Between the Acts (and World Wars)

Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, is situated right in the interwar period; it is 1938 when she begins writing the novel and she continues until her death in 1941, which exactly aligns with the period between World War I and II. The novel is written under this context of looming war and political unrest, and is set in the Oliver’s family country house. Due to the magnitude of the historical events unfolding around her, Woolf worried that Between the Acts was ‘too silly and trivial’ to be published (“Between the Acts…”). Rather than focusing on the war explicitly, the novel fixates on pageant culture of English county homes and the grand mansion, Poyntz Hall, of the Oliver family. Mrs. The spinster-esque character, Mrs. La Trobe, conducts the performance and planning of the pageant, which is a showcase of sorts of British history. The whole village community attends to watch this spectacle. Although I have yet to read the novel, I would infer that the pastoral escape-to-the-county trope combined with the distraction of the pageant could be a means of coping with the horrors of industrialized wartime and bombing. Perhaps Woolf felt this “frivolous” during the time, but such a plot seems to give a glimpse of civilian life and British societal culture that is female centered and just as valuable historically in comparison to the masculine, political sphere of war. The country house as a safe space for this to happen is also crucial, as it is grounded in nature rather than a city or urban landscape. In this setting, there is some distance from the war for creativity and a sense of stability for characters who are most likely under the threat of facism and the encroaching second world war. In fact, Woolf at the time is also struggling with her own mental health, a battle she fought throughout her life but likely worsened by the anxiety of the times. In her suicide note to her husband Leonard, who was a Jewish man facing persecution, she writes; “Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time” (“Between the Acts…”). The historical and social context of wartime is integral to the reading of Between the Acts and to Woolf, as she writes during the tumultuous time while grappling with her own mental health.

Clark, Alex. “Between the Acts: Virginia Woolf’s Last Book.” BBC Culture, BBC, 23 Mar. 2016, 

Personal Reflection on Orlando

Virginia Woolf’s sixth novel, Orlando: a Biography, has drawn me since I first read it in my English 220. It is a unique novel that transcends the bounds of time, spanning around 400 years, and undermining the constraints of gender as the male protagonist awakes halfway through the novel under an oak tree, a woman. The significance of the oak tree symbol fascinates me in how the natural world could be connected to gender fluidity and freedom, and the tree also is made out to be a safe space for poetic expression throughout the novel as well, as Orlando hides their poems there. I remember there being so much to unpack and despite how challenging at times it can be to read Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing, I resonated with her language and reflections on society in the novel. It can also be confusing in how she incorporates and manipulates time, but I think it could be interesting to relate that to works of the modernist era when industrialization and urban society was really kicking off. The time period and historical context of her work makes her novels hyper aware of changing landscape and setting, and the shift from rural and small town life to industrialized, bustling cities with new technology.

When I first read Orlando, I was very new to the English major and it was my first final paper in college, so I had a lot to figure out. However it sparked an interest in ecofeminism and how the environment can be tied to gender/the body which inspired several of my other final papers throughout my English classes and major. It also made me interested in how the oak tree became such a source of power that is almost mythological. Looking back now, I think this novel is deeply rich in the nature and gender binaries and I am looking forward to reading it again soon with some more theoretical knowledge and background from my reading list. It also occurs to me now that the ecofeminist implications of Orlando becoming a woman in a natural space could be slightly problematic, as often women and nature are compared in terms of sexuality and even sexual assault. Perhaps Orlando was reinforcing the masculine “society” and feminine “nature” by this gender swap in the ways the character Orlando changes in the two halves of the book, and this is something I would be interested in reading for when I come back to the novel in the coming months. 

