The Novels of Virginia Woolf #3: Jacob’s Room

There is a lot more going on in Jacob’s Room, especially compared with both The Voyage Out and also Night and Day.  To begin with, let’s consider its genre.  In some ways, Jacob’s Room is a Bildungsroman, one that shows us the coming-of-age of an artistic, reserved young man.  Analogies suggest themselves – to both Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, both of which, apparently, Woolf had read in the years before writing Jacob’s Room – hence her declaration in her diary that what she was attempting might be “being better done by Mr. Joyce” (September 26, 1920).  Just like both Joyce’s and Proust’s works, this one moves through time confusingly and without very much explicit signposting.  

Images, sounds and anecdotes become symbolic as they displace one another, and concentric similarities emerge.  We have, for example, Jacob’s running away on the beach in the opening, later Jacob’s college-era sea-voyage, then his mid-twenties trip to Athens, and his final trip, presumably off to war, from which he does not return.  The narrative does not move linearly through time, even if its chapters seem to.  Within each chapter, we find the text backtracking, or sometimes possibly moving forward (the assembled party watching warships might be an example of that).

But Jacob’s Room is no mere imitation of Proust or Joyce’s Bildungromane, but a radical critique of them.  In a journal entry during the period of its writing, she writes that she has “this afternoon arrived at some new idea of a new form for a new novel,” presumably Jacob’s Room.  She goes on to say that she sees “immense possibilities in the form… I suppose the danger is the damned egotistical self; which ruins Joyce and Richardson to my mind: is one pliant and rich enough to provide a wall for the book from oneself without its becoming, as in Joyce and Richardson, narrowing and restricting?”  (January 26, 1920).  Jacob’s Room is a bildungsroman that tries to set aside the “damned egotistical self” as its centerpoint.  Consider the title – Jacob’s Room – it suggests not a book about a protagonist, but a book about the space around him.  And somehow “room” suggest “womb” and even “tomb” (Stephen Dedalus muses on these rhymes and their etymological significance in Ulysses).  The opening chapters begin this critique in earnest, as the chapters are not about Jacob so much as about the domestic dynamic which includes Jacob, his brothers, but most centrally Jacob’s mother (Mrs. Flanders) and nanny Rebecca.  Toward the end of chapter 1, we find a simple human moment: ‘Asleep?’ Whispered Rebecca, looking at the cot.  Mrs. Flanders nodded” (i).  Where Joyce’s Portrait considers the perspective a young child in its opening chapter, that this book begins from the perspective of his female caregivers serves as a prelude to a decentering that continues throughout the book.  This decentering focuses the reader on the extent to which the Bildungsroman as previously conceived is itself an inherently gender-privileged enterprise.  By placing Jacob’s readings on the periphery, dropped here and there amidst other characters’ conversations and struggles, we are forced to recognize the contingent and coded-masculine nature of the interiority-obsessed protagonist we expect to encounter as we turn the pages.

The end of the novel draws a wider geopolitical conclusion from this decentered, critical emulation of the Bildungsroman.  As we follow Jacob’s tourism through Italy, Greece and Constantinople (this last only being spoken about indirectly, though not described) we are also led on a trip through the chaos and unevenness of his emotions (contrast “he had never been so happy in the whole of his life” with the page just following, where we hear “when Jacob got out of his doldrums… You couldn’t make him understand a thing when he was in a mood like that (xii).  As the story builds to the climax of the start of the Great War, Jacob becomes a stand-in for the masculine, self-obsessed militarism whose only logical end is a slide senseless mass death.  Even so, the use of perspective keeps the reader sympathetic to the dynamics of this slide: we sense a much greater despair from the “pair of Jacob’s old shoes” than just a personal regard for the novel’s protagonist: we feel for the spaces, people, family systems, systems of government that are left similarly empty.

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