(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)
Abject Objects in Jacob's Room
Catherine Lanone (University of Toulouse II)
When Virginia Woolf "conceived" The Mark on the Wall, Kew Gardens and Jacob's Room, she knew she was breaking new ground, with "no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist" (Essays 13-14). Jacob's Room is indeed an experimental novel, though the narrative mists tend to shroud most of the fire. Mapping becomes rhizomatic, through a kaleidoscope of fragments pieced together in a haphazard, lacunar fashion. Thus Woolf strays from mimesis, experimenting with a metonymic rather than a metaphoric logic, as David Lodge has it:
In order to deconstruct her subject, Woolf plays on metonymic chains of abjection and desire, while the deliberately lame narration attempts an impossible, oxymoronic elegiac satire.
Jacob's Room does not end with a bang or even a whimper, but with a shockingly ordinary object which is grotesquely, ludicrously foregrounded, though not even described—a pair of old shoes. Like the notes and love letters, the shoes are part of the relics carelessly left by Jacob in his rooms. Those old shoes are a signifier of both presence and absence; while the reader is given to understand that the protagonist has
. ". . . this time, the principle root has aborted, or its tip has been destroyed; an immediate, indefinite multiplicity of secundary roots grafts onto it and undergoes a flourishing development." ( Deleuze and Guattari 5)
died in France, the shoes remain as the trace of the feet which moulded them, a grotesque sloughed-off skin, a death cast. As such, they may remind us of one of the first objects the novel focuses on, with a curiously uncertain glare—"a whole skull—perhaps a cow's skull, a skull, perhaps, with the teeth in it" (5). For the mother, this repugnant skull must be left on the beach, a hollow receptacle for sea-holly which will eventually turn into powder. But Jacob smuggles the jaw back into the house, and sleeps with the teeth close to his feet. While the description purified the skull into the palimpsest of time to come, this dark contact becomes improper, unclean, abject, as if the signifier of death had encroached upon the very border which is supposed to protect us, to save us from death—the warmth of childhood (Kristeva 3-4).
From beginning to end, Virginia Woolf thus chooses to focus on things, yet the attention paid to objects is deliberately unsystematic. We do not have a cold accumulation of objects to create the "reality effect" defined by Roland Barthes. The skull connotes death, yet cannot be read as an abstract symbol—just as later Woolf will adamantly refuse to describe the lighthouse in To the Lighthouse as a symbol to which one might ascribe one specific meaning. Above all, we do not have yet the luminous drift of thoughts wrapping each object in a stream of phenomenological perceptions, a burst of sensations which is foreshadowed by the The Mark on the Wall for instance. Objects are foregrounded but also frozen into place, as it were. A skull is a skull is a skull is a skull.
Indeed, Woolf's answer to realism, at this point, simply seems to expand each object into a motif. The skull reappears briefly in Jacob's thoughts, in King's chapel for instance, while the carving in his rooms includes a rose or a ram's skull, a curious alternative suggesting antithetical fusion, perhaps in the manner of Blake's sick rose: Jacob's life is equally blighted. Unobtrusive boots, male and female shoes, echoing footsteps are to be found on almost every page of the novel, not to mention recurrent anthropomorphic metatextual metaphors about the pace of words.
As it opens and closes, the novel also foregrounds women's letters, which bear the stamp of the body too. As Clare Hanson points out, Betty Flanders' letter is "linked with bodily fluids" (47), as it bears, as a mark of weakness or of woe, the "horrid blot" made by her tears, which spreads and contaminates the page. Stained with affect, the letter becomes a
helpless signifier of desire. The deceptively impersonal description of Florinda's rambling, "abominably" spelt letters, must be read as an instance of internal focalization betraying Jacob's contempt: "Fancy a butterfly, gnat, or other winged insect, attached to a twig which, clogged with mud, it rolls across a page" (80). The male gaze crushes the female letter.
This may explain the function of a brief episode, where Jacob by the window sees a scarlet van which startles a little girl. She stands on tiptoe, her hand in the mouth of the box, she is about to mail a letter:
The episode seems to rewrite the Victorian motif of the child, indeed, it brings to mind fairly unremarkable paintings like R.W. Chapman's Posting the Letter. In this painting too the genre scene is focused on the little girl on tiptoe, wistfully plunging her hand into the mail box as if gazing into an unfathomable well, but the scene is also fraught with hints of male framing. There are drawings of female heads above the girl, while a shadow is cast over the pavement, the shadow of a man on a bicycle. Woolf expands on the shadow the male gaze casts on Victorian little girls. The man on the bicycle becomes a threatening mail van, while we enter Jacob's perspective unawares, in a case of narrative ventriloquy which exposes his thoughts by discreetly magnifying them: Jacob finds the connection between girl and mailbox disturbing (like "a grain of sand in the shoe which it's scarcely worth removing") but the scene is made acceptable, even pathetic, by the huge shadow of the scarlet van which marks the control of letters as male and the little girl as a trespasser.
