The plot of this novel is not nearly as significant as its characterization, and the characters themselves are important for their thoughts, not their actions. Virginia Woolf focuses not on what happens around the characters but rather on what happens within them, most particularly the central character, Jacob Flanders.
When the novel opens, Jacob is a young boy living in the seaside city of Scarborough with his widowed mother and two brothers. These geographical and familial roots provide the youth with his first experiences of complexity, which foreshadow his subsequent struggles to deal with an increasingly complicated world. Though the seaside location is strikingly beautiful, it is not always peaceful and romantic; it is also attacked by powerful storms and hurricanes. Further, though Jacob plays childlike games near the water and finds childlike treasures on the beach, he also discovers unsettling objects, such as a cow’s skull, with its ominous suggestions of change intruding into the changelessness of the sea.
Going to Cambridge in 1906, Jacob begins his pilgrimage forward and backward. He becomes immersed in the twentieth century, experiencing what he cannot identify the modern sense of restlessness and sadness and he attempts to escape into earlier centuries, proclaiming his disdain for what he perceives as the modern civilization and announcing his admiration for previous cultures, particularly that of the Greeks. As both a representative and a victim of the twentieth century, Jacob moves through many relationships, never satisfied with the women he meets, never concerned with the people he leaves behind as he pursues his quest for ideal beauty and happiness. He is the solitary Adam in a post-Edenic world of change, movement, and transience.
As he plunges into the twentieth century, Jacob is obsessed with the ideas and ideals of earlier times. In stating his disdain for modern literature, for example, he so influences one of his lovers that she forces herself to read The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), by Henry Fielding, mistakenly believing that her efforts to move back in time will endear her to Jacob. He does not realize the sincerity of her efforts, being so insulated and obsessed by his own attempts to make meaning out of the increasing chaos he observes around and within himself.
He 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 argues about the ideas of Plato and Socrates, believing that his statements will bring him closer to an illumination of those ancients’...
(The entire section contains 651 words.)
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- Critical Essays