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.
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