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The Humble in 19th- to 21st-Century British Literature and Arts

Isabelle Brasme
Jean-Michel Ganteau
Christine Reynier

Part Five. Self-Effacement

Leaving Jacob Room: Narratorial Humility in Jacob’s Room

Xavier Le Brun


This paper looks at narration in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room as a humble renouncement to narratorial knowledge. Even though the narrative voice in Jacob’s Room is omniscient, as is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the novel, Woolf’s characterisation of the different individuals it depicts—and especially of the centre-character Jacob Flanders—often involves the issue of the unknowable. By artificially drawing a limit to its knowledge of Jacob the narrative voice engages into an ethics of humility.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Rachel Hollander, ‘Novel Ethics: Alterity and Form in Jacob’s Room,’ Twentieth Century Literature 5 (...)

1Since it was published in 1922, Virginia Woolf’s third novel, Jacob’s Room, has engaged critical attention in numerous ways, not least for the notorious elusiveness of the book’s central character, Jacob, who skilfully evades classical description or characterisation so that he manages to remain a mystery for others—be they his relations and friends, the reader of the novel, or even its narrator. Although early critics tended to see Jacob’s opaque and fragmented self either as lacking in substantiality or merely as an impressionistic tour de force, scholars have recently begun to acknowledge this apparent lack of precision and contour as a discourse on alterity and on the limits of knowledge and communicability. Calling on Levinas’s ethics of alterity, Rachel Hollander argues that ‘[. . .] Woolf emphasizes the inaccessibility of a deep understanding of another’s consciousness. If it is difficult to realize even the mere existence of the life within the other person, a complete knowledge of the content or meaning of that life lies beyond our grasp.’1 What has failed to be noticed however is the original posture this ethics of incommunicability forces onto the narrator of the novel, as well as the importance of humility in accepting the limitations of our understanding of others without altogether renouncing intersubjective knowledge.

2The themes of humbleness and humility are often interwoven in a problematic manner in Jacob’s Room, particularly around the figure of Jacob himself. Indeed, Jacob’s background—at least compared to his Cambridge friends Richard Bonamy and Timmy Durrant—can be seen as modest and humble, since Woolf’s protagonist is first pictured growing up with two brothers and a widowed mother in the North of England, quite far from the brilliant social and cultural life he will get a taste of both in Cambridge and London.

3On the other hand, Jacob—spurred on by the exaltation of youth— sometimes lacks humility, especially when it comes to defending or promoting his ideas about knowledge, civilization, arts and life in general. Thus the essay Jacob reads to Bonamy in chapter V clearly doesn’t allow for much self-doubt or even for any form of compromise with what he sees as the truth:

  • 2 Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 2008) 92–93.

‘Yes; that should make him sit up,’ said Bonamy, as Jacob stopped reading. Jacob was excited. It was the first time he had read his essay aloud.
‘Damned swine!’ he said, rather too extravagantly; but the praise had gone to his head. Professor Bulteel, of Leeds, had issued an edition of Wycherley without stating that he had left out, disembowelled, or indicated only by asterisks, several indecent words and some indecent phrases. An outrage, Jacob said; a breach of faith; sheer prudery; token of a lewd mind and a disgusting nature. Aristophanes and Shakespeare were cited. Modern life was repudiated. Great play was made with the professorial title, and Leeds, as a seat of learning was laughed to scorn.2

4This unmitigated assertion of oneself and one’s vision, which also drives Jacob to think of ‘burning to cinders’ authors such as Masefield and Bennett ‘in the flame of Marlowe,’ this ideal upheld by Jacob both in arts and life, for Woolf, has to do with ‘Youth, youth—something savage—something pedantic’ (Woolf 145).

