Virginia’s Rooms: Jacob and the Spatialization of Character
Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift.
One fibre in the wicker arm- chair creaks, though no one sits there.
The year 1922 marks the beginning of High Modernism with the publications of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Woolf’s novel, only her third, is not generally afforded the iconic worship and critical praise so often attached to those works of her most famous male contemporaries. Jacob’s Room is seldom suggested as one of Woolf’s best fiction; the novel has not generated the same encomia as her recognized masterpieces Mrs. Dalloway, Between the Acts, and The Waves. But Jacob’s Room is indeed a revolutionary work in its original technical mastery, its mournful historicity, and its evocative tone. The novel is Woolf’s manifesto in fiction of her unique enterprise to create character beyond the one-to-one mimetic method of conventional Victorian and Edwardian realism. Uniquely self-conscious and conscious of self, Woolf was attracted to exploring new modes of characterization, fictional consciousness, and epistemology. She is especially interested in exploring the nature, communication, and limits of fictional knowledge. Woolf’s idiosyncratic mode of characterization in Jacob’s Room is the epistemological complement in fiction to Eliot’s formula for emotional expression in poetry, the objective correlative. While Eliot’s description of the ideal artistic technique tries to be concise and formulaic, a direct mimetic correspondence, Woolf’s technique is symbolic and metaphoric, collective, indefinite, and infinitely more subtle.
To describe Jacob’s Room as revolutionary is no exaggeration. Her style matured immensely between the 1915 publication of The Voyage Out and the 1917 publication of Night and Day and her experimental short stories of the late 1910s and the publication of Jacob’s Room. These novels largely followed the precedent of Victorian and Edwardian realistic characterization and narrative consciousness. The story of Rachel Vinrace is conveyed through the traditional omniscient, omnipresent narrative consciousness which occasionally projects its own thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and emotions onto the “reality” of Rachel’s world. In Jacob’s Room, Woolf extends the omniscience of the narrator exponentially. Consciousness or narrative voice is no longer centered in a singular fictional “being.” Instead, the narrative consciousness is dispersed across the whole of the work’s universe; the collective voice of the novel includes the traditional impersonal presence as well as Jacob’s view, Betty Flander’s view, the view of the London crowds, and many others.
When the novel was published on 27 October 1922 by the Hogarth Press and printed by R. & R. Clark of Edinburgh, Woolf was terribly anxious about its critical reception because of her radical experimentation in the work (Letters 574) and its departure from the fictional conventions of works by writers like Bennet and Wells, as well as her own previous novels. She was strongly impressed by the Russian writers of the late nineteenth century, who had only recently been translated into English. As a writer always seeking new ways to improve on her craft, Woolf was intrigued by the author’s capacity to establish a strong emotional relationship between the writer and the work and she experimented with new perspectives and forms of narrative voice in many short stories in the years following the publication of Night and Day. In stories like “The Mark on the Wall,” “Monday or Tuesday,” and “An Unwritten Novel,” Woolf pushed the boundaries of the first person narrator beyond the limits of her previous work. After its publication, she modestly described the novel as “more an experiment than an achievement” (Letters, 591). She nervously wrote to Roger Fry that Jacob’s Room was “too much of an experiment to be a success” (546). When readers responded positively to her novel, Woolf was eager to know the reasons and when friends such as Lytton Strachey indicated their interest in her new mode of characterization, she was encouraged to continue in this mode.
Besides giving flesh to her earlier experiments with perspective, Jacob’s Room is also an evocation of Woolf’s deceased brother Thoby. The strong relationship she shared with her brother provided Woolf with a wealth of material from which to draw in the creation of a complex and detailed portrait of Jacob. Indeed, we find certain singular correspondences between Thoby and Jacob that reinforce Woolf’s intention to memorialize their relationship: the interest in entomology, the prestigious education, the extensive travels, the untimely death far from home. Human character, Joan Bennett notes, is defined by “the impact of one personality upon another” and Woolf sought to convey the impact of her brother’s life and death upon her creative and critical faculties (31). Given the rich store of details she might have used to color Jacob, his lack of clarity can only be read as an intentional break from traditional modes of characterization.
