One of the classic problems in modernist literature is the dilemma of why Woolf has presented Jacob in his manner: inaccessible to the reader and constantly judged by others. He is often noted as one of her most radical and difficult characters, but if he was the culmination of her development, why is this not the style embraced in Woolf’s later novels? Is it because the mass production of this style would produce a novel of incredible frustration and limited appeal? That hardly seems likely given that The Waves is notoriously dense and experimental, arguably far harder to comprehend and much less marketable than a novel full of Jacobs. Woolf seemed unfazed by this, casually remarking in her diary that that “the Waves won’t sell more than 2000 copies” with very little concern for its commercial viability but with a noticeable excitement about its experimental form.
The answer lies in the fragments of what has already been noted, in the nature of the way Jacob is invented by both the reader and his fellow characters. He is not the new archetype of character, but rather the embodiment of an existing process that we all perform unconsciously. Jacob is the result of the assumption that one can be defined: we are unable to get any insight into him because he is constantly being judged. It is only in the Church, when the thoughts of all others are on God, when for a few seconds the only analysing eye trained upon him is the narrator’s, that Jacob’s consciousness is able to come to the fore, ironically enough to make a sweeping generalisation about women. This moment is a sly little nudge to any reader searching the novel for Jacob’s role, be it as either the genesis of a new type of character or as a more symbolic figure. Despite leading them on a merry chase that suggests Jacob is going to be the impenetrable bastion of reality, a mind that cannot be cracked open at will, in a brief moment all of this is lost. By allowing us even a word of Jacob’s thoughts, Woolf is destroying the notion that Jacob is a template for ideal character.
The characterisation in To the Lighthouse largely follows the same pattern as in Jacob’s Room, with the obvious absence of a central void. Again, we see the same indirect free speech mingled with the thoughts of the narrator “here, she felt, putting the spoon down, where one could move or rest; could wait now” Again, the lack of direct thought makes the reader aware of the ambiguity and subjectivity of the presentation that they are reading. However, there is a great deal more of this free indirect thought, in which Woolf relays what the character is actually thinking rather than the sentiment behind it. “What did it all mean? To this day she had no notion. A square root? What was that? Her sons knew.”
The most obvious reading of this is that Woolf is again making the reader aware of a personality behind the narrative voice. In many ways however, it seems as if Woolf’s theories, and her execution of them, have developed. It must be remembered that Jacob’s Room did precede the writing of Character in Fiction and that by the time she came to write To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s ambitions had grown. In her dairy she declared: “I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel’. A new —by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?” There is little doubt that Woolf was trying to capture her parents in the novel and it is possible that her shift in technique and tone was an attempt to convey the true personality of those that she knew, that, paradoxically, the freedom of interpretation she had created in earlier works wasn’t appropriate for this.
It is possible, but almost beyond belief. Woolf was committed to her cause, the depiction of life. Her understandable desire to create literary doppelgängers of her parents should not be allowed to cloud the fact that she gave her entire life to her craft. Although Woolf’s ideological and realisation of it was becoming more refined, it must be remembered that her desire to radically alter the novel’s contemporaries’ convention was prevalent long before the writing of The Waves. She remarked when writing Jacob’s Room that she was searching for “a new form for a new novel”, which can be taken to mean that she either wanted to completely reinvent the novel and make it new or that she was simply looking for a new form for her latest work. Either way, the fires of creation were clearly burning brightly in her eyes.
So then why the change in style? Of course, it wasn’t an instant marked departure and that is one of the great traps of comparing two novels written years apart, one can tend to forget that the sequence is disjointed and out of order. It was of course Mrs Dalloway that followed Jacob’s Room and to understand the change in style one must examine Woolf’s famous tale of Clarissa Dalloway’s party.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.
From the first page, it is obvious that something that has changed. The mixture of free indirect speech remains but, as with To the Lighthouse, it is far more frequent and obvious. “What a lark! What a plunge!” to dive beneath the impenetrable surface of Jacob’s Room and into rich veins of character and imagination! When describing her new technique in her diary, Woolf exclaimed with the same joy, “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, and each comes to daylight at the present moment” The obvious indication to take from this metaphor is that she is giving her characters “depth” but there is much more to it than that. To have networks of caves and tunnels behind her characters suggests that the apparent self that we see in the novel is just an image at the front of the cave, a glossy veneer that hides the darkness and uncertainty of what lies behind. This seems to be a development of character specifically related to her championing of subjectivity in ‘Character in Fiction’. The fact that she is overjoyed to be expressing it in Mrs Dalloway indicates that it is something that she has struggled to achieve before now, and that the slight deviation and development of style has allowed her to finally capture the humanity which is so integral to the novel. If we look at examples from both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, it becomes apparent that by giving her reader a greater deal of access to the minds of her characters, by allowing them closer to the raw genesis of thought, she is able to increase their potential for interaction.
Lily Briscoe’s painting is the classic example of this: an ambiguous swirl of light and colour that she cannot finish. What the mark is that will finally complete it is not revealed, because the specific detail of it isn’t important. The ambiguity of it being a line indicates that it could simply be a piece of abstract creation, a line drawn through the centre of an otherwise “realistic” picture, or it may have been the line that corrected some aspect of shadow and suddenly rendered the painting in perfect proportion. The exact nature of it is irrelevant, what is important to note is that with it, she is able to create something satisfactory. She had been previously incapable of this: even with Mrs Ramsey posing, Lily is unable to complete the painting, because she is unable to capture the core of her friend’s being. She, like Bennett and his Edwardian contemporaries, has captured every last little detail of the physical, but it takes an almost supernatural moment of realisation and insight, a “vision”, to truly express the character of Mrs Ramsey. There is no indication that Lily has created an instantly recognisable, universal portrait- in fact, the possibility of the line being an abstract impression seems to suggest otherwise- but she has succeeded because she has created a rendition which is true to her, thanks to placing ambiguity at the heart of her work. This impression is strengthened by the fact that her revelation is described as “my vision [my italicisation]” and there is something very personal about the way in which Lily sees Mrs Ramsey for one last time and is then able to come to the personal conclusion that allows her to finish the painting. This is a clear example of Woolf’s ideology in practice, as she not only creates the conditions in which the reader can assert themselves within the text but also mirrors that process within the narrative. In doing so, she is able to reject the Edwardian conventions outlined in the first chapter and forge her own unique narrative style that is far better positioned to encompass her subjective construction of character.