But what of the Chickens: Jacob’s room and the masculine martyr narrative
The 1910’s and early 1920’s were littered with sob-stories about men who gave their lives for their country in the first world war. Poetry, songs, radio plays and indeed, many novels are dedicated to this subject. These stories nearly all centered on a young man, from a good family who had the whole world at his feet, and a long, successful life ahead of him. This young boy would then be called up to serve in the ‘great war,’ and, being a brave and noble lad, he would not decline. Instead, he would take up arms, and go with friends, brothers, and complete strangers to fight an unexpectedly gory war, only to die in battle. Some of these works, such as Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Siegfried Sassoon’s “What does it matter?” or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, take a distinctly anti-war tone, decrying the conflict as a pointless travesty. Others, for example John McCrae’s “In Flanders Field” see the war as a more noble endeavor.
But none of these narratives, be they pro or anti-war, optimistic or pessimistic, are of any interest to Virginia Woolf. Attempting to craft a novel for the new age, she writes about the war from a different moral perspective entirely. The world is already filled with books about brave young male heroes, so her book, Jacob’s Room, will not feature such a character—in fact, he will be ostentatiously missing. Many works of fiction already decry the loss of innocence, so she shan’t bother with that, but rather will look at the dull future most of these men actually lost. And she will also attempt to reveal to us the real victims of this war—not the dead, but the women who must pick up after the dying and soldier on. In this essay, I will examine the ways Jacob’s Room undercuts, mocks, and questions the narrative of the masculine martyr, through its innovative format, use of familiar setting, and martial diction. Let us first examine the way the story depicts, or does not depict, its characters. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Jacob, the character the book is ostensibly ‘about’ does not appear as such in the story. He is seen, thought on, and influences other characters, but he himself never serves as a central figure—we do not see the world through Jacob’s eyes. Instead, we see the world through the eyes of a multitude of other characters, many of whom are only tangentially related to the so-called ‘protagonist.’
For example, allow us to examine the passage involving Betty Flanders’ search for a stamp in the very first chapter: “’Scarborough,’ Mrs. Flanders wrote on the envelope, and dashed a bold line beneath; it was her native town; the hub of the universe. But a stamp? She ferreted in her bag; then held it up mouth downwards; then fumbled in her lap, all so vigorously that Charles Steele in the Panama hat suspended his paint–brush,” (Woolf 4). Seamlessly, Woolf’s story flows from being centered on a country widow, to a painter trying to get the right image. It’s a rather unimportant moment from a narrative perspective, but there’s more to this frequent bouncing between points of view than just narrative convenience. There’s no reason this book has to be about Betty Flanders, as opposed to Charles Steele, or about Charles Steele as opposed to Mrs. Jarvis. Woolf tries to create a story that has a place for everyone in it; deliberately excluding the struggles of Steele, however picayune, would be akin to an act of violence—silencing him forever as surely as an axe.
This story runs entirely contrary to the typical war novel, before, during, and after World War I. From Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got his Gun to Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, most novels written about and during war focus on the events of the war itself, and how one, specific individual suffers or affects the event. But this is of course, not how conflict works. It relies on multiple people, many of them not present in the conflict itself. In many ways, though it does not involve any violence or combat, Jacob’s Room displays war in its enormity and entirety more accurately than the narcissistic parables of many other war-driven stories. Rather than relying on the audience’s ability to sympathize with one individual figure, Virginia Woolf presents us with a cavalcade of characters, then shows us the world through their eyes and how each of them, however indirectly, is affected by the war and the soldiers in it. Jacob, she seems to tacitly assert, was not the only casualty of war, nor were men the sole victims.
