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Incandescent clichés in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts

Virginia Woolf uses many images in the Between the Acts. Like the other novels I read in the class, the images in the Between the Acts cannot be separated with the story development, and the images themselves construct the story in the book by dismantling the conventional expectation for the novel. However, Woolf uses common and conventional words and images with an experimental way in this novel. This novel constructs the images and the representation with their conventional words and actions of the characters. I think Woof explores how the communal use of the words like songs and cliché makes another meaning or another reversion in their daily life here. The characters in the novel are in the between representative words and their intentions which are overlapped into the words or erased and hidden by the words. The acts in the title of the novel are not only the acts in the play, but also the motion which the characters make and expect, and the motion of the natural sounds and the silence which the people cannot control the interruption from them.

I want to look at how Virginia Woolf uses the words from the people, sounds from the things, and the images of clothes and history for her story in her last novel, Between the Acts. Virginia Woolf's words are not just the tools for her writing but the words themselves are constructing and de-constructing a main plot of the novel. And I think to look the gap between the words and the character's representations who is using the words is the one of the ways to read this novel. Especially, in this novel, she uses words and actions for showing and erasing the gap between the absence and the presence which is prevalent in this novel.

Between the acts is also the book about the process. It can be the process to be something, or it can be the process to be nothing. All incidents and people in the book can be said to do something between their presence and their absent future and absent hope which is coming to them by the appearance of the war. The occurrence of the nature in the book which is placed mainly is not their purpose or their attempt for the purpose, but the interruption occurring in the everywhere and dispersing to the every place in the book. The interruption from the uncontrollable is the main character in Between the Acts. All words have another meaning which is not intended by the interlocutors so that it can be an another interruption between the interlocutors. It is the book about the control and release of the acts and words. All actions which should be controlled by the owners are dispersed in the whole book without any apparent connection. This book is written by Virginia Woolf who feels the imminence of the war. The characters and the situation in the novel are also confronted with the forthcoming war and feel the insecure ambience of the war. In this insecure background, this book is attempting to grasp something which is not here and also not there in the war. I think it is the hope for themselves and the hope which is dispersed in the nature around themselves. In Between the acts, there is no center which is gathering the story and the characters. It is the story to disperse the center if there is one. It is the story about the between. In between, there is a play which is cut and interrupted by other unintentional sounds and acts, the characters who have no coherent representation but are connected with everything by its incoherence, and the time which includes everything and spread everything. I want to argue the center dismantling process by the layered representations which are occurring between the audience and the pageant, between the people and the nature, between the words and the sounds and between the history and the place in the book. This book is hard to define because it is written by denying the fixed writing by the words. I will look closely Between the acts with these terms and this view.


Sounds with the words are one of the important components in Between the acts. The sounds are everywhere, but it is hard to catch them because of that reason, in fact. 'The cow coughed'. And 'the bird chuckling outside' from the beginning of the novel. There are sounds from the nature and the sounds which are made with some ignored intention.

She tapped the window---.the drone of the trees was in their ears: the chirp of birds; --- absorbed them. (P13)

The repeated words become the sounds which lose their original meanings.

The words were like the first peal of a chime of bells. ---- Every summer, --- Isa had heard the same words;---The same chime followed the same chime,---' (P20)

However, before the sounds and the words, there is silence through the book. Silence is the premise of the words or the obstacle for the sounds. Isa sings,

flying, rushing through the ambient, incandescent, summer silent,'.(P14)---- 'Empty, empty, empty; silent, silent, silent. The room was a shell, singing of what was before time was;(P33)

The silence becomes one of the sounds like a sound on a shell. The sounds is everywhere. The uncontrollable sounds from the outside like the noise of airplane, the cow crying, and the machine in the forest are invading the audience and the pageant.

The words dies away.--- Then the wind rose, and in the rustle of the leaves even the great words became inaudible; and the audience was staring at the villagers, whose mouth opened, but no sound came.--- From the cow after cow came the same yearning bellow.--- It was the primeval voice sounding loud in the ear of the present moment.(P125)

It looks like the play of Miss La Trobe cannot be reached to the audience by the interrupting noise.

