- Dispersed Are We":Mirroring and National Identity in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts
The fluctuations of the mind, and the ever failing effort of individual subjectivity to create a solid sense of self, form a central theme in Virginia Woolf's work. Most of her novels examine this dynamics within the consciousness of one subjectivity, or within several separate ones. Woolf's artistic concentration on the "private sphere" led to accusations of political quietism made against her already during her lifetime. 1 In the last decade or two, however, an increasing recognition has emerged among Woolf's critics that the social and political dimensions of her fiction are no less far-reaching and innovative than her investigation of private subjectivity. Leonard Woolf's famous assertion that his wife was "the least political animal that has lived since Aristotle invented the definition" 2 is still often cited, but usually in order to be rebuffed as an absurdity.
It has become widely established by now that Woolf's fiction is deeply political, not merely in its preoccupation with feminism (where Woolf is anti-patriarchal in both the domestic and the social sphere) but also in its anti-fascist concern (where she is anti-patriarchal on the national level as well). This critical awareness has led, in recent years, to a growing interest in Between the Acts (1941), usually taken to be Woolf's most political fictional work. Its protagonist, if such a term is at all applicable to this novel, [End Page 53] is not an individual; it is society as a whole, in the shape of an emblematic English community representing the nation at time of crisis. There is no elaborate, steady inquiry into the consciousness of any particular character, only glimpses; individual subjectivities seem to operate in the text chiefly as constituents and emblems of a larger whole. In form as well as content Between the Acts is taken as marking its author's most radical political involvement through her art.
My essay challenges this prevalent notion. Instead of taking Between the Acts as indicating its author's final, daring transition from the sphere of the private to that of the public, and instead of reading it as a novel that is about the 'we' instead of the 'I' (as Woolf herself suggested in her diary) 3 —I call attention to an opposite dynamics that is at work here. Woolf's last novel is indeed harassed by threats of extinction that are fundamentally national, cultural, political, and social. But the author's anxiety regarding these aspects of existence repeatedly drive her back—along with her characters—in the direction of the personal and the subjective. While attempting to define the collective components of the communal or national identity that she depicts, Woolf keeps using the figurative language and narrative patterns that pertain to the private perspective. Between the Acts exposes the extent to which—even in one of the most political moments in her career—Woolf can imagine and perceive collectivity only in terms of the subjective mind.
Not just the mind, however. Woolf treats her English community as a subject in possession of a body as well. This subject's struggle to construct its own identity is metaphorically depicted as a psychological process performed within an individual consciousness that perceives itself by looking at its own body. Examining the significant role of mirrors in Between the Acts—a key image which, in a climactic scene, succinctly demonstrates the personal face of the communal—my reading will employ two psychoanalytic models that regard mirroring as a determining phase in the formation of identity. One model underlines the illusory and self-deceptive effects of mirroring, while the other presents its ability to yield a genuine sense of subjective coherence and authenticity. Applying these models to the central mirror scene in Between the Acts may reveal the extent to which Woolf's fictional community, imagined as a self attempting to learn who it is, fluctuates between attaining and losing a tentative sense of identity [End Page 54] through observing its own reflection: first on stage, and then in an actual mirror.
One major implication of such...