Jacob's Room: A Modernist Elegy

 The First World War (1914-1918) resulted in the loss of approximately twenty million lives and had a transformative impact on global society. The profound changes to the social fabric were reflected across the arts, manifesting in various forms and branches such as painting, music, dance, and literature. The Great War left deep scars on all levels of society, leaving the world shell-shocked. The sense of loss and death permeated a great deal of artistic production during the post-war period. This feeling is particularly evident in the visual arts, with works such as John Nash's Over the Top (1918), which depicts soldiers lying lifeless, never to return home. Their rooms were left empty, lifeless, and abandoned forever, symbolising the human toll of the war.
Grief and loss are central to Virginia Woolf's novel, Jacob's Room. The present selection will explore the themes of grief and death in the work, as well as Woolf's modernist aesthetic of the elegy. According to Kathleen Wall, Woolf's letters following the publication of Jacob's Room suggest that the novel represents her search for a "significant form" for her elegy (Wall, 2002: 303). The novel's experimental structure and innovations are notable features of this quest.
Kelly S. Walsh argues in The Unbearable Openness of Death that Virginia Woolf posits the belief that an elegiac art must attempt to express the inexpressible grief endlessly and must explore more authentic ways to coexist with the dead (Walsh, 2009: 8). Woolf transforms personal mourning into a collective and public experience in her novel Jacob's Room. She uses visual images to convey grief, particularly through Jacob's constant absence, which takes the form of empty rooms, closed doors, and empty shoes. Although death itself is never described in the novel, Woolf's elegy assumes a considerably subjective extent that emphasises the trauma of loss.
 The reader is then ushered into Jacob's vacant room, where they come to understand that "the story of his life is his elegy" (Walsh, 2009: 8). The final image of the shoes not only affirms his absence and death, but also portrays what happens after the grieving and mourning - how the world continues on and time moves forward as if millions of lives were not lost in the same way that his life was lost. Woolf encourages the reader to acknowledge death and mourn the loss of individual lives as well as the countless others.
In the final analysis, it is worth noting that the ultimate question posed by Woolf, "What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?" suggests that both death and grief are intrinsic to the human experience; they are here to be accepted and endured. The novel concludes with a question, rather than a resolution, as there is no definitive or effective way to mourn. Woolf's rejection of the traditional, melancholic poetic form of an elegy in favour of a singular and peculiar form of a modernist elegiac text, which employs a subtle form of ekphrasis to sketch and draw powerful images with her words, is a noteworthy feature of Jacob's Room. Her words do not serve to glorify Jacob and his actions, but rather to offer a fragmented view of him and the places he belonged to through multiple perspectives. Furthermore, there is a subtle critique of war, violence, and death as a consequence of conflict. Ultimately, Woolf's elegy and grief are ongoing and repetitive processes. The shoes and the pain they embody remain, as if immortal, always present through the Jacob-shaped emptiness that has existed since the beginning of the novel. It is a loss that is both personal and collective. Jacob's Room is an elegy for the many young men who left their rooms empty and their shoes unused. They are gone, and the grief will be long, but, eventually, time passes.


Significant Form in Jacob’s Room: Ekphrasis and the Elegy on JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/40755366.

Walsh, Kelly R. “The Unbearable Openness of Death: Elegies of Rilke and Woolf.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 32, no. 4, Indiana UP, July 2009, pp. 1–21. https://doi.org/10.2979/jml.2009.32.4.1.

Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. Open Road Media, 2022.

Zwerdling, Alex. “Jacob’s Room: Woolf’s Satiric Elegy.” ELH, vol. 48, no. 4, Johns Hopkins UP, Jan. 1981, p. 894. https://doi.org/10.2307/2872966.


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