Narrating Grief in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and John Banville’s The Sea

by Elizabeth A. Weston

November 1, 2010


These novels reveal how loss can both challenge narrative expression and help a
person or community to live with loss.  Studies of bereavement, along with
contemporary iterations of psychoanalytic conceptions of mourning and melancholia,
help reveal the effects of grief upon the psyche.  This approach also helps illuminate
the narrative forms which can contain the experience of grieving.  The expression of
overwhelming loss often requires creative narrative forms that experiment with space,
time, metafiction, and different modes of remembrance.  Woolf’s novel voices the
collective experience of the losses of WWI, expressing the impact of loss through
spatial metaphors of absence and by memorializing a single life and the generation he
represents. Banville’s novel captures the process of reshaping one’s life story after the
rupture of loss, a process of placing the absence in time through recollection and that
can lead to reengagement with the world that remains.




Loss, especially intimate loss, ruptures the lives of those it leaves behind, threatening the narratives that we all form in order to lend a sense of continuity to lived experience. Individual and communal loss both challenge narrative production by undoing the unity and legibility of the survivors’ life stories.  Rather than offering a false image of an easy way through grief, these two works insist upon fidelity to the task of acknowledging the totality and depth of grief, while also exploring ways to live with the new reality it inaugurates.  These ways may or may not meet the conventional criteria of “successful” mourning with its criterion of turning away from an old attachment to form new ones, or “successful” grieving, with its progression of stages that lead to satisfying resolution. 

These ideas of “successful” responses to loss are in fact more a matter popular psychology than completely accurate representations of psychologists’ views.  For Freud himself, mourning itself and the uncompleted mourning that marks melancholia are distinguishable more by difference in degree or persistence than by qualitative difference.  In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud explains the processes of mourning or “normal grief,” in which  “the loss of the object is undoubtedly surmounted, and this process. . .absorbs all the energies of the ego while it lasts” (176).  Before the loss is surmounted, during the stage of inwardly absorbed energy, the mind is essentially in a state that seems indistinguishable from melancholia.  Mourning is only different from melancholia in that mourning is often considered a process with some endpoint, whereas melancholia need reach no such conclusion.  And Elisabeth Kübler-Ross does not actually insist that her stages of grief, “denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance,” unfold linearly or are necessarily ever over in a final sense:  “They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling.  But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.  Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order” (7).  These two foundational theorists of mourning and grief, respectively, do not promise any means of easing the pain of loss.  This pain must either be suppressed or borne, and if it is to be borne, the grieving person or group often turns to narrative to help give some sort of shape to the pain:  by telling stories about the dead and the meanings of their lives, and also by reworking the their life stories to integrate the new reality of absence.  This turn to narrative does not always enable survivors to “move on” or to fully assimilate the new absence into consciousness; some losses are simply too much to bear if apprehended directly, certainly at first, and possibly for ever (particularly in the case of especially traumatic or violent loss).  This is the truth of grieving:  it may not end or follow any sort of linear progression and it may never be fully put to rest.  Grieving is akin to a narrative process, but like any narrative course, it does not necessarily follow a unidirectional linear process nor yield a simple sort of resolution.  The narrative line of grieving wanders, halts, regresses, and makes sudden unexpected leaps; it defies our hopeful belief that “time heals all wounds” and that in time, we will reach a state of completed mourning.  Yet narrative does—reliably--give us a way to engage the new reality created by and in the wake of loss, and it sometimes offers consolation, or at the very least the hope of consolation, which is no small thing in the midst of devastating grief.

Perhaps the connection between narrative-making and grieving arises because loss can seem to sever our connection to life as we knew it, thereby requiring a re-working of the story of that life and the self or community that lives it.  The work of narration seems to require an at least temporary departure or detachment from the business of living—if we define living as immersion in the collocation of events and sensations and ideas that form the raw material of narrative.  In narrating, impersonal narrating voices and first-person narrators alike step back a moment to represent life.  A narrative may be part of the world it describes, but in that it shapes that world into a representation, it necessarily exceeds that world.  In this way, narrative seems closer than unmediated lived experience to the realm of the beyond, and to death itself as the ultimate “beyond.”  Elizabeth Bronfen posits this sort of close connection between narrators and death:  “Absent from the world and therefore ‘dead’ as a social person, feeding off previous ‘inanimate’ texts, producing fictions that in turn are alive in the realm of the imaginary but immaterial in respect to social reality, storytellers are positioned in an intermediary site between life and death” (349). By being slightly apart from lived experience, narrators and narrative can approach death, and narrative can reproduce the dead as absent presences within its own textual body.  Because it can give death a semblance of presence in consciousness, which is registered there as the felt experience of loss, narrative is an essential part of any grieving process.  When grief requires us to confront the realm of the  beyond, we turn to narrative to reach into the abyss.  But the opposite may also be true:  every time we turn to narrative, we are in a sense reaching beyond the here and now, because that which we narrate has already passed on or is always just slipping away into the realm of that which is no longer.

