A Feminist Perspective on ‘Jacob’s Room’

Yesenia Hernandez
May 31, 2019 · 10 min read
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To be labeled a feminist is synonymous with being an advocate of equal rights among the genders. The feminist theory developed in response to the increased oppression of women caused by a patriarchal dominated society. Patriarchal systems tend to encourage an ideology that women are inferior to men — a belief in male privilege sustained through both law and custom. Therefore, it is not surprising that when it comes to literature most of what is highly regarded by the masses has been “reserved for the great — that is, for ‘great men’” as Hélène Cixous claims in her famous feminist essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa” (876).

Elaine Showalter echoes this sentiment when she observes that “too many literary abstractions which claim to be universal have in fact described only male perceptions, experiences; and options, and have falsified the social and personal contexts in which literature is produced and consumed” (sec. 1). Showalter’s 1977 essay “Toward a Feminist Poetics” describes two distinct forms of feminist criticism, one being a woman as the reader, or feminist critique; and woman as the writer, or “gynocritics” (sec. 1). Showalter states that “feminist critique is essentially political and polemical, with theoretical affiliations to Marxist sociology and aesthetics; gynocritics is more self-contained and experimental, with connections to other modes of new feminist research” (sec. 1).

In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous urges women to explore new ways of writing as well as new methods of thinking about women in literature by pointing out the effects that patriarchal politics have had on the female psyche — which has made her ashamed of her own body. Her feminist philosophy is grounded in poststructuralism and psychoanalytic theory and demonstrates the limitless forms of feminine writing — what Cixous calls “white ink” — which will help women reclaim their bodies through the act of writing (8).

In her 1922 novel Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf transforms the female experience into a muse for self-ruled art, weaving feminist theory on culture into the formation and structure of her novel, thereby redefining experience to reveal the diversity of women’s subconscious. In Jacob’s Room, Woolf introduces readers to literature that “physically materializes what she’s thinking” in a manner which is “never simple or linear or ‘objectified,’ generalized: she draws her story into history” (Cixous 881).

To formulate an identity and history of women, Virginia Woolf deviates from conventional literary forms in her novel. Her innovations demonstrate the diversity that exists within the female mind to emphasize that binary principles are insufficient for telling stories that involve women. As Cixous states: “Woman must put herself into the text — as into the world and into history — by her own movement” (875). Although the “effects of the past are still with us” and thus, cannot be ignored, there should be conscious effort to “refuse to strengthen them by repeating them” (Cixous 875).

One of the most striking unique innovations adopted by Woolf in Jacob’s Room is the non- linear narrative style that skips from one point of view to another; thereby bringing “about a mutation in human relations, in thought” via her text (Cixous 882). Female characters are featured predominantly throughout the un-continuous narrative, and through this primarily female perspective, the reader can conceptualize the title character — albeit it in fragments.

This fragmented depiction of Jacob leaves readers with a sense of incompleteness with regards to being able to know him and thus, identify with him. Here Woolf appears to be creating a fragmented ideal of a character that doesn’t come from the character itself to illustrate how women have been depicted in a particular manner, not by other women, but by men; consequently, these depictions are merely a fraction of who a woman truly is. Woolf tells her story through “a whole composed of parts that are wholes…a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble…an immense astral space not organized around any one sun that’s any more of a star than the others” (Cixous 889) to demonstrate that “it is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said” (Woolf 21).

The feminist critique of culture also comes through the way Woolf frames the novel. The novel begins by introducing Betty Flanders, Jacob’s mother, as she cries into the paper she is writing a letter on and ends with her wondering what she will do with Jacob’s shoes now that he is gone. Cixous says that “the mother…is a metaphor” and that “in women there is always more or less of the mother who makes everything all right, who nourishes, and who stands up against separation; a force that will not be cut off but will knock the wind out of the codes” (881–2). This framing emphasizes the strength, tenacity, and longevity of the female. Better Flanders speaks the final dialogue in the novel as she states that she has no purpose for Jacob’s shoes now that he is gone. Through Betty’s discourse Woolf appears to be implying that women are the ones to that stay behind and carry on to survive when men go off to war; but also that women are indispensable, and without them, men would inevitably be led to wonder about their purpose in the world.