Virginia Woolf: a Brief Biography

After some initial biographical research on the life of Virginia Woolf, who is one of my options for primary texts, it became clear that she had grown up with a fascination for natural history and the taxonomic ecology of the time. In his biography of her, Nigel Nicholson mentions that, “Virginia Woolf was a keen hunter of butterflies and moths. With her brothers and sister she would smear tree trunks with treacle to attract and capture the insects, and then pin their lifelike corpses to cork boards, their wings outspread.” Later, with the transition in scientific thought, Woolf’s eco-consciousness shifted as well to reflect a culture turning away from taxonomic classification to holistic ecology (Alt). This consciousness of the natural world comes through in her writings, as well as an emphasis on space/place as a whole. The historical context in which Woolf was writing also contributes to her feminist writings, with the growing suffrage movement and her interactions with “radical” feminists throughout her education at King’s College. 

Woolf’s childhood also greatly informs her passion for the natural world. She grew up summering in natural locations in England, when her family wanted to get away from Kensington. For example, since she was born in 1895, her family would summer in St. Ives in Cornwall, a retreat from city life and the blooming industrialization and modernization of the turn of the century (“Virginia Woolf”). These early memories of the pastoral escape and summers by the sea informed her later novel To the Lighthouse. Woolf experienced a long list of childhood traumatic events, from losing a parent, dealing with deadly infectious diseases, and sexual assault from her two half-brothers. These tragedies within the home and struggles with mental health may also contribute to her interest in writing and the outside/natural world as a place of literary imagination and perhaps safety. 

Alt, Christina. Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature. Cambridge University Press, 2010, doi:10.1017/CBO9780511762178.  

Nicolson, Nigel. “Virginia Woolf.” The New York Times: on the Web, The New York Times, 2000,  

“Virginia Woolf.”, A&E Networks Television, 27 Mar. 2020, 

Supernatural Haunting & Healing in Beloved

Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison uses the supernatural to trigger moments of Sethe’s past that simultaneously haunt and heal her. Specifically, she does this by fashioning Beloved as a ghost, who haunts Sethe and her home at 124 until she is resurrected into a physical, embodied representation of her dead child at the age she would have been in the present time. Denver hypothesizes that “Beloved was the white dress that had knelt with her mother in the keeping room, the true-to-life presence of the baby…” (140-1). However, it is unclear whether Beloved is necessarily “real,” as she is described several times as frankly creepy and bizarre in mannerisms. For example, there are repeated sounds of a baby crawling even though there isn’t one in the house, and Sethe notices that when Beloved walks, “they ought to heard her tread, but they didn’t” (118). There is an ominous and almost “witchy” presence associated with her, especially when considering her resurrection. Beloved is also violent at times, as she possesses Paul and attempts to choke Sethe in the clearing scene. Morrison writes that Beloved feels frustration that “she had been so close, then closer,” in murdering Sethe, implying that she is there with some kind of malicious intent (118).

However, upon Beloved’s mystical entrance, Sethe immediately sympathizes and feels a connection to the girl, providing her care and shelter while she regains her health. Beloved is able to gain Sethe’s trust, and is able to somehow unlock memories that have been repressed by Sethe for so long as a means of coping. It is clear that Beloved has some means of manipulating the emotions of others in ways that can be toxic and forced, like in the case of Paul, which makes me wonder if this immediate trust Sethe has for Beloved is forced and for some ulterior motive or authentic. Regardless, because of this sense of trust, Beloved is able to get the story behind Sethe’s diamond earrings out of her, even though she had never been able to tell Denver about the earrings before. After Beloved chokes Sethe, Beloved is also the one that soothes her; “… she was feeling so fine letting Beloved massage away the pain, the fingers she was loving and the ones that had soothed her before they strangled her had reminded her of something that now slipped her mind” (115). She triggers memories through questions and instances such as this one often for Sethe, similarly to how Paul begins to trigger memories of Sethe’s past at Sweet Home. Overall, Beloved simultaneously serves as a violent and ominous ghost of Sethe’s past, but also allows her to reckon with the past in a way that is (hopefully) healing by forcing her to literally face and vocalize memories that have been blocked away.

