Jacob’s Rooms of his Own

. The general method of characterisation in Jacob’s Room is one that involves mixing brief fragments of free indirect speech reflecting internal monologue, with descriptions and summaries from the narrator. This, for example, is one of the extracts that helps to establish Jacob’s mother Betty.


Betty Flanders, enlarged her figure, tinged her face with jollity, and flooded her eyes for no reason that any one could see perhaps three times a day. True, there’s no harm in crying for one’s husband, and the tombstone, though plain, was a solid piece of work, and on summer’s days when the widow brought her boys to stand there one felt kindly towards her.


Here we see what would be considered typical characterisation, in the sense that the narrator is conveying information directly to the reader. However, Woolf’s prose is a little more complex than the usual feeding of important titbits to a consuming public. Instead, the reader is forced to come to their own conclusions and ample room is left for ambiguity and interpretation. From what is written, the reader can deduce that Betty Flanders still mourns her husband and that his loss continues to trouble her. They can tell that, although society does not mind her mourning, “there’s no harm in crying for one’s husband”, there seems to be a lack of understanding and compassion directly relating to the victim herself: women feel “kindly towards her” rather than offer condolences or support and that creates the impression that Betty is a much talked about figure who one knows through gossip rather than contact. From these two factors, the reader might deduce that her husband has been long since dead or that there is some other reason why a bizarrely selfish empathy takes the place of sympathy. Of course, the reader could also have a completely opposite reading and see the fact that the townspeople “felt kindly towards her” when she mourned by her husband’s grave as a sign of continuing communal compassion towards one of their own. Both readings are perfectly valid and both have their own arguments and inconsistencies. The exact meaning is incidental to our argument though, the fact that the potential for numerous interpretation exists in the first place is far more revealing. Although the narrator is conveying the information to the reader, the process of making a judgement or realising ramifications is left firmly up to the reader and this potential for subjective interpretation is a key example of Woolf applying the view she expresses in essays and letters into practice.


When the narrative does stray into the minds of the characters, it almost always remains in free indirect speech: “she had always disliked red hair in men, she thought, thinking of Mr. Floyd’s appearance, that night when the boys had gone to bed.” In its simplest sense, this allows Woolf to mix narrative characterisation with brief glimpses of characters thoughts and feelings, but there is a caveat to this. Even in the seemingly intimate probes into character’s minds, their thoughts are still mediated by the presence of the narrator. This is interesting because it demonstrates the way in which life is always seen through a filter of some sort, that no thought or sentiment is free of the one who expresses it. This is, of course, a large problem with the realism of the Edwardian novel, because for all their pretence of the narrator being little more than a vessel used to transport thought, their presence inevitably has an effect on the reading. Woolf exasperates this problem by freely mixing the two creating an ambiguity about who’s words are on the page.


Merchant of this city, the tombstone said; though why Betty Flanders had chosen so to call him when, as many still remembered, he had only sat behind an office window for three months, and before that had broken horses, ridden to hounds, farmed a few fields, and run a little wild—well, she had to call him something. An example for the boys.


In a brief moment at the end of the paragraph, the narrative seems to slip out from the narrator’s perspective to that of Betty herself. This effect is achieved by the use of the colloquialism “well”, which one would not expect to see in the semi formal speech of a narrator and as it can be read as either a sudden humanisation of the seemingly neutral narrator or as an indicator that the narrative has slipped into a human mind. In isolation, the meaning is ambiguous, so it is helpful to look for another occurrence of this type of slippage.


Florinda looked at it with a dull expression, like an animal. She looked at the clock; looked at the door; looked at the long glass opposite; disposed her cloak; drew closer to the table, for she was pregnant—no doubt about it, Mother Stuart said, recommending remedies


Here again, the narrative voice slips from the clearly summative personality of the narrator who describes Florinda’s actions to a sudden unity of both personal thought and narrative voice when the sentiment of her pregnancy seems to be shared by both the narrator and Mother Stuart.


May 3, 2018


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