Jacob's Room | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Course Hero. "Jacob's Room Study Guide." September 14, 2020. Accessed September 25, 2021. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Jacobs-Room/.

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Jacob's Room | Themes

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The Impossibility of Knowing

The novel is an attempt to understand Jacob Flanders through the perspectives of those around him. Jacob is portrayed from the perspectives of other characters. The narrative views Jacob through the eyes of his family, his friends, his lovers, and people who pass him in the street instead of taking his perspective. The narrators' perspectives on Jacob are different, conflicting, and purely subjective. This spectrum of overlapping and contradictory views of Jacob is created with the hope that a single, objective truth about who Jacob is will emerge in the end. Jacob Flanders as a protagonist does not exist in the traditional sense, and there is no singular Jacob Flanders. There are multiple overlapping versions of Jacob that must be interpreted as a whole to understand him as a person. Whether it is possible to know a person in this fashion is one of the novel's key themes.

The multilayered approach is by no means limited to Jacob. Fanny Elmer is another example of a character who is glimpsed from different angles, and her true nature emerges as the result of these contradictory points of view. Fanny poses for Bramham and he draws her. She knows that she is not beautiful in the traditional sense but recognizes that there are angles from which her beauty is much more evident. She chooses one such pose for Bramham, but the resulting artwork does not please him. The image suggests that Fanny is a beautiful woman, and this conflicts with his existing understanding of her. Bramham's art pursues an objective beauty through drawing, so any alteration to his preconceived notions of who or what Fanny is creates a tension in his understanding of the world. Bramham tears up the picture because he rejects the existence of differing perspectives. The novel works in the opposite way as it accepts that there are different versions of people. The book then attempts to find the objective truth at the center of all of these perspectives.

The attempt to know or understand Jacob Flanders is fundamentally impossible as portrayed in the novel. Not only do the different understandings of his personalities clash and contradict one another, but there is no way for them to include everything. The letters Jacob sends to his mother Betty Flanders from Paris reflect this inherent unknowability. There is a truth to what Jacob is doing with his friends that is not reflected in the letters. He drinks and parties with them but does not mention these escapades to his mother. Betty chooses to believe her son's version of the truth when she reads the letters. She believes that he is enjoying a cultured, refined trip to France. This perspective does not clash with her motherly view of her clever son, so she accepts his word at face value. Jacob is not lying, but he is not providing the whole truth. Likewise, the novel does not lie in portraying Jacob from various angles, but it cannot portray him from every angle. There are details which must be left out due to the nature of the book and the limited space available. The attempt to form an objective and comprehensive portrayal of a man is ultimately impossible because the text cannot include every detail. Instead, the author must make editorial decisions about what to include and what to exclude. These lies of omission reveal the impossibility of knowing a person, and this impossibility appears throughout the novel as a constant theme.

Grief and Loss

The narrative of the book is colored by grief and loss. Characters must come to terms with the loss of loved ones and the impact those losses have on their lives. The first example of this is Betty Flanders, and her grief sets the tone for the entire novel. Betty loses both her husband and her brother and then must raise three children alone. She does not stop thinking about her deceased husband Seabrook Flanders and begins to include her social position as a widow as a key part of her identity. Betty reorganizes her life, and her goal becomes to raise her three boys. This success as a single mother is what will define her far beyond any form of personal happiness. To accomplish this she works hard to earn money for her children and turns down numerous marriage proposals because they may distract her from her objective. She focuses wholly on her children and becomes the consummate widow. She never forgets her husband and defines herself as an individual in the face of adversity. Grief shapes Betty's life and hardens her determination to ensure that her children are raised properly.

Grief and loss do not only exist in relation to death. The loss of a relationship or the possibility of a relationship also deeply affects others. Jacob Flanders's trip to Greece is meant to be the realization of his lifelong ambition and the culmination of his love for the classical world. He meets Sandra Williams there and falls in love. This changes his view of the world. Any possible relationship with Sandra is not feasible as she is married already. Jacob still dedicates himself to her, and they fall in love in a doomed fashion. Their moonlit walks through the Greek ruins have the aesthetic qualities of a romantic evening, but they are undermined by the shared knowledge that the relationship is doomed before it can ever begin. They can never be with one another, but they do become dedicated to one another. This experience imprints two losses on Jacob. He glimpses the possibility of a relationship with Sandra and then loses it to reality. Then he loses the identity of himself as a man who valued the classical world above all else. His time in Greece was originally intended to be an individual journey of self-actualization. The trip was the physical expression of his devotion to the classical world, but the meeting with Sandra distracts him and opens him up to the possibility that there may be more important things in his life. This mortally wounds his self-identity. Jacob sees firsthand that he is not the man he once thought himself to be, so he must deal with the death of his identity. He grieves for the romantic relationship that can never be and for the loss of the sense of himself that he has spent an entire life cultivating.

The melancholy imposed on Jacob by his dual losses does not last long. The outbreak of war means that issues of identity are made to seem insignificant amid the rapidly rising death tolls. Jacob goes to war and is killed. His involvement in the war is inevitable and perhaps a result of the grief he experienced at the loss of an identity. His first trip abroad killed his idea of himself, so he signs up for another foreign excursion in the hope of giving his life meaning. However, this grief is kept away from the narrative and Jacob dies away from the reader's gaze. He becomes just another number in a horrifying war. His death then affects the other characters. Betty is no longer only a widow, she is also a grieving mother. She has lost Jacob, so her children are no longer sources of comfort but ticking time bombs of grief waiting to explode. Given the extremity of the First World War, she may yet lose her other two sons. Betty not only mourns the loss of Jacob but has to deal with the growing likelihood that she will lose other sons and, in this sense, Betty's grief and loss bookend the novel.

Emptiness and Loneliness

The novel is filled with lonely characters searching for affection. Their lives are consumed with an emptiness they struggle to quantify, and Jacob Flanders himself is a narrative void. He is the novel's protagonist, but the narrative avoids him as much as possible. The perspectives of other characters offer small glimpses of Jacob, and the reader must assemble a character to fill in this narrative empty space. The loneliness of the characters is often defined in relation to Jacob. They ache for his companionship but cannot understand him. The loneliness of the characters mirrors the narrative distance felt by the reader.

Clara Durrant is an example of a person who exists on the edges of Jacob's life. She meets him at a party and falls in love with him right away. She even moves to London to be near him. In terms of personality and intellect they seem a good match, but Jacob never notices her. Clara has upended and reorganized her entire life to be near Jacob. Still, he does not view Clara as a potential romantic partner. His absence from her life creates a loneliness and an empty space that she attempts to fill with other people. These attempts are muted or unsuccessful. The poet she meets gets her name wrong in verse, and the American man to whom she is introduced quietly exits the narrative without being mentioned again. Clara emerges unhappy and unable to address the emptiness of her life because she exists in relation to Jacob rather than on her own terms.

Fanny Elmer is in a similar position. She loves Jacob but worries that he does not believe her to be clever enough. She attempts to prove him wrong by educating herself even though she does not truly understand the books he recommends for her. Fanny changes a great deal about herself and reshapes her personality for a man who barely acknowledges her existence. Their brief fling is nothing more than a distraction for Jacob, but it is a life-changing event for Fanny. Jacob's role in her life is to be absent, and her change and her development emerge as products of her desperation to fill the empty spaces in her life. She hopes to fill the empty space with Jacob himself but instead fills it with a slew of hobbies and occupations she believes he will find interesting. Jacob rejects her and becomes the void in her life just as he is a void in the book.

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