5Surely this depiction of Jacob as lacking in humility in his artistic principles verges on a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait for Woolf, who had just published her attack on Bennett and the preceding generation of writers in ‘Modern Fiction’ and who could probably already be taxed with avant-garde elitism. However, I will argue, Jacob’s Room as a novel rests on ethical and epistemological foundations, on a vision of the world and of relationships with others, which are very different from the ones epitomized by the title character in his thirst for ideals, a proof—if one was needed—that Woolf laid more value on humility as a guiding principle than on apparent or superficial humility.

6A first sign of this is to be found in the strange combination of knowledge and lack of knowledge which seems to define the relationship the narrative voice entertains with the fictional world. Indeed it seems very hard to explain why the narrator should know about Jacob’s thoughts and feelings at some point—for instance his reflections about Sandra Wentworth Williams as they descend the Acro-Corinth in Greece (Woolf 202)—even transcribing these reflections in direct speech, and why the same person’s thoughts and emotions should escape her completely on other occasions, such as when Jacob is sailing off the coast of Cornwall with Timmy Durrant:

We start transparent, and then the cloud thickens. All history backs our pane of glass. To escape is vain.
But whether this is the right interpretation of Jacob’s gloom as he sat naked, in the sun, looking at the Land’s End, it is impossible to say; for he never spoke a word. Timmy sometimes wondered (only for a second) whether his people bothered him [. . .] No matter. There are things that can’t be said. (Woolf 63)

7The impossibility to penetrate Jacob’s consciousness is all the more surprising since there seems to be no problem in conveying Timmy’s point of view. Indeed the whole extract, from ‘for he never spoke a word,’ can be read as a free indirect rendition of his pattern of thought. So, why should the narrative voice be locked out of one consciousness and free to roam the depths of another? Why should we be forced to look at Jacob from the outside when his friend’s mind is open to examination? Without the previous evidence of Jacob’s thoughts about Sandra Wentworth one could be misled to believe that the problem lies with Jacob himself—that it is his mind which is at fault, and that only his conscience remains impervious to the narrative probing exerted on it. But just as Jacob’s thoughts are sometimes perfectly accessible and transparent, other characters can be made to deflect the gaze directed at their interiority. Captain Barfoot, for instance, a potential suitor to Betty Flanders, Jacob’s mother, whose plain ways could not be suspected of betraying an intricate and unknowable mind (at least not to the many gossips in Scarborough), nonetheless remains out of reach for the narrator on the following occasion:

Captain Barfoot sat him down in the arm-chair to wait. Resting his elbows on the arms, putting one hand over the other, sticking his lame leg straight out, and placing the stick with the rubber ferrule beside it [rubber again], he sat perfectly still. There was something rigid about him. Did he think? Probably the same thoughts again and again. But were they ‘nice’ thoughts, interesting thoughts? (Woolf 32–33)

8So the problem lies not with Jacob as an individual, nor does it lie with a failure of the narrative voice to crack the code to the characters’ brains, since most of the time there doesn’t seem to be a code or, indeed, the least difficulty in reading minds. Another solution would be to link this ‘unsystematic’ imperviousness to the nature of the thoughts themselves: some would be easy enough to decipher while others would be too complex to put into words. Such a hypothesis is sustained by the previous statement that ‘There are things that can’t be said,’ but in the instance of Captain Barfoot it is clear that the discrimination cannot be based on the nature of the thoughts since the thoughts in themselves are not even known to the narrator.

9It is also clear that Woolf’s strategy in the novel does not consist in representing Jacob, but in representing Jacob as seen from the point of view of someone else (and that is why we so often see Jacob through the eyes of other characters); the narrative voice endeavours to know Jacob as we normally know people and not as omniscient narrators have traditionally known their characters. But the question remains: why such a combination of insight and the absence of it? Why such an unsystematic imperviousness, as I called it? In other words, if the narrative voice is meant to reproduce the experience of knowing someone as we normally do, through fragments and impressions, through the questions we ask ourselves about them, why maintain this punctual use of internal focalisation, which doesn’t exist in normal life (we do not suddenly get a clear picture of someone’s mind and then fall back into our own limited point of view)?

