Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

“It's not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it's the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” 

Note: This review may contain minor spoilers. Oh, and the cover of this Mariner edition perfectly captures the essence of the novel with the young man appearing blurred, fading into the background.

The name Virginia Woolf often sends people running to the hills. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. She tends to be one of those intimidating figures of English literature that frightens readers away and for those feeling brave enough to venture into her domain, tend to approach her work with much trepidation. Even someone like myself who is familiar with her work and knows exactly what to expect, I still find her very challenging to read: Jacob's Room is no exception. Written in 1922, this particular novel marks the beginning of Virginia Woolf's experimental phase and along with other contemporaries at the time including James Joyce, she helped to usher in what many scholars refer to as  'literary modernism.' This was a radical aesthetic movement that aimed to supplant the older traditional narrative forms with new unorthodox methods by bringing in a 'modern' innovative sensibility to literature. While Woolf should be applauded for her efforts, one gets the sense that she does not quite achieve her literary ambitions of psychological realism here, which would later become fully realized with the publication of Mrs. Dalloway and subsequently To the Lighthouse. Hence, Jacob's Room serves as a necessary stepping stone that Woolf will improve upon to establish herself soon after as one of the dominant writers of the 20th century. 

With an elaborately baroque writing style and the use of vivid imagery, she attempts to create a sensory experience, a type of literary impressionism if you will. In my honest opinion, no one can write as beautifully as Woolf although it is easy to understand why so many readers might be put off by her ornate poetic language but for me, it is truly sublime. However, with this novel, the lengthy descriptions of nature were a tad bit excessive but there is no denying her mastery of creating such a striking picturesque scene akin to a painting. One can perfectly visualize the rich greenery, hear the birds soaring above in the clear blue sky, smell the musk roses in full bloom. It's incredible how she is able to conceptualize such rich detail through words. Literary aesthetic aside, Jacob's Room is an unconventional character study but feels unpolished, inchoate in its narrative structure. Woolf is merely in the nascent stage of developing her craft and on the verge of achieving greatness. 

Do not be deceived by the relatively short length of this novel (my penguin edition clocks in at 168 pages)--Virginia Woolf is not one of those authors to pick up a whim. She demands a great deal of patience, dedication, mental energy and analysis on the part of the reader if any sort of valuable insight is to be gained. Unlike some of her other great works, which possess a certain level of fluidity, this novel is much less accessible; the writing often cold and clinical in its approach to narrative. Her prose is incredibly dense and nearly impenetrable, thick as molasses. Woolf purposely keeps the reader at a distance, almost always in a perpetual state of disorientation where it is made immensely difficult to discern just what exactly is happening. Plot and character are irrelevant. For Woolf, she is more interested in presenting fragments and exploring ambiguity. A hall of broken-mirrors. One must read between the lines, it is all about what is happening beneath the surface. Woolf prefers dropping hints, using subtlety or oblique implications. The novel is a complicated jigsaw puzzle and just when the picture seems to be coming into focus, it soon becomes apparent that the box is missing some of its pieces. Hence, the reader (speaking for myself here) is often left in the dark with more questions than answers:

Who exactly is this Jacob fellow and why should we care? Why does Woolf utilize blurring as a narrative technique? What is the purpose of introducing a large host of disjointed and peripheral character perspectives instead of just providing Jacob's own point of view? What is Woolf trying to convey about identity, socialization and western civilization? What meaning is there behind the emphasis on nature imagery? What is with the derogatory anti-semitism? What is Woolf trying to get across concerning death? And so on.
This novel is open to endless interpretation. Personally, the emphasis on identity and death are the two most interesting aspects worth exploring in greater detail. Let me try and formulate some haphazard thoughts concerning these two dominant themes. First of all, Jacob's surname is Flanders. This piece of evidence should sound off alarm bells. "In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row..." If it doesn't, don't feel bad. Not everyone is familiar with WWI history even though this is probably one of the most famous war poems. Ok, so Virginia Woolf lived during the turn of the century and witnessed the horrors of the First World War so perhaps she is doing a bit of foreshadowing here? In hindsight, this seems most likely. Taking into consideration that Jacob's identity is distorted by other people's perspectives, what do we really know about him? Not a whole lot. The closest the reader can get to him is through inference. Woolf does provide a brief description of his physical features and he is often described as "distinguished looking but awkward" (147). Unfortunately, that doesn't get us anywhere. We as readers want to know more about his sense of character or personality. What are his dreams and aspirations? Is he a nice guy? Is he a pompous asshole? Does he prefer cats or dogs? For goodness sakes, just give us some kind of inkling Virginia! Why do you have to be so cruel and shroud us in mystery? Remember now, Woolf is being unconventional. Show, don't tell. The ice-berg theory. Hemingway would be proud. I can accept this narrative choice but it doesn't make the text any lest frustrating to decipher. One thing is certain though, Virginia Woolf doesn't like Jewish people, which is ironic, since she married a Jewish man: Leonard Woolf. She is unequivocally forthright in her position when referring to them as "dirty Jews" (74); looking down upon them with contempt on more than one occasion.