Throughout the narrative, there are also mentions of letters penned by women, some of them anonymous, which continue to transcend time and space — a testament to the immortality and significance of women and their writing. Cixous observes that due to “their history, women today know (how to do and want) what men will be able to conceive of only much later” due to the historical pretexts in which they have had to live and express their thoughts (888). In Chapter 8, Woolf writes: “Venerable are letters, infinitely brave, forlorn, and lost,” and it would almost appear as if she were describing the female authors themselves (71). She goes on to write that without letters, “life would split asunder” (71). Unlike men, women do not possess a fear of castration and therefore, can venture on “without the masculine temerity into anonymity, which she can merge with without annihilating herself: because she is a giver” (Cixous 888). Letter writing as one of the first forms of women’s writing is addressed by Woolf to pay tribute to “these vertiginous crossings of the other(s) ephemeral and passionate sojourns” which have been permeated “through and through with…brief, identificatory embraces” to pass “into infinity” (Cixous 889).

Through both male and female perspectives, Woolf also addresses the introjection of an idealized self, which is seldom actualized, which reveals the faulty expectations that society has placed on all individuals irrespective of gender. For example, Jacob claims to be a lover of Greek antiquity, but several times, he demonstrates a lack of real knowledge or appreciation of their works and culture. In Chapter 6, when Durrant and Jacob are talking about the Greeks, the narrator doesn’t finish a thought that implies that “no Greek could have understood or professor refrained from pointing out — ” that they have no clue what they are talking about (Woolf 57).

The passage continues by mentioning that neither had read the Greek philosopher which the other quoted, therefore, no harm no foul. The narrator does, however, explicitly state that “Jacob knew no more Greek than served him to stumble through a play. Of ancient history, he knew nothing” (58). Nevertheless, in this same Chapter, Jacob says to Timothy Durant that it is probable that the two of them “are the only people in the world who know what the Greeks meant” (58). Additionally, in Chapter 12, it is mentioned that Jacob “was beginning to think a great deal about the problems of civilization, which were solved, of course, so very remarkably by the ancient Greeks, though their solution is no help to us” (116). Therefore, Jacob is undermining the art and culture he claims to hold in such high esteem — an apparent contradiction to a self-professed “love of Greek” and more closely aligned with a “distorted, discouraged…” misinterpretation (58).

Jacob puts his spin and self-constructed “truth” into what the works of the ancient Greeks he claims to admire and respect. It is worth noting that women would not have been allowed to display such freedoms of interpretation during the time Woolf wrote her novel — except in the form of writing. Despite the immense amount of time he spends studying and although it would seem that he “had read every book in the world; known every passion, and joy” — appearances are deceiving as Woolf reveals the opposite in Jacob (58).

Through this revelation, Woolf can show that she does possess knowledge and appreciation for the works of the Greeks due to the numerous references and allusions to their art and culture throughout the novel. Jacob, however, specializes in spending “more and more time mastering the theory, less and less time reading the books” (Showalter, sec. 7). Furthermore, Jacob’s inability to live up to what he professes to be is a statement to how culture has shaped women’s roles to demonstrate as Cixous states that “there is…no general woman, no one typical woman” (Cixous 876).

When Jacob travels to Greece, he is unable to appreciate and become inspired in the birthplace of his heroes and instead appears to be annoyed at the prospect of his travels. The narrator states that “all this business of going to Greece seemed to Jacob an intolerable weariness — sitting in hotels by oneself and looking at monuments — he’d have done better to go to Cornwall with Timmy Durrant….” (106). Jacob doesn’t appreciate his privileged role in society that has allowed him to receive an education at Cambridge and the ability to travel to Greece, due to the internalization of male privilege in a male-dominated society.

Woolf also addresses stereotypes as well as non-conformity to socially constructed gender roles in her story. The character of Miss Julia Hedge is described as “the feminist” in Chapter 9 as she looks upon the dome with poet’s names at the British Museum and wonders why “an Eliot or a Bronte?” could be omitted (82). Julia is said to write of “death and gall and bitter dust” and is described as “unfortunate” for “wetting her pen in bitterness, and leaving her shoe laces untied” (82).

