Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

In her novel Jacob’s Room (1922), Virginia Woolf takes the form of the bildungsroman and heavily distorts it. Instead of closely following each moment of Jacob’s life from childhood to death, the narrator sifts through memories, objects left behind, and opinions others have of him to make sense of his life in the wake of his death in the war. In particular, Woolf ties this preoccupation with the detritus of Jacob’s life together through an emphasis on the acoustic, as sounds and phrases repeat, voices come and go, and observations disrupt the rhythm of sentences. Woolf’s essay “Street Music” (1905) demonstrates her early interest in sound and rhythm as she argues for the embrace of natural rhythms and melodies that hard discipline and English philistinism has stifled. By considering this essay in relation to the novel, we can more clearly understand how Woolf shatters generic conventions through her experimentation with sound and rhythm, demonstrating literature’s ability to uncover an intangible self and facilitate connection. Especially in the wake of World War I, these experiments allow Woolf to question how we communicate and remember those around us within a disjointed, asynchronous soundscape full of new communicative technologies that can heighten our sense of fracture or alienation. Jacob’s Room creates a new kind of elegiac novel that explores how we form bonds within the haunting, sonic wasteland of modern life.

In her essay “Street Music” (1905), Woolf condemns hard discipline within English society for stifling human attunement to the natural rhythms of life, which can inspire new ways of organizing the social body in the wake of war. Woolf begins the essay with a brief look into the street musicians whom “candid dwellers in most London squares” consider “a nuisance” (“Street Music” 27), as their music “disturbs the householder at his legitimate employment, and the vagrant and unorthodox nature of such a trade irritates a well-ordered mind” (28). According to Woolf, the arts, but especially music, have become increasingly stifled and disregarded within English society where people have “trained [themselves] to such a perfection of civilisation that expression of any kind has something almost indecent—certainly irreticent—about it” (28). Woolf links this anxiety around and reticence toward any kind of creative expression to the fact that these square dwellers view music as a dangerous force that “incites within us something that is wild and inhuman like itself—a spirit that we would willingly stamp out and forget” (29). By portraying music as a kind of wild force, Woolf underscores how creative expression now exists in direct conflict to the ideals of English civilization, which attempt to tame and restrict “natural” rhythms and impulses that form the foundations of music and even poetry. As she explains, rhythm exists as an organic part of the body in which “the beat of rhythm in the mind is akin to the beat of the pulse in the body,” and this pulse seems to be “the strange and illimitable power of a natural force” (30). She then extends this kind of “biorhythm” to the environment, explaining how “in forests and solitary places an attentive ear can detect something very like a vast pulsation” (31). Woolf seems to argue that we must actively attune ourselves to this “vast pulsation,” this heartbeat at the center of the universe, that can help us better order life and improve the art of writing and conversation, acts that would then be “inspired by charity, love and wisdom” (31). If we consider this essay in relation to the asynchronous aural composition of Jacob’s Room, Woolf’s conclusion to the essay seems rather limiting as she argues that, in opening ourselves up to this natural rhythm, “the thoughts of the mind would flow melodiously in obedience to the laws of music” (32). However, this early essay reveals Woolf’s meticulous attention to rhythm and music that she hopes to wield against the English ideal of “a perfect state of discipline” (29) that has only resulted in the tragedy of World War I and the loss of many lives. In this way, Woolf’s activation of the aural sphere in her prose allows her to explore this sense of a modern fragmentation, all while critiquing the ideals upon which modern English society has been built.

In Jacob’s Room, Woolf intertwines this interest in the acoustic with an exploration of people’s desire to communicate and connect with others amid a growing sense of alienation, as seen in a crucial passage that details the act of writing and sending of letters. The narrator begins by remarking how letters remind us of life’s ephemeral nature, as “to see one’s own envelope on another’s table is to realize how soon deeds sever and become alien” (Jacob’s Room 96). Letters express the emotions and thoughts that the writer experiences during the embodied act of writing, so letters can function like a “phantom of ourselves” (96), standing in for our body. Even in short messages where “the hand in them is scarcely perceptible, let alone the voice or the scowl” (96), letters simultaneously create presence and absence of the self that is inextricably linked to one’s body and voice, and people may hear the voice of someone ringing in their mind as they read. This connection between speaking and writing as embodied attempts at self-expression becomes even more explicit when comparing letter writing to speaking over the phone: “And the notes accumulate. And the telephones ring. And everywhere we go wires and tubes surround us to carry the voices that try to penetrate before the last card is dealt and the days are over” (96). The sense of accumulation and circulation of voices creates an anxious image of a soundscape brimming over with a desire to communicate and form bonds with others before death. In a way, these relationships we form are all we have in life, yet at times the isolated act of writing makes us feel our own alienation even more intensely: “Is this all? Can I never know, share, be certain? Am I doomed all my days to write letters, send voices?” (96). As seen in the anxious accumulation of clauses and questions, these modes of communication can bridge physical distance to help connection, yet they also provide a deep awareness of our own isolation as we realize our inability to fully bridge these gaps between ourselves and others. In a novel where we only learn of Jacob through the bits and pieces he leaves behind and the perceptions others have of him, Woolf foregrounds the peculiar ways new technologies of communication have distorted how we form relationships and come to understand others. The image of various voices tunneling through telephone wires establishes the relationship between sound and body while emphasizing the near impossibility of communicating one’s intangible self, an act that modern technologies seem to have further complicated.

