Introduction and Thesis
First published in 1922, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room was her first novel to use modernist and impressionistic techniques. This paper will show that Woolf’s methodology (the way she wrote the novel) is intimately connected with the thematic preoccupations of the author: the method mirrors the message. Jacob’s Room is commonly seen as an indictment of the sterility and emptiness of modern civilization at the start of the twentieth century and it is true that at its heart is an existential angst that is presented vividly by Woolf. However, this paper will argue that Woolf uses recurring motifs of insects, animals and the natural world to underline but also to suggest, although only tentatively, an alternative to the empty lives of the characters and the fictional world they inhabit. The British context of the novel is important too: the First World War starts in Chapter 13 and there is much satire directed at the stultifying British class system and the failure of the British education system to produce in Jacob Flanders anything more than a solipsistic dilettante with a wide range of cultural knowledge but no practical function in society.
On the penultimate page of the novel Jacob’s mother, commenting on Jacob’s room exclaims ‘Such confusion everywhere’ (Woolf 225). This might well stand as an apt description of the novel itself, as it consists of rapid shifts in time, sudden, unexpected and dislocating changes of scene, passages which shits perspective from one character to another, and snippets of trivial conversation, seemingly unconnected with what has gone immediately before and what follows immediately afterwards. This methodology is modernist and impressionistic, and caused an adverse reaction from some of its first reviewers. In the final chapter his mother, looking at the state of Jacob’s room, comments ‘Nothing arranged’ (Woolf 225) and that is likely to be the casual reader’s reaction to this novel and its seeming jumble of events, conversations and abrupt shifts in tone. However, it is a mimetic way for Woolf to demonstrate the complexity of the modern world.
The novel begins with Jacob being lost on the beach and his brother Archer shouting ‘Ja-cob! Ja-cob!’ (Woolf 2); in the final chapter, in despair it seems, Bonamy cries ‘Jacob! Jacob!’ while standing looking out of the window of Jacob’s room (Woolf 225). These cries for Jacob might well be echoed by the reader, because, after over two hundred pages, we are no closer to understanding the real nature of Jacob. This is part of Woolf’s exploration of identity: we hear lots of conversations about Jacob; we hear a lot of what he says; we know which authors he has read; which university he attended and the names of the different women he is involved with throughout the novel – but we are no closer to discovering the real Jacob. There are only occasional moments when Woolf tells the story from Jacob’s point of view – but these are very rare and often consist of simple observations that Florinda is silly: ‘Jacob observed Florinda. In her face there seemed to him something horribly brainless’ (Woolf 98). So, mirroring the way the novel is written, the reader, when faced with the mystery of the main protagonist might well echo his mother’s words, already quoted – ‘Such confusion everywhere!’ (Woolf 225). As the novel ends we are probably intended to conclude that Jacob has become one of the many victims of the First World War – but we cannot be sure, just as we are never sure what he really looks like: the most we get to know about what the the adult Jacob looks like is that he is ‘distinguished’ (Woolf passim).
Yet the question of identity and the worth of the individual is explicitly raised throughout the novel. In Chapter Two Mrs Flanders, reflecting on her husband’s early death wonders ‘Had he then been nothing?’ (Woolf 12). Interestingly the question is ‘unanswerable’ (Woolf 12). This can be seen as part of Woolf’s modernist anxiety about the value and seeming triviality of the individual human life, but it might be said to have especial poignancy in the aftermath of the First World War with its millions of deaths. Had Jacob been nothing? In one sense, yes – the reader is apt to agree – just as his father he had been nothing. He does nothing of real value and leaves nothing of real value. Even his relationships with women have been sterile and marked by reticence and failure.
If the reader finds it difficult to know Jacob there are pints where Woolf suggests that this problem is not confined to novels. In Chapter Four Captain Barfoot cannot explain why he likes Jacob the best of Mrs Flanders’s sons and Woolf comments that it seems impossible for us ever to know another human being or why we like them: ‘It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown.’ (Woolf 86). She continues: ‘In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.’ (Woolf 87). Woolf goes on to remark about the impossibility of ever truly knowing another human being: ‘there remains over something which can never be conveyed to a second person save by Jacob himself. (Woolf 88). We must remind ourselves how radical an approach to writing a novel this must have seemed to contemporary readers: we expect to know the chief protagonists of a novel intimately. And yet in Chapter 12 Sandra Wentworth-Williams comments ‘It is no use trying to sum people up.’ (Woolf 195) and yet before the modernist novel that is exactly what a reader might expect a novelist to do. Part of Woolf’s technique here is not only a comment on the complexity of life, but also a profound criticism of the person that Jacob has become – it will be seen later that Jacob is not worth the trouble of understanding or getting to know – and not simply because he will meet an early death in the war.
