On March 28, the 72nd anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death, my thoughts returned to her writing and, in particular, Jacob’s Room. In this experimental novel we are asked to step inside the protagonist Jacob’s shoes, and use them as the key to the whole book.
Shoes tell us where a person has been and where he or she wants to go; they tell us the story of who people are and who they would be. Worn and tattered shoes, like faces, are drawn into signatures, inscribed through time and experience with identity. New shoes tell the story of desires, of aspirations written, not only on the heart and soul but, just as intimately, on the body.
Jacob’s shoes are a signifier of both presence and absence; while the reader is given to understand that Jacob has died in France, his shoes contain his bodily imprint, casting them as a temporary private memorial in the absence of a lasting tombstone. The empty shoes are especially poignant, since Jacob is often seen walking in the novel, hiking up Olympian Hills, or climbing the path leading to the Acropolis, never doubting for a moment that he will get somewhere.
Woolf’s novel reminds us that the empty shoes of Jacob are there for repeated lacing and re-lacing, for multiple repetitions which alter and produce new effects. We are forced, by Woolf’s verbal painting of the empty shoes in Jacob’s Room, to retrace our steps and re-evaluate the entire novel, in the process stepping into Jacob’s shoes in his absence. Woolf delights in contradictory pairs, as Jacob is repeatedly described as clumsy yet elegant, awkward yet distinguished. Like a provocative pair of mismatched shoes the narrator and character are deliberately out of step. For the most part Jacob stands superbly aloof, silent as a statue, beautifully and contemptuously out of reach.
It is in these shoes that Jacob has made his imprint, not in any gesture of momentary heroism. Woolf confronts the reader, via the tangibility of the empty shoes, with the intangible and at times inexpressible vagaries of loss, longing and desire. This final unforgettable image remains with us long after we have put the book down. We hear the spectral shuffle of Jacob’s shoes in our ears, their mutilated music continuing to lament, having taken that step into the void.