NEH Grant EX-20049-01


Between the Acts



     Virginia Woolf’s final novel was published posthumously after her suicide in 1941.  The novel opens at Pointz Hall, the Oliver family home. Main characters are the patriarch, Bart Oliver, his sister, Lucy Swithin, Bart’s son, Giles, and his wife, Isa.  Giles and Isa’s marriage is troubled, and Giles has a flirtation with Mrs. Manresa, while Isa is attracted to Rupert Haines, a local farmer. William Dodge, a homosexual, receives fierce disdain from Giles, but Isa is fond of him.  Most of the novel occurs on a June day in 1939, centering on performance of a pageant written by Miss LaTrobe, a series of scenes depicting the history of England.  The interplay of the pageant and the villagers watching the pageant creates a layered effect, drawing the reader in as participant viewer. After the pageant, Reverend Streatfield gives a closing speech interrupted by warplanes overhead. It is significant that Woolf was living in rural Rodmell at the time, at Monk’s House, and frequently observed military aircraft, increasing the Woolf’s sense of imminent danger. They had been informed that since Leonard was Jewish, they were officially on the Nazi hit list; they expected an invasion and had suicide plans.  This sensibility may inform the work, which is both intensely connected to the present and highly symbolic.  Critical response was mixed, but it should be remembered that Woolf never finished the novel, and what we have is essentially a draft version.

Essay Questions & Paper Topics

1.      Explain the function and symbolism of the “prehistoric” passages.

2.      Study one of the sections of the pageant and explore its relationship to the larger meanings of the novel.

3.      Discuss the symbolism of the scene in which Giles kills the snake.

4.      Explore the tensions between the main characters.

5.      Study the final scene.  Speculate on the significance of the final lines, “Then the curtain rose. They spoke.”


Cramer, Patricia. “Virginia Woolf’s matriarchal family of origins in ‘Between the acts.’” Twentieth century literature. Summer 1993 v.39:2

de Gay, Jane. “’The bray of the gramopones and the voices of the poets’: art and political crises in “Between the acts.’” Critical survey. Sept 1998 v.10:3

Detloff, Madelyn. “Thinking peace into existence: the spectacle of history in ‘Between the acts.’” Women’s studies. July 1999 v.28:4

Miller, Marlowe A. “Unveiling ‘the dialectic of culture and barbarism’ in British pageantry: Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the acts.’” Papers on language and literature. Spring 1998 v.34:2

Pridmore-Brown, Michele. “1939-40: of Virginia Woolf, gramophones, and fascism.” PMLA May 1998 v.113:3

Wiley, Catherine. “Making history unrepeatable in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the acts.’” CLIO. Fall 1995 v.25:1

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “Final curtain on the war: figure and ground in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the acts.’” Style. Summer 1994 v.28:2

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