Virginia Woolf

Jacob’s Room

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Jacob’s Room Summary

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Jacob’s Room, first published in 1922, is English writer Virginia Woolf’s third novel. Set in pre-war England, the novel follows a linear plot line that centers on protagonist Jacob Flanders. The novel is presented almost entirely through the other characters’ perceptions of Jacob.

The novel begins in Jacob’s childhood and follows him through college at Cambridge and into adulthood. At the opening of the book, Jacob is a young boy living in the seaside town of Scarborough with his widowed mother and two brothers. Jacob’s mother, Elizabeth, or Betty, takes her three boys to Cornwall in the wake of their father’s death. She watches her sons play on the beach and frolic in the ocean as she mourns the loss of her husband.

Betty and her sons return home where she receives regular visits from her friend and neighbor, Captain Barfoot. The relationship between Betty and Captain Barfoot is unclear, and at first, it seems as though he is courting her, although Betty is recently widowed and Captain Barfoot is married. Betty also receives a love letter from local clergyman Andrew Lloyd. However, she rejects Mr. Lloyd’s advances as she is still aggrieved by her husband’s death.

The novel jumps ahead to the year 1906 and Jacob’s time at university. He attends the University of Cambridge, and it is the first time he is living away from his family home. While at Cambridge, Jacob studies literature and meets some fellow students, Timothy Durrant and Richard Bonamy, who go on to become his friends. Although Jacob, Timothy, and Richard are all from relatively wealthy families, Jacob’s upbringing seems to be much more rural than that of his friends. While on a vacation from school, Jacob and Timothy sail around the coast of Cornwall until they arrive at Timothy’s hometown. There, Jacob meets Mrs. Durrant and Timothy’s sister, Clara Durrant, both of whom seem to take an immediate liking to Jacob.

After Jacob graduates from Cambridge, he decides not to return to Scarborough with his family but, instead, to move to London on his own. After arriving in London, Jacob seems rather listless, declining to pursue a steady profession or form of employment, as he has no financial incentive to do so. He spends most of his time continuing his studies independently, reading, and attending events in the city.

Jacob buries himself within the British Museum, contemplating the mysteries of the past; he reads books such as the Byzantine Empire, looking for clues in that tome. He considers the ideas of great philosophers such as Plato and Socrates, believing that in studying their ancient messages he will gain some kind of clarity.

He soon develops a romantic relationship with Florinda, a beautiful but difficult girl. Jacob and Florinda are from different worlds, as she is uneducated and has a wild temperament. Still, something about her attracts Jacob and they become involved in a sexual relationship. Florinda is not the only woman to have Jacob in her sights, as it turns out that Clara Durrant and a young woman Fanny Elmer find that they have also fallen in love with the young man.

Clara also moved to London after completing her studies. She makes several attempts to get closer to Jacob, but to no avail. Fanny Elmer, a dancer, attempts to become closer to Jacob by reading his favorite books, but Jacob ends up leaving London after deciding to take a tour of Continental Europe.

Jacob sets off on his first ever trip abroad at the age of twenty-six. He first heads to Paris, and then to Greece. Jacob is drawn to Greece as he finds that he has become quite weary of modern life and feels that this would be remedied by spending some time visiting the ancient Greek ruins. Jacob has also been spending much of his time in London studying ancient Greek literature and has become a great admirer of ancient Greek art and civilization.

During his time in Greece, Jacob writes letters to his friend Richard Bonamy, proclaiming what a wonderful place it is and how much he is enjoying his visit. After much time exploring and sightseeing on his own, Jacob becomes distracted from his virtuous pursuits after meeting Sandra Wentworth Williams, a married Englishwoman who is touring Greece with her husband, Evan Williams. Jacob soon finds this distraction rather frustrating, as well as Sandra’s inaccessibility. He is unaccustomed to being so attracted to a woman so far out of his reach.

After extensive touring in Greece, Jacob eventually returns to London, where he speaks excitedly of his journey to his friends. However, he remains lovesick at the thought of Sandra Williams, and feelings of alienation and purposelessness soon overtake him once more. When World War I breaks out in Europe, Jacob enlists in the British army and is killed in combat. The novel ends with a scene of Betty Flanders and Richard Bonamy clearing out Jacob’s London apartment in the wake of Jacob’s death.