Consciousness, Literature and the Arts




Volume 7 Number 3, December 2006


“O Let’s Keep Together!” The Blurring of Individual Consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts




Isabel M. Andrés



In the midst of a society fragmented by the disruptive forces of an imminent war, intimately dovetailed with the expansion of fascist impositions, Virginia Woolf proposes the dissolution of isolating selfhood at the service of an all-encompassing and cohesioned composite. Accordingly, Woolf conjugates the communalistic postulates of French Unanimism, along with Bakhtin’s notion of a carnivalized optics to advocate for a popular form of collectivity, as well as to undertake a revisionary task of her society through the debunking and subversion of oppressiveness and authoritarianism.  


Indeed, consistently throughout the novel, the pageant provides a powerful device to join together the community of villagers. First, the collectivity gathered on occasion of the play possesses the heterogeneous quality of carnivalesque mésalliances, thus encompassing people of all ages and conditions. Certainly, from the retired Cobbet of Cobbs Corner to children, including members of the “most respected families”, along with new-comers, or the local reporter, a wide assortment of people come to enter this collectivity that forms around the pageant. Moreover, the carnivalesque nature of this medley becomes reinforced by means of certain linguistic procedures. Hence, one of the most evident devices amounts to the alliterative constructions present in “Cobbet of Cobbs Corner”, “Wickhams of Owlswick”, or “Dyces of Denton”, which obey to the homogenizing purpose through the decrowning and mockery of aristocracy, as is typical of carnival collectivities:


The audience was assembling. They came streaming along the paths and spreading across the lawn. Some were old; some were in the prime of life. There were children among them. Among them, as Mr Figgis might have observed, were representatives of our most respected families – the Dyces of Denton; the Wickhams of Owlswick; and so on. Some had been there for centuries, never selling an acre. On the other hand, there were new-comers, the Manresas, bringing the old houses up to date, adding bathrooms. And a scatter of odds and ends, like Cobbet of Cobbs Comer, retired, it was understood, on a pension from a tea plantation [....] Also there was Mr Page, the reporter, representing the local paper (68-9).


In addition, the sense of wholeness among the attendants to the spectacle is enhanced by the particular structure of the paragraph, some of whose primary axes rely on a series of parallel constructions arranged into binomials of opposites. The union of these pairs of contrasted elements favours a sense of completion: “Some were old; some were in the prime of life”; “[s]ome had been there for centuries [....] On the other hand, there were new-comers” (68).  


The desire for union is, in fact, in tune with one of the ontological principles central to the life of Mrs Swithin, who remarks “'But we have other lives, I think, I hope', she murmured. 'We live in others, Mr....We live in things'” (64). Actually, her statement echoes Bakhtin's definition of carnival experience, where he emphasizes the “familiar contact with everyone and everything [i] (1929:130). Accordingly, Mrs Swithin's theory is verified throughout the novel, as people's concern with remaining together is also extrapolated into the material world, which becomes imbued with a similar unifying zeal, thus acquiring a symbolic communal value. In this sense, the heterogeneous assembly of people that gather around the celebration of the pageant is echoed by the varied assortment of chairs arranged for them: “deck-chairs, gilt chairs, hired cane chairs, and indigenous garden seats had been drawn up on the terrace” (69).  


Likewise, while friends hail each other on meeting again at the end of the pageant and the audience as a whole exhorts itself to “keep together”, their vehicles represent a similarly multifarious unity in the surroundings of Pointz Hall, “where cars, push bikes and cycles were crowded together” (177). In addition, automobiles epitomize as well the cohesive concern that pervades the novel. Indeed, while the audience “was assembling” before the beginning of the celebration, “the window cars were assembling” concurrently down in the courtyard. Moreover, as well as the narrator emphasizes the union of the spectators into an integrated whole - “(t)ogether they leant half out of the window”, she also remarks the particular arrangement of the cars, whose “narrow black roofs were laid together like the blocks of a floor” (66).  