This is re-enforced by the non-traditional plot. The story does not move in a linear fashion or stay anchored in one place, but rather bounces through both time and space, settling on everything from the most picayune to the doldrums of life. These, however, are not depicted as such. What might pass as filler in another story is here treated with love and respect. Take, for example, the exchange between Betty Flanders and Ms. Jarvis in chapter eleven: “‘I never pity the dead,’ said Mrs Jarvis, shifting the cushion at her back, and clasping her hands behind her head. Betty Flanders did not hear, for her scissors made so much noise on the table. ‘They are at rest,’ said Mrs Jarvis. ‘And we spend our days doing foolish, unnecessary things without knowing why.’ Mrs Jarvis was not liked in the village,” (Woolf 181). Both the surface content and the inner workings of these few sentences cast a light on Woolf’s critique of the war narrative—namely that the young men going off to die have a narrative, representationally and cosmically, where many others do not. The first sentence of this passage is Mrs. Jarvis claiming she has no sympathy for those who have passed on—given the context and subject of the book, this is inevitably interpreted as those fighting in World War I, or at least includes them. As she says this, Mrs. Jarvis engages in a perfunctory, thoughtless motion, designed to give her more comfort. She is unsatisfied with her position, in other words. Betty, however, does not pay attention. She is thoroughly encapsulated in her current chore, and it is so loud and thought consuming she does not take in what her friend has said. Next, Mrs. Jarvis says that the dead are at rest. Their time is at an end. Something with an ending has meaning, definition, and meaning is better than almost anything at effacing pain. Not only does the act of getting killed end life and all the little hurts and disappointments which come with it, but it also makes what the dead person did important, or part of a story. The soldiers—including Jacob Flanders—who died in World War I, did have a purpose, which was to die for their country. Many of them didn’t even live long enough to doubt that purpose. But no one plays recruitment anthems from Mrs. Jarvis and Betty Flanders, or claims that the countless emotional sacrifices and compromises they’ve made were done for a purpose. This is why Mrs. Jarvis continues “’And we spend our days doing foolish, unnecessary things without knowing why.’” Not only is it true on a larger scale—the living are not made martyrs or subjects of stories, whilst the dead frequently are used as heroes or examples in social narratives—but even in the passage, we see both women engaged in meaningless, unimportant tasks designed in their own ways to provide comfort. Mrs. Jarvis’s moving and shifting provides her with a better-feeling position, whilst Betty Flanders’ cutting drowns out Mrs. Jarvis’ harsh words.
And yet, despite implying this moment is tiny and ultimately meaningless, the whole novel is comprised of such exchanges, chance encounters, and random moments—not of vainglorious deaths or charges over the top. What might have passed for a conversation over tea with accompanying chores in some other book here resembles something of a gladiatorial game, with epic implications. Clearly it is because Woolf thinks these trivial events are in their own way of crucial importance—no more or less than a gory battle—and more than that, because she is attempting to provide a sort of meaning for the neglected and nameless civilians of the war, who, while living, never found or were given one. Another example of such an instance comes very near the novel’s end, when, lying alone in bed, Betty Flanders hears a loud booming noise she has come to associate with martial activity: “Again, far away, she heard the dull sound, as if nocturnal women were beating great carpets. There was Morty lost, and Seabrook dead; her sons fighting for their country. But were the chickens safe? Was that someone moving downstairs? Rebecca with the toothache? No. The nocturnal women were beating great carpets. Her hens shifted slightly on their perches,” (Woolf 246). Earlier, Betty has mistaken these thumping noises for guns, but now describes them as “Nocturnal women beating great carpets.” In doing so she equates the fairly mundane task of beating the dust out of a carpet with the turmoil of World War I. More importantly, she describes the women as nocturnal, not only because she is currently in bed at night, but because the wars women fight in this world are unseen, cloaked in darkness, hidden from view by the loud bangs and bloodshed of war. In the next few sentences, we see her, clinically go through a list of ‘casualties’ or the men in her life who have left for one reason or another. But, despite this, the act of losing her sons and lovers does not affect her nearly so much as the other tiny battles she must keep from losing—the chickens in their coop, someone downstairs, Rebecca’s hurt mouth. Seabrook is dead, his troubles are over. Jacob, too, is soon to be gone. But Betty need not lose her chickens to foxes, nor her property to burglars. In fact, she cuts off her list of dead male relations in order to focus more clearly on the tasks still at hand. And even when she has assured herself that the hens are safe, like her, only shifting slightly, still the omnipresent thundering hangs over all of them. She stands to lose more, but can do nothing about it but wait, and occupy her mind with thoughts of her hens, until more news comes of her sons, or of the war. She suffers the same stress, but has been denied the agency and recognition given to her male counterparts. One passage in the book which I found to be supremely important was the following: “Could one read them year in and year out—the unpublished works of women, written by the fireside in pale profusion, dried by the flame, for the blotting-paper’s worn to holes and the nib cleft and clotted,” (Woolf 123). All the passage really tries to say is that women write as many manuscripts as men, countless different works of engaging nature, most of which aren’t seen—partially because of their temporal nature, partially because the world they live in does not value their contribution.
