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Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

Jacob's Room (original 1922; edition 2011)

by Virginia Woolf

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1,727244,100 (3.5)1 / 159
Title:Jacob's Room
Authors:Virginia Woolf
Info:CreateSpace (2011), Paperback, 128 pages
Collections:Your library

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Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf (1922)



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English (22)  French (1)  German (1)  All (24)
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Jacob’s Room was Virginia Woolf’s third novel, and the first of her experimental novels. A novel I enjoyed for many reasons though I can imagine my experience of it would be improved with subsequent readings. The reader is left with myriad images and impressions, each described exquisitely. It is a thoughtful, quietly nuanced work, and shows Virginia Woolf’s development as a writer, as it is far less conventional than her first two novels.

“Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker armchair creaks, though no one sits there.”

There’s little plot in Jacob’s Room, which I have seen described as being more of a character study. Instead what Woolf did was to create a series of impressions of her character Jacob Flanders (that surname can be no accident) by his mother, his lovers and his friends. Jacob’s life is presented in a series of vignettes, and the whole is quite fragmentary in style. The novel starts in Jacob’s childhood, Jacob is one of the three sons of Betty Flanders, a widow, who has brought her sons to Cornwall from their home in Scarborough. This opening for me is luminous and so evocative it is the part of the novel which I think will stay with me longest.

“Mrs Flanders had left the lamp burning in the front room. There were her spectacles, her sewing; and a letter with the Scarborough postmark. She had not drawn the curtains either.
The light blazed out across the patch of grass; fell on the child’s green bucket with the gold line round it, and upon the aster which trembled violently beside it. For the wind was tearing across the coast, hurling itself at the hills, and leaping, in sudden gusts, on top of its own back. How it spread over the town in the hollow! How the lights seemed to wink and quiver in its fury, lights in the harbour, lights in bedroom window high up! And rolling dark waves before it, it raced over the Atlantic, jerking the stars above the ships this way and that.”

From here we drop into scenes of Jacobs life from childhood through his student days at Cambridge, to his life in London as a young man, before he is – inevitably – called to the battlefields of the First World War.

Jacob is however, throughout this novel, strangely absent, I’m sure this is wholly deliberate. It is as if the people in his life, along with us the reader are searching those empty spaces left behind for the person Jacob was. Absences and emptiness are recurring motifs; I think this adds to its elegiac tone. The novel must surely be an elegy for her dead brother, and perhaps for the legions of young men lost in the Great War, echoes of which can be heard in this novel written not so many years after its end.

It is the people who Jacob knew, who are the greater presences in this novel, his friend Bonamy, Clara who loves him, Florinda with whom Jacob has an affair and Sandra who Jacob meets in Italy his mother of course and various others who move in and out of his life. Points of view – as so often with Virginia Woolf’s fiction – shift around, and it is only through these shifting perspectives that we are able to view Jacob at all.

“It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, not yet entirely what is done.”

From the first page the reader somehow knows, senses I suppose, that Jacob won’t be with us on the final page, he is already fading. One of the really distressing things that happens when we lose someone is that after a little while the memory of them becomes less distinct, their face in our mind blurred around the edges, their voice – instantly recognisable should we hear it – soon a vague kind of echo in our memories. Having lost her mother when she was still a young girl, and later her brother Thoby Stevens from Typhoid, Virginia Woolf knew all about loss. Life and death are themes which permeate much of her writing.

“The rashest drivers in the world are, certainly, the drivers of post-office vans. Swinging down Lamb’s Conduit Street, the scarlet van rounded the corner by the pillar box in such a way as to graze the kerb and make the little girl who was standing on tiptoe to post a letter look up, half frightened, half curious. She paused with her hand in the mouth of the box; then dropped her letter and ran away. It is seldom only that we see a child on tiptoe with pity – more often a dim discomfort, a grain of sand in the shoe which it’s scarcely worth while to remove – that’s our feeling and so – Jacob turns to the bookcase.”

Place is key too, the college rooms, the London streets, the Cornish coast of Jacob’s childhood, drawing rooms the British museum the Scilly Isles. These; the places where he once passed, where the shadow of Jacob remains. Travel to Italy and Greece in the years shortly before the war herald the turmoil that will soon be unleashed in Europe.

