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Written by Timothy Sexton
“Our part is to be the audience. And a very important part too.”
Bartholomew is the current owner of the ancestral manse which is the setting for the novel as well as the setting for a village pageant/play that is the centerpiece of the narrative. The quote speaks to two of the novel’s biggest themes: that life is a balancing act between truth and role-playing and that British history is populated by too many who chose to sit back and enjoy their advantages while relinquishing their responsibilities.
“All you can see of yourselves is scraps, orts and fragments? Well then listen to the gramophone affirming. . . .”
A key point in the pageant occurs when the actors turn mirrors upon the audience and a disembodied voice booms out from the bushes the above line. This is a significant moment relative to the novel’s thematic implication that with the reality of every person’s individual life is the inescapable fact that they are also playing out roles in the progression of history. Some don’t realize it, some do realize it and act accordingly, but many—Woolf is asserting—are fully aware of their roles, but choose instead to remain, like Bartholomew, in the audience rather than taking the stage.
“I leave that to you. I am not here to explain. That role has not been assigned me. I speak only as one of the audience, one of ourselves. I caught myself too reflected, as it happened in my own mirror . . . ”
The literal purpose of the pageant to raise funds to pay for getting the local church wired for electrical lighting. The clergyman of that church is left with the job of commenting upon the somewhat bizarre spectacle practically the whole town has just witnessed and prove hardly up to the job, becoming another Woolf’s symbols of a church failing to properly understand, much less communicate important issues facing members of their congregations.
Then the curtain rose. They spoke.
The closing words of the novel are actually related to the central narrative and not the pageant within. That it seems as though it would be the opposite is the entire point. These closing lines connect backward through the narrative to the title of the novel as a formulation of the book’s themes of role-playing and illusion, performance and reality and the blurring of the lines between them.
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