A similar purpose underlines the inclusion of the picture contemplated by Dodge while visiting Lucy's house (66). Its not at all random title, 'Good Friends', endows the painting with an allegorical value encapsulating the essence of that sense of communitas distilled by the celebration of the village pageant. Actually, one of the situations mentioned by P.J.Norrish in his analysis of the plays of Jules Romains as prompting the existence of unanimes is precisely the theatrical play, a circumstance the author points out in connection with Romains' La Vie Unanime (1926). Indeed, the audience themselves agree with the Unanimists on the interrelation established between the rapid pace of modern societies and the impulse for people to gather together. As Norrish has noted, a form of fusion takes place from the very beginning of the play: “(A)t the moment when the curtain goes up and attention is focused for the first time on the stage; the ‘total soul’ of the audience springs into life as the first words are spoken; and the soul of each individual is said to ‘dissolve’” (1958:6).


Accordingly, Streatfield confirms Lucy's previous assumption that “we live in each other”. Besides the already mentioned Unanimist reverberation of the Reverend's statement, which constitutes the Romainian belief in a form of spiritual communion within the group, Streatfield's words retain a considerable degree of similarity with the Bakhtinian conception of mass body: “The individual feels that he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity, a member of the people's mass body” (1989:229) and thus, as if imbued with Bakhtin's carnival spirit, Streatfield dares to affirm: “we are members one of another. Each is part of the whole” (172).


Significantly, in his account of the birth of les unanimes, Norrish emphasizes his notion of such groups as “particularly a feature of modern civilization”, in view of the interrelation established between the rapid pace of modern societies and the impulse for people to gather together. Precisely on the basis of this conception, whereby the rapid growth of towns has resulted in multiple forms of collective life everywhere (1958:4), Norrish seems to echo the audience in Pointz Hall, who remarks: “That's what's so nice – [the pageant] brings people together. These days, when we're all so busy that's what one wants...” (143).


Furthermore, like Romains and the rest of Unanimists, who believed in the emergence of one collective soul of individuality on occasion of communal gatherings, Reverend Streatfield affirms that “there is a spirit that inspires, pervades” (173). Later, his choice of words becomes strikingly revealing of the parallel with Unanimist theories when he concludes - “(o)ne spirit animates [ii] the whole” (180). Indeed, Woolf, who, like Bakhtin, had read in detail the novels of Dostoevsky, also praised the special relevance with which the soul was yielded in the author's narrative. In particular, she emphasized its presentation as fused with other souls, and this, by virtue of the freedom it was endowed with. Thus, according to Woolf's analysis of the Russian author: “The soul is not restrained by barriers. It overflows, it floods, it mingles with the souls of others [iii] (1925:68).


Indeed, the play has hardly begun in Between the Acts when the audience also experiences a first moment of fusion, even before being sure of the commencement of the pageant: “Then the play began. Was it, or was it not, the play? [...] All looked at the bushes. [iv] For the stage was empty”(70). At this stage, it is interesting to remark that such a moment of unity out of a collective experience entails significant similarities with a parallel scene in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Certainly, as we have seen, the collective contemplation of the royal car, which represents a form of spectacle for the populace, gathers a variety of people of all classes, ages and conditions, actually comparable to the convergence of aristocratic families, villagers, old people, and children that occurs in Between the Acts. In both cases, the climactic moment corresponds with the coincidence of all the members of the group when performing the action of looking at the same point. Hence, while in Pointz Hall “[a]ll looked at the bushes (Between the Acts, 70), the crowd gathered at the beginning of Woolf’s former novel experience a similar coincidence when “[...] all heads were inclined the same way” (Mrs Dalloway, 19).

In La Vie Unanime, Romains situates the moment in which that collective soul/body/ consciousness/mind – unanime – gradually comes into existence in the theatre experience even before the beginning of the play. Thus, the poet describes first how the audience is made up of different individuals. Yet, being unable to remain isolated, these soon begin grouping side by side. After this initial step towards togetherness – la juxtaposition – other factors contribute to the raising of that communal identity. Hereby, Romains explains the way in which the noise of the seats, of coughing, even of breathing, «s'accordent, se pénètrent», amalgamating into a unique compound which results in the fusion of the previously discrete individuals into a whole (1958:6).


Surprisingly, the events in Between the Acts unfold following a very similar pattern. Indeed, the villagers in Between the Acts, like the audience in Romains' poem, try to take their seats next to one another, while the noise produced by the chairs is just part of their wholeness and their unity of action upon the arrival of new members:


They grouped themselves together.

Then there was a rustle and an interruption. Chairs were drawn back [....] Mr and Mrs Haines had arrived (74).


