jacobs room by virginia woolf

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf


            The novel of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) entitled, Jacob’s Room, emphasizes the idea of character analysis rather than the common relaying of story. As for the novel, the principal symbol centers on the character itself, Jacob Flanders, during the pre-war England until the progression of war. Different points and ideas have been directed towards Woolf’s character centralization, especially on her cinematographic way of revealing the scenes of the story. According to Transue, the novel of Virginia Woolf provides an impressionistic biography that accounts innocence, but eventually ended with an ironic path of the protagonist (51). The novel circulates the elements of innocence, feminine attachments, an iron-hand society and pointless war.

            In the discussion, there are five ideas tackled throughout the literary analysis, namely (1) the character centralization of Jacob – wins and losses, (2) Jacob’s motherly attachment, (3) the women in the life of Jacob, (4) classicism and civilization, and (5) Jacob as the war casualty – innocence versus violence. The ideas of the story start according from the most subtle literary elements of Jacob’s room until the most complex event of the story, which is his innocent death. At the end of the story, these five ideas are composed to form the main idea embedded within the title and symbolism of the story in Jacob’s Room.


Overview of the Story

            The novel opens with Mrs. Elizabeth Flanders (45-year-old widow) with her three children at the beach, Archer, Jacob and the youngest, John. The opening of the scene illustrates the childhood of the main protagonist wherein the characteristics of common boyhood, such as naughtiness, playful, dependency and curiosity, are all present (Panken 106). Mrs. Flanders has shown an important contribution in the childhood of and the growing years of Jacob by acting as the Labelist of the story, such as the unintentionally branding Jacob as “burglar” by coming home late than usual (Woolf 23). By the age of 18, Jacob proceeds to the character of independency by studying to Cambridge in 1906 (Wolf 29). During his experience in Cambridge, Jacob’s portrait of being childlike has emerged to a more “serious, handsome, distinguished, optimistic and enthusiastic student” (Panken 106).

            Despite of the university experiences of Jacob, he has never lost his touch with his youthful sense, and at times, he describes his Cornwall vacation with other friends, such as Timmy Woolf, “…clefts in the cliffs, white cottages, smoke going up…” and “extraordinary look of calm, of sunny peace as if wisdom and piety had descended upon the dwellers” (Woolf 48). After Jacob’s graduation at Cambridge, he proceeds to London and begins to experience more mature events of his life by meeting famed women of the story, Clara, Timmy’s Sister and in love with Jacob, and Florinda, the prostitute who is Jacob’s main attraction. However, these relationships fail and others that come end up instantaneously or inappropriately as well. By the time Jacob is beginning to realize his place in society, he proceeds to World War I, but unfortunately died at the age of 26.

Character Emphasis: Wins and Losses

            Throughout the story, the character emphasis has centered on Jacob Flanders not only as the story’s protagonist but also as the main biographical element of the story. According to Transue, Woolf centers her story on a character who emerges as a composite of other people’s more or less fleeting impressions of Jacob (51). Woolf centers his attention on the discrete moments occurring in the life of the main protagonist, such as his free childhood with his mother and brothers – “…Jacob then jumped deliberately and trotted away very nonchalantly at first, but faster and faster as the waves came creaming up to him and he had to swerve to avoid them…” (Woolf 4).

            The character of Jacob can be categorized into three sections, particularly (1) his childhood, (2) college years and (3) young adulthood years. Church describes the childhood of Jacob as fluid, full of passion and enthusiastic (173), while Ronchetti identifies the traits of being free-spirited, largely distant from the other characters of the novel and the mystery of his character (41). By the time Jacob meets the entrance of his college years, Woolf illustrates the intrinsic and fundamental human characters, such as appreciation – “…looked satisfied… tomorrow; and friends… in sheer confidence and pleasure…” (Woolf 45), hopes, memories (Woolf 49). From the childlike character of Jacob, Woolf further matures it by changing him as a “serious, handsome, distinguished, optimistic, and enthusiastic prolific leader” (Panken 106). During his young adulthood, Jacob encounters the mature sides of life by meeting and engaging himself to relationships. As she manages to instill the biographical focus to Jacob to further her argument, Woolf questions the losses whenever a young soldier dies (Transue 51-52).

Jacob’s Motherly Attachment

            From the analysis of Jacob’s character, the next conflict resides to his gender-oriented role in the novel. From the very start of the novel, Jacob and his mother, Mrs. Flanders, have shown the typical motherly attachment and parental responsibilities. According to Panken, the dominion of the mother is due to the absence of paternal figure in their family, since the “father” figure has already dispersed even at the beginning of the story (106). According to different criticisms of various authors, there are three fundamental arguments being introduced by the mother-son attachment, specifically (1) dominion (“don’t go with bad women, do be a good boy, wear your thick shirts, and come back…” Woolf 90), (2) dependence (Ryan 190) and (3) favoritism (Spector 30-31). In the mother-son path, Mrs. Flanders dominates the childhood developmental needs of Jacob, which is typical and considerable during the first parts of the story. However, as Jacob faces adolescence and young adulthood, motherly attachments have physically declined but emotionally maintained. Mrs. Flanders’ statement, “…wear your thick shirts, and come back, come back, come back to me” (Woolf 90) illustrates the elements of mother-son relationship, specifically dependence and dominion (Schiach 11). On the other hand, favoritism is one of identifiable controversy occurring during the childhood of Jacob: “…now put it down. Now come along both of you,” and she swept round, holding Archer by one hand and fumbling for Jacob’s arm with the other” (Woolf 13). Motherly attachment has become significant to the development of Jacob’s personhood throughout the story, “Jacob had nothing to hide from his mother (Woolf 114).” Despite of the evident favoritism of Mrs. Flanders, she is still able to establish her contribution to the personhood of Jacob

