In Steering the Craft, Ursula K. LeGuin writes about the power of repitition as a narrative device. She refers to Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and how early in that novel Woolf describes the title character’s room at Cambridge: “The description of Jacob’s room at college is light in tone, seeming not very significant.”
It’s a description used to set a mood: Outside the room the “feathery white moon never let the sky grow dark …”; inside, the empty room the air is listless, so listless only a fiber creaks on an empty wicker chair, but the room itself is alive with a photograph of his mother, books, shabby slippers, the room of a college student, and one that won’t be empty for long; Jacob is outside smoking.
But Woolf repeats the last two sentences of this description word for word at the end of the novel.
“Listeless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker arm-chair creaks, though no one sits there.”
This room, however, will remain empty. The war has come, and Jacob won’t be returning. All that’s left is an old pair of his shoes. The image of an empty pair of shoes for an empty room is what we’re left with at novel’s end: “She [Betty Flanders] held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.”
A powerful image, poignant and telling of the world to come after the war. Woolf has moved us to the pivotal moment of the 20th century — World War I — using repitition of phrases, but changing the tone to change the mood.
Such a device is one of many Woolf uses in her novels to tell stories without using a traditional plot. LeGuin makes a strong argument that stories and plots are separate and that plot isn’t necessary for a good story to be telling.
Plot is a marvelous device. But it’s not superior to story, and not even necessary to it. As for action, indeed a story must move, something must happen; but the action can be nothing more than a letter sent that doesn’t arrive, a thought unspoken, the passage of a summer day.
She is right, but I’ve often thought Woolf and other modernists took their experiment too far; Woolf almost not only eliminates plot, but story as well, and story is propelled by character, and in Jacob’s Room character is hard to know, as E.M Forster famously noted.
In what sense Jacob is alive — in what sense any of Virginia Woolf’s characters live — we have yet to determine. But that he exists, that he stands as does a monument is certain, and wherever he stands we recognize him for the same and are touched by his outline.
Jacob really is a monument, an outline of a character, drawn only to be a symbol of the tragic end of an era and a way of life.