10I would now like to focus on two potential explanations of this. They are different but I don’t believe they contradict each other and I think that in the end both will show to be working together.

  • 3 Jacques Rancière, Le Maître ignorant: Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle (Paris: Fayard, (...)

11First, it could be argued that Woolf’s aim in Jacob’s Room was never to abandon or abolish omniscience, but rather to rebuild it on humble foundations. Those foundations, if they are to be laid, must be raised on the acceptance of our impossibility to know someone else. This is where humility comes in: the narrative voice does not presume it can know Jacob’s inner life as well as he. On the other hand, if we accept not to know, then Jacob can become someone else; a form of true and uncompromising otherness can be found in him. Jacob, as well as most characters in the novel, is shown to be a monad, in the sense of Leibniz: that is, a closed entity, complete in itself, but shut off from the outside and the other monads, a room without a door or windows, Jacob’s room, if we understand the title of the novel to refer to this particular representation of otherness. Humility is here to be understood as a guiding principle, the same as the one which underpins Joseph Jacotot’s educational experiment as described by Jacques Rancière in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Joseph Jacotot, while not speaking Dutch himself, expected his Flemish students to learn French through the practice of translation, without his providing any form of explanation as to the nature or the use of the language. The schoolmaster thus accepts not to know better than his students as, according to Rancière, the act of explaining rests on the myth that learners are unable to learn by themselves and mainly serves to establish a division between those who have knowledge and those who do not.3 The humility of the narrative voice in Jacob’s Room similarly consists in abandoning the preconceived idea according to which characters in a novel are known through the intervention of the narrative voice, possessed as it is with a superior knowledge of its own creatures. As Rancière’s schoolmaster, Woolf’s narrator wilfully and humbly embraces ignorance as a means for knowledge to spring forth instead of being passed on. But still the question remains: how can we reconcile omniscience with the humble choice of leaving room for Jacob’s otherness? How can knowledge of people rest on its very impossibility?

  • 4 Edmund Husserl, Méditations cartésiennes: Introduction à la phénoménologie (Paris: J. Vrin, 1980) 6 (...)

12I believe phenomenology can offer an answer to this, as Husserl faced a similar problem in the last part of his Cartesian Meditations. By the end of the fourth meditation Husserl has established that what we can know of the world lies only within our consciousness and what is immediately grasped of the world by our consciousness. Thus our relationship to the world is an internal process: it is happening not between the world and us, but within us.4 At that point, the question for him was how to reconcile this with the existence of others: how can we have an idea of them as not just pertaining to our consciousness if all we know is this consciousness. The answer Husserl comes up with is that others are alter-egos: they are other ourselves, they are derived from our own idea of ourselves (Husserl 78). So that without even leaving the realm of our consciousness, our room in a way, we have an idea of an objective world outside, which is not just ours, because within our consciousness are others, whom we guess are the same as we and who thus experience the world in the same way.

13If we come back to our main concern, it is clear that here is a potential answer: in order to rebuild omniscience on the humble assumption that we cannot know others, we will have to derive others from ourselves, and only this way will we be able to know them. It might well be what is at stake when, in the train that takes them both to Cambridge, Mrs Norman scrutinizes Jacob, whom she has never seen before:

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 [. . .] Mrs Norman now read three pages of one of Mr Norris’s novels. Should she say to the young man (and after all he was just the same age as her own boy): ‘If you want to smoke, don’t mind me’? No: he seemed absolutely indifferent to her presence [. . .] she did not wish to interrupt.
(Woolf 36, my emphasis)

