Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will look at Virginia Woolf's novel titled 'Jacob's Room.' We'll consider the philosophical and literary context, the plot of the novel, and the way in which the novel is narrated.

Introduction

Much of the literature that was written during the 20th century explores the ways we understand, or think we understand, the people and the world around us. This is one of the most central and fascinating themes of Virginia Woolf's third novel, Jacob's Room, which was published in 1922.

Woolf became a leading figure in modernist literature and continues to be a central figure in feminist literature.
Virginia Woolf

Woolf was born in London in 1882, was well educated by parents, and spent much of her adult life interacting with some of England's most important intellectuals. She published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915, which started her reputation as an innovative and talented writer. She would go on to produce numerous novels, short stories, and works of nonfiction, many of which explore the roles that women have been taught to play. Woolf suffered from multiple nervous breakdowns, and in 1941, convinced that her mental illness was getting worse, Woolf drowned herself. Despite losing some of her popularity following WWII, Woolf has maintained her reputation as one of the most influential novelists of the first half of the 20th century and has remained a central figure in much of feminist literature.

Context

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century witnessed the production of new science and philosophy that challenged the way that people perceived and imagined the world. These changes, combined with the evil witnessed during WWI and other social events, resulted in the conviction that the traditional understanding of the world was no longer correct or appropriate. This belief - and the anxiety that came with it - resulted in an artistic revolution that is called modernism. Modernist artists were interested in experimenting with new forms that complicated the way that humans understand the world around them.

The violence and catastrophe encountered in the first World War had a tremendous influence on many modernist artists.
WWI

One of the most interesting changes that modernism brought to literature was the evolution of new and unusual approaches to narration. Faced with changing beliefs regarding truth, authors, such as Woolf, attempted to tell stories in a way that reflected the fragmented and disconnected world that one inhabits. Woolf employed what is called stream-of-consciousness narration, which is defined by a narrator that goes in and out of the minds of various characters and depicts thoughts that are experienced both consciously and subconsciously. This style of narration and the implications it brings with it are at the heart of Jacob's Room.

Overview

The beginning events in Jacob's Room are narrated from the perspective of Betty Flanders, the mother of Jacob, whose life the novel loosely follows, and his brother Archer. The novel begins with Jacob, Archer and Betty on a beach in Cornwall, England. The story further depicts Betty's experiences as a widow and describes Jacob's encounters when he attends college in Cambridge. We witness Jacob's attempts to fit in socially and the realizations that come with his attempts to find a social group to which he can belong. Jacob's relationships are further described, including his friendship with Timothy Durrant, with whom Jacob travels. Despite Jacob's conviction that he is uniquely intelligent, he fails to attain the success of which he believes he is capable.

Following graduation, Jacob further enters into society in London, where he experiences the complexity of human interaction. In addition to the wealthy people Jacob encounters, he also interacts with people of lower classes, including a loose woman named Florinda for whom Jacob develops feelings. Jacob continues his travels both in England and abroad, particularly in Italy towards the end of the story. The novel continues to depict the experiences of the other characters and the infatuations that exist between them, further demonstrating the complexity of human relationships and the difficulty of actually knowing a person. Jacob's Room then concludes by revealing that Jacob has been killed during WWI.

Analysis

The narration of Jacob's Room reflects the struggle of knowing people as they really are and demonstrates how our understanding of another person is a product of multiple subjective perspectives. The novel, moreover, reflects the fact that people are not only distant from other people but are blurred by the way that we imagine other people. In this sense, the novel reflects on the fact that we see people how we imagine them rather than as they really are.

Also central to the novel is its treatment of problematic gender roles. Throughout Jacob's Room, the actual interactions between characters is constantly shown as more complicated than one might assume. This is not only the case for the interactions between two different genders, but between characters of the same gender. For example, the novel depicts Nick Branham, one of Jacob's friends, as having a homosexual interest in Jacob, conveying the fact that gender roles are much more complex than society tends to imagine them. This fact also emphasizes Woolf's depiction of the idea that people fail to see others how they actually are.

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