Woolf’s technique for characterization in Jacob’s Room is metaphorical and symbolic rather than metonymic and mimetic. Woolf’s understanding of character is relative and fluid, derived from multiple perspectives and from the intersections of identities in time and space. Particularly useful to our present concerns, the use and meaning of space in Jacob’s Room is a recurrent thematic, ontological, epistemological, and structural technique.
Many recent critics have interpreted Woolf’s work in light of postmodernist theories of being, knowing, and representation. Pamela Caughie, for example, believes that too many readings of Virginia Woolf’s fiction “rely on the language of representation; they work for a referential reality but not for a rhetorical reality” (70). The metaphor of the room, immediately named in the novel’s title, offers an insight into Woolf’s spatial method of characterization.
Rooms are tropes for the impossibility of knowing their occupants. Jacob is his room; he is the collection of artifacts within the room, the history of the room and its contents, and the relationships of those artifacts to each other. “Jacob” is the presence of the “listless . . . empty room” that causes “One fibre in the wicker arm-chair [to creak], though no one sits there” (200), the ghost in the novel’s memory. Rather than replicate human personality and physical features in realistic correspondence and calling those collected parts a whole character, she subtly passes responsibility for the creation of character to the reader. Character in Woolf’s fiction, from Jacob Flanders through Mrs. Dalloway and on to the Ramsey family, is created by the intersections of “spaces” of meaning. She wrote in 1922 that “I am doubtful whether people, the best disposed towards each other, are capable of more than an intermittent signal as they forge past” (598). Other characters, history, religion, culture, sexuality, and consciousness are defined less “objects” than as fields of subjectivity. Knowledge of Jacob’s character and the details of his person and personality are repeatedly implied through the accumulated details of physical description, behaviors, descriptions of associated objects, and references to Jacob from the speech of other characters similarly constructed. Woolf directs the careful reader to notions of centers in narratives, including “the center of attention (main character), the center of vision (point of view), and the center of meaning (theme)” (Caughie 67).
Jacob’s character is the accumulation of meaning attached to the collected experiences in the novel. Character is shaped by personal, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and impersonal experience. Woolf sought to achieve characterization beyond the limits of the one-to-one correspondence of realism. In fact, she describes the technique of the novel as “character without realism” (Letters 571). Were the book to follow the narrative conventions of the traditional English novel, the result would be much like the bildungsroman of the nineteenth century, developed by such writers as George Eliot (whom Woolf deeply admired) and Charles Dickens. Judy Little describes this novel as a feminist parody of the bildungsroman (105). Woolf, however, does not allow the reader to passively respond to the passage of time that the novel documents. The reader is teased into an active interaction in the narrative’s desire to find form and expression. Jacob’s nonconformity to social expectations is symbolized in the novel’s form as well as in Woolf’s style (108). There is a paradox of personality among the many voices in the novel, an epistemological conflict between the Jacob’s vivid presence as a living, breathing (if fictional) character and Woolf’s intentional refusal to admit knowledge of this character through traditional means.
This radical approach to characterization demands the direct experience of reality as the only possible way of knowing meaning. In a letter to Gerald Brenan on Christmas Day 1922, shortly after the publication of the novel, she described this approach in forceful terms: “life has to be sloughed: has to be faced: to be rejected; then accepted on new terms with rapture” (598-9). Many critics have noted the strong correspondences between Woolf’s idiosyncratic methods of character and the techniques of the Post-Impressionist painters with whom she associated herself socially, intellectually, and romantically. Jacob is like a Post-Impressionist figure who appears “to defy the act of portrait painting” (Kiely 150). Robert Kiely regards the vagueness of definition in his character as “an expression of his youth” and not a weakness in Woolf’s technique (151). Woolf’s Modernist style leaves the reader “full of anticipation” after each encounter with Jacob’s “room,” searching for hard, cold lines amid the fuzzy edges of reality (151). Woolf nearly combines the arts of fiction and painting at the close of chapter four and seems to parody her own narrative technique. As Jacob slips out of the scene, Miss Eliot laments that he will “Not to sit for me, . . . planting her tripod upon the lawn” (68). Try as she will, Miss Eliot can not make Jacob sit still for a portrait.