The word was cut in two. A zoom severed it. Twelve aeroplanes in perfect formation like a flight of a wild duck came overhead. That was music.(P174)

That noise cuts the whole word of the Mr. Streatfield and makes the word as a noise from the mouth. The half word becomes the sound like the aeroplane and becomes the music with the noise. The mechanical noise, the sound of the duck and the music become one which severs the word to release from the meaning, I think. The meaning is dispersed with the attempt of Mr. Streatfield looking for the lesson of the pageant. However, the noise which is coming into the words and communications continuously is not demonized like what Michel Serres says. In his essay on the Platonic dialogue, he terms the noise as an obstacle to the communication.

They (two interlocutors who is participating in the conversation) battle against noise---- To hold a dialogue is to suppose a third man and to seek to exclude him; a successful communication is the exclusion of the third man.1

I think Virginia Woolf uses the sounds or the noise in very interestingly different way from the Serres's definition for the constructuon of the novel. The most characters don't fight against the noise nor make it demonized. It is Miss La Trobe who is trying to control the noise by her play's reach to the audience. Miss La Trobe fights vehemently with the noise from the forest and the noise from the audience and the player. The interesting thing in her rage is that the rage itself becomes to be absorbed in the one of the sounds which are dispersed everywhere. The characters are included in the noise and the sounds of the silence by their conversation. The rage of Miss La Trobe about the play and her talent becomes the sound of the forest and one of the roles of the whole play. In this book, the conversation is not the thing between the interlocutors, but the open listening to the others around them. When she is in the public house, she reconciles with the sounds, the noises, not the understandable deciphered words. She accepts the noise of the words. It is rather an acceptance to make layered communication not to fight against which makes the 'perfect' or the expected communication in the Between the acts. The dialogues Woolf wants and creates are

---the rolling words like sweets on their tongues; which , as they thinned to transparency, gave off pink, green, and sweetness.( P9)

The pageant which is played in the middle of the noise is completed by the acceptance of the primeval and natural voices when Miss La Trobe frees her words with other noise from the forest. By completing the play, the play erases the place of the middle and accepted the place where is absorbed into the other sounds. When the play is finished, she expects the another words in the noise of the public house.

Words of one syllable sank down into the mud. She drowsed; she nodded. The mud became fertile. Words rose above the intolerably laden dumb oxen plodding through the mud. Words without meaning- wonderful words. (P191)

It is the transparent word which is thinned by the sounds in the public house, I think. It is the complete answer for Bart's musing about the thought without words before the play. The mud in which she is drowsing is the thought without words and it can be also the pond the lady is drowning and the fish is swimming. The thought with absent words is completed the words with absent meaning, sounds, and the cliché. Cliché or the worn word can be the perfect representation for the thought which is slipped into the words and the sounds of the words. I think Woolf uses cliché effectively to show how the words always going into the sounds by speaking and returning from the sounds by listening. By using cliché, they hide their meanings or they erase their meanings. Words slip into the cliché and have another peals by the time when they are spoken like the repeating chimes between Mr. Oliver and Mrs. Swithin are changed by Isa's newspaper reading. Cliché is used many times in this book and it is not used only as a cliché.

'The father of my children', she added, slipping into the cliché conveniently provided by the fiction. Inner love was in the eyes; outer love on the dress-table (P13)

'Books are the mirrors of the soul.' In this case a tarnished, a spotted soul.--- The library's always the nicest room in the house,' she quoted, and ran her eyes along the books.(P14, P15)

Cliché is not only the quotation but also the situation which is repeated in the years like the dialogue between Mrs. Swithin and Mr. Oliver. However, the cliché doesn't have exactly same meaning whenever it is spoken.

Every summer, for seven summers now, Isa had heard the same words; about the hammer and the nails; the pageant and the weather.--- The same chime followed the same chime, only this year beneath the chime she heard: 'the girl screamed and hit him about the face with a hammer.' --- 'The father of my children.' It worked, that old cliché; she felt pride; and affection; then pride again in herself, whom he had chosen.(P20)

