by Pericles Lewis
Virginia Woolf‘s novel Jacob’s Room (1922) concerns the difficulty, especially for his mother, of making posthumous sense of the life of Jacob Flanders, a young man who dies in the first world war. (Flanders was a region of Belgium where the British sustained many of their heaviest casualties). The novel follows Jacob’s life, but he is seen mainly at a distance, through the eyes of women who knew him more or less well, and the narrative itself is quite fragmentary, so that the reader experiences the same problem faced by Jacob’s survivors—how to piece together his life. Woolf based the novel partly on the death of her brother Thoby in 1906, but gave it a broader resonance by having Jacob die in the war. The death itself, however, is not described. Instead, the novel ends with Jacob’s mother asking his friend Ralph Bonamy to help her sort through Jacob’s possessions. Its final lines are: “‘What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?’ She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.” Mrs. Flanders’ bewilderment is shared by the reader, who does not know what to make of a novel whose meandering plot, after jumping around in time and space, is cut short—without any inherent rationale—by the hero’s death.
- ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 112-113.