History: This book was published in 1922. The novel centres, in a very ambiguous way, around the life story of the protagonist Jacob Flanders, and is presented entirely by the impressions other characters have of Jacob. The book is primarily a character study and has little in the way of plot or background, the narrative is constructed as a void in place of the central character. Motifs of emptiness and absence haunt the novel and establish its elegiac feel. Jacob is described to us, but in such indirect terms that it would seem better to view him as an amalgamation of the different perceptions of the characters and narrator. He does not exist as a concrete reality, but rather as a collection of memories and sensations.
Plot: Set in pre-war England, the novel begins in Jacob's childhood and follows him through college at Cambridge, and then into adulthood. The story is told mainly through the perspectives of the women in Jacob's life, including the repressed upper-middle-class Clara Durrant and the uninhibited young art student Florinda, with whom he has an affair. His time in London forms a large part of the story, though towards the end of the novel he travels to Italy, then Greece. Jacob eventually dies in the war and in lieu of a description of the death scene, Woolf describes the empty room that he leaves behind.
Review: We follow the life of a promising young man through glimpses of him given by female friends and relatives. From childhood to youth and manhood, we watch Jacob grow and mature in the eyes of the women in his life. When World War I breaks out, Jacob goes away to war and the women who love him must stay behind, trying to hold on to their memories of him. This is a haunting story about hope and tragedy in a time of devastating conflict.
Opening Line: “So of course,” wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper into the sand, “There was nothing for it but to leave.”
Closing Line: “She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.”
Quotes: “Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.”
“In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.”
Rating: Very Good.