If the characters in the novel are essentially unknowable then communication between them is presented as opaque and futile. There are many references to letters in the novel: but very often these are letters which are started but not finished or sent; sent but not read; written but without the words that the sender wanted to use. One example will have to suffice. In Chapter Eight Jacob’s mother’s letter is left unread while Jacob makes love to Florinda (Woolf 111). Jacob’s mother wants to write from the heart: ‘probably this—Don't go with bad women, do be a good boy; wear your thick shirts; and come back, come back, come back to me. But she said nothing of the kind.’ (Woolf 112). The letter consists of completely trivial details about mutual acquaintances in the Scarborough area: her real feelings remain unexpressed. The novel is also full of conversations which are merely empty, gossipy chatter and where the characters exchange social pleasantries, but cannot speak their real thoughts or feelings or, Woolf sometimes hints, have no real thoughts or feelings to express. (Chapter Seven contains some good examples of this).
Part of the existential agony of the human condition is that we will inevitably die and almost every chapter in the novel contains some fleeting image of or reference to death. In Chapter One the sheep’s skull (Woolf 5); in Chapter Two the slow death of the stag beetle and the smell of the rotting bodies of the butterflies that Jacob has collected are reminders of our own mortality (Woolf 21). In Chapter Nine Woolf writes about the night watchmen at the British Museum and at the end of the sentence cannot resist reminding us of their eventual fate: ‘poor, highly respectable men, with wives and families at Kentish Town, do their best for twenty years to protect Plato and Shakespeare, and then are buried at Highgate.’ (Woolf 136). The novel is full of references to human history and the human past: as early as Chapter Two there are references to the Crimean War (Woolf 13) and to the Roman fortress near Scarborough (Woolf 114). But even at this early stage of the novel another, ore knowing perspective is introduced. In Chapter Two, as the crowds are entertained by the band on the pier, a watching young man thinks ‘But there was a time when none of this had any existence’ (Woolf 16) and later in the same paragraph his thoughts stretch back in time to the Romans and more recent British history: ‘The heavy chariot may swing along the turnpike road, but there's no pier for it to stop at, and how grey and turbulent the sea is in the seventeenth century!’ (Woolf 16). Woolf is clear about the human need to record the past. The paragraph continues (addressed to an imaginary visitor to Scarborough: ‘Let's to the museum. Cannon-balls; arrow- heads; Roman glass and a forceps green with verdigris. The Rev. Jaspar Floyd dug them up at his own expense early in the forties in the Roman camp on Dods Hill—see the little ticket with the faded writing on it.’ (Woolf 16). But the human need to make sense of things in a meaningless world where death is inevitable is hinted at here: the writing on the ticket is already faded and one day, in the distant future, will be illegible. The paragraph ends with a rhetorical question: ‘And now, what's the next thing to see in Scarborough?’ (Woolf 16).