Cliché is the words becoming sounds like chime by its repetition. Isa is the one who use cliché for her hidden feeling and she makes a gap between her words and her meaning by using cliché. It is the intentional gap, but she cannot grasp the gap what she wants, I think. It is the transparent words before it is used by the specific user. Because it is already transparent like the sounds, it should be added another meaning to be the words, I think. Isa uses a cliché for her safe distance. When she wants to be left even from herself, she uses cliché, the father of my children'. She can keep the distance from her husband by this genealogical connection with her children. It is only she who can identify or deny the father of her children if I paraphrase the sentence. It expresses her hope and despair for the relationship with Gilles. It is the words cannot be written, and words incandescent, I think. And also it is the abortive words which become the sounds not to have any representative power. The meaning of the cliché, father of my children, is mixed feeling. She can have the pride in herself by objectification of herself in cliché, and she can have the distance from herself in the daily life. The pageant written by Miss La Trobe is in fact a collection of cliché. It is an old story with worn words like the costume made by worn rags. The big part of the Between the acts is the play of cliché and this cliché play becomes to be changed by the role of the audience and the noisy sounds from the forest.

Isa's other representations in the book are also interesting to me.

Isa, his son's wife, came in with her hair in pigtails; she was wearing a dressing-gown with faded peacocks on it. She came in like a swan swimming its way; ---Isa raised her head. The words made two rings, perfect rings, that floated them, herself and Haines, like two swans down streams. But his snow-white breast was circled with a tangle of blockquotety duckweed; and she too, in her webbed feet was entangled, by her husband stockbroker.--- she (Mrs. Haines) would destroy it, as a thrush pecks the wings off a butterfly.---she could see three separate versions of her rather heavy, yet handsome face.--- 'Abortive', was the word that expressed her.--- Thick of waist, large of limb,----she sighed, pegged down on a chair arm, like a captive balloon, by a myriad of hair-thin ties into domesticity.(p3.4.13,17)

In this paragraph on the beginning of the novel, Isa is depicted with contrasted images. The faded peacock, which is supposed to have the brilliant tail, cannot fly, and lives on the land, is overlapped the images of white swan which is swimming on the water. And then, Isa becomes the wingless butterfly in the imagination of Mrs. Haines who becomes the strong bird. Finally she is a captive balloon pegged down. Isa's image moves slow and dull and stops in this description. And Isa's real images is described as a heavy body. She is trapped in the heavy body with broken or useless wings. She sings "---flying mounting through---there to lose what binds us here---". Even though Isa is described as a bird images, it is the bird or the butterfly with useless or destroyed wings. I think her cliché is her small wings by which she can have the distance from her daily life like her songs or the poems. The song like her cliché gives her the wings. Giles who entangles Isa is the one who disentangles the line of her fishing rod to catch the leaping salmon. The images of a fish is present several times in the book. The fish Mrs. Swithin remembers and misses is the fresh salmon with lice which are eating its flesh. The salmon is being eaten by lice and eaten by people. The fish is not dead, but it is not alive. It can be related with the toad in the mouth of the snake Gilles sees in the forest.

---a snake. Dead? No, chocked with a toad in its mouth. The snake is unable to swallow; the toad is unable to die. A birth wrong way round- a monstrous inversion. So, raising his foot, he stumped on them--- But it was action. Action relieved him.(P89)

Before he acts on the animals, he leaves William Dodge fixed in the cliché of ' toady; a lickspittle;' instead of the his own word because he 'cannot speak this word in public'. The image for Dodge by Giles is borrowed from the common expression, but the meaning toady becomes slipped into the two meanings like between the toad-eater which is a synonym of it and the toad which is from the word image. It can be easily connected with his action which relieves him. William Dodge is in the between the being and nothing like a birth wrong way round. William Dodge is a good example of the slipped image between the representations in this book, I think. He is assumed as a certain fixation, a gay, by the most characters, but they cannot speak the word they fix for him. The words cannot be spoken like the other words. It doesn't get its sound. Mrs. Swithin cannot remember even his name. His existence is slipped from people's signifiers on which they want to fix him, and that signifiers for him are never pronounced with the sound. His image cannot be convertible to the words. He is easily categorized as a homosexual character, but I prefer him to be an unfixed representation like the toad in the mouth of the green snake. At last he is represented and spoken as a toady which is borrowed from cliché. However, by his action, Gilles releases Dodge's fixation and his fixed action for Dodge. He is also released from Dodge and his fixed judgement to the other people.

With William Dodge, I think Albert, the village idiot, is described interestingly in Between the acts. Albert is the cliché representation with the description of the small common village. Albert doesn't have his words but he is the action and the sounds themselves. For him, there is no distinction between the actions and the words.

