Virginia Woolf was known to experiment with narration. Jacob’s Room is one such experiment. It is a tough read, but it all comes together in the last chapter—at least, that appears to be the author’s intent. And the last chapter is very short, not much more than a page.
One reads the last chapter, after having read the whole novel, of course—cheating by reading ahead will not help—and says, “Oh! It all makes sense!” It could be clever. It could be profound. Or one could merely question whether is was worth it.
Jacob’s Room is not easy to follow. Stream of consciousness seldom is, but this is more disjointed. My memory of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for example, is that each chapter or section is from a different character’s point of view. Once the reader understands that this chapter is from the perspective of Miss Kilman or Mr. Bradshaw, for example, one can get immersed in the part and watch the story unfold. The plot cleverly creeps up on the reader.
Jacob’s Room is not quite like the that. The plot only comes together at the end. The point of view may change from paragraph to paragraph. One moment we are hearing from, say, Mrs. Durrant’s perspective, then we are seeing what Mrs. Flanders sees. It is a bit jarring and takes some getting used to.
The narration is quite honest stream of consciousness. It appears that half the book is filled with interesting but maybe irrelevant detail. But that is honest stream of consciousness because that is the way people see things and the way they think. The author notices precisely what the observer would be noticing be it the bark of a tree, a turtle climbing a hill, or egg yolk dried on the tines of a fork. There are no shortcuts, except in the sense that each individual’s narration is fairly short, and then it cuts to someone else.
The story is about Jacob Flanders, a young Englishman, somewhat wealthy and quite attractive, twenty-five or twenty-six. Imagine Daisy Buchanan male and English. We read Jacob’s story from the way others see him. Only in a few spots are we told what Jacob is thinking, but we do learn what he is like.
The names may be significant. Jacob actually might be buried in Flanders as he goes off to World War I near the end of the book. Clara Durrant is one of the many women attracted to Jacob. We are told more than once that she is a virgin. Her last name means “enduring.” Her first name, of course, suggests her transparent, perhaps innocent or naïve personality. Jacob’s best friend, who does have to put up with some nonsense from Jacob, is Bonamy, “good friend.”
The name Bonamy reminded me of the De Maupassant novel Bel Ami. In that story the main character is given the nickname which means “handsome friend.” That points not to the friend, though, but to Jacob himself. Like Jacob, Bel Ami is very attractive to women. Like Jacob, he has an affair with another man’s wife. And like Jacob, Bel Ami is something of a cad.
The narrative, though, can be fascinating. At one point one of the female characters is in a museum. Jacob is not there, but she is thinking of him because the statues of the Greek gods there remind her of him. From a man’s perspective the details are arresting. “That is how women see good-looking men?” The details may be trivial as the that of the aforementioned tree bark or fork tines, but they can be fascinating to read.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, when Cassio is demoted for drunkenness, he moans: “I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself.” (2.3.281,282) Our reputations do outlive us. So we begin to see that the story is not so much about Jacob, but about his reputation, how others see him.
You see, throughout the novel nothing takes place in Jacob’s room. Not until that last, short chapter does the reader even see it. Yet that is the title of the book. For what does Jacob, or anyone for that matter, leave behind when they are gone? Just things in their rooms and the memories about and associations with them. It all fits inside Jacob’s room. Fascinating.
Like Georges Duroy, the protagonist of Bel Ami, Jacob gets away with things because he is personable, clever, good looking, and well off. He is careless in both senses of the word. He reminds us of what Nick Carraway said about the Buchanans:
They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made…(The Great Gatsby 179)
Jacob breaks hearts. He does not care about the effects of his actions. The child he has from one of his flings is aborted. A hundred years ago a rich, handsome cad like Jacob or Tom Buchanan could get away with these things. Now too many people of both sexes do, regardless of wealth, social standing, or looks. It is very modern.
One of the most beautifully written parts of Jacob’s Room is the description of the events leading up to the war. They parallel Jacob’s behavior. The politicians and diplomats try to be clever and outdo one another and try to gain an advantage for themselves or their party or their country. But the results of their cleverness and selfishness are far more devastating. They are no different in character from Jacob, but they do differ in magnitude. Jacob broke a few hearts, broke up one family, and brought on the death of one child. The war did the same for millions.
Ultimately, Jacob’s Room is a story of a life. What will our reputations be? Will anyone really be remembered? .
For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 6:12 KJV)
Whether friends and family picking through Jacob’s room or ragpickers and thieves claiming Scrooge’s belongings in Christmas yet to come, what do and what will we leave behind? How will we be remembered? Will we be remembered at all? As Mother Maybelle Carter sang:
Oh, I’m thinking tonight of my blue eyes
Who is sailing far over the sea.
Oh, I’m thinking tonight of my blue eyes,
And I wonder if he ever thinks of me.