Between the Acts
Virginia Woolf and Wartime: Distortions of Natural and Pastoral Imagery in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and ‘Between the Acts’
Alexandra Harris claims in Romantic Moderns that to plant flowers in the middle of a war was to assert one’s firm belief in the future. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925 seven years after the first world war, and her final novel Between the Acts, published in 1941 in the midst of the second, are full of flowers. The pastoral and natural imagery in these novels echo with nostalgia, commemorating happier times past and hoping for their recreation. However, even in their abundance of flowers and birdsong, the images of the pastoral in Woolf’s work do not always look towards a brighter future. The images are distorted and corrupted, resonating with the remaining fears from the previous war and the encroaching fear of the war to come. In Between the Acts, Woolf uses natural imagery as a means to connect the present to the past, reflecting nostalgia as well as the hope that nature provides for continuity. Miss La Trobe flounders at the silence of the stage, but thankfully ‘the cows took up the burden…in the very nick of time she lifted her great moon-eyed head and bellowed.’ The pastoral animals fill the silent void, all in unison with the ‘same yearning bellow’ (p. 87). The cows are gentle and ‘great’, with eyes like a ‘moon’, timeless in orbit and with a worldly continuity. The visceral ‘bellow’ joins past and present together: ‘it was the primeval voice sounding loud in the ear of the present moment’ (p. 87). Their ability to cross boundaries of time stretches beyond the context of salvaging the pageant as they ‘annihilated the gap; bridged the distance; filled the emptiness and continued the emotion’ (p. 87). The ‘gap’ and ‘distance’ of time is ‘bridged’ by the cry of nature, one that filled the ‘emptiness’ left by human action, presenting the pastoral as an instrument to connect with the past and continue to a salvaged future. While the actors are still adorned in their pageant costumes portraying figures from England’s history, ‘each still acted the unacted part conferred on them by their clothes’ (p. 121). Their ‘beauty ’ (p. 121) from the past is ‘revealed’ (p. 121) by the light: ‘the tender, the fading, the uninquisitive but searching light of evening that reveals depths in water and makes even the red brick bungalow radiant’ (p. 121). The natural glow is ‘tender’, enveloping both nature and the industrial ‘red brick bungalow’, joining them under a single place and time to uncover the beauty in each. The idyllic, pastoral setting of the evening creates nostalgia for the beauty that is found in the ‘unacted part conferred on them by their clothes’, a ‘part’ that is rooted in pre-war England.Birds and flowers in particular are remembered in Mrs. Dalloway in conjunction with nostalgic thoughts. The depth of Clarissa Dalloway’s emotion for Peter Walsh as she looks at him ‘passing though all that time’ (p. 37) is likened to a bird that ‘touches a branch and rises and flutters away’ (p. 37). The emotion is fleeting and gentle, remembered in natural terms that remain ‘through all that time’. Clarissa’s happiest memory has flowers scattered in it, reflecting the positive connotations that they can have. This pinnacle, ‘the most exquisite moment of her whole life,’ followed ‘passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips’ (p. 30). The flowers are the catalysts and witness, poised in Sally Seton’s hand during Clarissa’s ‘most exquisite moment’. For all the magnitude of this instant, it is the presence of the flowers that take precedence, highlighting their lasting power. Clarissa in particular loves the flower that is arguably England’s symbol of continuity, establishing its roots slowly and firmly in the ground: the rose. She thinks them ‘absolutely lovely’ (p. 101) and cares about them more than international politics, such as the Armenians in the aftermath of their genocide during the First World War: ‘she cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians’ (p. 102). Nevertheless, they are also strangely ‘the only flowers she could bear to see cut’ (p. 102). This contradicts both her affection for them and their status as symbols of continuity, but hints, rather, at an emerging corruption of traditional natural imagery in face of the horrors of the war. Through likening humans to birds, often in a sinister manner, Woolf begins to corrupt pastoral imagery, tainting it with the actions of humans. In Between the Acts, Isa and Rupert Haines are trapped swans, ‘his snow-white breast circled with a tangle of dirty duckweed; and she too, in her webbed feet was entangled by her husband’ (p. 2). The ‘snow-white’ is polluted, and it is difficult to separate the ‘dirty duckweed’ that imprisons them both with connotations of barbwire, tangling, cutting and trapping those on the war front. People are constantly described negatively as animals, Mrs. Haines with her ‘gooselike eyes, gobbling’ (p. 3), Clarissa with ‘a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird’s’ (p. 9). The beggar woman in Mrs. Dalloway is a sinister bird, ‘a looming shape, a shadow shape’ (p. 70), steeped in an uncertain darkness, she possessed the ‘bird-like freshness of the very aged, she still twittered’ (p. 70). ‘Bird-like freshness’ is juxtaposed with ‘the very aged’, uniting the two and implying that birds now have ominous echoes of decay and death. The aggressive diction that Lucrezia uses to describe her husband Septimus Smith further distorts the bird symbol, drawing them closer to the monstrosities of the war. Her first impression of him was that of a ‘young hawk’ (p. 124), a bird of prey but still not yet aggressive, until Septimus becomes ‘a hawk or crow, being malicious and a great destroyer of crops’ (p. 126). The circling hawk, ‘malicious’ and ‘a great destroyer of crops,’ is not unlike circling military aircrafts, threatening to destroy what feeds and fuels a country. These comparisons of Woolf’s between birds and people corrupt natural imagery on several different levels. Firstly, the actions of humans – that of the war, maybe even of urbanization – have such large repercussions that they affect perceptions of the natural world, that which was meant to remain and continue. Secondly, there could even be suggestions of the transposition of human and animal roles, where humans are now prey on each other and like birds for game, fear being hunted. Moreover, humans are like birds in Woolf’s novels because birds create a birdsong, but through mirroring and merging with humans, it becomes a song of war. The pastoral requires birdsong and there is plenty in Woolf’s novels, but what once was a choir of idyllic chirping is distorted into the sinister, and eventually into a choir of war. Septimus, suffering from shell-shock, hears a sparrow chirping his name ‘four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words…joined by another sparrow they sang in voices prolonged’ (p. 21). Birds singing with Greek voices were not an unfamiliar notion to Woolf, who in February 1904 suffered her first complete mental breakdown after hearing birds speaking in Greek. The birds’ voices are now an indication of madness, a corruption of nature. The birdsong is tormenting and ‘prolonged’, the voices are invasive and piercing like the sounds of bombs, drones, gunfire and screams – painful memories for a shell-shocked Septimus. However, in Between the Acts, a novel published in 1941, these links to wartime are made even more explicit. The birds are portrayed just as ‘piercingly’, constantly preventing the characters from sleep: ‘she had been waked by the birds. How they sang! Attacking the dawn…’, ‘the random ribbons of birds’ voices woke her’ (p. 127). The diction used begins to resemble that of wartime, ‘attacking’ in the morning and randomly appearing in ‘ribbons’ of sound. Like air raids, the birds are an aerial onslaught, resounding and preventing humans from sleep and peace. The swallows that dance to the music of the pageant are similar, ‘retreating and advancing…yes, they barred the music, and massed and hoarded’ (p. 113). The birds ‘retreat and advance’ like soldiers on the field in their multitudes, barring the music of England’s happier past in the play with the song of the present and near future, a song at this point that Woolf knows, is one of war.The distortion of nature, then, signals a loss of the hope and nostalgia found in the pastoral, and indicates the resignation to another world war, the second that Woolf has seen. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf and the characters are still recovering from the First World War, but there is the slightest glimmer of hope: ‘the aeroplane soared straight up, curved in a loop, raced, sank, rose, and whatever it did, wherever it went, out fluttered behind it a thick ruffled bar of white smoke’ (p. 17). The plane here is safely for commercial use, ‘writing letters in the sky’ (p. 17), and in its description resembles a swan. The plane ‘raced, sank, rose’ in the same way a swan would in water, and this image is compounded by the ‘thick ruffled bar of white smoke’, like the ruffled white feathers of the bird. In its comparison to a swan, the plane adopts a naturality that reflects the optimism for the positive undercurrents of the pastoral to return. This, however, is contributed to the historical placing and publication of Mrs. Dalloway, nestled seven years after the First World War without the second in sight. In Between the Acts, however, this begins to change. Airplanes