Woolf’s fiction, beginning with Jacob’s Room, is particularly concerned with narrative techniques in general and is quite often narration about modes of narration, or metanarrative. The plot is composed of multiple frames: the world of Jacob as conveyed through a narrative consciousness which is in turn set in a perceptual context by the author herself. Woolf’s apparently traditional objective narrator continually draws attention to its own status as narrative consciousness. Caughie writes that “one way Woolf foregrounds character is by making the narrative perspective opaque, not transparent, something we look at, not through” (64). On Jacob’s boat trip with Timmy Durrant, the narrative consciousness enjoys the opportunity to demonstrate its own narrative capacity by veering away from the action of the scene to a scene in a fire-lit room: “The cat marches across the hearth-rug. No one observes her” (52). These sentences are an epistemological paradox. In the fictional reality of the novel, there is no perceiving “I/eye” to bound objects but the equally fictional narrative consciousness. Like the classic philosophical question “If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it, does it make any sound?”, Woolf questions the natures of subjectivity and objectivity in relation to presence, a question she later explores in To The Lighthouse.
The narrator later notes “In short, the observer is choked with observation” (75), thus suggesting the filtering function of consciousness in fiction and inability to fully know “reality.” This theme of epistemological obstruction dominates the narrative desire to fulfil the reader’s expectations of fullness of character. “Nobody sees anyone as he is” (30). The narrator offers an elaborate Post-Impressionist still life portrait of the rooms in which Jacob resides in London: “Jacob’s room had a round table and two low chairs. There were yellow flags in a jar on the mantelpiece; a photograph of his mother; cards from societies with little raised crescents, coats of arms, and initials; notes and pipes; on the table lay paper ruled with a red margin B, an essay, no doubt “Does History consist of the Biographies of Great Men?” There were books enough; very few French books; but then any one who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, with extravagant enthusiasm. Lives of the Duke of Wellington, for example; Spinoza; the works of Dickens; the Faery Queen; a Greek dictionary with the petals of poppies pressed to silk between the pages; and the Elizabethans.”
Following the traditional narrative technique of realist fiction, one would expect this descriptive passage, which continues for several more lines, to convey a more intimate understanding of Jacob’s character. The narrative consciousness’s indeterminancy and ambivalence regarding its own powers of observation and characterization render any reading of Jacob through these objects problematic. This passage and others like it can only offer an ambiguous impression of Jacob’s distant nature. Even the most clearly direct of facts is ambiguous: “That he had grown to be a man was a fact that Florinda knew, as she knew everything, by instinct” (157). As in Orlando, the seemingly objective “fact” of sex is placed into doubt. The saving grace of this work “so utterly devoid of so many virtues,” Woolf wrote in a letter to Lytton Strachey just before the novel’s publication, is its “romanticism” (568). The novel achieves this “romanticism” through “the effort of breaking with complete representation” (568), a rejection of metonymic mimesis in favor of the subtlety of metaphorical richness.
At the novel’s opening, the initial narrative consciousness “sees” through Betty Flanders’ eyes. The first reference to Jacob comes in his absence from the narrative scene. His mother begins “Well, if Jacob doesn’t want to play . . .” (1). The sentence is unfinished. If Jacob doesn’t want to play, then what? Immediately, Woolf suggests the conditionality of knowledge about Jacob as a character and about characters as a whole. The repeated calling of Jacob’s name, both in the opening and closing pages of the novel, reinforce Woolf’s sense of hesitation regarding the definitions of character. The repeated name acts as a metaphorical invocation to the totality of experience, drawing out the details that make up the reader’s encounter with Jacob and contribute to our vision of Jacob as a character.
The narrative subtly shifts to Jacob’s consciousness at various points of the novel. These moments might be expected to reveal more about Jacob’s personality, desires, and beliefs than do the filtered views we discern from others, but even these moments do not give us the “real” Jacob. His interest in entomology, a direct allusions to Woolf’s family interest in insects and in Woolf’s personal interest in her brother deceased brother Thoby, is filtered through the cold, objective language of the scientist: “The upper wings of the moth which Jacob held were undoubtedly marked with kidney-shaped spots of a fulvous hue” (21). Charles Schug interprets Woolf in the context of Romanticism, noting that “the modern novel has a Romantic form” (3). Searching for insects, Jacob is the Romantic hero on a quest. His self-absorption leads to tardiness in arriving home in the evening, frightening and frustrating his mother: “She thought something dreadful had happened. And he woke Rebecca, who had to be up early” (21).
