Notes on Virginia Woolf

Six thirty. Over halfway through Jacob’s Room, the plot finally presents a conflict. His girlfriend cheats on him. He sees her walking away on the arm of another man. The motif of perishability has shown up a few times, particularly that of the written word. Woolf is pessimistic that individuals ever really get to know each other, and all this language we use just falls dead. So that our private worlds can never be communicated to one another. At this stage, Woolf suggests that this is a lamentable condition. A few years later, however, in Mrs Dalloway she rejects the idea of violating one’s privacy. It makes me want to go and reread Mrs Dalloway. In her own way, Virginia Woolf deals with problems of epistemology, of knowing what we know, but she applies it very personally and humanely. It is by means of language that we know about other people, but language itself is frail and fragile. Communication breaks down.

Two fifty. Woolf also discusses how language can be preserved, for instance in the British Museum, where Plato and Shakespeare and many others join together in a great mind. Then she talks about people being historical functionaries, mere actors in the same roles for centuries on end. Jacob didn’t seem fazed by the girl’s infidelity. The book doesn’t have much of a plot. No real conflict so far, so I can’t imagine what will be the climax.

I might as well finish my reading. What can I make of Jacob’s Room?

Seven o’clock. Again, in the book I’ve encountered the theme of durability, whether beautiful things can last or not. Woolf doesn’t have a definitive answer, but raises the question recurrently. The other theme I keep seeing is how well we can ever know other people. Language is inadequate to really get at the truth of the people we think we know. And what we do know is perishable. So by turns, she brings up durability and perishability, never settling on one or the other. In one passage, however, she states that only beauty is immortal…

The climax is Jacob’s trip to Greece, especially his experience at the Acropolis. This beauty will outlast everything on the earth.


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