Ordinary Times Bookclub: Jacob’s Room
(This is a guest post, and guest book club, by our very own DRS. Read our kickoff post here.)
In Jacob’s Room there seems to be little room for Jacob.
There is lots of room for memories even though few seem to be of Jacob at this point. Jacob acts more as a catalyst for other people’s memories – his tutor as the unsuccessful suitor of his mother rather than as a part of his own educational youth. We read about his father, who Jacob could have had little memory of. We certainly know little of Jacob’s inner life but read a great deal of what other people think of him – such as Mrs. Norman who receives named credit for what was a brief shared trip by rail to Cambridge. So on the surface, Jacob appears to be less than the title character in his own novel.
But underneath, like a subterranean current, Jacob is omnipresent.
He’s there in the very first sentence, in some nomenclatural foreshadowing: “’So of course’, wrote Betty Flanders…” Flanders. As in Flanders Fields where poppies grow, between the crosses row on row. As in a major theatre of the Great War with its great populations of the dead.
He’s also present in the relentless imagery of death and destruction throughout these first five chapters. Examples like the following abound:
“A terrifying volley of pistol-shots rings out—cracks sharply; ripples spread—silence laps smooth over sound. A tree—a tree has fallen, a sort of death in the forest. After that, the wind in the trees sounds melancholy.”
“His slippers were incredibly shabby, like boats burnt to the water’s rim.” (My personal favourite)
And then this casual, almost throw-away sentence:
“Behind the grey walls sat so many young men, some undoubtedly reading, magazines, shilling shockers, no doubt; legs, perhaps, over the arms of chairs; smoking; sprawling over tables, and writing while their heads went round in a circle as the pen moved—simple young men, these, who would—but there is no need to think of them grown old…”
No, indeed: for these young men are of the generation destined to die young.
This novel is ostensibly biographical: the story of Jacob Flanders as he proceeds through the major milestones of his life. But the perspective is skewed. We never hear Jacob utter a full thought rather than abrupt first or last sentences or incomplete exclamations. Because we are watching Jacob move through his life like a series of rooms that open one after another, leading towards some ending that is coming closer than expected.
Virginia Woolf is not really writing about Jacob’s life – she’s painting it.