Jacob’s Room and The Sea represent variations on the attempt to integrate loss into the self or community that survives, exploring narrative as the site for this attempt, and representing grieving as a narrative process.  A distinctive element of these representations of grieving is that they refuse to flatten or deplete grief’s full force--its power to disarm.  Instead, people in these texts try to master their experience but discover that loss retains its power to unsettle.  In the wake of this failed mastery--if failure is in fact the right term--spatial and sensory representations of loss emerge as ways of expressing the feeling of absence.  This feeling registers on the physical, emotional, and psychological levels, and it cannot always be brought under the control of the person experiencing it.  The gap created by loss resists our attempts to close it and to discipline its ability to unnerve, and so, regardless of our efforts, loss retains its power to make our own lives seem strange to us.  

In Jacob’s Room and The Sea, narrative is a way to process loss by exploring the sense and shape of the absence that loss creates.  The narrative processes by which these novels remember the dead offer ways to explore the inner terrain formed by the experience of loss.  Narratives of grief move around a nearly unspeakable pain to learn its edges and extent, but not necessarily to the effect of rendering neat explanations of what grief “means,” nor by projecting an image of a future beyond mourning.  In Jacob’s Room, a third person narrates, creating the sense that while this is a deeply personal loss for his family, it also evokes the generalized sense of collective loss of the generation lost on the battlefields of World War I.  This novel is driven by the need to revisit Jacob’s life story up until and just after his death as a means of recasting that narrative in the light of his death. Devastating grief forces the mind to revisit the old life story and self that existed before the loss, engaging in a struggle to renegotiate that life story around the rupture, as Max Morden in The Sea seeks to do.  In both texts, instead of examples of mastery, we are presented with the fundamental vulnerability that is required for full engagement with relational life.

These novels resist insisting on the absolute legibility of loss, representing loss as it truly is, an irreducible space of absence that ruptures the stream of life as we have known it.  It cannot be fully known or read, only referred to, for instance through spatial metaphors as in Jacob’s Room.  Or, the absence can be circled around, through a process of revisiting memories including but not limited to those about the lost one, as the survivor works to revise the significance of his or her entire life story in light of the loss as in The Sea. These sorts of narrative undertakings constitute the project of reworking the entire life story of a person or community in light of a loss, so that shaping narrative is akin to—and sometimes equivalent to—the work of shaping a life story that does not stop with the loss.

Narratives of loss seek to imagine the unimaginable; they struggle to comprehend and represent the ever-receding, spectral absent-presence of death or loss.  This struggle, while literally the attempt to understand and describe loss, is also always the struggle of narrative itself, as it seeks to distill the world of experience into a shaped account.  It is also always the struggle of reading, which seeks to make sense of a narrative.  None of these projects—coming to terms with loss, creating a narrative, and reading or interpreting a narrative—are necessarily likely to succeed if we define success by mastery or control, because the world of experience, loss, and narrative all tend to exceed base analytical mastery.  Thankfully.  Their power to keep their mysteries intact is what gives them their power to challenge us to move beyond the known world, past the realm of the fully-mapped and neatly described, into the opaque dark that threatens to overwhelm us with grief or confusion.  It often does so, for a time, but this may also give us space enough to become something more than we were before the loss, or before we told our life-stories in the way that grief pushes us to do, before we opened ourselves up to another’s story of loss.  Grieving, narrating, and reading are not so different; they all involve dismantling and reworking our old ways of thinking—if the loss that prompts the grief is great, if the story we are telling is troubling, or if the text we are reading is rich.