In a way, that’s all Jacob’s Room is; a documentation of the myriad unread female narratives blotted out by the bloodstains of the war. They did not stop happening simply because we no longer hear or read about them. Indeed, in a certain light, they could be called as bad or worse as what was suffered by Wilfred Owen and Jacob Flanders—at least the latter figures had an end to their suffering in sight—no war goes on forever, and no soldier can survive every battle. Eventually, they would go home or die. This isn’t the case for the women they left behind. For them, there will always be another chicken to check on, another letter to stamp, and another war to take their families away. The title of Woolf’s novel may be Jacob’s Room, but that room is emptied of its rather uninteresting occupant, in order to afford us a better view of the street below teeming with unheard and unseen travelers. Through her choice of setting, unique characterization and format, Woolf creates a story which supplants the masculine martyr narrative with a new type of story; one centered on the struggles of anonymous civilians, mainly women.
Unsettling, Homogenous Fiction: The Uncertain Boundary Between Life and Art
While long form fictional prose may seem like a simple enough concept, the novel – despite the prevalence and relative ease with which it rests in the modern consciousness – is a far more complex entity than any such one-dimensional definition can do justice. Standing on the premise of verisimilitude, the novel actively refuses definition based on either what it is or is not, but rather sets for its ultimate goal the representation of that which is like reality, but is in fact not. Thus, in the quest for verisimilitude, any novel is at its heart a paradox.
If one of the hallmarks of the modernist era was experimentation with the form of the novel, conventional verisimilitude by no means escaped untouched. Despite it opacity, this paradox at the core of the novel met the same fate in the hands of the modernists as the genre’s more easily identified conventions. While plot, narration, and character underwent significant and sometimes nearly unrecognizable revisions beneath the modernist’s pen, the already convoluted notion of verisimilitude inevitably both reflected these innovations as well as endured its own contortions.
Often considered Virginia Woolf’s first truly experimental novel, Jacob’s Room leaves no conventional literary stone unturned, featuring prominent deviations from the accepted novelistic traditions of narrator, plot, and narrative time. Woolf’s various disruptions of the conventional novel – including a narrator at once limited and omniscient, a series of fragmented vignettes in place of a plot, and a chronology corresponding to the conventions of neither the linear nor nonlinear timeline – all disrupt the fundamental novelistic bedrock of verisimilitude. Woolf’s innovations blur the accepted division between the world inside and outside the novel, questioning the distinction between art and life and suggesting that the represented world is perhaps no more imagined than its model.
Though certainly not the least striking of Woolf’s innovations in Jacob’s Room, the novel’s narrator does not initially present herself as a significant disruption of literary conventions. In fact, for much of the first few chapters, the narrator maintains a fairly traditional third-person omniscience. It is only by degrees that Woolf reveals the complex and almost eerie nature of the novel’s narrative voice, beginning perhaps most explicitly with the narrator’s own assertion that “It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done” (Woolf 37). Here, the narrator begins a recurring pattern of rejecting her own omniscience, undermining her own authority, and ultimately establishing a narrative voice incongruous with any accepted paradigm of narration. Woolf’s narrator can no more commit to ignorance than she can omniscience, however, and spends the remainder of the novel alternating between claims to authority and blindness, weaving an enigmatic narrative presence Alex Zwerdling can only adequately describe with the coinage “semiscient” (Zwerdling 902).