And this is where we start to approach the heart of the novel. In a world where we cannot know other people; where communication seems impossible; where death is inevitable – how do we fill the time between birth and life? In Chapter Twelve Jacob wonders to himself ‘But what could he do after dinner?’ (Woolf 173) and Woolf comments
‘No doubt we should be, on the whole, much worse off than we are without our astonishing gift for illusion. At the age of twelve or so, having given up dolls and broken our steam engines, France, but much more probably Italy, and India almost for a certainty, draws the superfluous imagination. One's aunts have been to Rome But it is the governesses who start the Greek myth.’ (Woolf 173)
And from this perspective Jacob has merely exchanged butterflies (it might have been steam engines) for high culture. This is where Jacob’s boyhood collecting of butterflies is so important: like the labelling of Roman artefacts in the museum at Scarborough, his collecting the butterflies represents the human need to capture and control in a world without meaning, but it is doomed since the butterflies all die. And what happens (because of Jacob’s class and background) is that he simply swaps one obsession (butterflies) for an obsession and knowledge of high, élite culture to which he makes cultured reference throughout the novel; his intellectual interests, however, are presented by Woolf as unoriginal: they are typical of a man of his background and education and they are merely fads – passing whims which fill in the time are essentially meaningless – like his trip to Greece towards the end of the novel. He is able to allude with confidence and apparent erudition to famous writers, composers, painters, historical figures and philosophers, but it brings him no happiness and Woolf reveals that in actuality he has no original thoughts or insights – he may be knowledgeable about élite culture, but, like the butterflies of his boyhood, he and his second-hand knowledge is dead by the end of the novel and it serves no useful purpose. In Chapter Three there is a description of Jacob’s room at Cambridge and it contains all the books you would expect to find: Jacob is intellectually predictable and unoriginal. There are countless examples of Woolf revealing the banality of Jacob’s real thoughts, but the following is a good example. It comes from Chapter Nine and concludes a passage devoted to Jacob’s reading of Phaedrus, one of Plato’s most admired and studied works:
‘The dialogue draws to its close. Plato's argument is done. Plato's argument is stowed away in Jacob's mind, and for five minutes Jacob's mind continues alone, onwards, into the darkness. Then, getting up, he parted the curtains, and saw, with astonishing clearness, how the Springetts opposite had gone to bed; how it rained; how the Jews and the foreign woman, at the end of the street, stood by the pillar-box, arguing.’ (Woolf 137)
What is important here is the banality of Jacob’s response: Plato holds his attention for five minutes and then he is distracted by the ordinary life happening outside his flat. But Woolf makes it clear that his obsession with culture is to do with class: there are frequent references to ordinary people in the novel who pass their time (like the solid night watchmen of the British Museum mentioned above) in more ordinary pursuits but who still face the inevitability of death. And what makes matters worse is that Jacob’s reading has given him an arrogance that makes him despise those who do not share his culture. In Chapter Six as he and Durrant walk through London they converse:
‘Durrant quoted Aeschylus—Jacob Sophocles. It is true that no Greek could have understood or professor refrained from pointing out—Never mind; what is Greek for if not to be shouted on Haverstock Hill in the dawn? Moreover, Durrant never listened to Sophocles, nor Jacob to Aeschylus. They were boastful, triumphant; it seemed to both that they had read every book in the world; known every sin, passion, and joy. Civilizations stood round them like flowers ready for picking.’ (Woolf 92).
My earlier remark that Jacob is not worth knowing may be starting to make sense. But is this novel merely a savage indictment of British education and so-called cultured but empty products of it? Or there something in the novel which might prompt hope or a chance of redemption?
Let us return to the butterflies, because there is another symbolic layer to their presentation by Woolf. In Chapter Two one of the butterflies caught by Jacob is described like this: ‘A fritillary basked on a white stone in the Roman camp.’ (Woolf 21) the butterflies were there, this sentence implies, two thousand years ago when the Romans built their camp and it is in nature that some sort of continuity is found. Woolf’s own writing becomes more engaged, more imaginative, more expressive when she writes about nature. Here from Chapter Three is Woolf’s lyrical description of May in Cambridge:
‘the springy air of May, the elastic air with its particles—chestnut bloom, pollen, whatever it is that gives the May air its potency, blurring the trees, gumming the buds, daubing the green. And the river too runs past, not at flood, nor swiftly, but cloying the oar that dips in it and drops white drops from the blade, swimming green and deep over the bowed rushes, as if lavishly caressing them.’ (Woolf 39-40).
Jacob too responds with genuine interest to the beauty of nature: ‘In front of him two white butterflies circled higher and higher round the elm tree.’ (Woolf 40).
Jacob, whose life seems so meaningless in other respects, finds peace and happiness in nature like in Chapter 12 when he climbs a mountain: ‘Stretched on the top of the mountain, quite alone, Jacob enjoyed himself immensely. Probably he had never been so happy in the whole of his life.’ (Woolf 182). While on the train in Italy he admits to himself that what he would really like to do: ‘And what I should like would be to get out among the fields, sit down and hear the grasshoppers, and take up a handful of earth— Italian earth, as this is Italian dust upon my shoes.’ (Woolf 172). Instead he visits sites of historical and cultural interest – which is what he is expected to do. By upbringing, class and education, Jacob has been sidetracked into an empty obsession with human culture; true happiness, Woolf suggests, is to be found in harmony with nature, in being true to own deepest impulses and not pretending to be something you are not.
Woolf, Virginia, Jacob’s Room, girlebooks.com, online, 1922.