Updated: Reading List

ENGL 403 Reading List

Key Terms:
1. Ecocriticism
2. Ecofeminism

Explanatory Essay:
I have chosen to use ecocriticism or ecofeminism as my guiding key terms and lenses because this field has interested me throughout my career as an English major. I have always liked analyzing how the natural world is portrayed in literature and how it can function as a device and provide deeply rich metaphors. Looking at the environment in literature in conjunction with gender has also interested me, as it reveals the way stories can subvert or undermine the male/society and feminine/nature binary, to complicate the way we see natural landscapes as gendered spaces. Ecofeminism is a fascinating field that combines my passions for feminist research on gender equality and environmental analysis, which is also interesting to me because of my background as an Environmental Studies major. When it comes to applying these key terms, I am more flexible and open minded as to where; right now, I am considering the works of Virginia Woolf as a key feminist writer who I have some experience with, as well as perhaps some of her peers and staying within the modernist era. However, I have found several sources on ecofeminist poetics within Victorian poetry as well (including the works of Micheal Field, among others). I plan to use this reading list to determine which time period (modernist or victorian) and genre (novels or poetry) to apply an ecocritical lens.

Updates: I chose to get rid of of source on Victorian Poetry as, although I am interested, I am leaning more towards modernist novels. I added a source specific to Willa Cather and Ecofeminism so that I have all of my potential primary source authors represented somewhere in my reading list. My conversation with Professor Moffat about eco-criticism and Virginia Woolf shaped my thinking on focusing on her texts as a whole and encouraged me to add Between the Acts, which is set in the English countryside. She also brought up how time and modernism can play into Woolf and ecofeminism, which was interesting to me in relation to the Kristeva reading for class a few weeks ago. Tomorrow I will be speaking with Dr. Schweighofer to talk about ecofeminism as a theory and applying it to literature more broadly which will greatly help me get a sense of what current ecofeminist dialogue looks like. My primary texts include many works of Virginia Woold because of my experience in writing about nature and gender in Orlando and other secondary sources I’ve found on ecofeminism and her works. I included Jeaneatte Winterson because of my conversation with Professor Kersh and her name coming up also in my secondary research. Willa Cather I have read and have seen connections to ecofeminism, and after some research chose to include Oh Pioneers and  My Antonia.

Primary Texts:

Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918.

Cather, Willa. Oh Pioneers. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1913.

Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. New York, Knopf Press, 1992. 

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. London, Hogarth Press, 1941.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London, Hogarth Press, 1925.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. London, Hogarth Press, 1928.

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. London, Hogarth Press, 1931.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London, Hogarth Press, 1927.

3-5 Secondary or Theoretical Works:
Adams, Carol J. Ecofeminism and the Sacred. Continuum, 1993.

Campbell, Andrea. New Directions in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism. Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2008.

Kostkowska, J. Ecocriticism and Women Writers: Environmentalist Poetics of Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, and Ali Smith. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2013,

Murphy, Patricia. Reconceiving Nature: Ecofeminism in Late Victorian Women’s Poetry. University of Missouri Press, 2019. 

Madsen, Deborah L. “Gender and Nature: Eco-Feminism and Willa Cather.” Feminist Theory and Literary Practice, Pluto Press, 2015, p. 122–.

Vakoch, Douglas A. Feminist Ecocriticism Environment, Women, and Literature. Lexington Books, 2012.

Chosen Academic Journal for Year of Issues:
Environmental Humanities. Environmental Humanities Programme, University of New South Wales, 2012.

What’s Underneath Michael Field’s Bough Motif

The motif of the bough, or tree branch, was something that stood out to me due to its significance within Field’s title. In Books 3, 4, and 5, the bough is mentioned three times on three different types of trees. The first time it is mentioned in this section is in “Forsaken,”when Field writes; “Have you seen the olives at set of sun,/… That tossed him his sparkles, snatched his rays,/ Becomes a region of limitless grays,/ Dead, bough on bough” (52). The bough in question here is on an olive tree, which is loaded in literary significance in its allusions to the Bible and Greek mythology as a symbol of peace, goodwill, or friendship. What’s interesting here is that the olive branch has died, perhaps symbolizing a loss of friendship or, when considering the context of Underneath the Bough, the loss of “Beloved.” The olive tree is also closely tied to the repeatedly referenced Greek god Apollo, who symbolizes music, arts, the sun, and poetry. This allusion to Apollo could also explain the use of the “he” pronoun in relation to the sun and olive tree. Thus, the olive bough here represents the loss of Beloved not only as a friend, but also as a creative partner in a joint artistic endeavor after the “sun has set” on their time together. 