Furthermore, if “there is sweet joy in company”, as the audience in Pointz Hall claims, Romains had also acknowledged a similar feeling in the required yielding of individual identity in the name of the community – an act which he comes to label as a form of slavery to humankind. As Norrish had expressed it: “The poet of La Vie Unanime clearly believes that a man should willingly sacrifice his individual being to that of the group, gladly accepting that his soul be mingled with the souls of his fellow beings. Communal living of this kind is held to be the highest good, for there is only joy, [Romains] felt, in being “’l’esclave heureux des hommes’” (1958:11).

Along with the particular arrangement of the pageant, Romains also emphasizes the linking potential of music, prompting the birth of a collective whole. In his poem “Le Square Parmentier”, Romains describes – as Norrish has explained – how a group of people gathered round a band-stand experiences a series of emotions different both in kind and intensity from those lived individually. In the middle of this state the group is aware, not of the sounds, but of the growth of certain forces which are gradually strengthened among them until, after a few minutes, “when interest in the music has stirred each listener to a pitch of feeling, a common rhythm envelops them all, filling the gaps and establishing a kind of psychological bond” (1958:5).


Indeed, music acts as a powerful linking force, compelling individuals to unity: “The audience was assembling. The music was summoning them” (107). Actually, as Cuddy-Keane has observed, the laws inherent to music confer a particular harmony on its listeners, which results in “the integration of human with natural sound” (1990:281). Accordingly, at a certain moment of the pageant, the spectators become identified with the mixed notes of different tunes, whereby the final harmonic fusion of the notes occurs parallel to the process of integration which encompasses, not only among the villagers, but also the narrator proper, who comes to join the gathering crowd in Pointz Hall by including herself as one of the summoned spectators when she states: “on different levels ourselves went forward”. Thus, like the chaotic mixture of notes that – in spite of their patent heterogeneity, as well as of the existence of certain points of divergences and opposite forces among them – achieve a harmonic unity, the spectators of the pageant along with the narrator also manage to eventually “solve” and “unite” from a similar “chaos and cacophony measure” (170).


Like quicksilver sliding, filings magnetized, the distracted united. The tune began; the first note meant a second; the second a third. Then down beneath a force was borne in opposition; then another. On different levels they diverged. On different levels ourselves went forward; flower gathering some on the surface; others descending to wrestle with the meaning; but all comprehending; all enlisted. The whole population of the mind's immeasurable profundity came flocking; from the unprotected, the unskinned; and dawn rose; and azure; from chaos and cacophony measure; but not the melody of surface sound alone controlled it; but also the warring battle-plumed warriors straining asunder: To part? No. Compelled from the ends of the horizon; recalled from the edge of appalling crevasses; they crashed; solved; united (169-170).


Hence, once “the reticence of nature [has been] undone” and not only the barriers dividing men, but even the very borders separating “Man the Master from the Brute” have disintegrated through music, an all-encompassing fusion of man and nature is possible. Thus, impelled by the cacophonic melody emitted by the gramophone, people and animals alike gather together to celebrate the merriness of the convergence into a communal bond:

And Lord! the jangle and the din! The very cows joined in. Walloping, tail lashing, the reticence of nature was undone, and the barriers which should divide Man the Master from the Brute were dissolved. Then the dogs joined in. Excited by the uproar, scurrying and worrying, here they came! Look at them! And the hound, the Afghan hound... look at him! (165)


Furthermore, even without resorting to its rhythmical effects, the gramophone also fulfils the unifying function by managing the intervals between the acts. Thus, it is under the indications of “Unity” / “Dispersity” that the audience gets to know the dynamics of the pageant. Considering this role, the gramophone has occasionally been identified with a form of authority over the populace. Hence, Pridmore-Brown envisions the inclusion of the machine as Woolf's explanation of fascist strategies to effect their control over the popular masses, and more precisely, as quoted by the critic, of “fascism's emphasis on acoustic communion” (2000:112, n.8). “Dispersed we are, the gramophone triumphed, yet lamented, Dispersed are we...”[v] (178).


Certainly, very much in tune with the upside-down logics of the carnival sense of the world, Woolf subverts the destructive value of machines on the threshold of an international conflict to put it at the service of her unifying zeal. Yet, in opposition to fascism, the end of this union is not the leader-centred hegemony over the masses, but rather the egalitarian cohesion of the community in a period menacingly marked by the evident outburst of disruptive powers. In fact, Woolf is cautious enough to prevent the gramophone from ascending to a leader position, whereby the machine's indications for Unity/Dispersity are endowed with a descriptive, rather than prescriptive meaning:

      Dispersed are we, the gramophone repeated [vi] (177).

