Virginia Woolf – Jacobs’s Room (1922)

[Plot summary impending]

Epistemological constraints overlaid on gendered exclusion: the narrator can only imagine what goes on in the rooms at Cambridge. All particularity (Jacob’s back, for instance) is accessed through a window…the rest reamins thoroughly interrogative. Throughout, then, the narrative toggles between the classificatory systems set by consciousness (necessary for the ordering of the phenomenal world) and the classificatory systems imposed by society.

In short, the observer is choked with observations. Only to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself. (75, Signet)

The irony should not be missed here. Other forms of exclusion are eluded to in the multiple descriptions of the names etched in the rotunda of the British Museum, sequestered palace of self-improvement dedicated to the “public,” [Cf. new Grub Street, where Marian yule slaves away for her father Alfred], yet symbolizing the “unbroken knowledge” that extends from Plato to the present [Jacob is attempting to write himself into a tradition that the narrator is anxiously attempting to validate], constituting an “enormous mind,” “haroded beyond the power of any single mind to posses it.” [Cf. Mr. Ramsay’s anxiety in To the Lighthouse]. And further, there is the intimation that Jacob’s friend “Bonamy” is gay (“Now he’s a dark horse”) and therefore excluded as well. Jacob himself worries about being excluded from the intellectual aristocracy he tries so ostentatiously to penetrate. “Am I a bumpkin?” he asks.

Space: Could be considered an extended critique of interiors, of the pretensions of the gentry to preserve a sense of classicism despite the ravages of the 20th-century. [Connect this with bertha’s room with Beethoven’s bust.] Further, Jacob’s trip to Greece illustrates his lack of any real connection to the history he so desires to join. He goes to Greece not to be a part of civilization, but instead to protect himself from civilization. He has no connection, ty as he might, to a landscape that is undergoing processes of history. Ironically, Jacob will be violently pulled into history by his death in Flanders. That his last name is Flanders rewrites the rambling impressionistic nature of the small book as a tragedy in the Greek tradition–he was meant to be a part of a history that he refused to see.

Side note: he is working on piece that asks whether history is composed of great men, which connects to Carlyle’s One Heros and Hero-Worship.


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