When Illusion Suceeds
Ms. La Trobe says it best in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts: 'This is death, death,
death - when illusion fails.' (p. 180) Various characters in the novel create illusions to
escape from the reality that grieves them. And those illusions are continually interrupted
by other characters who purposely or accidentally clear away the smoke and blow real air
into the dreamers' faces. Ms. La Trobe is probably correct: when illusion fails, it probably
is death. But she also probably went too far: Between the Acts reveals to us the resiliency
of illusion, and the difference between a dream interrupted and a dream destroyed.
The scene in the Pointz Hall library is laden with illusions created and shattered. First we
see old Bart dozing in his chair, dreaming of 'himself, a young man helmeted, and in the
sand a hoop of ribs, and in the shadow of the rock, savages; and in his hand a gun.' (p. 17)
It is a poignant juxtaposition: a wearied old man in his comfortable chair in his sheltered
home in England and the same man, many years earlier, undomesticated in his untamed
India. Is it this his old gun in his hand, or only the arm of his 'chintz-covered chair?' (p.
17) Isa enters. 'Am I interrupting?' she asks. (p. 18) No, Isa is not merely interrupting, she
is 'destroying youth and India' for Bart, wrenching him from the turf of his virile youth,
the grounds on which he acted instead of slept and fought men rather than his sister, and
thrusting him back into the quiet library of Pointz Hall.
Bart doesn't let Isa get away with this: 'Your little boy's a cry-baby,' he says (p. 18) He
does it to upset her, true, but he also does it to comfort himself, to remind her and himself
that he can still bully someone. Bart is a classic bully with a classic bully motivation. He
belittles Lucy, his dotty sister, and frightens George, his nervous young grandson, both
easy targets. He is seeking some shadow of his youth, of his India, of his masculinity. He
is attempting to escape his old man's body.
Isa is also preoccupied with youth, but she doesn't attempt to escape her years through
memory as Bart tends to do - she denies memory. Isa is 'book-shy'; 'for her generation,
the newspaper was a book.' (p. 19) She doesn't care to read Spenser or Keats or Yeats -
she can't read anything more than a day old, she refuses to be sucked into the past. Isa is
afraid to realize her 39 years, afraid to put them in the context of history, afraid to put her
39th year somewhere on the ever-growing timeline of her own life. Her relationship to