If loss challenges us, it also challenges narrative capacity, eliciting experiments with narrative form such as Jacob’s Room in response to this challenge.  In this sense, narrative experimentation is more than a modernist exercise in pure form; rather, it is relates organically to the project of representing the impact of loss on both the personal and collective levels. This is not a novel that straightforwardly invokes genre formulas, uses a stable tone, nor is an example of continuity in terms of fluid plot progression or consistent narratorial perspective.  Some readers see these disjunctive aspects of the text as flaws in the novel’s construction, but in fact they do all contribute the novel’s project of chronicling a life that is about to be lost.  A number of critics have view the novel’s theme of loss as the source of its narrative quirks, including aspects such as incompleteness in the plot, its limited access to Jacob’s interiority, his representation as subject rather than object, shifts relating to the level of narratorial omniscience, and the narrator’s emphasis upon Jacob’s unknowability.  

The ways in which the plot sometimes seems incomplete make sense in the story of an individual life—and the life of the generation Jacob Flanders represents even at the level of his name—cut short by the Great War.  The jarring quality of life during the war is reflected in the narrative’s disjunctions. As Hattway puts it, the novel “commemorates incomplete lives” (21) and reflects the “jolts in perspective occasioned by the war years” (19). Christine Froula describes Woolf’s project here as “refusing to compose into the ‘warmth’ of a story a shattering experience of violence. . .” (284).  Woolf’s avoidance of conventional narrative forms is not an apolitical act, but a way to resist wartime rhetoric and stay away from presenting the effects of war losses as something that can be borne up to and managed; the truth is that they destroy one’s sense of the world as a place that makes sense.  

For Woolf, the pre-WWI world reduces young men to objects; complex subjectivity is not be what this world requires of them, so that the pre-war context requires the obfuscation of individual interiority in this novel.  The novel’s foreclosure of Jacob’s subjectivity reflects this reality.  Explicitly or implicitly, Woolf is always engaged in critiquing war and its justifications, so her novelistic invocation of the almost stock-figure of the young man whose life is about to be cut short must also undo itself in order to resist the usual approaches of sentimentality or idealization.  William Handley argues that “Woolf’s representation of Jacob’s subjecthood is complicated if she is realistically to portray how he is made an object for military purposes” (11).  The resistance of the narrative to fully sketching Jacob as a subject, complete with access to his interiority, necessarily creates a sense of instability and disjunction for the reader, which is compounded by the novel’s project of representing a disorienting cultural moment.  The novel registers the reality of loss while scrupulously avoiding a fall into conventional continuity or fully sketched interiority, either of which would minimize the chaos and emptiness created by the war losses.  

The narrator’s explicit insistence on Jacob’s unknowability also operates as a general comment upon the minimal degree to which people truly know one another, and upon the difficulty of capturing a person in an artistic representation.  But this is not a generic commentary; its particular context is of the coming wartime losses that shadow everything in this novel.  Nothing in this novel can be read as unrelated to that context, including the narrator’s emphasis upon Jacob’s unknowability.  And as Judith Little notes, the narrator’s emphasis upon unknowability is localized around Jacob, rather than a phenomenon that operates indiscriminately through the narrator’s representations of each and every character:  the narrator at certain times “insists on the impossibility of knowing Jacob” yet can also be seen “moving easily into the minds of other characters” (114).  E.L. Bishop, in an analysis of progressive revisions of the text, observes a reduction of passages in the published text about not knowing people which refer to characters other than Jacob, and she concludes that Woolf seems to have worked toward focusing such passages more exclusively around Jacob (127); Bishop interprets this as evidence of a strong link between Woolf’s narrative practice and the themes of war and loss (133). It is only Jacob that we cannot know, as if he alone is always already beyond grasp.  Hattway sees incompleteness in the novel “as a way of getting a purchase on the subject” (14-15) of loss.  Narratorial incompleteness is a powerful reflection of the sense of incompleteness or lack experienced by those left behind.

