Virginia Woolf's Final Novel -- and George Essay

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Virginia Woolf's Final Novel -- and George Orwell

Virginia Woolf's novel, Between The Acts was her final published work, and it would be reasonable for a reader who knows how she chose to end her life (by drowning herself in the River Ouse on March 28, 1941), to suspect that she committed suicide in part because she was in great despair over the frightening possibility of the Nazis being successful in their threat to invade, take over, and/or destroy England.

Woolf wrote the novel in the midst of the "London Blitz," and in fact her house was bombed by the German rockets being fired across the English Channel. This deeply disturbed Woolf, who had suffered through periods of depression and mental anguish in her life. Add to her psychological problems the fact that things certainly looked dark for the English, and life was very bleak at that time in her life, a sensitive, highly intelligent woman.

In the process of painting a picture of the England past and the England of 1939, a reader could suspect that she was patriotically standing up for her country at a time when Hitler was putting a deathly squeeze on Europe like a hungry boa constrictor coiling around a helpless fawn.

There were subtle instances of foreshadowing, gentle techniques employed by Woolf that, upon close observation, offer a message as to what the community was worrying about, in the same way real communities no doubt pondered and fretted over the looming war in 1939.

Thesis: It is interesting to imagine what life would have been like had Hitler managed to overrun the Allies and storm into England. Would Hitler have been able to install his extreme Nazi fascism and turn the country into something that resembled the society in George Orwell's iconic 1984? Would "Big Brother" have been watching the comings and goings of the British people to see who might be plotting against the Third Reich? It seems likely indeed.

Body of the Paper: In that context Orwell's 1984, and Woolf's Between the Acts have some parallels that are worth presenting, in the sense of the linkage of similar historical themes and historical events. The two novels are also starkly different, in setting and in tone, which from another angle, offers a dramatic juxtaposition.

It is interesting that Woolf died shortly after finishing her novel in 1941, and Orwell died in 1949, shortly after publishing 1984. Both Woolf and Orwell were greatly distressed by the Nazi menace -- both having lived in Europe, in fear, during WWII -- and justifiably sickened by the brutal Nazi slaughter of millions of people and the terrifying reality that Hitler had nearly all of Europe within his grasp. Both authors lived tragic lives, owing to illness (in Woolf's case, emotional illness), and both are now viewed as literary icons, respected, well-read, and relevant.

As for Woolf, though she was obviously in great despair leading up to and on that March day in 1941 when she put on an overcoat, filled the pockets with large stones and waded into the river, the very fact that she finished the novel could indicate to a student of WWII history that she had not sunk into total depression during the actual writing of it. Or at least, it could be seen, because of the positive nature of the plot that she held out hope during the writing of the novel that peace might prevail, and that her writing was perhaps therapeutic for her. That can be surmised because the novel encompassed a lot of English history, which she loved, and the story took place over a condensed 24-hour period, during which nothing untoward happened to her fictional community.

The very charming little community pageant that becomes an important part of Between the Acts creates a feeling of small town innocence, even though war was looming. Some of the spoken lines from the play were blown away by the wind before the audience could hear them, an interesting technique by the author, seemingly to create a mood of incomplete communication.

When an audience sees a performer mouth a word, but the word does not reach the audience's ears, it could be considered eerie. Also, whatever words or phrases were blown away from earshot might be important in terms of whatever that actor needed to convey in his or her portion of the plot. Missing any lines means things that should be heard are instead lost. There may be subtle symbolism in that communication gap for Woolf, who may have been trying to convey her inner most fears but they were lost before being heard or understood.

Also, some of the dialog was ironic, likely intentionally so. For example, on page 82, there was a lull in the home-spun drama, as the stage was empty and the audience was patiently waiting for something to happen. "Only the cows moved in the meadows; only the tick of the gramophone needle was heard. The tick, tick, tick seemed to hold them together, tranced. Nothing whatsoever appeared on stage."

That "tick, tick, tick" would appear to be a metaphor for a bomb waiting to go off; or a nation waiting to find out when the Germans would attack next, although the novel avoids directly relating to the Nazis.

After the machine's needle continued to broadcast the "tick, tick, tick," sound, old Oliver whispered, "Marking time," and Lucy murmured, "Which don't exist for us. We've only the present," she added. That appears to send a subtle literary message that since the future was unknown, let's enjoy the present. Isa "fidgeted and her bare brown arms went nervously to her head. She half turned in her seat." The future would only disturb the present, she seemed to say.

On page 92 an actress in the play is thought to be sick, and then, after the cast crowded around her, she is dead. "She fell back lifeless. The crowd drew away. Peace, let her pass. Peace was the third emotion. Love. Hate. Peace. Three emotions made the ply of human life…"

Meanwhile, on the subject of hate, the bombs that were heard and witnessed by Woolf while she was writing the novel -- solid-fuel V-1 and V-2 rockets that terrorized residents, killing scores of people each day as the exposes cascaded down out of the sky with an ominous whistling sound -- were mass-produced by the fascist German regime that was fueled on hate. Hitler's whole strategy was built around a form of fanatical nationalism that had as its platform hate and rage against anyone who was not Aryan, in particular Jews and Gypsies.

And hate was also part of the daily routine in 1984. In fact there was a "Two Minutes Hate" political rally in the novel, in which "party members" expressed their abhorrence, lived out their hate. The rallying clones screamed out against a man set up as someone for all the brainwashed replicas to viciously loathe, a man named Emmanuel Goldstein (a Jewish name). He was "the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State."

And so, on page 11 of Orwell's novel, the "Two Minutes Hate" rally is described as "impossible to avoid joining in." It was "a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer," and it "seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic."

Orwell's novel struck nerves because it captured the raw detestation and intolerance that marked the population in Germany during 1939's build-up to bloody hostilities in Europe. And while Woolf was fictionalizing a small British village community putting on a sweet little pageant, in stark contrast, across the water and well into Europe's mainland, Hitler was stirring up the fires of fierce hatred, in a way not unlike what 1984's characters portrayed and acted out.

Now, once again, at the pageant, words are being snatched out of the air by the wind -- and being drown out by the rustle of leaves -- on page 140: "Then the wind rose, and in the rustle of the leaves even the great words became inaudible; and the audience sat staring at the villagers, whose mouths opened, but no sound came."

Woolf's skill at creating a sweet, subtle irony -- given the facts of life during 1939 in England, with everyone yearning for peace -- shows on page 140. A cow had lost her calf, at just about the time the players had lost their voices, and the audience had lost the thread of the plot of the play. But "in the very nick of time," the cow lifted her "moon-eyed head and bellowed," Woolf wrote. No wind gust blew that bellow away. As cows are prone to do, others repeated what the first one had done: "All the great moon-eyed heads laid themselves back.…[continue]

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