Jacob is a young man who attends Cambridge with literary ambitions; he  can speak Greek, is particularly fond of Sophocles and Shakespeare. His bookshelves contain Spenser, Spinozoa, Dickens, Elizabethan poets, even Jane Austen. He reminds me of many pretentious undergraduate English majors who take pride in showing off their knowledge of literature and how well-read they are but have no real life experience. They live through books, are prone to depression and often brood about death. This persona has become a terrible cliche and perhaps Woolf is working within the realm of parody. I make this observation because of the many references to Keats, this tragic romantic literary figure who seems to have an influence on young aspiring writers, including Jacob. Woolf writes: "Only perhaps that Keats died young-one wants to write poetry and to love-oh the brutes! It's damnably difficult" (41). Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I cannot help but see the similarities between Keats and Jacob that Woolf is subtlety hinting at throughout the novel. They each want to be great writers--or at least, that is general impression concerning Jacob's ambitions--and both die young at the exact age of 26. Perhaps it is just a coincidence but Woolf is a meticulous writer who pays attention to small details. Furthermore, Keats traveled to Rome to improve his health just before he died and Jacob goes abroad as well, albeit to a different country altogether (Greece) before succumbing to his death. Certainly, this connection might seem a bit of a stretch but having Jacob visit the Greek ruins of the Parthenon ties together Woolf's exploration of self-identity and death. He is a lost soul, wandering around in a state of limbo, trying to find some kind of meaning or purpose to his otherwise dull life. In the shadows of this ancient monument, he feels insignificant. These ruins are a relic of ages long past and it has stood for centuries, practically immortal--they will outlive him and likely many generations to come. The past and the present collide. The relationship between history and a rapidly advancing world is tenuous and on the breaking point. Civilization  is on the verge of collapse with the outbreak of WWI and the future looks bleak at best. What's one man supposed to do in the face of such monumental change?

Jacob seems like an ordinary young English bloke entering adulthood at the beginning of the 20th century. He reads obsessively, attends the opera, even enjoys getting funky on the dance floor. He might even be a little eccentric at times such as riding around naked in a sail boat or reading Christopher Marlowe in the British Museum; but he goes through familiar periods of self-doubt in the process of discovering himself and experiences various romantic escapades. He falls for a floozy named Flordina but is conflicted by his own base desires. Even though she is dimwitted, he still finds her attractive and wants to get into her panties: "Beauty goes hand in hand with stupidity" (78). That's kinda harsh dude. Near the end of the novel, he falls in love with a married woman. The scandal! He resists the temptation to initiate an affair but just having these' immoral' feelings is punishment enough for the poor lad. These various moments of action are never straight-forward or entirely clear at first because of the distorted lens in which they are presented.

Early in the novel, Jacob states: "I am what I am, and intend to be it" (33). What the hell does that mean? Well, on the most basic level, he is asserting his self-worth. He is not afraid of what other people think about, determined to live his life on his own terms. Woolf knows that readers instinctively want to know everything about Jacob but decides to withhold key information so we only get impressions of his character, never a complete picture of his core essence. She makes several sly and blatant comments on the futility of trying to understand someone: "Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title" (61). Woolf seems to be alluding to the fact that human nature or individualism is far too mutable and complex to pin down with any kind of accuracy. The best we can do is obtain surface details. It is impossible to truly know someone, even close family members or friends. I believe she is correct in this assessment because unless we possess some kind of telepathic power, we can never really know what is going on inside someone's head. The juxtaposition between internal and external experience is constantly in conflict with one another. Whether or not we want to accept it or not, our behavior is influenced by social norms. Yes, we have made pivotal strides forward in terms of individual rights and freedoms since Woolf's day, but there is something intrinsic about our human nature that makes it difficult or at least makes us apprehensive to fully express ourselves towards others. So much is left unsaid. It's not fear exactly that prevents us from revealing our true nature (although, that might be the case) but rather, societal values or pressures, which make it nearly impossible to do so. We learn to adopt various personae to deal with different social situations. Additionally, she writes: "What remains is mostly a matter of guess work. Yet over him we hang vibrating" (69). That is a presumptuous statement to make, Mrs. Woolf. Even though many readers might be curious about Jacob, it's doubtful many will even care. Despite this erroneous generalization, she is keen to emphasize her point once again: We are never as we seem to be, whether to others or to ourselves.  Human beings are too complex and idiosyncratic to fully comprehend from an objective point of view.