The connection between sound, body, and the desire to communicate becomes even more clear through the novel’s larger exploration of human memory and the senses, as characters often remember others through sensorial association. When Betty Flanders attempts to write a letter to Captain Barefoot while at the beach, her mind jumps around and catches onto several little details of her environment, creating a steady yet somewhat disjointed rhythm to the prose that cuts in and out with different observations. For example, while rereading a sentence that she has just written, her son Archer suddenly interrupts her and her stream of thought: “(the shadow of Archer, her eldest son, fell across the notepaper and looked blue on the sand, and she felt chilly—it was the third of September already), ‘if Jacob doesn’t want to play’—what a horrid blot! It must be getting late” (3). Each sensation and observation follow in quick succession just as Betty Flanders experiences them, and the prose mirrors these sudden jumps through punctuation, as commas and em dashes interrupt the natural flow of the sentence. By adopting this rhythmically disjointed sentence structure, Woolf more accurately captures how humans sensorially and subjectively interact with their surrounding environment, particularly when it comes to sound. Later, Betty describes the death of her husband and how he has “merged in the grass, the sloping hillside, the thousand white stones,” becoming one with this environment where Betty now hears “the bell for service or funeral” as “Seabrook’s voice—the voice of the dead” (13). Despite the physical absence of Seabrook’s body, Betty can recall his presence and momentarily bring him back to life through sensorial association, as the place of his burial and the sound of the bells have merged with her memory of Seabrook. Shortly after this moment of reflection, Archer asks her a question, and “Sounding at the same moment as the bell, her son’s voice mixed life and death inextricably, exhilaratingly” (13). The exhilarating nature of this overlapping sound reflects once again sound’s ability to carry weight, meaning, and memories just like all other senses that let us interpret the world. These sensorial associations essentially enable Betty to not only retain the memory of her husband but also transcend the limits of the body as his memory enters into the present, meshing with her son’s voice. Given the relationship between the senses, communication, and memory, an exploration of the novel’s aural composition is necessary for understanding its depiction of the fragmentation of life in the wake of war.

To further explore how sound intersects with memory and communication, Woolf experiments with how sound moves in different environments, particularly in group settings that create a cacophonous soundscape and render communication increasingly difficult. While Betty’s experience on the beach feels quite disjointed in its jumps from sensation to sensation, the larger, public group scenes of the novel feel even more disorienting as sounds travel aimlessly within the aural landscape, competing to be heard. During a dinner between Jacob and Florinda in a restaurant, we rarely hear from Jacob and only catch snippets of Florinda’s comments, as “Talk in a restaurant is dazed sleep-walker’s talk, so many things to look at—so much noise—other people talking. Can one overhear? Oh, but they mustn’t overhear us” (81-82). Communication becomes near impossible within the highly stimulating environment of a restaurant where many distractions can catch the ear and draw a listener’s attention away from the speaker. Woolf captures these constant shifts in focus in the sentence’s gradual shift from statement to questions, as if the narrator or perhaps Florinda herself cannot overcome these distractions in order to communicate. As the dinner progresses, “the room got fuller and fuller; talk louder; knives more clattering,” creating a cacophonous atmosphere where we can only catch a few glimpses of Florinda’s attempts at conversation: “‘Well, you see what makes her say things like that is…’ She stopped. So did everyone. “Tomorrow… Sunday… a beastly… you tell me…go then!” Crash! And out she swept” (82). Rather than granting full access to the conversation, Woolf leaves us only with scraps of speech that the narrator picks out of this swelling soundscape. The overwhelming noise and static render communication nearly impossible as it fractures any kind of conversational flow or rhythm. 