are still compared to birds: ‘twelve aeroplanes in perfect formation like a flight of wild duck came overhead’ (p. 119) and the ducks are still thought of in their unison and harmony, ‘perfect formation’. In spite of this, when applied to the planes, the devised aerial arrangement assumes an ominous tinge, indicating that the war is near. Eventually, the inverse comparison of birds as planes is achieved, as starlings become aerial forces attacking a tree, ‘the whole tree hummed with the whizz they made, as if each bird plucked a wire. A whizz, a buzz rose from the bird-buzzing, bird-vibrant, bird-blackened tree’ (p. 130). The starlings are now mechanical with whizzing sounds and wires, no longer birds but ruthless machines. Conveyed in a tricolon of the birds’ actions, the tree is overwhelmed and helpless as they would not ‘stop devouring the tree’ (p. 130). There is no ‘perfect formation’ but merely a chaos that resonates with mechanical, weapon-like sounds that appear to have seeped into the creatures of nature, Woolf disclosing that war is here. Woolf has shown the state of pastoral and natural imagery to be indicators of historical significance in her novels. These images are connections to a happier past, and as Fussell aptly expresses, recourse to the pastoral is a means of both fully gauging the calamities of The Great War and imaginatively protecting oneself against them. However, their distortion throughout Mrs. Dalloway and more significantly Between the Acts betrays a disintegration of this hopeful nostalgia. The transformation of the natural world into a world of warfare presents Woolf, who in Mrs. Dalloway was attempting to recover from the First World War, eventually being disillusioned in Between the Acts by the emergence of the second. Between the Acts is appropriately named, after all, set in between two great acts – the two wars. So, flowers and birds for Woolf are no longer, as Harris argues, optimistic symbols of hope. An episode between Woolf and her husband Leonard encapsulates this sentiment, when one afternoon she called him in from the garden to listen to Hitler on the radio, but he preferred to carry on planting irises that would be ‘flowering long after Hitler is dead’. The flowers are Leonard’s optimistic hopes, but Virginia was sitting inside listening to Hitler, dismissing the natural world, hearing and listening instead to the voice of war – a sound that corrupts the pastoral in her novels.
The Double Lives of Servants: A Comparison and Contrast Between the Representation of Servants in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy
In her novel Between the Acts, Virginia Wolf explores the dichotomy that arises when two entirely separate social classes live under one roof together. Likewise, Jamaica Kincaid gives an intimate portrayal of a young au pair working in a wealthy, white household. Though the two authors differ greatly in the use of servants in their novels, many of their ideas about servants’ roles in society are similar. Even though the servants in Woolf’s novel are, for the most part, secondary characters, Woolf hints at their importance by using words and phrases suggestive of the servants equality, perhaps even superiority, over the main characters. Kincaid does not bother with subtlety in showing how her servant character Lucy is vastly superior to the people for whom she works. In both books, the authors use careful diction, imagery and symbolism to portray their ideas about servants. For purposes of clarity and length this essay will solely focus on comparing and contrasting the following passages: Pages 31-34 in Between the Acts and pages 32-33 and 58 in Lucy .In the passage from Between the Acts, Woolf’s diction gives the reader information on the position of servants in the household. Firstly, Woolf declines to give the reader the real name of “Mitchell’s boy”, indicating that his fleeting existence in and out of the household (as well as in and out of the novel), is not important, even though his real name was written in the “Doomsday Book” (31), a book of antiquity that listed family names. Woolf’s omission of Mitchell’s boy’s name is contrasted by the list that follows of three family names “Waythorn, Roddam, and Pyeminster”, all of which are also in the Doomsday book. The implication of listing these names while leaving out the real name of Mitchell’s boy is that even though the Mitchell’s boy’s name is in the Doomsday book along with the others, his name no longer retains importance because he is a servant. While the other three names are of wealthy families who get fresh fish delivered from one hundred miles away, Mitchell’s boy is simply the means by which these wealthy families get their fish, and therefore his name is not important. By telling the reader that Mitchell’s boy’s name