14Mrs Norman doesn’t know Jacob, therefore she doesn’t see him as he is, she sees herself, as the narrative voice puts in—or rather she derives her own idea of Jacob from herself in order to know him. Mrs Norman’s effort to build Jacob’s otherness in the absence of any knowledge of him indeed consists in picturing him as another version of herself, filling in informational gaps with assumptions based on what is known to her: she compares him to her own son, who is the same age, but more than that: she wants to give him the permission to smoke even though the carriage is non-smoking, because if she herself had been in Jacob’s position she would have noticed the elderly lady and would have asked for the permission. This faculty of knowing by speculating, of seeing others as alter-egos, is made fun of in this scene because Jacob is definitely not another Mrs Norman: ‘She would like to offer him her paper. But do young men read the Morning Post? She looked to see what he was reading—the Daily Telegraph’ (Woolf 36). However deriving others from oneself is not just about Mrs Norman: isn’t it precisely what the narrative voice is doing here as it follows the train of thoughts of the elderly lady? Can the assumption that ‘Nobody sees any one as he is’ really be thought not to apply to the very voice which phrases it? We thus have to accept that the narrator invents Mrs Norman (and maybe gets her wrong) just as Mrs Norman invents Jacob, and does get him partly wrong. This is also the conclusion of Woolf’s short story, ‘An Unwritten Novel’: to recount a story about someone is to understand them by making up facts, by adding up to what we see.

15The difference between such a method and traditional omniscience, however, is a very important one: for the narrative voice of Jacob’s Room, who analyses characters from the humble starting point of her impossibility to know them, there is no certainty, everything is conditional because everything is a form of assumption based on picturing people as alter-egos. As the famous phrase from the novel goes: ‘It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done [. . .]’ (Woolf 37). In other words: to know people is not a passive skill, it entails a form of action on the part of the observer who should follow hints and fill in the gaps. In a striking passage where Jacob and Clara Durrant are pictured attending an opera together, the narrative voice, instead of keeping track of their thoughts and actions, offers an unconventional description of the rest of the public, glimpsed at only through flashing and vivid images, and seems to allude directly to her active knowledge of others as a form of impersonation. To be sure, according to this peculiar narrator, the key to knowing someone is being like someone:

There is no need to distinguish details. But the difficulty remains—one has to choose. For though I have no wish to be Queen of England—or only for a moment—I would willingly sit beside her; I would hear the Prime Minister’s gossip; the countess whisper, and share her memories of halls and gardens; the massive fronts of the respectable conceal after all their secret code; or why so impermeable? And then, doffing one’s own headpiece, how strange to assume for a moment someone’s— anyone’s—to be a man of valour who has ruled the Empire; to refer while Brangaena sings to the fragments of Sophocles, or see in a flash, as the shepherd pipes his tune, bridges and aqueducts. But no—we must choose. Never was there a harsher necessity! or one which entails greater pain, more certain disaster; for wherever I seat myself, I die in exile: Whittaker in his lodging-house; Lady Charles at the Manor.
(Woolf 91–92)

  • 5 Henri Bergson, La Pensée et le mouvant: Essais et conférences (Paris: Presses universitaires de Fra (...)

16This dramatization of necessary narrative choices is reminiscent of the phenomenological conception of others as alter-egos but also of the role played by imagination in Bergson’s concept of intuition: to understand things, to know them, is to perceive them, but also to imagine and recreate within ourselves their inner motive and the very movement from which they spring For Bergson intuition means knowledge through coincidence, through becoming one with the object that is perceived,5 and the narrative voice in Jacob’s Room does not seem to behave otherwise. Nevertheless, the formidable liberty which is also the narrator’s curse, the capacity of being anyone, is in fact very limiting: the only thing the narrative voice knows about other people is what she knows about herself being them, herself as them. As a consequence, it could be said that there is no true omniscience in the novel, but that the suppositions made by the narrative voice are only more or less disguised as the truth about people. One scene when Jacob is in Cambridge is particularly telling in that respect:

