Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf is her third novel and the first in which she begins to develop her classic Woolf style. Published in 1922, readers of her two previous and more conventional novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, weren’t quite prepared for where Woolf went with novel number three. Evidence? Take a gander at what the Guradian had to say about it. “Unconventional,” the reviewer calls it, “a sort of phantasmagoria.” The reviewer acknowledges Woolf to be a “considerable writer,” but concludes,
And one must admire a gesture that would dismiss a bourgeois reading public. Perhaps she will yet convince us that this is the way to write novels or one of the ways. One would like to read another book of hers when she has returned to convention.
I suspect, however that the reviewer hated James Joyce’s Ulysses too, also published in 1922. I guess the Moderns got off to a rocky start with the general reading public. Thus, historically, I have a bit of an advantage. Time and experience have given me the opportunity to read a variety of modernist literature as well as the even wackier postmodern writers. Therefore what was considered experimental in 1922 seems to me in 2013, nothing out of the ordinary. Now, I’m not saying Jacob’s Room was as easy as a stroll through the park, only that the shock of its originality is now longer possible.
I think in many ways though that this is good. Instead of being thrown off by the style and spending all my time trying to figure out how I am supposed to read this book, I can simply read it and marvel at Woolf’s skill and the beauty of her prose. Also, I have the added pleasure of knowing how her style develops and evolves. So reading Jacob’s Room is kind of like looking at the teenage photos of friends or a significant other you only know as an adult. You can see a certain awkwardness, a stretching and striving, a yearning ambition. So perhaps it is only appropriate that Jacob’s Room is a coming of age novel.
The story is about Jacob Flanders from childhood to adulthood. The book begins pre-WWI and ends with Jacob’s death in the war. This is not a spoiler because from the very start of the book the war looms over Jacob. No one in the book knows this but the reader does. That sounds like a plot, doesn’t it? Except it isn’t. There is no story per se. Woolf later becomes famous for stream of consciousness, but this is more a novel of associations. As Woolf was working out the style of Jacob’s Room she wrote about it in her diary:
Suppose one thing should open out of another–as in An Unwritten Novel–only not for 10 pages but 200 or so–doesn’t that give the looseness and lightness I want; doesn’t that get closer and yet keep form and speed, and enclose everything, everything?
And so we leap from character to character, scene to scene, time to time, forwards and backwards. We mostly learn about Jacob not from Jacob himself but from the perspective of other characters, mostly women. This left me feeling like I did and didn’t know Jacob. But I think in some ways that was the point.
Jacob dies when he is twenty-six before he has fully figured out for himself who he is and what he wants to do with his life. It seems only appropriate that the reader doesn’t really “know” him since he doesn’t fully know himself. Woolf’s narrative style also emphasizes the point, I think. How can one write a conventional novel about the life of someone who never really had a chance to develop that life? It is easy to look back at the end of a long life and pick out a line that points from A to B to C all the way to Z as though life were linear and cause and effect, whims and reasoned decisions, successes and failures all lead to this final point in time and being. Life is not a coherent narrative, even less so when one dies young.
But why call the book Jacob’s Room? As I read I kept wondering about it. Nothing really ever happens in Jacob’s room until the last two pages of the book and at this point Jacob is dead. His room is infused with his absence. Jacob’s friend, Bonamy is helping Jacob’s mother go through his belongings,
‘He left everything just as it was,’ Bonamy marvelled. ‘Nothing arranged. All his letters strewn about for any one to read. What did he expect? Did he think he would come back?’ he mused, standing in the middle of Jacob’s room.
“Did he think he would come back?” Yes. And the fact that his room looks as though he just stepped out and will be back at any moment makes the knowledge that he will never be back even more heartbreaking. And then when Jacob’s mother holds up a pair of Jacob’s old shoes and asks Bonamy what she is supposed to do with them, their emptiness amplifies Jacob’s absence and his mother’s and Bonamy’s grief.
As I was poking around the internet, I came across a quote by Frances Marshall, a friend of Woolf’s that provides a bit of insight into Jacob’s room and especially his shoes:
The only other remark I remember from that afternoon was when she was talking about the mystery of ‘missing’ someone. When Leonard went away, she said, she didn’t miss him at all. Then suddenly she caught sight of a pair of his empty shoes, which had kept the position and shape of his feet- and was ready to dissolve into tears instantly.*
Of course there were lots of empty shoes at the end of WWI. I think on a small and intimate scale in a book that hardly says anything about the war itself, Woolf manages to speak volumes.
Unlike the writer of that Guardian review, I am glad Woolf did not return to convention. Her vision, her talent, her eye for the telling detail would have languished there and literature would be the poorer for it.
I read this book along with Danielle so be sure to see what she had to say.
*Recollections of Virginia Woolf, ed. Joan Russell Noble (London: Peter Owen, 1972)