A bough is soon mentioned again two pages later, yet this time it is the branch of a cherry tree; “In woods, what is more dear/ Than a cherry bough, bees feeding near/ In the soft, proffered blooms? Lo, I/ Am fed and honored thus” (54). This vision is in complete contrast to the former, as rather than a branch of gray olives, here is a branch of cherry blossoms being pollinated by bees. Field continually juxtaposed life and death in the Books, and they do so here as well. Upon this branch, new life is blooming and the speaker is being “fed” by the blossoms like the bees. This could again be a metaphor for creativity and poetic inspiration after the speaker has reckoned with the loss of Beloved; there is rebirth and creation in these lines.

Lastly, Field mentions a bough much later again in Book 5 and dedicates a whole individual poem to it. In “One Branch,” they write; “A branch of wild-rose buds/ In sunny studs/ of orange-red, flecked by the warm, diffused,/ Violet flowers,/ Breathing a breath transfused…”  (89). This imagery is warm, welcoming, and literally flourishing with life, as the rose-buds are described to be “breathing.” Field’s moves from the initial dead olive branch, to the blossoming cherry tree, and to the lively rose branch illustrate the stages of life but also perhaps the stages of grief and healing. I think that overall, the bough motif can represent a specific locale of poetic expression that reflects the mood and creativity of the speaker. This expression is seemingly only possible in nature, which serves as a source of sustenance and inspriation. Being “underneath” a bough also connotes a sense of shelter, with the rich poetic cycles of life and nature surrounding. 

The “Summer Wind” and Sound in Underneath of Bough

“All others sound in awe/ Repeals its law;/ The bird is mute, the sea/ Sucks up its waves, from rain/ The burthened clouds refrain,/ To listen to thee in thy leafery,/ Thou unconfined,/ Lavish, large, soothing, refluent summer-wind!” (7).

In Books 1 and 2 of Underneath the Bough by Micheal Field, I was particularly struck by these lines due to their emphasis on sound and silence. The preceding sentence of the stanza referenced here describes the sound of the wind as an “orchestra” with “instruments in tune” as the wind blows through the trees (7). This is placed in juxtaposition with the following cited lines of natural elements defying the laws of nature by holding silence (mute birds, the sea absorbing its waves) to listen to the wind. I think these lines can be viewed as a metaphor for an audience listening to poetry as well, with the wind functioning as immaterial poetry “speaking” among the more solid/material natural world that stops to listen. 

Field parallels the emphasis on sound and silence as poetic subjects in their use of sound as a poetic device. For example, Field uses consonance and assonance so as to replicate this sense of fluidity, or the sound of wind rushing through leaves. They use repeated “s,” “e,” “th,” and “l” sounds, most evident in the lines “To listen to thee in thy leafery,/ Thou unconfined,/ Lavish, large, soothing, refluent summer-wind!” (7). Furthermore, Field’s word choice of “unconfined” here also plays into their use of enjambment, as some lines physically can’t be contained and run into each other when mentioning the sea, waves, rain, and clouds. This could be doubly significant as all of these subjects are parts of the water cycle and thus fluid or ever “refluent” in and of themselves, like the wind.

When thinking of this excerpt in relation to the rest of in Book 1 and 2, the overall wind motif can be viewed as an extended metaphor for lyric or poetry, as it is heavily referenced as being melodic, musical, and free. There is also repeated use of wing/flight imagery in the Books that might be related to Field’s aspiration for freedom in their lives, poetry, and relationships. Field also emphasizes how wind is fluid and changing frequently, perhaps referring to gender and sexual fluidity mentioned in the Introduction to Field’s work.