Nevertheless, Julia is said to be able to apply herself to her studies “with every consideration the male readers applied themselves to theirs” — thereby Woolf is explicitly stating that women are just as capable as men (82). However, Julia’s “argument” is said to be that “if you let women work as men work, they’ll die off much quicker. They’ll become extinct” (82). Therefore, Julia appears to be adhering to feminist principles that align with a “male-oriented” analysis and what Elaine Showalter claimed is “one of the problems of the feminist critique” (sec. 2). Showalter goes on to say that: “If we study stereotypes of women, the sexism of male critics, and the limited roles women play in literary history, we are not learning what women have felt and experienced, but only what men have thought women should be” (sec. 2). Hence, Woolf’s use of the term “unfortunate” and “bitter” when describing Julia and her writing, respectively, is her way of bringing this limited feminine analytical perspective into view.

The myriad of components that make up woman is used to create the character of Jacob, and in doing so, Woolf redefines the experience for the reader while surpassing “the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system” (Cixous 883). Her novel thus becomes a “springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures” (Cixous 879). Although some female characters display a hesitancy to speak, an unfortunate truth for many women still, Woolf herself serves as the architectural female voice that gives voice to the voiceless. Woolf writes:

Nobody sees any one as he is, let alone an elderly lady sitting opposite a strange young man in a railway carriage. They see a whole — they see all sorts of things — they see themselves…. Mrs. Norman now read three pages of one of Mr. Norris’s novels. Should she say to the young man (and after all he was just the same age as her own boy): “If you want to smoke, don’t mind me”? No: he seemed absolutely indifferent to her presence… she did not wish to interrupt (21).

As Cixous states, there are two levels in which to “carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in [women’s] history…that cannot be separated,” and that is her individuality and her “seizing the occasion to speak, hence her shattering entry into history, which has always been based on her suppression” (880).

Chapter 3 begins with the woman in the train car, Mrs. Norman, telling Jacob: “This is not a smoking carriage,” yet it mentions that “he seemed not to hear her” (Woolf 20). In Chapter 13, it is said that “to speak was unnatural to [Clara]” (129) and since “every woman has known the torment of getting up to speak” (Cixous 880), and even when doing so are not heard, it isn’t surprising that Clara would be averse to speaking aloud. However, through such depictions Woolf’s writing takes “up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus” and thereby confirming “women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence” (Cixous 881).

Throughout Jacob’s Room, Woolf depicts female characters in various ways to articulate that all they share is gender and memories of Jacob. Women’s thoughts exist in a realm that is not governed by man, but by the woman herself. If a woman can reclaim her thoughts as her own, it can initiate a way of life where men “in fact cannot control them, and unwittingly they may provide them with the symbols and social resources on which to build a society of their own” (Showalter, sec. 7).

Florence Nightingale believed it is “the pain of feminist awakening as its essence” that will be “the guarantee of progress and free will” (Showalter, sec. 4). Therefore, by bringing painful aspects to light, liberties are made much more apparent. Women must be alert and observant for many truths are only revealed through analysis and study. Consequently, Woolf wrote her novel in a way that mirrors this cultural truth, as the content of her book “is typically oblique, displaced, ironic, and subversive; one has to read it between the lines, in the missed possibilities of the text” (Showalter, sec. 6).

Every aspect of the novel speaks to a feminine truth that is universally felt through the oppression of women living in a male-dominated society, while the very act of writing in a form that embodies such feminine principles demonstrates the limitless possibilities available to women through the simple act of writing.


Works Cited

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs, vol. 1, no. 4, Summer 1976, pp. 875–93. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3173239.

Showalter, Elaine. “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” Women’s Writing and Writing About Women, edited by Mary Jacobus, 1979. Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences, http://historiacultural.mpbnet.com.br/feminismo/Toward_a_Feminist_Poetics.html

Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. 1922. Dover Publications, 1998. Dover Thrift Editions.

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