Mixed voices

By mixing the voices together so indiscriminately Woolf creates a bizarrely fluid narrative that will reoccur throughout her career, most notably in Mrs Dalloway and The Waves. The reason for this ties in perfectly with her own ideas about character and characterisation. To her the world is a shifting place, and by having both a narrative that dips into characters’ minds and a number of largely ambiguous sections where it is not clear who is speaking, Woolf is able to create a presentation of the world that it is as indefinite as reality. It crucially adds an element of doubt into the story, as almost everything that isn’t direct speech is conveyed by the narrator, whose biases one cannot ascertain. It makes the reader acutely aware that it is impossible to establish this Edwardian hierarchy of facts and details, as the one that collects them will inevitably leave some wayward fingerprint or innocuous indentation that is in turn taken into its being. The ‘truth’ of the journalist, the biographer and the historian is nothing more than a fabrication, a subjective view coated with the veneer of objectivity. Woolf subtly, but quite brilliantly, uses this to bring her reader to realisation and helps them to discover that the characters they will discover in the prose are just as malleable.


This is how Woolf shows almost every character in the novel to her reader. There is one notable exception however, the most important character in Jacob’s Room, the protagonist himself. There are no little insights into his mind, or scraps of his consciousness for the reader to expand, in fact the only words that he utters are ugly, petty ones: “why allow women to take part in it?” This marked absence is a little confusing because if Woolf was trying to establish a new manner of creating character than why is it not universally applied? Why does her protagonist not follow the pattern and why is the reader not privy to his mind?


The answer is twofold and the first, and most obvious, answer is that Woolf is again polishing her mirror like prose to such a sheen that the reader has no choice but to gaze upon themselves even as they search for the image of others. That is to say, this is an example of a classic Woolfian trope in which the reader is forced to reflect upon their own expectations, having been induced into this state by a denial of convention. The inaccessibility of Jacob is one of the novel’s more frustrating elements and it is in this moment of frustration that the reader becomes aware of his demands from a novel because they note that they are not being satisfied. Readers expect to know about a protagonist, they expect the characterisation of the protagonist to be expanded and developed, they expect to struggle with them, to feel their pain and share their laughter. They are denied. Instead they find “an elusive being no net of words can capture”, akin to a greased ball, and can do little more than constantly squirm in an effort to keep a hold of his surface, determined to pierce it and see if there is anything more than air inside.


Of course, there is more to Jacob than a seemingly impenetrable exterior. We know that there is, because no man is a void, no man is but an empty shell. In fact, Woolf goes to great pains to remind the reader that Jacob has a mind of his own. If one was to characterise him, some of the most obvious traits to assign are stubbornness and superiority. He is frequently involved in arguments and debates with his friends and acquiescences but it is rare for them to sway him. That is not the demeanour of a man devoid of a core, if anything it is the sign of a strong personality and belief in one’s self. The brief revelation of internal thought in the church teases the reader with the definite knowledge that Jacob has a perfectly expressible mind and these thoughts are quite different to those that we might have formed about him based on an admittedly superficial interpretation of him. We come to these interpretations, rather ironically enough, through the exact manner in which Woolf invents Mrs Brown. We take small details, without any insight into the man himself, and expand them into whole narratives and character profiles, and we are not alone. Every character in the novel does the same thing, and constructs Jacob as “the silent young man”, based entirely on their brief interaction with him.


Woolf’s sly and referential wit is arguably at its best when she inverts her own story and has a pseudo Mrs Brown- Mrs Norman– observe Jacob on a different train journey, and perform exactly the same process of judgement and invention. For a brief moment, the narrative voice switches from Mrs Norman back to the narrator who remarks: “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….”

This short passage is revealing in so many ways and ties in perfectly with the theories of characterisation that were mentioned earlier. “They see a whole” because it is uncomfortable to recognise that one cannot truly ever understand another, that all they will ever have is fragments. So the mind races to fill in the gaps and create an entire being. “They see themselves” because we try and make people relatable to us by trying to be empathetic and think as they think.


In reality, there is no whole person. Jacob is never reduced to a single stereotype: to an arrogant student or a thoughtful intellect, by the novel itself at least, because such a transformation destroys character and once again tries to reduce the irreducible complexity of the human being to a handful of facts and judgements. Every character tries to impose their own vision, to expand his simple, non committal “Yes” into “’he is extraordinarily awkward,’ she thought, noticing how he fingered his socks. ‘Yet so distinguished-looking.’” The leap here between a single word to a fully formed characterisation is amazing and based entirely upon a desire to define Jacob, but he is not simply “socks (loose)”, “tie (shabby)”, “youthful, indifferent, unconscious—as for knocking one down!” In fact Woolf makes this patently clear when Mrs Norman’s assumptions are proven to be quite false and this perceived ruffian, waiting for a chance to knock her down in his youthful contempt, instead mumbles “’Let me’ very shyly” and insists on carrying her dressing case off of the train. This section is even kind enough to hand us a thinly veiled sound-bite of Woolf’s own ideology concerning the representation of character: “It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done”. In it, we again see these central tenets: the rejection of definition and absolution, the belief that the subjective fragments must be pieced together by the reader and the expansion of interpretation beyond the two dimensions of what is said and what is done, or rather the desire to look in between them and around them to find our implication. It is in the indefinite sphere where elements from both meet with the finishing factor: the reader’s own opinions, perceptions and preconceptions that we find what can be called true character. They can of course be no true character in the sense of being accurate, so rather than attempting to reduce until there is a pale mimicry that can be caged, Woolf encourages her readers to accept their own relative truth.

May 9, 2018


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