The narrator’s mutability is not limited to struggles with epistemological authority, but extends even to the narrator’s form – or lack thereof. When claiming omniscience, the narrator usually assumes a traditional, immaterial presence – a disembodied narrative voice outside the action of the novel. At other times, however, the narrative voice not only rejects omniscience, but also takes on physical characteristics. Questioning “whether we know what was in [Jacob’s] mind,” the narrator further tempers her authority with an unanticipated claim to “ten years’ seniority and a difference of sex” (Woolf 128). Sometimes a detached, invisible voice, other times materializing to the point of declaring an age and gender, Woolf’s narrator both transcends and is limited by the world of the text. While Woolf’s erratic narrator obviously suggests an epistemological crisis, Woolf does not merely raise doubt for the sake of doubt itself. Rather, the narrator’s “semiscience” mirrors the paradoxically limited omniscience of readership itself. While a reader may possess more knowledge than the characters in a narrative, they have at their disposal only whatever degree of omniscience the narrator sees fit to bestow at any given point in the novel. In creating a narrator that reflects the reader’s paradox of simultaneous power and limitation dictated by the text of the novel itself, Woolf “create[s] a permeable membrane between text and world” (Wall 312). Woolf’s inconsistent narration invites the reader to pass through this membrane and join narrator and characters in a kind of trinity of epistemological ambiguity, calling into question not only the boundaries of knowledge, but also the presumed boundaries of art and life.
This protean narrative presence explains the somewhat unsettling lack of interiority in the novel’s would-be protagonist. Jacob is surprisingly absent throughout the novel that bears his name, and even when physically present, still manages to evoke an aura of vacancy. The narrator seldom extends her omniscience to Jacob’s interior consciousness, leaving a disconcertingly hollow character at the center of a novel Kathleen Wall refers to broadly as a “Jacob-shaped hole” (Wall 306). Throughout the novel, the narrator manipulates her omniscience around Jacob, refusing to “follow him back to his rooms” and deliberately obscuring his interiority (Woolf 128). Thus, the reader is left with little more knowledge of Jacob than they would have of any stranger passed on the street. Jacob’s lack of interiority, though unusual for the world of the novel, closely mirrors the realities of human interaction outside it, and is reflective of the ultimately impenetrable nature of individual consciousness. This contrast between the reader’s expectations of interiority and the reality of the fragmented characterization that dominates Jacob’s Room emphasizes the limited nature of human interaction and understanding between individuals in the world outside the novel. Jacob’s hollow presence – or absence – at the heart of the novel suggests an inevitable void between individuals.
If Woolf’s narrator vacillates between omniscient and limited perspectives, then it is no surprise that the novel’s timeline is similarly capricious, fluctuating between the conventions of both linear and nonlinear chronology. Beginning with Jacob’s childhood and ending with his death, Jacob’s Room seems to bear the frame of the linear chronology associated with the bildungsroman. This framework, however, does not consistently underlie the novel. Lacking a true plot in any conventional sense, Woolf’s series of loosely connected vignettes already breeds a timeline that is fragmented at best, and often gives way to an even more erratic chronology in the hands of the narrator. In her moments of unqualified omniscience, the narrator often takes the liberty of somewhat arbitrarily advancing the timeline. From these moments of clairvoyance, the narrator discloses such seemingly random and inconsequential information as to whom the never before and never again mentioned Kitty Craster was married six months in the future, alongside more cumbersome announcements such as one declaring with a kind of alarming insouciance that a certain Jimmy “now feeds crows in Flanders” (Woolf 112, 131).