Was it to receive this gift from the past [the stroke of the clock] that the young man came to the window and stood there, looking out across the court? It was Jacob. He stood smoking his pipe while the last stroke of the clock purred softly round him. Perhaps there had been an argument. He looked satisfied; indeed masterly; which expression changed slightly as he stood there, the sound of the clock conveying to him (it may be) a sense of old buildings and time; and himself the inheritor; and then to-morrow; and friends; at the thought of whom, in sheer confidence and pleasure, it seemed, he yawned and stretched himself. (Woolf 57–58, my emphasis)

17The overwhelming presence of the epistemic modality in this extract shows that all that is said about Jacob is merely a form of postulate. Omniscience however is not abandoned: it is only to be understood as Jacob feeling things the narrator would have felt in his place: here, the sound of the clock conveying a sense of old buildings and time. This humble omniscience, if we may call it that, is meant to replace the traditional unwavering type of omniscience, therefore most of the time it directly assumes its form and the speculative part is often dropped and merely implied behind the appearance of omniscience.

18Thus, after Jacob is disillusioned with what he finds in Greece and its absence of conformity with his dreams, the narrative voice launches into a discourse on the illusion of ‘the Greek spirit’ (Woolf 189). This discourse is first loosely attributed to Jacob with the slightly offhand declaration that ‘Jacob, no doubt, thought something in this fashion’. And immediately afterwards, as if this remark had sufficiently committed Jacob to what has just been said, direct discourse is introduced: ‘“But it’s the way we’re brought up,” he went on’ (Woolf 189). Here, this speculative or humble omniscience only politely draws attention on itself before taking on the appearance of outright certainty. Nevertheless, what Jacob is made to think, although it is assumed to be true to the facts, should not be confused with what he objectively thinks (which is unknowable); what we have here is not Jacob thinking about the illusion of the Greek spirit in general, but Jacob doing so within the narrative consciousness, just as in phenomenology we do not relate to the world and others as such, but to the world and others as being contained within our consciousness.

  • 6 Thomas Vargish & Delo E. Mook, Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative (New Haven, L (...)

19The second explanation I would like to suggest to account for the strange combination of knowledge and absence of knowledge in Jacob’s Room also starts with acknowledging the narrator’s humble acceptance of her own limits, of her ignorance of anything which is not herself. The question is also the same: how to know others, how to have a direct contact with their interiority, when others are shut in their own sphere and nothing seems to bridge interiorities? The key to this second explanation is to consider knowledge as action-at-a-distance, a form of action exerted by one consciousness on another (which thus gets to know the first) although there is no direct contact between them. Here I would like to use the idea of ‘fields,’ a concept which Thomas Vargish and Delo E. Mook defined as central to modernism, in both its scientific and artistic developments. They give the following definition of ‘fields’: ‘A field is a spatial and/or temporal model or representation in which all constituents are interdependent and in which all constituents participate and interrelate without privilege.’6

20In physics, fields are what enable us to understand action-at-a-distance such as gravity: how can the earth pull objects towards it without being in contact with them? The answer is that matter—for instance the earth—modifies the surrounding spacetime, so that matter can exert a force not only directly but through spacetime. That is why when we drop something it falls to the earth though at first there is no contact between them. The consequence is that space takes on the traditional attribute of matter, that is, to exert a force, space becomes an object. Vargish and Mook show that the concept of field can be found in arts, for instance in cubism, where figures are shown to interrelate with their background, as if space itself was part of the figure.

21My point here is that the narrative voice’s ability to relate to different consciousnesses, although she is humbly ignorant of them, has to do with much the same principle. Knowledge in Jacob Room’s is shown to be just this type of action-at-a-distance and characters can be seen as having gravitational fields, or rather epistemological fields, which directly affect the narrative voice although there is no direct contact between them. In other words knowledge is passed on through space because space becomes consciousness, just as space takes on some the attributes of matter in quantum physics. In Cambridge, Jacob, along with other undergraduates, is invited to lunch by Mr Plumer, one of their teachers. However Jacob mistakes the time and being late he tries to catch up on the others by hurrying with his food:

