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Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room, and Epistemology

4 November 2022

Angela Harris, Independent Scholar

In Virginia Woolf’s 1922 novel, Jacob’s Room, Woolf purposely writes Jacob to be wholly unknowable.  Literary critic, Linda Martin explains that Woolf achieves her effect of unknowability by deliberately embedding inconsistent cues about Jacob throughout the text. With reference to theory of mind, Martin explains that ‘readers have a strong, internal impulse to infer complex mental lives within fictional characters.’[1]  By undermining the reader’s compulsion to impute a complex mental life to Jacob, Woolf effectively plunges the reader into a state of doubt. This is compounded by the highly experimental nature of the text, which is not written in narratively coherent chapters, but rather in vignettes, offering abrupt glimpses into its disjointed novel-world. The narrator, unlike the omniscient speaker of Victorian narration, is identified to be a woman and is about thirty-five years old.[2] What the reader knows of Jacob is ostensibly mediated by her observations of him, which are vulnerable to error.  Her narration thereby provides an overlay of skepticism, so that every reading of Jacob and Jacob’s Room remains doubtful.  This paper argues that Woolf does this in order to perform on the reader the uncertain epistemology of her time.

In his excellent The Matrix of Modernism, Sanford Schwartz observes that ‘[d]uring the third quarter of the nineteenth century, scientists believed that they would soon possess an exhaustive description of the physical universe’.[3] This ‘exhaustive description’ would reflect and affirm religious belief in God, and the social and political structures that interrelated with this. In Jacob’s Room this outdated epistemology persists in Cambridge University, as the narrator describes a mystical light that is ‘[t]he light of all these languages, Chinese and Russian, Persian and Arabic, of symbols and figures, of history, of things that are known and things that are about to be known’.[4]  Here Woolf subtly points out what a mistake it is to trust that all is ‘about to be known’ through her reference to ‘all these languages’. Quoting William James in 1904, Schwartz articulates the source of modern epistemological doubt:

‘“God geometrizes”, it used to be said [but now] [t]here are so many geometries […] so many classifications, each one of them good for so much and yet not good for everything, that the notion that even the truest formula may be a human device and not a literal transcript has dawned upon us.’[5]

Even as Woolf invokes the anachronism of certain knowledge, she alludes to ‘all these languages’, which together defy any hope of a ‘literal transcript’ as each can only be ‘good for so much’.  Thus, the ‘mystical’ light of Cambridge is rendered ridiculous rather than venerable.

Despite the persistence of Victorian certainties, epistemology at the time of Jacob’s Room can best be characterised by a quote from Woolf’s much later novel, Between the Acts: ‘[i]t’s odd that science, so they tell me, is making things (so to speak) more spiritual . . . The very latest notion, so I’m told is, nothing’s solid’.[6] ‘Spiritual’ is apt here as it speaks to an ‘otherliness’ that is not only wholly ‘other’, but possibly terrifying and/or possibly wonder-filled. In      1916, Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which Woolf would debate ten years later over dinner tables: ‘I wanted, like a child, to stay and argue […] how if Einstein is true, we shall be able to foretell our own lives’.[7]  Here Woolf embodies the pleasures and possibilities for ‘reality’, as she liked to label it, in light of Einstein’s intensely creative theories. But, if we return to Jacob’s Room, this child-like wonder is hardly discernible beneath a far darker, stultifying doubt. As the narrator observes mid-way through the text: ‘a doubt insinuates itself […] something whispers, Is this all? Can I never know, share, be certain?’[8]  In Jacob’s Room doubt-filled terror suffuses the modern realisation that everything is not ‘about to be known’, rendering everything ‘but a procession of shadows’.[9]

‘Nothingness’ echoes through the novel, beginning with the title ‘Jacob’s Room’, which gestures toward an existential vacancy that Jacob inhabits like a ghost: ‘one fibre in the wicker armchair creaks, though no one sits there’.[10]  The text follows Jacob’s struggles to alight on a profession—should he be ‘a writer? […] a painter?’[11].  The tombstone of Jacob’s father claims he was a ‘Merchant of this city’, even though he only held the position for three months. The narrator asks the reader, should this definition be refuted: ‘[h]ad he then been nothing?’[12]  Conflating identity formation with social position and ontological nothingness, this question throws into relief the challenge Jacob faces in coming of age in Britain on the cusp of World War I. Playing on the bildungsroman, Woolf inverts the focus from Jacob to his society, highlighting what limited ‘room’ it makes available for Jacob to self-realise.  As the narrator states ‘there will be no form in the world unless Jacob makes one for himself’.[13]  Chillingly the text closes when Jacob is ‘nothing’.  Jacob’s empty room fills the final page following his death on the battlefield of World War I, and the wicker armchair eerily creaks once more.[14]

Ultimately, Woolf poses this vital ethical question: if we cannot know Jacob, can we mourn him? Woolf ends Jacob’s Room with the one irrefutable certainty: death.  And yet this final scene offers a glimpse of Woolf’s mature acceptance of modern epistemological doubt, and even wonder at the new possibilities for ‘reality’.  After the chair creaks ‘suddenly all the leaves seemed to raise themselves [then] sank down again’.[15] Evocative of the famous lines by John Donne (one of Jacob’s favourite authors): ‘all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language […] and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again’.[16] By reworking Donne’s anachronistic epistemology Woolf raises the ‘leaves’ of Jacob’s life in an elegiac gesture that affirms his humanity.  It is, of course, a Godless consolation, as there is no possibility for God’s ‘better language’ to mean a ‘literal transcript’ that offers full understanding of Jacob.  But, Jacob’s ‘leaf’ is nevertheless affirmed to be part of humanity’s ‘one volume’. What this means is that even if Jacob is unknowable, the death of this unknown soldier, and his humanity, matters. Jacob’s Room explores two important epistemological questions from its time: is uncertainty terrifying? Yes, it can be. Do we need to know everything with certainty to know what matters?  No.

Image Credit: Paul Klee, Walpurgis Night (1935), Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)


[1] Linda Martin, ‘Elegy and the Unknowable Mind in “Jacob’s Room”’, in Studies in the Novel, 47 (2015) 176-192, (p.178).

[2] Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (Oxford: OUP, 2000), p.128.

[3] Sanford Schwartz, The Matrix of Modernism: Pound, Eliot, and Early Twentieth-Century Thought (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1985), p.12.

[4] Woolf, JR, p.53.

[5] Schwartz, p.14.

[6] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.179.

[7] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie, 5 vols, (Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1980-82; repr. 1987), iii (1987), p.68.

[8] Woolf, JR, p.126.

[9] Woolf, JR, p.96.

[10] Woolf, JR, p.49.

[11] Woolf, JR, p.94.

[12] Woolf, JR, p.15. [My italics]

[13] Woolf, JR, p.44.

[14] Woolf, JR, p.247.

[15] Woolf, JR, p.247.

[16] [accessed 13 September 2022] [My italics]


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