Jacob’s Room was Virginia Woolf’s third novel. Inspired by the death of her beloved younger brother Thoby in 1906, and published in 1922, it encapsulates Woolf’s groundbreaking elliptical style. Through a tableau of disconnected scenes, a fluid, omniscient narration follows the adolescence and early adulthood of the handsome, arrogant, foolish Jacob Flanders who embodies all the “obstinate, irrepressible conviction which makes youth so intolerably disagreeable.” Jacob blunders through a series of affairs, explores history and poetry- befuddled one moment, enraptured the next – before his potential, along with those of his peers, is extinguished in the trenches of the First World War.
Rich characterizations fill the book, none more so than those of women, yet to attain equality and independence and condemned by society to a life stifled by tedium. There is Mrs Jarvis, the clergyman’s wife, “just the sort of woman to lose her faith upon the moors,” who thinks to herself, ‘“If only some one could give me… if I could give some one…” But she does not know what she wants to give, nor who could give it her.’ Or Jacob’s elder mistress, who “would hear time accumulating and ask herself, ‘What for? What for?’”
And most of all, there is the language – oh, how Woolf used language – from the opening description of Jacob’s mother’s weeping, “the entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr. Connor’s little yacht was bending like candle wax in the sun,” to a last line that fits all a mother’s desolation into “a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.”