Staking the Territory: Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room
It is appropriate that I should be reminded of my college days while reading this book, as it, too, is about a young man just beginning his education and his life. Though his creator, Woolf, is already forty when she writes this, still she is a relatively young novelist. Jacob’s Room is only her third book, and in many ways it seems to be her own coming-of-age story. In a sense, this is where she lays out the questions that will occupy her for the rest of her writing life. For example, the connection between beauty and sadness:
But the Cornish hills have stark chimneys standing on them; and, somehow or other, loveliness is infernally sad. Yes, the chimneys and the coast-guard stations and the little bays with the waves breaking unseen by any one [sic] make one remember the overpowering sorrow. And what can this sorrow be? It is brewed by the Earth itself.
Woolf invokes this image of waves early in the book (Jacob is born in Cornwall, a seaside village, where his mother will live for the entirety of the “story”). In fact, the sound of waves breaking unseen, Woolf tells us in her autobiography, A Sketch of the Past, is her own first memory, and always associated in her mind with a profound sense of contentment. Why, then, does she link the sound here to sorrow? Why is loveliness sad? It is because, as Woolf writes only a few pages later, “Nothing settles or stayed unbroken.” Or, further on, “She wished the moment to continue for ever [sic] precisely as it was that July morning. And moments don’t.” This is the problem: beauty and loveliness do not endure, but we want them to. Love does not remain as perfect as it is in the most perfect moments; spring gives way to dreadful heat, and then to ice and snow. Things change; that is the sorrow “brewed by life,” for it is inescapable. It is a quality of life itself. The Buddha became aware of this truth as he sat beneath the Bodhi tree; Virginia Woolf reaches her own understanding through writing. In Jacob’s Room she identifies and addresses the first Noble Truth—that there is suffering. She suggests here, though not as confidently as she would in later books, that our suffering is caused by, as the Buddha put it, “craving,” or as Woolf expresses it below, embracing “shadows.” She would work the other Noble Truths (and many aspects of Buddhist thought) out in her later books, all of which are concerned with the same issues raised here.
Though the very essence of life is explored, there is not really a plot to this story. Jacob moves from his hometown of Cornwall to London, then to Italy, Greece, and finally back to England. He meets women and men that he likes and dislikes. He falls in love and has epiphanies, as well as depressions. But none of what happens matters much; the real work of the book is not accomplished by plot, but by impressions. Jacob’s views are by no means the only ones we get; we also hear from his mother, her friend, and several of the men and women Jacob encounters throughout his young life. All of them are searching for something. They ask questions like: “Is this all? Can I never know, share, be certain?” “Every face, every shop, bedroom window, public-house, and dark square is a picture feverishly turned—in search of what? It is the same with books. What do we seek through millions of pages?” “Meanwhile, the great clock on the landing ticked and Sandra would hear time accumulating, and ask herself, ‘What for? What for?’” Can we know; what are we looking for; and why? Woolf’s characters ask, as surely we all do at one time or another. Is there anything more essential, more universal, than these questions?
And yet, according to Woolf, we cannot answer them, because we cannot see properly. The author, rather than any of her characters, notes:
In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows. And why, if this and much more than this is true, why are we yet surprised in the window corner by a sudden vision that the young man in the chair is of all things in the world the most real, the most solid, the best known to us – why indeed? For the moment after we know nothing about him. Such is the manner of our seeing.
Has this never happened to you? That you have a sudden flash of understanding wherein you feel that you, for a moment, know, either a person or a natural thing, or perhaps even the meaning of life? It has happened to me, and in fact used to happen quite often when I was in college and my mind was ablaze with questions of can and what and why. At times back then, strolling across a wide campus lawn, the North country trees vivid in their fall finery, or floating through Hyde Park under a perfect blue sky, I’d feel for a second as though I knew. And then it would pass, leaving only a dull warmth, a hint of peace in its wake. I think that this is what Woolf is getting at here, with her analogy about seeing—that we can only see in fits and starts, and never completely.
On the other hand, this is only a start. Woolf would go on to write many more books, both fiction and non, and with each she would get closer to exposing the reality of life behind “the cotton wool” of everyday existence, as she puts it, again in A Sketch of the Past (written nearly twenty years after Jacob’s Room). In fact, the problem might not be totally “insoluble,” as one of Jacob’s friends in the book believes. Woolf writes, “The strange thing about life is that though the nature of it must have been apparent to every one for hundreds of years, no one has left any adequate account of it. The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted.” In Jacob’s Room, Woolf stakes her flag in the territory she would map for the rest of her career.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Willamette Week, and Martha Stewart Living, among other publications.