Jacob’s Room

Jacob’s RoomBook cover: Jacob's Room
Virginia Woolf

The title implies a loss, an emptiness. Where is Jacob gone that we are only dealing with his room? But the reader soon meets the young boy, as seen through his mother’s eyes.

According to The Guardian‘s original 1922 review (go read the whole thing, it’s short),

Her book is certainly remarkable; one recalls with interest The Voyage Out, but that wasn’t like this; its method was, comparatively, traditional. Perhaps it is partly by the aid of the novelists that we have come to imagine our lives as sequences, but Mrs Woolf won’t have that at all. She provides us with chunks of what seems arbitrary and is certainly not explicit, and leaves us to sort them.

Jacob’s life is certainly not revealed in a rolling sequential narrative, although time does generally move forward. It’ s just that the chucks are presented without much clear context about how we have gotten from one to the next. We get the feeling, from seeing Jacob at ease in so many settings. that the world is his room, the possibilities stretch out before this young man.

He hasn’t any particular talents to recommend him, but with a bit of charm, his youth, a few modest benefactors along the way, it seems that he could conquer the world.

Woolf slyly points out that his sex comes in handy as well. During a passage where Jacob is spending time in the library, a fellow patron has the following thought to herself:

Mis Julia Hedge, the feminist, waited for her books. They did not come. She wetted her pen. She looked about her. Her eye was caught by the final letters in Lord Macaulay’s name. And then she read them all round the dome – the names of great men which remind us – “Oh damn,” said Julia Hedge, “why didn’t they leave room for an Eliot or a Brontë?”

This isn’t a particularly feminist work, but this is Virginia Woolf, after all.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Orlando, Virginia Woolf. This is a more direct meditation on gender identity and cultural perceptions of gender and sex, in novel form, with Woolf’s distinctive style (my review).
  • The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman was writing about the same time as Woolf, and was also interested in feminist themes. Her stories are more straightforward, and very readable. Warning: despite some of her downright progressive ideas regarding women, her ideas on African Americans are more problematic. (my review)
  • Feminism, FOR REAL, Edited by Jessica Yee. Because it’s awesome and you should read it (my review).
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