and the other three names were all in the Doomsday Book, Woolf is suggesting that all four names have some sort of equality, at least in terms of the “oldness” of their names. The longevity of a name holds no power for those who are presently servants, yet it is a nice accouterment for the wealthy, for they can brag that their wealth is a result of their old name.As a final thrust to this argument, Woolf writes “The cook – Mrs. Sands she was called, but by old friends Trixie-had never in all her fifty years been over the hill, nor wanted to.” The reversal of calling a servant “Mrs. Sands” when her old friends know her as Trixie suggests that Mrs. Sands has resorted to her more refined name so that she may earn the respect of her employers, who place great importance on names. Woolf does not state specifically whether Mrs. Sands’ name is in the Doomsday Book or not, but either way, Mrs. Sands is a woman who has completely morphed into her role as a servant in that she seems completely uninterested in the world beyond her kitchen. Unlike Mitchell’s boy, Mrs. Sands has never traveled over the nearest hill, nor has she any desire to do so. In this way she provides a great contrast to Mrs. Swithin, who is always daydreaming about some far away place or time.Another example of how Woolf’s word/name choice reflects the role of servants is Woolf’s description of the metamorphous of the name of the “very fine yellow cat who rose majestically from the basket chair and advanced superbly to the table” (32). The name of the cat changes depending on whether it is located in the drawing-room, where it is called Sung-Yen, or in the kitchen, where it is called Sunny. Even though it is not directly stated, the implication of this metamorphous is that the family calls the cat Sung-Yen, while the servants call it Sunny; this is an inference that the reader draws just by the contrasting purposes of the drawing room and the kitchen. In other words the servants are not very likely to spend much time in the drawing room (unless cleaning it) and the family is not likely to spend time in the kitchen, for the servants prepare all the food. Ironically, it is Mrs. Swithin who notes that, “Next to the kitchen the library’s always the nicest room in the house” even though it is probable that Mrs. Swithin spends far less time in the kitchen than the servants.More interestingly are the symbolic meanings of the names Sung-Yen and Sunny. It is important to note that Sung Yen was an emperor of a province in China in 520 AD who saw one of the regions in his control, Gandhara, invaded and destroyed by the White Huns. The Huns “virtually expiated Buddhism, had destroyed monasteries and had slashed most of the population of Gandhara” (Marx). This information is important for several reasons. Firstly, it draws a parallel between the Huns destroying a Buddhist civilization and the Nazi invasion of Britain in the early 1940s, the time period in which Woolf wrote Between the Acts. The Huns, like the Nazis, are infamous in history for their brutal and savage methods of war. Secondly, the “very fine yellow cat” can be interpreted to mean an Asian emperor, as yellow is often a term used by Western peoples, sometimes derivatively, to describe the Asian race.The fact that the cat is called Sung Yen when it is in the vicinity of the drawing room also emphasizes an earlier scene in the novel, in which Woolf writes “Many old men only had their India” (18), implying that the men in the house read books about the far east to escape into a romantic, Orientalist fantasy. This fantasy has manifested itself in the naming of the cat after an emperor who saw the downfall of his civilization. The irony of this is that while the men are dreaming of the fantastic and romantic stories of ancient gory battles and the lost civilizations of China, their own present civilization is on the verge of collapsing in a very unromantic, unexotic way to the Nazis. When Woolf adds later that the “chapel had become a larder, changing, like the cat’s name, as religion changed” (32) she adds the Protestant Reformation as another example of one society conquering another.Meanwhile, the servants in the kitchen see that the cat is yellow and therefore call him “Sunny” which makes much more sense to them than Sung-Yen since they most likely have never read any literature about ancient China. And it can also be inferred that just as the servants have turned a chapel into a larder, they have taken a name full of symbolic and historic meaning and turned it into something childishly simple. (This is also the case on page 32 when the servants take all of the glamour and respect out of the name “Master” by calling him “Bartie” in the kitchen, and the fact that they call Mrs. Sands “Trixie”). In this way Woolf shows that the servants are much