Jacob's Room (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

    3.6 24

    by Virginia Woolf, Danell Jones (Introduction)


    (New Edition)


    Customer Reviews

    Born Adeline Virginia Woolf in 1882, Woolf showed a passion for words at a young age. Her brother, Thoby, introduced her to the circle of artists and intellectuals who would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. It was his death in 1906 that shaped the story of Jacob's Room. Woolfe had her first mental breakdown when she was only thirteen years old and went on to have several more severe breakdowns in her twenties and thirties before committing suicide in 1941.

    Brief Biography

    Date of Birth:
    January 25, 1882
    Date of Death:
    March 28, 1941
    Place of Birth:
    Place of Death:
    Sussex, England
    Home schooling


    With her third novel, Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf became indisputably modern. Throwing off traditional novelistic conventions, she devised a stylistically radical new book shaped by the memories of a lost brother, a clear-eyed feminist sensibility, and a fierce pacifism. Using a condensed, imagistic method, Woolf tells the story of Jacob Flanders, a young man destined for the trenches of World War I. Published in a year of daring literary experiments like T. S. Eliot's Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses, Jacob's Room forged a fresh direction for the course of the novel. "No scaffolding," Woolf planned as she began the book, "scarcely a brick to be seen," yet heart and the passion "as bright as fire in the mist." She finished it in 1922 with a sense of satisfaction. "There's no doubt in my mind," she recorded contentedly, "that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice." Of all of her books, Jacob's Room was her favorite.

    The privileged, bookish world of Jacob's Room shares much in common with Woolf's own. Born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 to the editor and scholar Leslie Stephen and his second wife, the tragically beautiful and austere Julia Prinsep Stephen, Woolf showed a passion for words at a young age. Given free run of her father's excellent library, she gulped down classics: Coleridge, Lamb, the Brontës, Spenser, Browning, Austen, Homer, and, of course, ever more Shakespeare. But along with this feast of words, she became acquainted too young with grief. Her mother died suddenly in 1895 when Woolf was thirteen, an event that triggered her first mental breakdown. Throughout her twenties and early thirties, Woolf suffered several more serious attacks of mental illness. Close on the heels of her mother's death came the loss of her half-sister, and a few years later her elderly and grief-stricken father. But it was the death of her beloved older brother Thoby in 1906 that shaped the story of Jacob's Room. His death from typhoid at the age of twenty-six was yet another sudden, tragic blow. He had been, for Woolf, a gateway out of the family home and into the world, first as a literary sparring partner, and later as her entrée into the circle of artists and intellectuals who would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. Filled with uninhibited conversation, the Thursday evening soirees with Thoby's Cambridge friends offered a refreshing contrast to the society parties her half-brother George Duckworth forced her to attend. Among those she met was Leonard Woolf, a young civil servant who became her husband in 1912. Together they dedicated their lives to writing, to publishing innovative books through their avant-garde publishing house, the Hogarth Press, and to their wide social circle. After a devastating period of mental illness between 1913 and 1915, Woolf lived another twenty-six years, until the last weeks of her life, without another complete breakdown. Unquenchably social, yet always living in the shadow of another attack, she had to balance her love of people and work with her need for rest and quiet. Writing seven days a week except for holidays, she produced a prodigious amount of work during her lifetime. In addition to her well-known books A Room of One's Own, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves, she produced six other novels, dozens of short stories, hundreds of book reviews and essays, a biography, a play, numerous diaries, and thousands of letters. In 1941, fearing she was sinking into a mental collapse from which she would not recover, she drowned herself in a river not far from her country home in Sussex. Those who knew her spoke of her brilliant mind and striking beauty, of her wit, charm, and insatiable curiosity. It was "her enormous sense of gaiety," her friend Barbara Bagenal wrote of her, "that one remembers most."

    Jacob's Room is at once Woolf's most cinematic and most poetic novel. Structured as a series of vignettes, it carries us along through a succession of images rather than through storyline: here we are on a Cornwall beach; now in a room at Trinity College, Cambridge; later on the steps of the Acropolis. The movement comes from juxtaposition, the events "folding out into another" as she noted in her diary, rather than through plot development. The result is a fluid sense of time registered less by chronology than through the effects of time passing: without transition, an infant-in-arms becomes a toddler or a kitten reappears as an old cat. Rather than organizing the story around the usual milestones in a young man's life, she chooses instead to present the ephemera: gossip, stray thoughts, and small personal moments. These moments, the novel suggests, preserve within them a delicate part of life usually crushed under the weight of momentous occasions. Woolf even makes characterization something light and fleeting. In just a handful of swift sentences, she creates dozens of richly suggestive miniature portraits of young clergymen and their wives, Cambridge dons, aging sea captains, aristocratic ladies, university undergraduates, Cornish housewives, feminists, and kindly old gentlemen. Delicately constructing a new way to tell a story, Woolf invites us to enter Jacob's Room as we would a poem, holding our breath while she leaps from scene to scene, letting our imaginations make unspoken connections, and immersing ourselves in the richness of her language.

