Monday, 21 August 2000

Virginia Woolf: Jacob's Room (1922)

Edition: Grafton, 1976
Review number: 581

Most of Woolf's novels that I have read seem to be trying something new, and are not quite successful. To the Lighthouse is an exception, though I am not sure that I understood it. Jacob's Room is more a character study than a novel, the new thing that is attempted being to reveal the personality of Jacob Flanders throught the impressions he has of others and those they have of him rather than through his thoughts and actions as in a conventional narrative.

This idea is inherently limited in scope, reducing the components of a traditional novel to just one: character. (This is in itself no reason for lack of success, because reductions to other components have been notably successful in this century: there are crime novels which consist almost entirely of plot, and science fiction novels which consist almost entirely of background.) Other plotless novels had been written in the past, such as that forerunner to so much modern literature, Tristram Shandy, though satire plays an important part in the success of that novel and is really absent from Jacob's Room.

I don't feel (as you may have gathered) that Jacob's Room really works. Jacob Flanders is not a particularly interesting character; he is a Bloomsbury intellectual, yet is too young to have made his mark or even to have formed interesting ideas of his own. Woolf's choice of him as the central character shows a slightly surprising lack of imagination in the author of Orlando.

The idea of using both Jacob's impressions of others and their impressions of him to illuminate his character also does not quite come off. This is partly because Woolf makes a stylistic choice that everything should be in the third person. The forms which would be particularly suited to the aims of the novel would be ones which really do give the impression of multiple points of view, such as diaries, epistolary or stream of consciousness narratives. These would all also require a greater variety of style than Woolf gives the impression that she is capable of acheiving.

Woolf's later novel, Orlando seems to be a more successful character study, enlivened by elements of fantasy (longevity and sexual ambiguity) missing from Jacob's Room.

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