Woolf project: quick thoughts on Jacob’s Room

While on holiday in September, I made some progress on my Virginia Woolf project and finished up Jacob’s Room. This is a title that isn’t spoken of much and although I really enjoyed it, I can easily see why. It isn’t the kind of book that makes anything easy for you—not that ease of reading or ease of understanding is a measure of a book’s worth—but I find it difficult to know exactly how to file this particular novel away onto my mental bookshelf. It fits on the Woolf shelf, but resists most other comparisons or associations.

Jacob’s Room is about Jacob Flanders: his family, his schooling, his friendships and romances, his movement into adulthood. The book moves forward more or less chronologically, but it isn’t at all concerned with fixing the reader into any real time line. We watch Jacob watching the world, and at the same time watch the world watching Jacob. The intensity of the reader’s focus gets caught up in the tension between these two perspectives.

Compared to both The Voyage Out and Night and Day, Woolf pushes her literary experiment much further with Jacob’s Room. Looking at the short stories she published around the same time, it is much of a piece with “The Mark on the Wall,” “Kew Gardens” and my favorite, “The Unwritten Novel”. All very impressionistic with an unspecified narrator shifting in and out within a scene. I quite like it when Woolf puts her energy into representing the movement of the mind and its perceptions instead of focusing on actual story. She does both just fine, but she is so skilled at exploding a character’s thinking into that lovely/strange mixture of feeling and thought.

The book feels light in many ways, on the one hand because Woolf’s writing is so lively and quick but also because it skims through conversations and holidays and dances, all the while hinting at being a coming-of-age novel, but there is too much darkness in Jacob for this passage from young man to adult to work out so easily. Woolf wrote Jacob’s Room during the First World War, although the book is set in pre-war London and Europe. But this impending war hovers over much of the novel, this idea that humanity has taken a wrong turn.

This is a novel to be read several times—I suspect that much would come from a second and third read. There is so much going on in each scene, each jump of thought. Like all of her fiction, when I’ve finished something, I usually want to start right over again at the beginning.

So the project is moving slowly— if I continue reading chronologically, then I need to catch up to 1922 in her diaries (I am currently in April of 1919) and then read the next set of short stories published between 1922 and 1925. And then I’ll happily pick up Mrs. Dalloway for a re-read.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

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