Woolf achieves far greater expression of character through a technique I will call negative presence. Jacob’s character is most fully articulated by examining the space which remains in his absence. Merry Pawlowski, in the context of her reading of Between the Acts, locates “a negativity at the heart of the conflict between language and vision, the definitive conflict of Woolf’s mature prose” (190). We find the seeds of this “negativity” in the paradox of the dialectics of presence and absence, subject/object, and knowledge/ignorance. Robert Kiely notes that Jacob seems to jump out of frame any time the momentary narrative consciousness seeks to focus upon him, as when Miss Eliot desires to paint his portrait. He doesn’t seem to be able to stand still long enough to be captured on the canvas, or the film, or on the page. This playful avoidance of presence serves two functions. First, the reader becomes more and more eager in her attempts to bring Jacob into focus. And second, Woolf conveys the essence of her theory of character, both in fiction and in real life, its insubstantiality, its lack of definition, and its dependence upon perspective. Kiely notes that “in conceding to Jacob’s absence . . . Woolf lets the individual go and, in the process, preserves and illuminates images of a wider common life” (156).
In addition to this postmodern use and meaning of space, Woolf also multiplies the sites of meaning through her narrator’s placement of Jacob in time. In the seeming climax of Jacob’s personal journey, he and Sandra travel the long road to the Acropolis:
Now the agitation of the air uncovered a racing star. Now it was dark. Now one after another lights were extinguished. Now great towns, Paris, Constantinople, London were black as strewn rocks. Waterways might be distinguished. In England the trees were heavy in leaf. Here perhaps in some southern wood an old man lit dry ferns and the birds were startled. The sheep coughed; one flower bent slightly towards another. The English sky is softer, milkier than the Eastern. Something gentle has passed into it from the grass-rounded hills, something damp. The salt gale blew in at Betty Flander’s bedroom window, and the widow lady, raising herself slightly on her elbow, sighed like one who realizes, but would fain ward off a little longer, oh, a little longer!, the oppression of eternity.
But to return to Jacob and Sandra.
They had vanished. There was the Acropolis; but had they reached it? The columns and the Temple remain; the emotion of the living breaks fresh on them year after year; and of that what remains? (181-2)
In this passage, Jacob is defined more by his absence than his presence, a divergence in space as well as time. As a young Englishman in the early years of the First World War, Jacob is the metaphorical end point of history, another theme which dominates not only this novel, but much Modernist literature in the wake of the war’s moral and cultural devastation. The coughing sheep echoes the coughing goat of Eliot’s “Gerontion” and underscores the crisis of masculine identity and historical and civilizational progress that symbolically came to an end with the Great War. Jacob is “civilization’s prisoner” (23). Fictional identity, i.e. character, is the accumulation not only of personal experiences, but “of the wisdom and knowledge of the past, or what part of it he is able to acquire and absorb” (McNichol 49). The question of selfhood is threatened by the weight of history and civilization, represented through the novel by the Greeks. The Greeks “are at the centre of [Jacob’s] journey towards selfhood, and his pilgrimmage ends in the rock of the Acropolis” (McNichol 55). The historical allusions of Jacob’s name also show him “both as inheritor and as victim [of] the riches and potentiality of the human enterprise . . . , but also its tendencies to self-destruction” (Johnson 45).