 She continues: 

"It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done. Some, it is true, take ineffaceable impressions of character at once. Others dally, loiter, and get blown this way and that" (146). 

Eschewing with her usual evasiveness, Woolf is shockingly direct here but it seems to me, that Jacob falls into the latter category. This statement also brings the idea of individual freedom and pre-destination to the forefront. Jacob might be under the impression that he is in complete control of his own life but there are also greater powers at work that influence the direction he will take. Although he is steadfast in his ways ("I am what I am"), society or perhaps even God, remain indifferent: "It is thus that we live, they say, driven by an unseizable force" (148). Jacob's tragic death is the result of society's forward momentum into the new age. He is "blown this way and that" by radical social change with the the rise and fall of empires: Jacob is a casualty of war.

Mortality tends to always be an important theme in Woolf's writing and of course, her suicide is well known. Death plays a prominent role in this novel but is handled with subtlety, always lurking in the background. Woolf does not evince a tone of foreboding or nihilistic despair but there is an understated melancholy in relation to the inevitability of death. We must "shuffle off this mortal coil" one day and Woolf seems to be asking the question: How will we be remembered? Some of us might leave some kind of legacy but most will likely live on through the memories of others. However, with the passing of time, those close to us who cherish our memories will also die and eventually any notion of our existence on this Earth will fade into oblivion. A depressing thought, no doubt. The final page of this novel is haunting and executed perfectly to emphasize this fundamental human truth of life as transitory, where all that might be left to remember us is an empty room we used to inhabit containing some of our possessions. Like a pair of old shoes that used to belong to Jacob. 

Unfortunately, Virginia Woolf does not make it easy to reach this remarkable climactic scene and it is almost not worth the effort. Well, maybe.


This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.


  1. I know what you mean about Woolf keeping the reader at a distance. I've always had the feeling that she felt that her art was her art, and to hell with everyone else. She'll share it but in the end, she knows best. Did you feel with this novel that she was playing with the reader a little?

    Have you ever read a biography of Woolf? Any reader can benefit by reading a biography of an author, but I think that this would particularly apply to her. I don't expect to ever understand her, but it would be nice to get out of the woods and into the sunshine sometimes. :-)

    I'll make the effort with this book at some point. I still have to read The Waves and then perhaps after that, I'll give Jacob's Room a try. But I have to clear away some of my present reading, which I foresee is not going to happen until 2015. Something to look forward to ........

    Great review, BTW, and I did read every word. ;-)

  2. I appreciate you taking the time to read this review Cleo. Seriously. It turned out to be a lot longer than I expected but Woolf's novels tend to do that to me. There is just so much to discuss and I barely glossed the surface!

    You bring up a good question about Woolf's playfulness and yes, I do believe she is being deliberately cheeky at times. I tried to allude to that fact in the review but it didn't come across very well. She is playing with narrative conventions and reader expectations. Most of us have been conditioned to read a specific way--looking for a 'story' that turns on conflict, goes from a to b to c, forming sympathy towards the protagonist, etc whereas Woolf is having none of that.

    I've been meaning to read 'Virginia Woolf' by Hermione Lee for the longest while now but have never gotten around to doing so. It's quite lengthy. Yes, I agree with you that knowing more about the author, especially Woolf, would prove beneficial to understanding her work. She is incredibly taxing on the brain to comprehend even at the best of times but I like these type of novels that make the reader work and do some critical thinking. The experience is not always pleasant, as seen with this particular novel, but I enjoy the process of doing close-readings.

    I wouldn't worry too much about making this novel a priority but I'd love to get your take on The Waves.

    Thanks again for reading this long review and commenting. Always a pleasure hearing from you.

  3. This is such a good review, I'm so impressed by it.

    "elaborately baroque writing style" - love that description!

    And yes, as you can tell by my review we had a similar reaction, though I didn't pick up on the Keats similarities. That's certainly one to think about!

    There's so much to say about VW novels - my reviews tend to be very long as well. But your review is very valuable, you did such a good job writing about it.

  4. Thank you for the kind words, O. The write-up definitely turned out to be a lot longer than expected and I barely scratched the surface. Like you say, there is so much depth and complexity to her work.

    I was mulling over the novel the other day and thought that I might pick it up again one day but this time focus on the specific way Woolf uses language to emphasize narrative fragmentation. It really is quite remarkable what she is able to achieve here but I'm not sure that I am up to the task lol.