The Women in the Life of Jacob

            The symbolical graduation of Jacob at Cambridge has broken the limitations, boyhood and the motherly dominion in his life. By this time, he is set to face the society, the reality it poses for them and the fate of being a member of a social class society (Tigges 290). Part of his manhood is his encounters with different relationships throughout his life especially the women, which essentially reveals the value of human attachments (Zwerdling 170). As he pursues independence from his motherly attachments, erotic relationships for Clara and Florinda confront Jacob. According to Gruber, the love triangle between Clara, Florinda and Jacob is not entirely an illustration of female-male erotic bonds rather, a symbolism of Jacob’s main interest and his character (145). Clara is the feminine symbol of classicism during the contemporary Europe, “and Clara would hand the pretty china teacups, and smile at the compliment—that no one in London made tea so well as she did” (Woolf 189). On the other hand, Florinda is entirely the opposite of the well-groomed Clara,

            “The letter lay upon the hall table; Florinda coming in that night took it up with   her, put it on the table as she kissed Jacob, and Jacob seeing the hand, left it   there under the lamp, between the biscuit–tin and the tobacco–box” (Woolf 101).

Florinda is criticized by different authors (Zwerdling 70; Homans 82 and Ellis 45) as being wild, model-type and brainless. Unfortunately, the choice of Jacob is not the classical or modern Europe, but his own character developed out his independence and overpowered limitations. Despite of his mother’s note (Woolf 90), Jacob still chooses Florinda than the classical London, Clara, as a symbol of himself breaking from the timid, classic, conservative and limited childhood he has had with his mother.

Classicism and Civilization

            As Jacob faces the forefronts of his society, he encounters different issues present within the walls of Europe that impose diversity and groupings of people. In the latter parts of the story, Woolf tries to emphasize the conflicts of classicism and requirements of civilization against the protagonist.

            “Miss Jinny Carslake, pale, freckled, morbid, came into the room.
’Oh Jinny, here’s a friend. Flanders. An Englishman. Wealthy. Highly connected.        Go on, Flanders…” (Woolf 143).

At such point, materialism and power emphasizes the value of a person, but in the essence, the opportunities for those creative and scholarly (e.g. Cruttendon) are circumscribed b the class limitations, gender roles and expectations (Ronchetti 42). Being part of the upper class, the character and circumstances of Jacob illustrate how men are utilized for the betterment of their European civilization, “ ‘The height of civilization,’ said Jacob” (Woolf 187). The society requires the participation of noble men in the great battle of World War I. Jacob faces this decision with his ideologies on the line. Growing up from his childhood limitations and attachments, he directs himself towards war without even fulfilling any expectations, experiencing his childhood hometown vacations, etc.

Jacob as the War Casualty – innocence versus Violence

            From the time of Jacob’s childhood, schooldays and growing up to be an adult, Woolf is able to illustrate the typical developmental milieu of a contemporary Englishman, but only to be sent in war. At the age of 26, Jacob dies in the middle of the war. The greatest irony of the scene is starting out the story with Jacob’s mother yelling at his playful childhood, but in the end, holding on his pair of old shoe with his son dead. The shoes are entirely the symbol of mother-son attachment that Mrs. Flander and Jacob had when he was alive: “‘What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?’ She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes” (Woolf 191). In this scenario, the dual objectionism relates to innocence versus violence wherein from the childhood, growing up years and manhood of Jacob, he begins to develop a sense of self and social function. According to Tigges, Woolf creates a literary figure wherein the main focal points of the story center in order for her to relay the message of the irony of raising up an innocent young man, but in the end, sacrificing him to the welfare of society (290). Due to the needs of their civilization, his life must be sacrificed along with those years, attachments, relationships, potentials and class.


            Despite of the shifts of focus and other diversions, the impressions of the story eventually ends up to Jacob. To answer the objective of the discussion, Jacob’s Room illustrates the quarters of a human being brought up from childhood to manhood. Upon Jacob’s death, the allegory between the first and his death scene with his mother illustrates how this room remains the same physically, but intensively gloomed. From the playful Jacob, developing to a studious, handsome and serious college student, and eventually becoming a man, Jacob’s room remains attached to his origin – Mrs. Flanders and his hometown. In a radical view, Jacob’s room is an illustration of breeding a human being for the betterment of society without even realizing how those years, attachments and relationships die together with the character.

Works Cited

Church, Margaret. Structure and Theme–Don Quixote to James Joyce. Ohio, New York: Ohio State University Press, 1983.

Ellis, Steve. Virginia Woolf and the Victorians. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Gruber, Ruth. Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Michigan, New York: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Gruber, Ruth. Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman. London, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishing, 2005.

Panken, Shirley J. Virginia Woolf and the “Lust of Creation”: A Psychoanalytic Exploration. New York, U.S.A: SUNY Press, 1987.

Ronchetti, Anne. The Artist, Society & Sexuality in Virginia Woolf’s Novels. London, New York: Routledge, 2004.

Ryan, Judith. The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism. Chicago, U.S.A: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Shiach, Morag. A Room of One’s Own, and Three Guineas. Oxfordshire, U.K: University of Oxford Press, 1998.

Smith, Angela J. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two. Oxfordshire, U.K: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Spector, Judith. Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism. Toronto, New York: Popular Press, 1986.

Tigges, Wim. Moments of Moment: Aspects of the Literary Epiphany. London, New York: Rodopi, 1999.

Transue, Pamela J. Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Style. New York, U.S.A: SUNY Press, 1986.

Zwerdling, Alex. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. California, U.S.A: University of California Press, 1986.


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