The meaning of Jacob’s character is always left to the reader to create. Reading Woolf requires the reader to participate in a cooperative venture of character creation. Woolf’s method is to offer parts to the reader to collect and construct into a meaningful whole. She offers just enough concrete detail to guide the readers response to Jacob and no more. In “Character in Fiction,” she criticizes Arnold Bennett’s avoidance of the responsibility for the life of his own characters: “What can Mr. Bennett be about? I have formed my own opinion of what Mr. Bennett is about – he is trying to make us imagine for him . . .” (Essays 430). The reader’s first “encounter” with Jacob is his mother’s frustrated response to his brother Archer’s incomplete and unknown question: “Well, if Jacob doesn’t want to play” (2). Again, her sighing “Where is that tiresome little boy?” reveals as much of Jacob’s character as it does his mother’s inattentiveness (2). As detail is added to the growing portrait of Jacob, the meaning of these accumulating bits of information evolves, suggesting the fluidity of reality, truth, and knowledge about ourselves and each other. The fragmented snapshots of Jacob’s childhood “[grow] with the years as further meanings and implications attach themselves to [his experience]. The perspective alters” (McNichol 46). At first, Jacob contributes very little to our understanding of him through his own speech. As the novel progresses, he speaks with greater frequency and in greater detail and if we interpret his status as a fictional representation of personhood, he indeed appears to contribute to his own characterization more and more through his assertions in matters philosophical, literary, and sexual. His utterances join with the rest of the accumulated details in offering insight.
Jacob’s “real achievement” in the novel is simply existence amid moral, spiritual, aesthetic, and psychological decay (McNichol 52). Woolf’s project of building a subjective character from objective artifacts is more profoundly an act of creating subjectivity. For Ann Marie Hebert, subjectivity is “a process of becoming both single and plural” and “requires an audience” to interpret the meaning of this creative act (17).
Another of the revolutionary aspects of Woolf’s technique in the novel is the transformation from an objective to a subjective narration. In nineteenth century fiction, the relationship between the reader and the fictional world of the novel maintained a definite critical distance. Woolf criticized this infatuation with supposed objectivity as tenuous and superficial. By shifting the perspective from outside the mind of the character to inside the character’s consciousness, Woolf sought to achieve greater emotional expression, an even more “real” expression.
Schug argues that Woolf is one of several Modernist writers who carry on the Romantic tradition which supremely values the individual consciousness and its communicability. He claims that “Woolf’s great contribution to modern fiction is the successful imposition on the novel, a primarily narrative form, of a ‘self-satisfying inner order, a non-logical continuity’ in order to penetrate and to express in a fictional mode the inner, subjective world of experience” (192). I have described Woolf’s fictional techniques as metaphorical and symbolical, while Schug combines these terms to describe Woolf’s mode as “poetic” (195). The distinction is purely semantic. Woolf herself describes the function of consciousness in the portrayal of reality in her fiction in her essay “Modern Novels”:
The mind, exposed to the ordinary course of life, receives upon its surface a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, composing in their sum what we might venture to call life itself; and to figure further as the semi-transparent envelope, or luminous halo, surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (Essays 33).
Amid the rich resources offered by the subjective experience of reality is the fictional construction which literary critics of all ages have named the Modernist character. Like Eliot’s “heap of broken images,” Woolf gathers impressions against the cold and repressive concept of character advocated by Arnold Bennett. “Let us record the atoms,” she continues in “Modern Novels,” “as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each night or incident scores upon the consciousness” (33-4). Clearly, Woolf values the primary subjective experience over the objective technique in the fiction of her literary predecessors. “Light-heartedly decadent,” Jacob’s Room asks many more questions than it answers (Little 109). The novel was Woolf’s “most abstract and theoretic work yet its meaning is expressed poetically” (McNichol 39).
Jacob Flanders is many things to many readers. He is a thematic symbol of the negative culmination of Western civilization. To Pamela Caughie, he is a “structural element” around which the novel is organized (66). The novel reveals Virginia Woolf’s imaginative capacities as both novelist and critical theorist of fiction and suggests a creative impulse that could only grow stronger in subsequent works. The meaning of Jacob’s Room is more than facts and notes, colorful language set down on paper. The meaning of Jacob’s life, and human life in general, is developed from “the accumulation of events in his youth . . .” and “will endure for the rest of his life” (McNichol 48). Woolf’s spatial technique for creating character fundamentally suggests that the accumulated pieces of life, the stuff of biography, are far great than their whole. The novel closes with a final symbol of its own inability to fully convey the meaning of the death of this young man. He is gone forever from the room and the “pair of Jacob’s old shoes” (201) that could not contain him.
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– – -. Jacob’s Room. New York: The Penguin Group, 1998.
– – -. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Volume II. 1912-1922. Ed. by Nigel Nicholson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976