Sunday, November 25, 2012

Enter Stage Right: Encountering Women in Woolf Literature

Virginia Woolf’s novel, Between the Acts, printed posthumously, offers continued insights into Woolf’s ability to deftly manipulate spaces with words. She uses the movements of her characters to advance her literature and simultaneously provide a commentary on women as they negotiate through space. Author Helen Southworth addresses this phenomenon found in Woolf literature, particularly as women move from one place to another. “It entails a continual renegotiation of space. Breaking the threshold over and over again, Woolf’s woman marks the line separating inside and outside only to explode it moments later,” Southworth writes. (Ed. Snaith), p. 48. For example, Woolf carves this space for Lucy: “Lucy had just opened her lips to reply, and had laid her hand on the cross caressingly, when the gentlemen came in. She made her little chirruping sound of welcome. She shuffled her feet to clear a space. But in fact there was more space than was needed, and great hooded chairs.” (Woolf), p 215.   

To examine this further, let’s take a look at the power of the character of Lucy, who exerts her radiating presence to convince Giles to change his clothes. Later, she seems to drift ethereally from one place to another without the weight of the world on her shoulders. “He must change. And he came into the dining room looking like a cricketer, in flannel, wearing a blue coat with brass buttons, although he was enraged… Yet he changed. It was Aunt Lucy, waving her hand at him as he came in, who made him change.” (Woolf), p 46.

In another scene, she (Lucy) moves from one place to the next, while standing in the doorway threshold. “The door trembled and stood half open. That was Lucy’s way of coming in – as if she did not know what she would find. Really! It was her brother! And his dog! She seemed to see them for the first time. Was it that she had no body? Up in the clouds, like an air ball, her mind touched ground now and then with a shock of surprise. There was nothing in her to weight a man like Giles to the earth.” (Woolf), p 116.

Woolf’s strategic decision to position characters at the point of an intersection breaks open the literary opportunity for character development and plot. “Rather than positing two separate spaces, permitting distinctions such as inside/outside, yes/no to persist, Woolf focuses on intersections. These spaces are fraught with possibility,” Southworth states. (Ed. Snaith), p 49.  The author uses Lucy once again to reveal the presence “between two fluidities” that the character experienced following the play. “Lucy still gazed at the lily pond. ‘All gone,’ she murmured, ‘under the leaves.’ Scared by shadows passing, the fish had withdrawn. She gazed at the water. Perfunctorily she caressed her cross. But her eyes when water searching, looking for fish. The lilies were shutting; the red lily, the white lily, each on its plate of leaf. Above all, the air rushed; beneath was water. She stood between two fluidities, caressing her cross.” (Woolf), p 204.

Even with the eyes, Woolf personifies characters intermingling at intersections. For Isa, she witnessed the departure of individuals yet was still trapped by the conclusion “It was drifting away to join the other clouds; becoming invisible. Through the smoke Isa saw not the play, but the audience dispersing. Some drove; others cycles. A gate swung open. A car swept up the drive to the red villa in the cornfields. Low hanging boughs of acacia brushed the roof. (Woolf), p 213.

In Between the Acts, Woolf breaks the box of literary convention by interjecting a play into a novel, giving the reader a captivating experience. She further breaks the conventions of a “woman’s place” by showing the intersections of various spaces and showcasing how women navigate from various spheres and often poise themselves at an intersection.


Ed. Snaith, Anna and Michael H. Whitworth, ed. Locating Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts . New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company , 1941.



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