Jacob’s Room is a difficult novel to review, as there is so little plot, but the mood is just right and Woolf’s prose is beautiful. I connected with the characters far less than those in other Woolf novels. What I did connect with however, was the mood of the novel, the sense of place and time passing. It is these things that Woolf does so well, she reminds us of the transitory nature of life. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Nov 20, 2016 |
The book is so extraordinary, I like it more every time I read it. The novel is so filled with voices, especially women's voices, often unheard by anyone, like the letter from Jacob's mother that waits outside his door.

Who are we when others define us? What is the shape of our life? Add the waste of a generation slaughtered in the war.

Sigh. So satisfying. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
I didn't really care for this. Not surprisingly, the writing is good, there were a few lines I especially liked; but the (very loose) story... just not for me. I didn't mind the odd style of telling it, I don't think, though it's hard to say so clearly when you're not very fond of what's being told. But, the kind of vaguely sad, ambling, not much plot... I just didn't care much for it. And for me I think it's less the plotless/ambling aspect than the fact that I'm just really not keen on the kind of, sad look back on life sort of thing. The "feel" (so to speak) of the novel is just not the kind of thing I enjoy. I'd put it in the same kind of class as Age of Innocence or Brideshead Revisited, Crome Yellow perhaps. It's just not my thing. But it was a short quick read, so eh.

I am curious to read other Woolf and see what I think of the more hyped titles. ( )
  .Monkey. | Aug 1, 2016 |
[Jacob's Room] is Virginia Woolf's third novel and her first experimental novel. I didn't connect to it the same way I did to her later novels, but in the end I find myself intrigued by it.

Woolf chooses Jacob as her central character, a young man who you expect from the beginning will be the perfect age to die in WWI. Instead of letting the reader into his growth from childhood to young adulthood, Woolf holds the reader at arms length in favor of showing brief exterior experiences. Characters flit in and out of the book and Jacob goes through a string of women love interests. He starts the book as a young child, goes to school, and travels, but everything is shown in brief vignettes. There isn't much interior development of Jacob's feelings.

But Woolf's beautiful writing is expressive enough to carry the book. I love how she can capture the most mundane moment and make it seem unique. This book in particular is very visual. It does however, lack the structure that her later books have that keep things moving forward.

This is definitely a book to ponder and reread. Despite not having a satisfying connection to it the whole time I was reading it, I'm interested enough to count it as an enjoyable reading experience. ( )
1 vote japaul22 | Jun 20, 2016 |
This novel is a character study of a young man named Jacob. Woolf shows him to us in short snippets through the perceptions of other characters in his life, so we never get a really good representation of him.

While I don’t doubt the literary genius of Woolf or this novel, and while I like the general concept, I just couldn’t enjoy it because I couldn’t force myself to pay attention to what I was reading. The narrative jumped around so much that I got tired of trying to keep track of who was speaking and where we were. If I had done some research beforehand and had known more about the book before reading it, I might have enjoyed it more, but I’m not going to mess around with rereading it now. I think I just tackled this one at the wrong time. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (24 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Woolf, Virginiaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Alfsen, MereteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Banti, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fiedeldij Dop, JoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roe, SueEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"So of course," wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper in the sand, "there was nothing for it but to leave."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156457423, Paperback)

The story of a man’s life from a day in his childhood to the day of his death. “Jacob’s Room...comes as a tremendous surprise. The impossible has occurred. The style closely resembles that of Kew Gardens....The break with Night and Day and even with The Voyage Out is complete. A new type of fiction has swum into view” (E. M. Forster).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:36 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Jacob's Room is Virginia Woolf's first truly experimental novel. It is a portrait of a young man, who is both representative and victim of the social values which led Edwardian society into war. Jacob's life is traced from the time he is a small boy playing on the beach, through his years in Cambridge, then in artistic London, and finally making a trip to Greece, but this is no orthodox Bildungsroman. Jacob is presented in glimpses, in fragments, as Woolf breaks down traditional ways of representing character and experience. The novel's composition coincided with the consolidation of Woolf's interest in feminism, and she criticizes the privilege thoughtless smugness of patriarchy, "the other side," "the men in clubs and Cabinets." Her stylistic innovations are conscious attempts to realize and develop women's writing and the novel dramatizes her interest in the ways both language and social environments shape differently the lives of men and women.… (more)

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