      Dispersed are we, the gramophone informed them [vii] (177).

      Dispersed are we, the gramophone triumphed, yet lamented, Dispersed are we... [viii] (178).


In this sense, Pridmore-Brown has also pointed out the absence of quotation marks for the gramophone's speech, which, according to the author, constitutes the narrator's denial of providing the machine with character status, and therefore, with the possibility of becoming a leader.


Thus, the gramophone's final speech by the end of the novel constitutes a powerful vindication of carnivalistic principles through the assurance of the existence of an egalitarian basis underlying not only the community gathered in Pointz Hall, but also the whole of the humankind. Hence, after mentioning a variety of people of all ages and characteristics – ranging from children to aged people including both the rich and the poor, as well as a “lady of the manor”, to different types of murderers, artists, and intellectuals – the conclusion directly points to the belief in the permanence of human nature beyond the artificially imposed social stratification. Thus, if Bakhtin would hold that man escapes all types of hierarchy due to his free and unfinished nature in a world in permanent progress (1987:328), where hierarchical divisions among people lack any reasonable logic, the conclusion, as the gramophone affirms, is simply obvious - “O we're all the same”.


Before we part, ladies and gentlemen, before we go [...] let's talk in words of one syllable, without larding, stuffing or cant, let's break the rhythm and forget the rhyme. And calmly consider ourselves. Some bony. Some fat [....] Liars most of us. Thieves too [....] The poor are as bad as the rich are. Perhaps worse. Don't hide among rags. Or let our cloth protect us. Or for the matter of that book learning; or skilful practice on pianos; or laying on of paint. Or presume there's innocence in childhood [....] Or virtue in those who have grown white hairs. Consider the gun slayers, bomb droppers here or there. They do openly what we do slyly. Take for example [...] Mr. M's bungalow. A view spoilt for ever. That's murder... Or Mrs. E's lipstick and blood-red nails... A tyrant remember, is half a slave [...] Then there's the amiable condescension of the lady of the manor – the upper class manner [...] O we're all the same (168).


On the grounds of this principle of universal homogeneity underneath individual difference, the gramophone's speech advocates for the maintenance of community. Furthermore, the machine itself participates of the audience's feelings of merriment, and thus is able to assert triumphantly: “let us retain whatever made that harmony”, an invitation to cohesion immediately responded by the audience, who encourage themselves to “keep together. For there is joy, sweet joy, in company” (177).


In sum, Woolf undeniably resorts to any means within her reach in order to achieve the longed-for unity. Hence, in a time in which the major threat amounts to the dissolving, separating barriers menacing to impose themselves among individuals, the feelings of solidarity and communal cohesion still glimmer as the only possible solution against the alienating and powerfully dividing forces. In this sense, not only does the author choose a pageant as the centre where an ample variety of people converge and become fused into a unique whole through the specific implications of collective experiences. In addition, at the service of this erasure of barriers, Woolf does tune in the unifying powers of both music – either as created by man or as inherent to nature – and machines in order to prompt and impel the vehemently desired as well as vital cohesion into a unique fusionated whole.



Works Cited

Ames, C. 1990. Carnivalesque Comedy in Between the Acts. Twentieth Century Literature Winter 44 (2): 394-408.


Bakhtin, M.M. 1929. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, tr. Caryl Emerson (1984). Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Bakhtin, M. M. 1987. La Cultura Popular en la Edad Media y en el Renacimiento. El Contexto de François Rabelais, tr. Julio Forcat y César Conroy. Madrid: Alianza.


Beer, G. 1996. The Island and the Plane: the Case of Virginia Woolf. In Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground, 149-178.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Cuddy-Keane, M. 1990 . The Politics of Comic Modes in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts. PMLA 105 (2): 273-285.


Norrish, P.J. 1958. Drama of the Group. Unanimism in the Plays of Jules Romains. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Pridmore-Brown, M. 1998. 1939-40: Of Virginia Woolf, Gramophones, and Fascism. PMLA 113: 408-421.


Woolf, V. 1941. Between the Acts, ed. Frank Kermode (1992). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Woolf, V. 1925.  Mrs. Dalloway, ed. Elaine Showalter (1992). London: Harmondsworth.


Woolf, V. 1925. The Common Reader, First Series. London: Hogarth Press.