Along with these fluctuations between linear and nonlinear portrayals of time, Woolf’s chronology further deviates from narrative conventions with a number of highly descriptive passages that almost seem to exist outside of the narrative timeframe entirely. In her analysis, Wall equates these passages to visual still-lifes, attempting to explain them as a manifestation of ekphrasis (Wall 313). A notable example of one of Woolf’s so called still-lifes is the depiction of Jacob’s room: “Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fiber in the wicker arm chair creaks, though no one sits there” (Woolf 49, 247). Woolf’s verbatim repetition of this passage at two different points in the novel’s chronology seems to emphasize the insignificance of time, suggesting that this particular description exists independently of the novel’s timeline. By suggesting the existence of time outside of the narrative timeline, Woolf again creates a membrane between the world inside and outside of the novel, bridging the gap between art and reality.
While the timeline of Jacob’s Room resists any strictly linear definition, it does still correspond broadly to a general apprehension of time dominant in modern western consciousness. Initially coined by Walter Benjamin, Benedict Anderson later borrowed this notion of “homogenous, empty time,” in Imagined Communities. Characterized by the definition of simultaneity as a product of temporal coincidence in calendrical time, Anderson emphasizes the role of this perception of time in both the modern novel as well as the modern perception of reality. This faith in simultaneity, the idea of individuals in society always united by the passage of calendrical time, forms the foundation of the represented world at the heart of the novel. A reader’s partial omniscience within a narrative – their knowledge that Andrew Floyd recognizes a grown Jacob in Piccadilly while the latter remains entirely unaware of his observer’s presence – dominates their perception of the world outside the novel as well. While an individual in society may not know the exact actions and thoughts of his fellow man, this novelistic notion of simultaneity lends him “complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity” (Anderson 26). Narrative time in Jacob’s Room is perhaps no better described than as “empty” and “homogenous.” Dominated by simultaneity, composed entirely of fragmented snapshots of experience and populated by faceless characters who only appear when temporal coincidence calls, Jacob’s Room – by virtue of its own obscurity – is perhaps the most archetypal example of Benedict’s theory of western time.
Following the principle of verisimilitude, novelistic time is a representation of real time. However, Anderson’s analysis suggests that time itself always takes a represented form – it is always perceived and represented, whether in literature or simply in public consciousness. To borrow a phrase from Woolf’s narrator, “The point is, that we have been brought up in an illusion” – the illusion that our perception of time is somehow rooted in reality, while its representation in novels is a form of fiction (Woolf 189). Obscuring the perceived distinction between any such notion of “real time” and narrative time, Jacob’s Room provides a literary archetype for the theory Anderson would present decades later. Both narration and time in Jacob’s Room bleed through the accepted boundaries of the traditional novel, making often disconcerting contact with the outside world. In some ways then, Woolf presents Jacob’s Room as a solution to the problem of verisimilitude, permanently obfuscating the distinction between “reality and that which is like reality.” Woolf strips the idea of verisimilitude bare, challenging the very notion of reality itself and painting in its place a blurred and unbounded portrait of that which is like an idea of reality.
Jacob’s Room is a decidedly, but perhaps surprisingly, eerie novel. In large part a product of the novel’s innovations in form, this resultant tone is unconventional in its own right as well. It is not Jacob’s death, nor his lack of interiority in life, nor even the final image of his empty shoes that renders the novel so unsettling. Rather, it is Woolf’s experimentation with the form of the narrative that breeds the pervasive sense of the uncanny that breathes throughout Jacob’s Room. Like a ghost, frightening in its transgressions across the sacred boundary between life and death, Woolf’s narrative form strikes an eerie note in crossing and obscuring the boundary between life and art – a division presumed absolute. Jacob’s Room is not haunted by its late occupant, but rather by the simple suggestion that the world outside the novel is perhaps no less imagined than its representation.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso, 2006, pp. 22-36.
Wall, Kathleen. “Significant Form in Jacob’s Room: Ekphrasis and the Elegy.” Texas Studies in
Literature and Language 44.3 (2002): 302-23. Web.
Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. Oxford, 2008.
Zwerdling, Alex. “Jacob’s Room: Woolf’s Satiric Elegy.” ELH 48.4 (1981): 894-913. Web.