Woolf uses this conversational fragmentation again in a party scene where Jacob listens to Miss Julia Eliot: “At the last moment, as I was saying, just as everything was ready, the clothes finished and everything—Now Elsbeth is going to sing again. Clara is playing her accompaniment” (91). While Woolf provides us with more than a few words this time, phrases combine randomly and constantly overlap one another to the point that conversations still amount to nothing. By portraying these instances where the surrounding social environment directly disrupts the rhythms of conversation, Woolf underscores how the static and noise of urban spaces render genuine connection with others even more difficult. Later in the novel, the narrator seems to put this urban aural media ecology in contrast to the ancient world when Jacob is at the Parthenon in Greece, noting its “silent composure” that makes it appear “likely to outlast the entire world” (157).  Unlike the silent solidity of this ancient world, modern London brims with sound, creating a sonic wasteland where all is ephemeral. This urban cacophony has dramatically altered how we communicate and connect with others, disrupting the natural rhythms of conversation Woolf exalts in her essay “Street Music.”

The excess of sounds, or sonic waste, within the novel’s aural composition also results from Woolf’s use of repetition and sampling, which fills the novel with haunting, echoing voices that strive to be heard before they disappear into oblivion. Through free indirect discourse, Woolf seamlessly slips between different narrative voices, repeating phrases people have said again and again all while integrating them directly into the text without quotation marks. This seamless integration functions as a kind of “sampling” that allows Woolf to retain the sound of someone’s voice and their manner of speech while repeating their words. While we already saw some of this sampling in the restaurant scene, another such instance occurs when the narrator describes Miss Marchmont’s theory on color and sound saying, “[i]t all came into her philosophy—that colour is sound, or perhaps it has something to do with music” (112-113). The sentence seamlessly slips into Miss Marchmont’s voice and mimics her patterns of speech, as the narrator repeats her exact phrasing from a previous point in the novel. This sampling and repeating of other voices create almost an echo chamber within the novel, as if the narrator must actively work through this sonic detritus to hold on to the memory of Jacob. The image of an echo chamber comes to full effect when we remember the call for Jacob that runs through the entire course of the novel, starting from the very first pages where Archer repeatedly calls for Jacob saying, “JA—COB! JA—COB!” (4). This specific call repeats again when Clara thinks, “Jacob! Jacob!” (176), as well as at the very end of the novel after Jacob’s death in the war where after “a harsh and unhappy voice cried something unintelligible,” Bonamy cries out, “Jacob! Jacob!” (187). By placing this desperate call at the beginning and end of the novel as well as weaving it through its center, Woolf captures a specific ghostly desire for connection amid the alienation of post-war England, where voices haunt physical and mental spaces and sounds disrupt any sense of peace.

Woolf’s technique, however, goes beyond simply describing this sense of alienation in post-war London, as she attempts to reinvigorate her literary technique to demonstrate literature’s potential to facilitate connection in the face of fragmentation. Repetition not only adds to the cacophonous soundscape of the novel but also establishes a crucial center of Woolf’s descriptive technique. Rather than creating characters through extensive descriptions of their appearance or environment, Woolf employs repetition to get to the heart of a character’s nature. The narrator even acknowledges this technique when she interrupts herself to say, “but surely, of all futile occupations this of cataloging features is the worst. One word is sufficient. But if one cannot find it?” (71). Woolf seems to strive for such descriptive precision that one word alone will cut past all frivolous exteriors and reveal the truth of someone’s hidden self. However, finding this word and achieving such precision proves difficult, so Woolf repeats certain descriptive tags, such as “awkward” and “distinguished-looking” in reference to Jacob, as a way of building character while avoiding meandering and unnecessary descriptions of his physical traits. Through repetition, Woolf prevents us from seeing a fully fleshed out, objectively rendered portrait of Jacob and instead ends up using more abstract modes of writing and seeing to find the intangible self she desires to uncover underneath excessive layers of sound and description. While we may never fully understand Jacob or find the word that perfectly encapsulates his character,  Jacob’s Room demonstrates an attempt to cut through all the noise that constantly breaks up the flow of life and renders connection so much more difficult. Woolf’s literary experimentation, then, enacts a search for descriptive precision as a means of finding connection in the wake of tragedy and war.

By activating the aural sphere through this creation of a sonic wasteland, Woolf seems to construct the novel out of the rubble of the war, piecing together a portrait of Jacob in a disjointed manner that speaks to the ephemerality of life and the difficulty of communication in an era of technological change. Woolf mirrors this alienating experience of fragmentation through her disruption of the rhythm of sentences and her unorthodox descriptions of characters, all of which distort the conventions of a bildungsroman. In doing so, Woolf reinvigorates the genre and makes a case for literature’s ability to facilitate connection through its quest to unearth an intangible self hidden beneath the debris and noise of urban life. Jacob’s Room then not only acts as an elegy to World War I but also enacts a sonic exploration of our deep desire to connect with and remember those around us, as, at the end of the day, all we have is each other.

Works Cited

  • Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. Harcourt, 2008.
  • —. “Street Music.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf: 1904-1912, edited by Andrew McNeillie, Harcourt, 1986, pp. 27-32. 

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