more practical people than the family for which they work; Sunny is a much more common-sense name for a yellow cat than a name derived from an obscure Chinese emperor that lived over 1500 years ago. The name “Sunny” also implies that the servants, though their lives contain more tangible hardships, are actually more carefree about their situations than the members of the family. Even though the family members do not have to work (nor do they seem to do anything except read and put on pageants) they create their own hardships by pining for a fictitious, romantic past and brooding over the present. Perhaps this is because if the Nazis, like the Huns, were to destroy British civilization, the servants would have the least to lose, whereas the nobility, like the emperor Sung Yen, would lose their long maintained superiority.Another example that shows Woolf’s ability to subtly reflect the roles of servants through her diction and imagery is when Mrs. Swithin enters the kitchen to help Mrs. Sands prepare the sandwiches (34). Woolf writes “Mrs. Sands fetched bread; Mrs. Swithin fetched ham” and in this way reflects the social status of each woman; the servants eat bread while the wealthy can afford pricey meats. At first it seems that Mrs. Swithin is being generous by helping the cook prepare the sandwiches, but then Woolf lets the reader know that while the women performed this “handiwork together” the cook is the only one who is really working. While the “cook’s hands cut, cut, cut” Mrs. Swithin daydreams about bread, yeast, alcohol, Bacchus, and a youthful romantic encounter “under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy”. Once again, Woolf shows the practicality of the servant and the flightiness of the master. Woolf continues this idea until it seems that not only are the servants more practical than their masters, but they are also somewhat superior in intelligence, at least in common sense intelligence. Woolf writes “In the kitchen they humored old Mother Swithin’s fancies”. This suggests that instead of the masters looking after the servants, the exact opposite is true; Mrs. Sands looks upon Mrs. Swithin as sort of a childlike figure, who must be humored and not taken seriously. Even though Woolf makes it clear that Mrs. Sands understands her place (as demonstrated when Mrs. Sands says her nephew has been doing “what boys shouldn’t; cheeking the master”) the reader can interpret the entire scene as evidence that in many ways the servants of the household are stronger and more intelligent than their masters.In her novel, Lucy, Jamaica Kincaid uses tactics similar to Woolf’s to come to a similar conclusion that servants often excel their masters at perceiving reality. The main difference between the servants in Woolf’s novel and Kincaid’s character Lucy is that while the servants play a secondary part in Between the Acts, Lucy is the main character throughout Kincaid’s novel. Instead of relying on intermittent scenes to infer the author’s thoughts on servants as the reader must do in Woolf’s work, Kincaid allows the reader to directly experience the life of the traditionally secondary character. In other words, Between the Acts is a book about the type of people represented by Mariah and Lewis in Lucy, whereas Lucy is a book that focuses on the character represented by Mrs. Sands in Woolf’s novel.By giving the reader the perspective of the servant Kincaid is able to highlight the intricacies of society that often go unnoticed by non-servants. Kincaid writes “The other people sitting down to eat dinner all looked like Mariah’s relatives; the people waiting on them all looked like mine” (32). This statement points out something that is obvious yet overlooked; it is clear that everyone sitting at the table is white and that everyone serving them is black, yet Lucy is the only one that seems to notice this, or think about it. Even though it is clear to everyone in the scene that the whites are eating dinner while the blacks are serving them, the people at the table seem to have never thought about this; for them it is a way of living that is unquestioned. As children, it is possible that they had an au pair like Lucy that subconsciously taught them that black people were their servants. And as for the black servants that Lucy observes as well, they too seem unquestioning of their position. Lucy describes them as “very dignified, as if they were just emerging from a church after Sunday service”. But whether the other black servants, like Lucy, are consciously thinking about the separation of whites and blacks in the room or not, their dignity, in addition to Lucy’s lucidity in sizing up the situation is a testament to Kincaid’s positioning of servants as equal to, perhaps even superior to, their masters.Lucy’s realization of racial segregation in