At Albert, the village idiot, apparently. There was no need to dress him up. There he came, acting his part to perfection.--- It wasn't nice. Suppose he suddenly did something dreadful?--- She half covered her eyes, in case he did do-something dreadful.--- And off he skipped, as if his turn was over.(P78)

He has no distinction between the representation and his intention. His body is himself. However, there is an insecure fear for him to the other 'normal' person because he cannot be grasped by people's assumption even though he is fixed as an idiot. His fixed representation itself releases him from his fixed place. Because he is an idiot, he can move perfectly on the stage, and he can go into another action without any words or any warnings. With Albert, all characters have their roles in the play which is the most part of the book. However, they are different from Albert because they have two roles in the book and know the distinction between them. They are not represented by themselves, but they are playing their roles on the place of pageant. Their existences are dispersed by their two kinds of roles. In Bakhtin's formulation, heteroglossia is only possible in the novel and certain other genres from which it developed because of the dialogic organization of novelistic discourse, the presence of an authorial or narrative voice in dialogic relation to the many- voicedness of characters and genres. In drama, Bakhtin complains, "there is no all-encompassing language that addresses itself dialogically to separate languages, there is no second plotless (nondramatic) dialogue outside that of the (dramatic) plot."2 I think Bakhtin's distinction between the novel and the drama is deftly twisted in the Between the acts by Woolf's way to place the pageant mingled with the audience. The acting is not just finished on the stage. It is spread to the audience and it is continued after the play.

The clothes were strewn on the grass. Cardboard crowns, swords made of silver paper, turbans that were sixpenny dish clothes, lay on the grass or were flung on the bushes, --- Red and silver, blue and yellow gave off warmth and sweetness. --- Each still acted the unacted part conferred on them by their clothes. Beauty was on them. Beauty revealed them.(P57, P176)

The clothes before the play are like the words before they thinned to the transparency. They are giving off their sweetness, and they are still beautiful after the play by acting the unacted part. They become the transparent clothes like the worn out words. By the acting of the cliché play, the words and the images become transparent and dispersed to mingle with other sounds. Woolf's play cannot have any fixed image and dialogue by the authorial voice. The play is dismantling by the audience who is supposed to be remained as the margin at other plays. By inserting the play which looks like boring play of tired words into the conventional small village conversation, Woolf makes the play and the characters in the village transparent and incandescent by reversing and mixing their positions.


If the silence is the absence for the presence of the sounds, the ghosts floating around them are the absence for the characters gathering for the pageant. The ghosts are in the kitchen for the servants and the ghost of the drowned lady is in the pond with the fishes. In the lily pond, there are

fish swam-gold, splashed with white, streaked with black or silver.--- It was in that deep center, in that black heart, that lady had drowned herself.--- a thigh bone--- was a sheep's, not a lady's. And sheep have no ghosts, for sheep have no souls.(P40)

In the pond beside the pageant, there are present ghost, old thigh bone of dead sheep and live fish. I think it is the another image for Between the acts' dispersed presence and absence. The pond is not gathering center for the images of the ghosts, dead sheep, and the fish, but it is a playing ground for those different images. It is also related the history they are participated. In fact, the day of this book is occurring between the readings of primitive history book by Mrs. Swithin. If Isa has captured bird image, Mrs. Swithin is the one who is moving in the Between the acts. She has two or three names and goes to other places to live on winter. Her thought is going between the times on the place. In her floating imagination, London is not present, and the time is layered over and over between the present past and the absent presence. The title of the book which she is reading, an Outline of History, is making the history, the concept of time, being a concept of space, I think. The outline is the demarcation of the ground in the book. That time of the history and prehistory becomes the place for the story of the book. Like the title of the book and her layered reading, the time and the space take off the role of the axes of the story like the fixed or stable base for and by people, but they become the main story itself.

