and “join the broken.” With the aid of music the separate worlds can be joined together for one moment, and the trees, flowers and rooks, can all “crowd together”: “For I hear music, they were saying. Music wakes us. Music makes us see the hidden, join the broken. Look and listen. See the flowers, how they ray their redness, whiteness, silverness and blue. And the trees with their many-tongued much syllabling, their green and yellow leaves hustle us and shuffle us, and bid us, like the starlings, and the rooks, come together, crowd together, to chatter and make merry while the red cow moves forward and the black cow stands still.”(Woolf)

From beginning to end, Woolf’s novel is filled with imagery of unity and dispersity. Different worlds are united and then separated again in the text. The present and the past, the old and the new, the world of the villagers who form an assembly to watch the pageant, all unite briefly and disperse again. According to Woolf and to the modernist literary trend that she represents, the modern world can not be comprised in a single unique voice. This is why such techniques as impressionism and stream of consciousness were used the modern authors to create the illusion of the multiple real worlds. Woolf uses in most of the novels the same predominant imagery: the sea, the waves, the flowers, the clouds to suggest that the world is made up of different layers of reality. These natural elements also suggest change, transformation and the continuous flow of all things in nature.

In Between the Acts, the idea of the general and disordered flow of things is suggested by the form of the narrative itself as well. The play that is set on stage represents the flow of history from its beginning to the present. The play is interrupted often by the audience itself or by the wind, to suggest that the continuum is broken many times. “The wind blew the words away.”(Woolf) the words of the actors are completely unintelligible at times, and the wind only carries to the audience the few essential names. The wind itself is another element of the natural world that is effectively used in the imagery of the novel:

The words died away. Only a few great names — Babylon, Nineveh, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Troy — floated across the open space. Then the wind rose, and in the rustle of the leaves even the great words became inaudible; and the audience sat staring at the villagers, whose mouths opened, but no sound came.”(Woolf)

Thus, Woolf employs almost all the natural elements available so as to create the symbolic imagery of the text. The novel itself has a loose structure and an almost non-existent plot. All the ideas come from the imagery and the linguistic use of the text. The text is thus a compilation of impressionistic images and lyrical elements that leave enough for the imagination of the reader to complete. Both the text of the historical play that is staged and the action that takes part “between the acts” are incomplete, and the words are lost in the wind, therefore the author seems to imply that the rest of the text is to be recreated in the imagination of the reader: “The producer,’ Mrs. Elmhurst read out for her husband’s benefit, ‘craves the indulgence of the audience. Owing to lack of time a scene has been omitted; and she begs the audience to imagine that in the interval Sir Spaniel Lilyliver has contracted an engagement with Flavinda; (Woolf)

As Woolf emphasizes, the plot does not matter only the emotion both in the play on stage and in the finished novel: “Did the plot matter? She shifted and looked over her right shoulder. The plot was only there to beget emotion. There were only two emotions: love; and hate. There was no need to puzzle out the plot. Perhaps Miss La Trobe meant that when she cut this knot in the centre? Don’t bother about the plot: the plot’s nothing. But what was happening? The Prince had come.”(Woolf)

The imagery of the novel, is partly symbolic and partly merely impressionistic, that is, it serves precisely to create the atmosphere and the emotion of the text. The use of the natural world in Woolf’s novels, usually aims at revealing the constant flow of all things in the world. The sky, the sea, the wind are images of transformation. In Between the Acts however there appears also the idea of the multiplicity of worlds in which we live in. The images of regression into the past, to the primordial times are the most important symbols in the novel, as they suggest the idea that the present and the past meet again. “The house had lost its shelter. It was night before roads were made, or houses. It was the night that dwellers in caves had watched from some high place among rocks.” The primitive world also suggests the regression to the undivided, instinctual, unconscious world of the beginning, which has gradually transformed into the modern, divided and plural world.

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts.

Virginia Woolf. Between the Acts.

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