Monday, September 6, 2010

#3: shakespeare was knocked overboard...and then he went under.

When I first began reading Jacob’s Room, I was actually quite surprised as to how different stylistically it is from Mrs. Dalloway. Whereas in the latter the reader spends his time entangled in the thoughts, minds of various characters, in this novel, the stream of consciousness is not so acutely present. It is more like reading Virginia Woolf’s mind, while she’s picturing and creating this novel in her own mind, with her narrating it. If that makes any sense. I imagine the difference stems from the fact that Jacob’s Room is an earlier novel and with Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf reached a different depth in her interest in the human mind and flow of thoughts and, of course, a different depth of writing as well as a different purpose.

After a couple of chapters into the novel, I began to realize how much this novel reminds me of James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was published six years earlier and as the essay on “Modern Fiction” suggested, Woolf was very much aware of Joyce as a literary figure. Also, in the chronology in the beginning of the novel, it shows that Ulysses was published the same year as Jacob’s Room. What reminded me of Joyce’s novel was at first the progression of time – from the early childhood of Jacob, with time skipping forward every couple of pages, presumably until his premature death and his lingering presence or marked absence carried through the people that knew him and long for him. There are also many scenes from school, which also reminded me of Stephen Dedalus and his schoolboy days. Other similarities include both  boys’ forays into love and lust, albeit for different reasons, but in similar circumstances – both are involved in some way with prostitutes. I do not know how much of an influence Joyce was on Woolf, if any at all, but I do not know whether these similarities are coincidental. After all, both Joyce and Woolf were the pioneers of modern fiction and literary forays into the intricacies of the human mind.

The difference is, of course, that Joyce’s novel is written entirely in stream of consciousness and presents the reader with a semi-autobiographical account of a writer’s life. While Jacob Flanders seems to like literature similar to what Stephen Dedalus admires,  he is not particularly defined as an artist and the reader certainly does not get to spend as much time in his thoughts. Woolf only gives us snippets of his sentences or feelings, while we see him through the eyes of other people. It is almost a reverse of Joyce’s novel in that this time, we see a character not from within, but without. It is also through the eyes and thoughts of ordinary minds on ordinary days, which Woolf was very interested in.

There were a couple of other very interesting things. For instance, Jacob’s thoughts on women in church (pg.31), where he compares them to dogs in church – a distraction that causes the mind to wander. Another description is that women are “as ugly as sin”, all of which is reminiscent of the idea of women as the cause of sin and temptation. While Jacob denounces all sorts of “elderly people” (which also emphasizes the difference between Victorian and modern generations, reminiscent of Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” essay, as one man Jacob visits for luncheon has a book by Wells on his shelf), he also shares this certain imbedded notion about women, which I thought was very interesting, especially in a Woolf novel, as she was a leading figure in the feminist movement. Also, every since A Sketch of the Past, I have been wondering about the figure of Laura, the mentally disabled sister of Virginia Woolf. For a feminist writer that she was, I am really interested in whether Laura has any presence in Woolf’s work or whether she is marginalized there as well. She was mentioned only in passing in Sketch, or at least the excerpt that we have read, so I am hoping I will have some sort of an answer to this after I read more of Woolf’s work. The one possible influence of Laura I see in Jacob’s Room so far could be Captain Barfoot’s invalid wife – she is stuck at home with Mr. Dickens (a very curious name for obvious reasons) taking care of her, presumably childless, knowing that her husband is making trips to Betty Flanders. I imagine such a knowledge would probably be very disturbing and saddening. Still, she seems to be physically disabled, while Laura was mentally disabled and eventually institutionalized and thus, disabled in a much more severe way than Woolf herself, as she was periodically instutitionalized.

To end with, here is my favorite passage so far, 

“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…” (29). 

This is how I see Woolf’s fiction altogether – it is not necessarily a picture of other people’s minds, not even ordinary minds on ordinary days, but a picture of Woolf’s mind only. We cannot experience the act of being somebody else, their consciousness, their mind and thus, we are only limited to seeing parts of ourselves in everything and everyone. 

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