Female letters, even innocent childish ones, are thus discreetly presented as emblems of trespassing connected with overflowing female desire. In the opening scene, the humid letter which Betty addresses to her friend may be linked with the two large crimson faces the little boy stumbles upon on the beach. The surrogate primal scene is inverted later as the mother begins to lose control over her son. The letter then becomes an eye prying into his sexual life, lying on the table between the biscuit tin and the tobacco box, like a discarded metonymy of the self endowed with
. Jacob does write letters to Bonamy, and to his mother, in which he never tells her what she really wishes to know.
. The name of this married friend, Captain Barfoot, is of course significant. Barfoot is the one who suggests Jacob should go to Cambridge.
a life of its own, and we hear the waves of pain and anger as the pale envelope is "torn" by the sounds coming from the bedroom:
In this extraordinary scene, the sexual act is perhaps more vividly represented than anywhere else in Woolf, with suggestive vocabulary like "stir," "creak," "swollen," "burst," while the emotions are transferred onto the suffering voyeur, the abject mother-letter which blames Florinda, of course, for leading the son astray—except that Jacob comes first out of the bedroom, and stretches lazily.
The Limping Narrator
The clash between female voyeurism and male reticence is given an added dimension on the narrative level, since the motif of the older woman impinging on a younger man's privacy ironically corresponds to the way the narrator unexpectedly depicts herself.
First we meet her unreliable doppelgängers, like the elderly woman on the train: she peers fearfully at poor Jacob, lest he should sexually assault her, before she softens up and compares him with her son. Rachel Bowlby has analyzed this train of thoughts as paradigmatic (89-90); it clearly parodies mimetic realism, as things fail to provide the relevant clues, to "add up," to compose the "infallible test of appearances" (23).
Surprisingly the scene duplicates the moment when Jacob sees Florinda with another man, and the ghastly light of the lamp "drenches him from top to toe," presumably a metaphor of the cold shower Florinda has aptly administered. Yet Woolf's narrator gives us an over-exposed, mock-realistic description, complete with thorn in the stick, while she adamantly refrains from discussing his thoughts. The narrative persona turns out to be as shyly fearful, and as "maternal" as the lady on the train, she almost refrains from following the hero back home:
. This is reminiscent, of course, of An Unwritten Novel.
Such qualms are all the more surprising as our prudish narrator becomes omniscient when she wishes to, a random feat which includes for instance the moment when she tells us the name of the women crossing the street, or the colour of the stockings they're wearing. She slips easily enough in and out of female consciousness, but creates a cubist portrait of the protagonist she claims she cannot understand, challenging the reader's powers of interpretation with irrelevant and uninteresting fragments of dialogues, points which are made and which we never hear, snapshots of Jacob as seen through his lovers' eyes.
Here Woolf mimics and subverts the traditional representation of women as mysterious opaque objects, perceived mostly through the eyes of the lovers whose hearts they break.
Thus throughout the novel, narrator and character are deliberately out of step. In spite of very brief moments of empathy, Jacob stands superbly aloof, silent as a statue, beautifully and contemptuously out of reach. The narrator limps around the object of her gaze, her dark secretive statue, her hollow man, ending up with the hollow object from which he has withdrawn.
In the novel Woolf delights in the use of contradictory pairs, as Jacob is repeatedly described as clumsy yet elegant, awkward yet distinguished. In the very same way the narrative technique is both absolutely dazzling and ultimately very gauche, since the identity of Jacob is always kept tantalisingly out of reach: "what remains is mostly a matter of guesswork. Yet over him we hang, vibrating" (61). The reader feels thwarted in his attempts to grasp anything but a shifting shadow, as if Woolf deliberately cheated. In that case, the gauche narration might be compared, not to an intimate pair of old shoes, but to a provocative pair of mismatching shoes, for which the emblem might be Derrida's analysis of Van Gogh's painting, "Old Shoes with Laces":
. They are rare, and correspond to touches of fragility, as when Jacob as a little child feels lost on the beach, or when Jacob as an adult muses on the Parthenon while he feels the great hook tugging in his side—it is his turn to have fallen in love with a heartless woman.
