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Written by Timothy Sexton
A Snake, a Toad, and Tennis Shoes
The scene where Giles steps on the snake having so much trouble swallowing a toad that it seems to become a “monstrous inversion” of the birth process has been widely interpreted as a symbol of the fascist extremities of a patriarchal system. Incapable of saving the toad or assisting the snake, Giles instead crushes them both beneath his foot in a demonstration of Woolf’s central complaint of the patriarchy in which the actions of men seem to require little more justification than that “it was action.” And although “action relieved him,” in the end, none the participants gained anything. The frog and snake were both dead and his shoes now with sticky and stained with blood.
The Pageant Mirrors
Really, the entire pageant is symbolic, but its most clearly symbolic moment is when the cast returns to the stage and turns mirrors upon the audience. Their reflection in the props held by the actors situates them simultaneously as players in the drama as well as the audience watching the show. This is the ultimate symbolic expression of the novel’s encompassing themes about the reality, role-playing, the pageant of history and social passivity.
The symbolism of the ancestral manor house which provides the setting for most of the narrative is connected to the points Woolf uses the hall to make about the importance of playing a role in history. The house is a mess of historical contradictions: In defiance of British custom, the home faces north rather than south. Despite taking place in 1939, the home remains decorated with furniture actually from the Victorian era. The old leather-bound volumes of classics in the library are must compete with new, pulpier books left behind by visitors.
As the novel opens, the big topic of conversation is…a cesspool. Plans are afoot, it seems on the ancient Roman road which makes its way through the village. One of the novel’s themes is thus efficiently addressed right from the outset: unless care is shown to preserve it, history can lead directly into a sewer.
The Pageant Programme
On three different occasions the programme which has been handed out to members of the audience arriving to watch the pageant is effectively described in the same way: a blurry carbon copy. The symbolism here is subtly obvious, but effective as a reminder of the novel’s thematic concerns about dangers of allowing history to continually repeat itself by taking an active role as it is happening.
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