It took her five seconds in actual time, in mind time ever so much longer, to separate Grace herself, with blue china on a tray, from the leather-covered grunting monster who was about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree in the green steaming undergrowth of the primeval forest.--- He (Bartholomew) looked leafless, spectral, and his chair monumental. As a dog shudders its skin, his skin shuddered. He rose, shook himself, glared at nothing, and stalked from the room.---'Prehistoric man,' she read, 'half-human, half-ape, roused himself from his semi-crouching position and raised great stones.' (P8, P197)

Mrs. Swithin reads the layered presence from the characters and untamed nature of prehistory between the times and the space. It is interesting to think the time of all history is floating on the one space which the characters live at that time. Also the cliché play is the history play which is between the pre-history of Mrs. Swithin and the present audience. Those three time periods are mixed on the space where is the outline of the all period. In the pageant, the time is the important element for the mangled story which is cut to fit the time for the audience. In the play, the age of Flavinda and the sound of clock are important motives in the remained story. When the scene is ended, the clock also stopped in the play. The time is not an objective pendulum outside of the story, but it is mixed and layered with other representation of the story.


Nothing behind the layered representation which is used with words, sounds and many animal images, and that layered representation themselves are constituting the story. Those representations themselves construct the characters, the broken plays completed, the another play of Miss La Trobe and the existence between the acts in the whole book. It is layered by the history between the pre-history of Mrs. Swithin and the another play by Isa and Gilles outside of the book which we don't know. When 'the curtain rose, (and) they spoke, the book of Between the acts is finished. With the last words of the book, the novel itself become the pre-play for the next play which is picked in the fertile mud of the sounds in the book. The pre-play of the cliché and the sound for the words is dispersed in the whole book by the characters' attempt to understand the meaning and their failure to grasp the meaning. It is the hope and despair what they want to grasp and understand during the ambience of the war fear, I think. And the dispersed hope is in the clichés which are abundant in the book. The cliché is the process between the words and the sounds. It doesn't need to be gathered. The book itself is between the new play and the pre-history. Incandescence what Virginia Woolf says is maybe between something and nothing. It is the cliché which becomes transparent and becomes the incandescent sounds around the place. Incandescence is the fertile mud of Miss La Trobe when she reconciles with the sounds. It might be the hope for the sounds and the silence like the wings of faded peacocks which are usually ignored and forgotten because the peacock cannot fly with the wings, and it has more brilliant tail instead of the wings. It is desperate hope like the toad which is unable to die and the snake which is unable to swallow. I want to call it a hope which is desperate, dispersed and ungraspable, but should be accepted like the cliché in the life. It is that I think Virginia Woolf wants to place between the sounds of the nature and the words of the pageant and between the present and the prehistory.

It is the place before the war where the story of the book is developing. The day for the village pageant is also in the process for the forthcoming war which can make everything they want to grasp return to the mud mingled with their daily life they ignore like the noise and the sound from the forest. They are paddling on the sounds and the words in the whole day and they thank for that to themselves to erase one day to be closer to the war. I think it is the hope what Woolf sees and wants to depict in this book by erasing the despair for that hope. It is insecure hope Woolf feels and speaks. I want to call it an incandescence Woolf wants to see in the daily conversation. The common words used and forgotten have the power which the people ignore and throw away, and Woolf constructs the small funny play by picking up the words giving off their sweetness in their trivial use. Between the acts can be read the collection of the incandescent cliché which Woolf picks and enjoys in her last writing.

End Notes

1.Michel Serres, "Platonic dialogue," Hermes, Literature, Science, Philosophy, ed. Josue V. Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 67. I want to use his theory to look at Miss La Trobe's change from her fight against the noise to the reconciliation with the sounds. She thinks the noise as an enemy at first part of the book, but her idea of the next play really comes from the noise which is mingled with the sounds from the others who is not talking to her. [back to text]

2. Karen Newman, Fashioning Femininity & English Renaissance Drama , from the footnote of chapter 6,(Chicago, Chicago University Press) I think the concept of heteroglossia is the good word for this book. The characters voice is not only dispersed, but the dispersed voice is making the novel. [back to text]

Works Cited

Virginia Woolf, Between the acts, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Jacques Derrida, "Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human science," Modern criticism and theory, ed. David Lodge (New York: Longman Inc.,1988)

Michel Serres, "Platonic Dialogue," Hermes, Literature, Science, Philosophy, ed. Josué V. Harari and David F., Bell (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 67.

Karen Newman, "Chapter 6, Englishing the other: Le tiers exclu & Shakespeare's Henry V," Fashioning Femininity, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991)

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