Today, I’m going to be looking at Jacob’s Room. This is the first Virginia Woolf novel I’ve ever read and I have to say that I was a bit intimidated by her choice of style. Luckily, I always try to give authors the benefit of the doubt and assume that everything done in their texts is deliberate so I started to dig into this novel.
Virginia Woolf’s first original and distinguished work, Jacob’s Room is the story of a sensitive young man named Jacob Flanders. The life story, character and friends of Jacob are presented in a series for separate scenes and moments from his childhood, through college at Cambridge, love affairs in London, and travels in Greece, to his death in the war. Jacob’s Room established Virginia Woolf’s reputation as a highly poetic and symbolic writer who places emphasis not on plot or action but on the psychological realm of occupied by her characters.
The first thing that took me for a loop was the rapid change in character perspective. Now, I love a novel that has multiple POVs (I’m a big fan of epic fantasy) but this was something else. Characters aren’t so much introduced in Jacob’s Room as slipped into conversation and suddenly you’re following that character around as they go about their life–wondering if they’re, like, important or if this is just to transition from one scene to the next.
And then I had an epiphany: what if the real master stroke of this novel was a commentary on how the physical doesn’t equal the person? To show what I mean, take a look at this quote from the second chapter:
Had he, then, been nothing? An unanswerable question, since even if it weren’t the habit of the undertaker to close the eyes, the light so soon goes out of them.
Betty (Jacob’s mother) is describing what she can remember of her husband and she focuses on the physical. But she realizes that it wasn’t his physical appearance that she loved or misses now, how even seeing his body left something of who he was missing and that in a way he was separate from his body–a nothingness that was everything he truly was.
There’s a hauntingly beautiful moment in the first chapter that I think encapsulates this:
The voice had an extraordinary sadness. Pure from all body, pure from all passion, going out into the world, solitary, unanswered, breaking against rocks–so it sounded.
There is this disconnection from the physical body–all of the words “spoken” by the characters are actually written and therefore free of the imagined bodies of the characters themselves. There is an obsession with letters within the novel that pushes this idea further as it is a way of telling the reader what has happened to the characters through an embedded written media.
The name of the novel is not Jacob himself but a physical location that is supposedly a representation of him. But a room is not the person who lives there–it is simply a place with a collection of objects and once a person moves away from that place (no longer claiming ownership) it is given over to someone else and it becomes associated with them.
There is a wonderful melancholy and nostalgia to this novel. True, it might be a favourite of English professors that is doomed to be hated by their students but I think it has some interesting things to say; things that I’ve only briefly been able to touch on here. All in all, I think this might be a novel I came back to in a year or so, just to see what else it has to say.