. Sue Roe, in her 1992 introduction to the Penguin edition, also refers to Van Gogh's painting as a potential clue to the novel.
The fragmented rhapsody of Jacob's Room, to borrow Woolf's image, hurries towards a missing answer, diabolically dancing out of step. In fact here Woolf pretends to borrow the outward shape of the realistic bildungsroman, in order to blow it up from inside, to expose the void within the form, to subvert and destroy its teleological impulse. Jacob's life leads us nowhere, because he ends up nowhere, in No Man's Land. Derrida insists on the notion of "form," as the piece of wood which is used to assemble a shoe. Woolf borrows the form to show how rigid, and ultimately how hollow, it is. The novel breaks the "form" of the realist novel, it is impaired, or pared down, to reveal its emptiness.
Unwriting the Quest
The gauche novel thus limps diabolically because it is deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, Woolf wishes to deconstruct realism, and invent a female sentence. On the other hand, it draws its force from the elegiac mood, woven by obsessional motifs.
Places are stained with death; the splitting tree, or the rock on which Jacob's existence will flounder, recur in various guises in the novel, from the nanny turned into a rock on the childhood beach, to the sacrificial rock passed by the young man, or to the song he sings: "Rock of Ages, cleft for me,/ Let me hide myself in thee" (42). Objects become omens pointedly connected with the war, as "the lamps of London uphold the dark as upon the points of burning bayonets" (83). The passing of time is poignantly suggested by variations on a motif, again a typical technique Woolf is devising here, as she wistfully describes butterflies and the lapse of time created by the brief stop of the rooks, before they are startled by the dinner bells: "the rooks settled, the rooks rose" (46); later the snow falls softly all night long, muffling the mournful clocks of London, and erasure is foreshadowed by the systematic use of dots (85). Of course the elegiac mood relies mostly upon the description of Jacob's rooms, where the mock-reality effect, the accumulation of objects, is ultimately belied by the
. "The waves came around her. She was a rock. She was covered with the seaweed which pops when it is pressed. He was lost." (5)
attempt to reach towards the invisible: "Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker armchair creaks, though no one sits there" (31). Things moulded by a presence have a secret language of their own, a breath of air, a familiar chair still speak of the one who has left, and this is the true elegy which Jacob is given. The metatextual rooms hold the novel together: "yet all the while having for centre, for magnet, a young man alone in his room" (82). But the elegy for doomed youth is marred by the more energetic pace of satire.
Woolf provides Jacob with the kind of room or stronghold which is savagely attacked in A Room of One's Own. Patriarchal order becomes a martial syntax. In lovely, spellbinding Cambridge, the young men wear boots beneath angelic chapel robes, and the professor's thoughts march like an army under a dome, as the narrator feigns admiration: "what a procession tramps through the corridors of his brain, orderly, quick stepping" (32); the cliché is resemiotised with a feminine twist, as if Woolf foresaw the term "brainwashing": "on the table serious sixpenny weeklies written by pale men in muddy boots—the weakly creak and screech of brains rinsed in cold water and rung dry—melancholy papers" (27). The male syntax is more aggressively displayed in the British Museum sanctuary, where a feminist spinster with untied boots glares at the circle of golden letters printed around the top, crowning the likes of Plato, but excluding all women, including George Eliot or the Brontës. Significantly, it takes ages to retrieve Jacob's walking stick at the entrance, a clear sign of hampered progress. With their brains wrung dry, the young men who worship Greece are ultimately expendable objects.
But Woolf does not simply regale us with metaphors suggesting barrenness, as when Jacob in the glory of King's chapel incongruously remembers insects drawn to a lantern. No "character-monger" (135), she actively deconstructs what she calls the "male sentence," breaking up the syntax of teleology. The novel is a mock bildungsroman, but it is also a mock biography foreshadowing Orlando; it exposes history as a social construct. While Jacob admires Gibbon and writes an essay entitled, "Does history consist of the biographies of great men?" Woolf provocatively suggests that the shifting length of dresses is as good a tool as any to measure the evolution of History (13). Since Jacob is killed, or erased, in France, he drops out of History, and may only be recaptured by the deviant female voice, loosely sewing the stray fragments picked up at random.
. This foreshadows Mr Ramsay's alphabet in To the Lighthouse.
Jacob's life becomes an anti-progress, a mock Odyssey, a failed journey which ends as the wind blows steadily, mournfully between Greece and Troy. If Jacob Flanders is Woolf's Dedalus, the old shoes clearly signal the failure of the quest. The novel adamantly refuses to fulfil the reader's (and the protagonist's) expectations, it will not abide by the pattern of tension and climactic resolution, or consummation, which feminist critics consider as a male archetype.