the dining room, however, is not a realization that she is just like the other servants because of her color. Kincaid writes “On closer observation, they were not at all like my relatives, they only looked like them. My relatives gave backchat”. Lucy’s distinction between the servants and her relatives is an important one because it shows that she sees that even though she may share the same skin color as the other servants she is not necessarily like them. It is possible that Mariah and the other white diners believe that Lucy has more in common with the black servants because they look alike. Kincaid makes it clear, however, that Lucy is as different from the other black servants as she is from the white people at the table. By doing so, Kincaid also highlights one of the major themes throughout Lucy; namely that each person is unique and comes from a very specific background. Lucy does not like it when people ask her if she is from “the islands” because Lucy’s island is very specific to her, and every other island is very different from hers. Likewise, the dining room scene lets the reader know that it is wrong to believe that her race is the only thing that defines her personality, for her personality and personal experiences differ widely from those of the other servants.Another scene in which Kincaid uses Lucy’s perspective to reflect the different roles of servants is when Mariah shows Lucy the “freshly plowed fields that she loved so much” (33). In this passage Kincaid’s diction is especially reflective of the idea that servants see much more than what their masters think they see. Kincaid writes “Mariah left her own compartment” indicating the separation between where the rich white woman sleeps and where her au pair sleeps. Mariah draws up Lucia’s “blind” for her. The word blind in this context has several connotations. Firstly it suggests that Lucy can not draw the blind for herself, that Mariah must draw the blind for her, and then condescendingly “enlighten” Lucy with something Lucy had supposedly not been aware of before. Secondly it suggests that Lucy was “blind”, as in, she had no idea what beauty a plowed field could hold. As Kincaid shows the reader, Lucy is not only beyond appreciating the beauty of a field, but she also realizes what a plowed field symbolizes – the enforced slavery of millions of her ancestors. Mariah is unaware of this symbolism; she is only able to see the beauty of the freshly plowed fields. This episode intensifies the feeling throughout the book that the most naive characters are the masters while the servants have a much sharper perception.Perhaps the passage that reflects Lucy’s role as a servant most poignantly in Kincaid’s novel is the one in which Lucy describes what Dinah thinks of her (58). This passage directly states that while others view Lucy as a kind of sub-human entity, she intelligently dissects who they are, and what they want. Kincaid writes “To a person like Dinah, someone in my position is the girl’ – as in the girl who takes care of the children'”. By showing Dinah’s refusal to give Lucy her own specific name, Kincaid echoes the theme that people like Dinah are able to ignore disturbing thoughts (such as a servant being more intelligent than her master) by dissociating that servant from any specificity. Dinah can more easily ignore Lucy as a person if she thinks of her as “the girl who takes care of the children” instead of “Lucy”. Dinah’s refusal to acknowledge Lucy’s name is an indication that Dinah feels she is superior to Lucy in some way; after all, Dinah is “Dinah”. Yet Lucy sees that Dinah is not a specific person, but a “cliche…something I was very familiar with”. Lucy’s accurate portrayal of Dinah creates irony; Dinah is the stereotypical jealous woman, while Lucy is anything but the stereotypical servant that Dinah perceives her to be.Both Virginia Woolf and Jamaica Kincaid have elevated the roles of servants in their novels to be more than transient accoutrements to the main characters of the plot. In Woolf’s case this elevation is more subtle and its extent can only be seen by a careful analysis of her prose. In Kincaid’s novel the servant is the main character, and through relatively simple language Kincaid reveals complex intricacies in the relationships of the servant to the master. Both authors show how servants live in double worlds, the worlds of their masters, and the worlds which are uniquely their own. These worlds come alive when Woolf and Kincaid show the servants trying to balance them and transcend through the barriers that each world holds. When Woolf and Kincaid show that Mrs. Sands is also Trixie, and that “the girl who takes care of the children” is also Lucy, the reader is introduced to the complicated lives of the servants.Work CitedIrma Marx. “Gandhara School”.