Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614
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.
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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’ messages. Then he journeys beyond British places and literary spaces. He travels to Greece, seeking to connect with the past that had been inspiring him. What he finds, however, is that he cannot escape what surrounds and shapes him: the twentieth century, with its burdens of change, complexity, and pain. As the narrator puts it, “This gloom, this surrender to the dark waters which lap us about, is a modern invention.” The twentieth century is real, too real, for Jacob, and he cannot escape its influence. He returns to it and to England, leaving behind him in Greece the first woman whom he loves, a married woman who remains as idealized as his notions of Greece.
When the novel ends, World War I has created “such confusion everywhere,” as Jacob’s mother laments. The confusion is reflected in Jacob’s abandoned room. The modern Adam is gone, and his litter and letters remain. Has he committed suicide? Has he been killed in the war? Has he retreated into a self-imposed exile? What remains are his remains and the last words of the book: “a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.”