In this perspective the empty shoes appear as both grotesque and poignant, since Jacob is often seen walking in the novel, hiking up Olympian Hills, or climbing the path leading to the Acropolis, never doubting for a moment that he will get somewhere: "‘What for? What for?’ Jacob never asked himself such questions, to judge by the way he laced his boots" (141). We share his exhilaration on the top of his Olympian and the great comedown that followed. In Cambridge too he is defined by mountain, yet we remember the rock he climbed "heroically" as a little boy, his quick echoing footsteps, as he sucks in with Keatsian sensuousness the mellow Cambridge atmosphere, "the springy air of May, the elastic air with its particles—chestnut bloom, pollen. . . ":
This is one of the few moments in the novel when Jacob becomes intensely alive, a male Gradiva steeped in the Cambridge air, as the textual echoes (the anaphoric repetition of "back," "young man") reproduce mimetically the sound of footsteps, just as the narration itself keeps taking us back to the young man's room—though in the end we find nothing there, the severed feet have vanished.
Punning on "délaissées" and "délacées," Jacques Derrida claims that with Van Gogh's painting "Old shoes with laces," "we have a ghost story on our hands":
. We find a few boats, like the peaceful punt or the sail boat, while Clara's little dog Troy runs by the statue of Achilles in the park, and Fanny spends hours on end by the statue of Ulysses in the British Museum, a statue which reminds her of Jacob.
Such is precisely the question asked by Jacob's mother as she holds the shoes—what is to be done, what is to be done with such relics? More importantly, the shoes force us to retrace our steps and re-evaluate the entire novel, as we suddenly realize that the somewhat heartless, silent young man is no more. Like Van Gogh's shoes, Jacob's shoes create a ghostly effect, as one seeks to restitute them, to render them to their rightful owner, as we wonder what it all amounts to, shoes and young men, objects and subjects, as the ghost of a shape answers the tapping of leaves outside and Bonamy's silent cry of anguish, "Jacob, Jacob." The shoes refuse to let Jacob slip easily out of the text, they question absence, they stand as a snare for the reader, just as according to Derrida Van Gogh's shoes dangerously attract the spectator's eye: "it is rather that they look like snares [pièges à lacets] lying in wait for the stroller in the middle of the museum: "will s/he be able to avoid being too much in a hurry and catching his/her feet in them?" (258). We are asked to step inside Jacob's shoes, and use them as the key to the whole novel.
Objects of Desire
Stepping in Jacob's shoes also means following his sentimental education, as the novel deconstructs objects of desire along with historical and biographical patterns. The fetichistic shoes actually suggest how the male and female characters are maimed and tripped by what Jacqueline Rose calls the "straitjacket of symbolic forms" (157).
For instance the Greek motif harps on Jacob's homoerotic attraction for the explicitly homosexual Bonamy, yet Jacob is unaware of this. Predictably, Jacob collects women like objects, just as he pinned butterflies when he was a child, though the women may be transfixed in various ways. The seduction of the candid, "semi-transparent" Clara, is metaphorized by the grapes she holds coyly, like curled bodies. But Clara's diary entries are so small that she cannot even write about Jacob, while Bonamy reintroduces the theme of the shoe as an emblem of emotional castration: "Bonamy kept on gently returning quiet answers and accumulating amazement at an existence squeezed and emasculated within a white satin shoe" (113).
But Clara is not the only one who suffers from the little mermaid syndrome, or is it Cinderella's sisters' syndrome? Less idealized, Jacob's other women gradually lose their bearings, their footing. We see pretty promiscuous Florinda looking at herself being looked at, as Jacob emerges from their very explicit embrace and finds her stupid. Florinda ends up sitting at a café, with a dull, animal look in her eye, thinking of
Jacob, though presumably she is not pregnant by him, "sunk, caught by the heel, as she tripped so lightly over the surface" (148).
