Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

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In Jacob’s Room (1922), Virginia Woolf’s third novel, the narrator asserts that “life is but a procession of shadows”; then she asks, “why are we yet surprised in the window corner by a sudden vision that the young man in the chair is of all things in the world the most real, the most solid, the best known to us . . . ? For the moment after we know nothing about him.” Although Woolf (through her narrator) is discussing here the difficulty a biographer has in capturing, with words on paper, the essence of an individual, she is also pointing to what she sees as an inescapable fact of human existence: One individual can never completely know another; similarly, one can never completely know oneself because that essentially fluid self is shaded and even, at times, changed by associations with others. This last point (regarding the effect other people have on a personality, as well as on that personality’s view of itself and others) is important to understanding Woolf’s fiction; indeed, she gave expression to this point in all of her novels, in several autobiographical essays, and in a number of her short stories—one of which is “Together and Apart.”

Although both Miss Anning and Mr. Serle naturally have different perspectives and responses to their conversation, and to the party itself (she mildly resents having to abandon her solitary contemplation of the sky for the sake of “empty” conversation with a man whom, she gradually realizes, she does not like; he needs such a conversation because it helps him to forget the person he is at home), the artificial situation in which they find themselves permits them a brief, transcendent moment of communion with each other.

The situation itself demands that the “shallow [and] agile” side of each of these people’s personalities “keeps the show going” by “tumbling and beckoning” in talk; yet below the “agile” side of each exists a “secluded being, who sits in darkness.” Only when Miss Anning decides that “this man shall not glide away from me, like everybody else, on false assumption,” and then decides to express her feelings by saying, “I loved Canterbury,” is the reader told that Mr. Serle “kindled instantly.” In other words, by articulating her emotions Miss Anning has dived below the superficial and elicited a similar—albeit nonverbalized—response from her companion. Thus they both experience what Woolf elsewhere calls “a moment of being,” when, as it is described in this story, the “secluded being” in each of them “stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other.”

After such a moment of wordless communication, Miss Anning realizes, as her creator had before her, how inadequate language is for truthful communication—especially in the face of “how obscure the mind [is], with its very few words for all these astonishing perceptions, these alterations of pain and pleasure.”