    The unnamed, highly idiosyncratic, and intermittently intrusive narrator has generated a great deal of critical controversy. In additional to stunning descriptions and moments of sublime insight-the sort of thing one hopes for from narrators-she is also susceptible to gossipy chatter and bouts of uncertainty about her ability to convey her subject. "Can I never know?" she asks. It is surely strange and perhaps unnerving to be in the hands of a narrator who sometimes reports with near-omniscience and other times steps to the margin of the action, claiming to be unable to determine what exactly is happening. In one instance, for example, she begins to describe Jacob and his university friends engaged in a deep discussion; then as if paralyzed and unable to come any closer, she explains that she cannot hear what they are saying. In such moments, Woolf emphasizes the importance of the narrator's perspective. Because of her "ten years' seniority and a difference of sex," the narrator finds herself at once dazzled by the young men's intellectual intimacy which glistens "with the lustre of pearl," but at the same time cut off from it. Refusing to take an imaginative leap into Jacob's narrowly masculine world, she reminds us that the university is a place where she has access only as an observer, not a participant. As a woman, she is bound by the same social conventions that confine all the women in Jacob's world.

    Begun just eighteen months after the Armistice which ended World War I, Jacob's Room seems to portray an enchantingly nostalgic pre-war world of dinner jackets, calling cards, gloved hands, chaperones, and mail delivered twice daily. It recalls a time many wanted to remember as a period of harmony, stability, and order before the world was turned upside down by war. But Woolf refuses to sentimentalize this lost era. Instead, she portrays it as a complex, sexually segregated place where men and women's lives intersect rather than merge. Its biases and privileges create a particularly stultifying place for women like the dutiful Clara Durrant who lives "an existence squeezed and emasculated within a white satin shoe," her days filled with the trifling obligations of her domestic life. In this achingly chauvinistic world, Woolf's novel reminds us, women could neither vote nor enter most professions, and it would take another three decades before they would be allowed to receive a degree from Jacob's prestigious alma mater. Little wonder Jacob typically sees women as "hazy, semi-transparent shapes of yellow and blue." Without a liberal education and the possibility of earning her own living, Woolf would argue elsewhere, a woman inevitably remains "a nondescript influence, fluctuating, and vague."

    So, as Jacob sails unconsciously through the conventional channels of power--Rugby grammar school, Cambridge University, the Bar-the women in the novel bobble in narrow slips and occasionally sink in his wake. Unlike Jacob, they will not be "inheritors"; their shoes will not ring through the courtyards of universities with "magisterial authority"; their names will ever be absent from the dome of the British Museum; and they will never lift "their pens [to] decree that the course of history should shape itself this way or that way." Striding confidently into the professional world, Jacob and his friends feel "triumphant," convinced that "they had read every book in the world, known every sin, passion, and joy. Civilizations stood round them like flowers for the picking." While they go to university, consort with prostitutes, get drunk, travel the world, and enjoy strings of lovers, young women can't even finish a thought because "Mr. Letts allows little space in his shilling diaries" and they wouldn't dare "encroach on Wednesday."

    Women's inferiority, Woolf famously argued in her classic feminist essay A Room of One's Own, is "essential to all violent and heroic action." It is no surprise then that a cult of militarism runs seamlessly through the social fabric of Jacob's world. Monuments to famous warriors-Achilles, Ulysses, Nelson, the Duke of Wellington-loom over the urban landscape. Even in a house of prostitution "a green clock guarded by Britannia leaning on her spear" rests patriotically on the mantel. In this world, one's brothers, including Jacob's, naturally pursue careers in the King's Navy or the Twentieth Hussars and merely a glimpse of a royal hand inspires observers to swear "the Queen of England … a name worth dying for." Without realizing it himself, Jacob has acquired such a soldierly air that several times during the novel he is mistaken for a military man.

