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  • The Subject in Jacob's Room
  • Edward L. Bishop (bio)

"Hey, you there!" comes the call in Althusser's famous anecdote of interpellation, and the individual thus hailed turns around and becomes a subject, becomes a subject because he recognizes that the call is for him, because "individuals are always-already subjects" (Althusser, "Ideology" 176). Ideology "recruits" subjects, and what I want to suggest here is that Jacob is "recruited" by ideology, from that first shout by his brother, "Ja—cob! Ja—cob!" (JR 5), which recruits him for the family, to the point where he answers off-stage the pointing finger and "I Want You!" of Lord Kitchener's famous recruiting poster and is enlisted in the war that kills him.

Jacob has been much misunderstood, repeatedly maligned for not being the character readers have expected him to be. Some have accepted this as a good thing, on the grounds that Virginia Woolf could not create character anyway and at least Jacob's Room makes no claim to creating character; others have grumbled that she does manage to show the other characters in the book, and thus her claims that we can never really know another person are disingenuous.1 What all the negative criticism [End Page 147] underscores is that in the figure of Jacob Woolf is not representing character; what she is exploring is the construction, and representation of, the subject.

I. Character

In Reading People, Reading Plots James Phelan argues that we can approach character through three main categories: the thematic (character as idea), the synthetic (character as artificial construct), and the mimetic (character as person).2 These categories are never mutually exclusive, and we can see that Jacob falls under all three. The thematic aspect is obvious, Jacob represents the young men who died in the war; the synthetic is foregrounded by the narrator herself who wonders about the possibility of knowing another human being (JR 119-121) and about the legitimacy of drawing character (JR 262). It is when we get to the mimetic that things become troublesome. Whether we figure Jacob inhabiting an actual world or merely a possible world, readers have been persistently concerned with his lapses as a mimetic character, apparently unwilling to regard him solely or principally as a thematic element or a synthetic construct.

In Jacob's Room Woolf seems to be giving us a "type-like individual," a character who, while representing a class, is nevertheless an individual.3 We see him interacting with a wide variety of characters; we see him engaging in various activities; and we are given information about his appearance, background, and attitudes not only through the narrator but also through other characters. Woolf seems determined to make him represent but at the same time transcend his category of the educated young man in the early twentieth century.

Yet she stops short and leaves us on the verge of identification. Readers agree that this is the case, but little has been said about how this is achieved, and less still about why.

To address the "how" first: in an article on literary character from the point of view of cognitive psychology, Richard J. Gerrig and David W. Allbritton argue that one way readers become immersed in literary worlds is through causality. Readers tend, as in real life, to attribute the cause of events to characters rather than to other circumstances in the situation. In reading a novel we accumulate information to generate expectations about what is to come, and we regard the characters as the determinants of the action to such a degree that even with highly formulaic [End Page 148] works (such as James Bond novels) or works that are well known and have been read before (such as Hamlet) we fail to notice the formula, and we do experience suspense even if the work is familiar to us:

readers are so solidly predisposed to find the causes of events in the characters rather than in the circumstances that reflection upon the "formula" plays no role in their immediate experience of the novel.


Authors can exploit this tendency on the part of the reader, and at the very least are unlikely to...


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pp. 147-175
Launched on MUSE
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