More interesting is Fanny Elmer's case, a painter's model who dashes into the novel with the "the ankles of a stag." This latter-day Gradiva is gradually paralyzed. Before she seduces Jacob, Fanny is fascinated by Evangelina's "exquisite" dress shop. But the mannequin she gazes at has been dismembered, and the fake severed parts are rearranged, creating a faint uneasiness in the reader, like a Cindy Sherman sculpture. Not only has the woman become dismembered and objectified—"the parts of a woman were shown separate" (105)—but the women who gaze longingly at the window have integrated the discourse of male fetishism. With its hats spiked like heads of malefactors, and its feathered boa twisting round a central pole, the window is a deceptive paradise. Most interesting is the confusion between feet and shoes, just like in a painting by Magritte: "and on the carpet were her feet—pointed gold, or patent leather slashed with scarlet." Cinderella's golden slipper is akin to a wound, a red badge, a scarlet slash upon which the eyes of women feast like flies: "feasted upon by the eyes of women, the clothes by four o'clock were flyblown like sugar-cakes in a baker's window" (105). The clothes resembling sweet cake, turn the body into an edible woman ready for consumption, or a rotting body. But such anamorphic vanity is still mediated by the male gaze, as Jacob's shadow falls upon the window—though the man turns out not to be Jacob after all. As she drops her glove to attract him (another object of despair or dis-pair), or switches her shiny buckled shoes for shoes with red tassels, as she dresses up to go to a fancy dance, she hears but a lonely leitmotif, "he would forget her." And he does, sitting in a London park while she stares with her shrunken face at the maps of the world in a shop window, frozen into position while the equator swims in tears. The former stag then steps on an omnibus bound for Picadilly, presumably so that she may gaze at Jacob's room again.
But Jacob finds more than his match in Sandra Wentworth Williams, the married woman who seems to make the trip worthwhile (wentworth) and actually trips him up, since she subverts and rewrites culture by playing on Ruskinian fantasies. Sandra is no Cinderella looking for a magic shoe, no Gradiva floating lightly above the air. She identifies the male fantasy and reflects it like a mirror. Sandra constantly looks at herself; but she gazes at her narcissistic mirror, because she composes herself like an escape artist. She turns herself into an elusive object of desire. In Cambridge the narrator mentioned the silent veiled form leaning against the pillars, and it is this invisible, ideal shape of the spirit of Ancient Greece which Sandra chooses to embody, always mysteriously veiled, wearing
white in the morning but purple dots in the evening, selecting her books to match her mood and the hue of the hour, Chekhov for the morning, Balzac for the evening. She playfully adds Jacob to her collection of victims (which includes her silently complacent jealous husband); the collection of the poems by Donne he gives her joins other trophies on a shelf, she plays Célimène to his Alceste number. She gazes at her trophies, not as printed objects but as landmarks balancing her tightrope act, "[she] would pull out the books and swing across the whole space of her life like an acrobat from bar to bar" (141). Instead of letting it define her Sandra plays with culture, turning herself into a Greek statue, so that Jacob sees her in the Cariatids of the Parthenon, the petrified women silently upholding on their heads the world of men, while only their front is properly carved. Just as Jacob was turned into a domineering "eyeless" (149) classical statue by the adoring gaze of his lovers, Sandra becomes a Cariatid at the very moment when she is framing him. She sees him on a level with the Hermes of Praxiteles, she meets him by chance in Hermes street, and as he dreams of her in front of the Cariatids, his picture is taken by a grotesque woman whose flesh overflows from her boots, Madame Lucien Gravé, another married woman who pins him down, steals his soul with the very gaze with which he transfixed his female victims.
"What passing bells for these who die as cattle?" (Owen 48)
In her deliberately caustic elegy, Woolf finds her new voice, as she launches into a deconstruction which many a postmodern writer might envy. She refuses to sentimentalize the life of the young man before the war, dissecting the male syntax which leads ultimately to cannon fodder. War, of course, is the great gap that suddenly rips the novel apart. The suddenness of the ending reproduces the shock of motiveless death, refusing to trivialize the experience of war (and here she follows Owen and Sassoon, for instance). The ironic but poignant shoes probably had an extremely emotional impact in the 1920's, as an emblem of discarded body parts, but also of the suffering of soldiers in the trenches. One would have had in mind then the gruesome tales of the "blood-shod men," to borrow Owen's expression (50).
Such an impact may well be lost now, making the novel more difficult to read, as only the solid, spectral shoes remain, becoming, in Derrida's words, "the anonymous, lightened, voided support. . . of an absent subject whose name returns to haunt the open form" (265).
Bowlby, Rachel. Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf. 1988. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Athlone Press, 1988.
Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington, Ian McLeod. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Hanson, Clare. Virginia Woolf. London: Macmillan, 1994.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. Trans. L.S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Lodge, David. The Modes of Modern Writing. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.
Owen, Wilfred. Selected Poems and Prose. Ed. Jennifer Breen. London: Routledge, 1988.
Rose, Jacqueline. Sexuality in the Field of Vision. London: Verso, 1986.
Woolf, Virginia. Jacob's Room.1922. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.
———. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Vol. II: 1920-24. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)