    For Woolf's first readers Jacob's martial destiny would have been clear from the opening pages of the novel. Until 1914, Scarborough, his hometown, had been known as one of the great British seaside resorts; but after German ships bombarded it just months into the war, it became a symbol of German aggression and British resolve. "Remember Scarborough," a famous recruitment poster decreed. But more important is Jacob's surname. Flanders was one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War I, where nearly one-third of all British troops died. One of out ten of them, like Jacob, were from prestigious schools and universities, members of the unholy brotherhood called the "lost generation." Their lives of promise had been obliterated in a war, which Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group had fervently opposed. By plunging him into the war machine, Woolf pulls back from the broad autobiographical strokes of her brother's life. Raised by a stridently pacifist father and surrounded by pacifist friends, it is unlikely that Thoby would have ever enlisted. But Woolf casts Jacob as a tragically representative figure: one of the 800,000 English men killed between 1914 and 1918. Talking of a procession of the dead in the middle of the book, the narrator wonders, "why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart in such anguish." It was a sentiment that every household in England would have understood.

    Romanticizing the lives of those who have died is one way people give meaning to large-scale tragedy. Woolf saw this most keenly with the "canonization," as she called it, of her childhood friend, poet Rupert Brooke. Another model for Jacob, Brooke had gone to Cambridge, published some poetry, taken up a bohemian life, then joined the navy and died in 1915 at the age of twenty-seven. By the time the Times Literary Supplement asked Woolf to review a memoir of him in 1918, Brooke had come to represent the quintessential fallen English soldier: handsome, noble, and sublimely heroic. Although Woolf dutifully reviewed it, the memoir had appalled her; privately, she called it "a disgraceful sloppy sentimental rhapsody, leaving Rupert rather tarnished" In Jacob's Room, Woolf actively strains against sentimentality. Jacob is no hero. He is beautiful, to be sure, and often thought "distinguished." But he is also smug, pompous, self-absorbed, and even a little cruel. As the narrator contends, there is no use in trying to sum him up. One moment, he is solid and real, the next, "we know nothing about him." Knowing someone, Woolf implies, is not a steady, undisturbed, reliable experience, but a varied, alternating, paradoxical one. Even if we wanted to, it is unlikely that we could ever capture the truth about him because, as the narrator tells us, "a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown."

    For Woolf, it was particularly important to avoid turning those killed in the war into military heroes. In creating Jacob, she uses two techniques to avoid what she termed the "emotional excitement of death." First, she only lets us know Jacob from the outside; absent from this novel are the rich explorations of interior lives one finds in her later novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. By keeping Jacob always at arm's length, Woolf curtails any sentimental response to his fate. Second, she refuses to give his death any heroic significance. We are given no details about it on which to hang a tender reaction. By refusing to invest this narrative with heroism, Woolf strips war of any emotional value that might validate it.

    Which is not to say that Jacob's passing lacks emotion. Woolf sets the final moments of the novel far from the trenches, focusing on the emotional mystery of grief rather than on a gladiatorial moment of valor. It was a mystery she had described one day, talking to a friend about her husband. When Leonard had been away, she explained, "she didn't miss him at all. Then suddenly she caught sight of a pair of his empty shoes … and was ready to dissolve into tears instantly." After maintaining a firm emotional control throughout the book, Woolf draws on this small, domestic experience to release the submerged emotional energy of the entire novel.

    Woolf shared with other modern writers a profound sense that the world, particularly after the horrors of the Great War, had changed fundamentally. Feeling a sense of ever-receding distance from their predecessors, they felt the tools they had inherited could no longer express their experience: a world more fragmented, isolated, alienating, and exciting than anything their parents could imagine. The war experience and its aftermath in particular, Woolf believed, required an utterly original approach. "In the vast catastrophe of the European War," she wrote, "our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we allow ourselves to feel them in poetry or fiction." In Jacob's Room, she uses her innovative technique to capture essential truths, unimpeded by sentimentality, about the lives of young men whose promise will not be fulfilled. It is a portrait unrecorded in official memories and histories. "I prefer," she boldly declared, "where truth is important, to write fiction."

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    Jacob's Room is at once Virginia Woolf's most cinematic and most poetic novel. Throwing off traditional novelistic conventions, she devised a stylistically radical new book shaped by the memories of a lost brother, a clear-eyed feminist sensibility, and a fierce pacifism. Using a condensed, imagistic method, Woolf tells the story of Jacob Flanders, a young man destined for the trenches of World War I.

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