Between the Acts | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Between the Acts | Themes


The Individual and the Collective

The villagers come together each year to enjoy the annual pageant. They arrive and leave separately but share the experience of the day. Voices seem "bodiless" as the chattering during the intervals occurs. They feel insecure and "exposed" by the silence scripted by the director. None of them seem able to come to any agreement as to what it is that the director intended. The group seems to share a collective feeling of discomfort and uncertainty. One of the scenes of the play is titled "Present Time. Ourselves." There is collective anxiety at the present moment in history as war looms large in the background. The novel highlights the dichotomy between the mundane concerns of the individual and the grand concerns of history.

The Challenges of Communication

The novel is beset with miscommunications between the characters. Messages sent often admit to deeper layers of meaning that leave confusion in their wake. The central activity of the novel is the annual pageant with Miss LaTrobe's direction of a performance depicting the history of England. The characters struggle to understand the meaning that Miss LaTrobe intends to convey. Long periods of planned silence lead the villagers to feel frustration and despair about what it is that they ought to find in the performance's themes. Miss LaTrobe hides behind the stage in the bushes for the duration of the play. She refuses to make an appearance to explain things even after the play has come to an end. Miss LaTrobe will not answer any questions the villagers ask her later in the day about what meaning she intended with this year's performance.

Lucy Swithin also struggles to communicate her ideas. She feels distracted and "is given to increasing the bounds of the moment by flights into past or future." Lucy recalls her mother chastising her as a child when she would "stand gaping" at thoughts that carried her imagination away. The villagers call her "Batty" and "Old Flimsy" as nicknames that indicate her fickle mind. Her brother Bart Oliver knows her so well that he can finish her sentences and intuit her references to their shared past. He disapproves of her religious nature and she understands that faith is by its nature not capable of being communicated clearly.

Giles Oliver is plagued by thoughts about the war that looms large. His work as a stockbroker takes him to London often where the reality of political instability is inescapable. He has a hard time communicating his concerns with the other villagers. They are bogged down with the mundane affairs of their daily lives taking place far away from the bustling city. Giles knows no way to express his frustration other than through small physical displays of aggression. He slams his "chair into position with a jerk" when he arrives home on the morning of the pageant. He kicks stones on his way to the barn and smashes a snake with his foot. Giles "had no command of metaphor." Thoughts of guns and planes obsess his imagination. He has difficulty engaging in village gossip "with old fogies who sat and looked at views over coffee." His wife Isa feels completely estranged from him. He likewise suffers from a sense of alienation from his family.

Faith and Reason

Mrs. Lucy Swithin's cross hangs around her neck. She frequently thinks of her faith as she "ambles" along. Her thoughts are scattered, and her imagination easily carries her attention away to the distant past. Her brother Bart Oliver finds her faith trivial. He relies instead on logic and views faith as unsubstantiated hope. Bart considers Lucy a "separatist" with her divisive religious worldview.

A section of the play that the villagers watch at their annual pageant includes a character playing the role of Reason. The play depicts the history of England. Reason takes the stage to capture the period known as the Enlightenment that occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries. The character Reason praises hard work and daylight over dreams and darkness. Silence follows Reason's disappearance from the stage, and the program asks the audience to imagine what might happen next. The audience issues a mixed reaction to the program's request. Lucy Swithin is happy to be asked to use her imagination rather than to simply watch the scene play out on stage. Her imagination is powerful, and it leads her to a strong faith in things unseen. Those lacking in imaginative abilities are less likely to engage in speculation that requires blind trust. They are like Lucy's brother Bart Oliver and prefer to use the intellect to arrive at knowledge.

Reason promises knowledge and is associated with the sciences. Religion is increasingly suspect in the Enlightenment because it lacks verifiability. The fact that the section of Pointz Hall that was formerly a chapel has been converted into a larder indicates the backseat that religion occupies. One of the villagers wonders at the end of the play, "can the Christian faith adapt itself?" She is referring to the popular religion of Christianity that Lucy Swithin practices. Christianity celebrates the birth of an all-powerful being who takes human form to save humanity from its evil ways. The association of science with reason and knowledge threatens to make religion obsolete. Between the Acts asks whether or not faith can be seen as a reliable guide in an age of reason and scientific progress.

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