Now, though they had finished their meat, Mrs Plumer took a second helping of cabbage. Jacob determined, of course, that he would eat his meat in the time it took her to finish her cabbage, looking once or twice to measure his speed—only he was infernally hungry. Seeing this, Mrs Plumer said that she was sure Mr Flanders would not mind—and the tart was brought in. Nodding in a peculiar way, she directed the maid to give Mr Flanders a second helping of mutton. She glanced at the mutton. Not much of the leg would be left for luncheon.
It was none of her fault—since how could she control her father begetting her forty years ago in the suburbs of Manchester? and once begotten, how could she do other than grow up cheese-paring, ambitious, with an instinctively accurate notion of the rungs of the ladder and an ant-like assiduity in pushing George Plumer ahead of her to the top of the ladder? What was at the top of the ladder? A sense that all the rungs were beneath one apparently; since by the time that George Plumer became Professor of Physics, or whatever it might be, Mrs Plumer could only be in a condition to cling tight to her eminence, peer down at the ground, and goad her two plain daughters to climb the rungs of the ladder. (Woolf 42)

22The fact that Mr Plumer seems to be Professor of Physics might not be a coincidence here. Indeed the narrative consciousness can be seen as included in a field—an epistemological field, as we termed it—that allows it to progressively plunge into Mrs Plumer’s interiority, to be progressively drawn into it from the starting point of her humble ignorance. The narrator at first relates only externally to Mrs Plumer by noticing that she takes a second helping of cabbage. However, we soon take a peek into her thoughts when she glances at the mutton to estimate that not much of it is left for luncheon. Finally her interiority surfaces almost entirely and her whole world-view, which consists in climbing ladders, is exposed. The field model allows us to understand that by knowing nothing of Mrs Plumer, the narrative voice is still able to be influenced by her consciousness and to feel its force, much as objects are exposed to forces in gravitational or electromagnetic fields. An indication of that is the fact that Mrs Plumer’s opinions, which are developed in the second part of the quote, do not specifically correspond to what she is thinking at the moment—of this, we remain outside. What we have instead seems to be the formless subconscious ‘content’ of her mind and how it affects the surrounding space and the narrative voice—which is part of it—just as a cubist painting shows the elements of a figure to be reproduced outside the figure, into space itself. By such action-at-a-distance a humble narration is made possible, one in which knowledge of others is inspired rather than obtained, and is pictured as an ongoing force rather than a fixed notion. As I indicated above I don’t believe that the two explanations I dwelt on are exclusive. The plunge into Mrs Plumer’s consciousness could be read as the narrative voice deriving Mrs Plumer from itself, not exactly the actual Mrs Plumer, but the actuality of Mrs Plumer within the narrative consciousness.

23Whichever explanative path we chose to follow however, humility remains the guiding line in the narrative treatment of alterity throughout Jacob’s Room. As Rachel Hollander writes, ‘Our desire to imagine the fullness and depth of another’s interior life only brings us face to face with our inability to know, and thus to an ethical restraint through which we encounter our responsibility for the other as absolutely other.’ (Hollander 47) And only a distinctively humble narrator is capable of achieving the feat of combining this renouncement to knowledge with a sustained desire to narrate radical otherness in all its mystery.


1 Rachel Hollander, ‘Novel Ethics: Alterity and Form in Jacob’s Room,’ Twentieth Century Literature 53.1 (2007): 44.

2 Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 2008) 92–93.

3 Jacques Rancière, Le Maître ignorant: Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle (Paris: Fayard, 2004) 15–16.

4 Edmund Husserl, Méditations cartésiennes: Introduction à la phénoménologie (Paris: J. Vrin, 1980) 69.

5 Henri Bergson, La Pensée et le mouvant: Essais et conférences (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1955) 27.

6 Thomas Vargish & Delo E. Mook, Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative (New Haven, London: Yale UP, 1999) 105.


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