Jamie's Reviews > Jacob's Room

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf
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Apr 26, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: undergrad, read-in-2011
Recommended for: Woolf fans, those who like a challenge
Read 3 times. Last read January 21, 2011.

** spoiler alert ** **Update January 2011

Perhaps one of the most frightening things about re-reading books: returning to an old goodreads review & realizing that a book one feels one has read only months ago was in fact put down two and a half years before. Another frightening, but as thrilling thing about the re-reading experience: how vastly different one feels about a book on the experience of returning to it (for the third time, no less!).

Jacob's Room is one such example. I think I "read" it early in my college career (& by 'reading' I mean my eyes moved sequentially over each word, though I retained none of it & couldn't have cared less). Then again for a Woolf seminar in my last year of undergrad; again, it left hardly a shadow of an imprint. I thought: how can one feel anything at all for Jacob when he's caught only in the briefest glimpses, camera snapshots & passing specters of his presence. Of course, I see now that, well, that's sort of the point. I think in fact that the inception of Woolf's problematic relationship with biographical writing can be found in her handling of Jacob. On this go-round, I began to see the narrator of the novel as more-than-tenuously resonant with the narrator of Orlando; could JR be called a kind of 'mock biography,' as is the latter work? The metaphor of the camera snapshot, indeed, seems peculiarly apt here: think of the moment in Greece when Jacob finds himself being captured on film by the monstrous Frenchwomen; how horrified he is by the prospect of being pinned, boxed, bound. Jacob is, oddly enough, merely the outline of a character--though he's the primary object of the novel's desire (of the narrator, of the women & the men; all are drawn to J's magnetism).

Yet he couldn't be more ordinary. Though he believes himself and Timmy Durrant to be the only two men in all the world to understand the Greeks, J is little more than a cookie cutter parody of the ruling white male. I think something else I'd missed up to now in the novel is the profound sense of parody, of satire or mockery; though the narrator--as well as everyone else, including this reader--finds J incredibly seductive, there's too a sense of anxiety around the possibility of his success. J seems to be the very reason Clara, for example, must be such a dumb dog (as J sees her). It is by the ascendancy of his star that women like Clara and Florinda must remain forever in obscurity. Jacob, when you come right down to it, is the very domestic tyrant that Woolf cuts down so vehemently later in Three Guineas; he's also the moronic man of "A Society"; the 'adorable' but domineering Richard Dalloway figure. He is nothing special at all; he's just been told his entire life that he must be. And in this formulation of his character, all orbiting around him come to the very same delusion.

There is a grieving here for him though; I think, however, I read that grief as for a prewar sense of stability. With the catastrophic interruption of the 'Great War' (as Woolf knew it), the figure of Jacob--and his ilk; the allure of the rock-like patriarch; the uneasy comfort of knowing that men would be eternally beautiful & guided through life & women would assist them--was unceremoniously snuffed out. The sense of loss is not, then, for Jacob; not necessarily, though certainly this is an elegiac novel; not for the 'old guard'; not for being kept in line. It is for the end of an age, as terrible as that age may have been. A grieving for the end, in fact, of an entire world, to which no one can fathom returning.

I bought this edition as I couldn't bear to read my old Dover Thrift one again (those editions are cheap, sure, but they're just abominably unattractive). The introduction is long & useful, but probably only if you aren't too familiar with Woolf. It's fairly foundational information. The annotations, however, are spectacular--really, really useful; and I think particularly helped me get a better feel for what Woolf was doing with the novel on this reading of it. Also, the design is just beautiful--highly recommended.

[September 2008 review] Though this was certainly not my favorite Woolf novel, it's definitely worth a shot if you don't mind the challenge. Jacob's Room is, I think, far more interesting after reading criticism on the text and in using for classroom discussion than in sitting down to read the text itself. One of the reasons for this is, I imagine, that Woolf was trying to empty the text of interior consciousness (as she does to a more interesting effect in "Between the Acts")--and I find I love Woolf far more when she's looking predominantly through an individual consciousness, as in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. What is interesting about JR, though, is the ways in which it functions as an anti-epic, or with Jacob as an anti-hero. I love that Woolf refuses to mythologize Jacob as this heroic soldier--and further, that we really gain no knowledge of him by the end of the text. I think she has a wonderful way of depicting grief in the text--especially in terms of the women left behind by the war; mothers, lovers, sisters, and so forth. I was also fascinated by her dealings with alienated figures of desire--in the prostitutes of the novel and in Bonamy, an almost obviously gay character in love with Jacob. I'm always interested in the way Woolf is able to sneak taboo topics in under the radar. So tackle the book if you love Woolf--but good luck!
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
Finished Reading
April 26, 2008 – Shelved
December 23, 2009 – Shelved as: undergrad
Started Reading
January 21, 2011 – Finished Reading
February 2, 2011 – Shelved as: read-in-2011

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell A really good review!

Yeah -- with her first two books, it's like she's conscientiously building up this conventional novelistic structure, and then with JR, beginning to dismantle it. I think I read her "experimental" short stories first (Mark on the Wall, &c) as they were collected in Moments of Being before this book, and it made a lot more sense to me that way. It really is full of absences and echoes, deliberately so. The "Time Passes" section in Lighthouse resembles it a bit.


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