In addition to the survivor’s sense of incompleteness and absence, the narrative’s reluctance to offer us access into Jacob’s interiority reflects the incompleteness of Jacob’s life.  Zwerdling argues that the novel refuses “to record Jacob’s deepest feelings because such a transcript comes too close to presenting a finished product rather than a consciousness in process,” choosing instead to convey “the sense of someone who remains a permanently unknown quantity” (900-910).  Nancy Bazin and Jane Lauter connect the mystery around Jacob to the way in which we tend to remember the dead:  “The reader experiences the imperfect knowledge and inadequate recall we have when we try to recapture the life of someone who dies” (15).  Kathleen Wall views Woolf’s project here as capturing the effects of loss in the way the story is told:  “Aside from providing a powerful motive for creating and memorializing. . .” loss “pushes the boundaries of language and genre. . .toward a paradoxical effort to represent absence. . .” (307);  she argues that it is specifically Jacob’s “absence and not the inscrutability of the human character that is foregrounded in the text. . .” (307).  Representing the dead creates particular and peculiar narrative challenges.  And in this novel, Woolf is representing the dead by showing us one life—and those of the many shadowy others it figuratively represents—about to be violently cut short.  She puts the reader into confrontation with the painful poignancy of an emerging self which we know will not be allowed to develop fully.  Such a project requires a narrative characterized by indirection, disjunction, and instability rather than by continuity.

Jacob’s Room gives narrative form to a grief of overwhelming proportions—the losses of WWI; though this novel does trace the effects of an individual’s absence, his wartime death is not only an individual death.  Grief over his loss cannot be contained when it is part of a greater grief:  grief felt by a whole community for an entire generation.  In her study on grief and community, Esther Schor characterizes “mourning as a phenomenon of far greater extension and duration than an individual’s traumatic grief . . .” (4).  This novel hints at the relatively inconceivable loss of many by chronicling Jacob’s short life and the space that his death leaves behind.  Both the empty shoes and the room that seem to be awaiting his return spatialize the wound of loss, illustrating the cognitive challenge death presents to the minds of those who survive him as they struggle to absorb the reality of absence. As Allyson Booth puts it, “the entire novel may be understood as an extended preparation for representing Jacob’s death in the war—or rather, for representing Jacob’s absence from his room in London after his death in the war—an architectural absence which, both for us and for the civilian bereaved he leaves behind, constitutes the central shape of his death” (66).  In literal terms, the novel ends with the beginnings of grief, though his absence is read back through  entire life so that it is all already somehow tinged by his absence.  His death is anticipated in the narrative of his life, or to put it another way, his non-presence is its receding center, the inaccessible but controlling focal point of his life-story.  Fairly early in the novel, as the wandering narrating perspective is describing Jacob’s room, the space in which he lived is already a place of missing presence:  “One fibre in the wicker arm-chair creaks, though no one sits there” (39).  This line is repeated at the closing of the novel, after he has died (though in a sense in this text it always feels as if it is happening in the time after he has died, in the time in which Jacob’s world is gone forever):  “Listless 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” (176).  The prefiguration of his final non-presence in the previous and more ordinary absence--of his merely being elsewhere--prepares us to conceive of his more final non-presence in death; the little, less momentous absences are a sort of rehearsal for the final one.  We are always practicing loss, or perhaps always haunted by its potentiality or inevitability, in that we all will lose some that we love and all will ourselves be lost to others in turn.

Yet often we cannot quite manage to comprehend the concept of our own extinction, as the poignancy of Jacob’s apparent failure to recognize the likelihood of his dying suggests.  His friend Bonamy’s perspective suggests that the state in which Jacob left his room indicates his assumption that he would be returning to it:  “Nothing arranged.  All his letters strewn about for any one to read.  What did he expect?  Did he think he would come back?” (176).  The disarray suggests to Bonamy that Jacob did not realize how unlikely his survival in the battlefields of WWI Europe would be.  This is of course not just any death, neither natural nor random; this is death by human violence, and the implied horror at the waste of human life is a central effect of this novel.  But the dynamics of how death is assimilated—or not assimilated--into consciousness are also generalizable beyond the context of war losses.  At the close of the novel, Jacob’s mother Betty is wondering what to do with his shoes, and the narration ceases with this line:  “She held out a pair of Jacob’s shoes” (176), focusing our final moments of attention upon the objects and spaces that Jacob inhabited.  Death can certainly be figured temporally, through a consideration of how in the past the person was present but is now absent from the present, yet we often conceive of temporality in spatial metaphors.  Paul Ricouer’s thinking about the world of objects and temporality connects the realm of the material to the ways in which we occupy and conceive of time.  He talks about temporality as “within-time-ness,” arguing that this condition is “defined by one of the basic characteristics of care—our thrownness among things—which makes the description of our temporality dependent on the description of the things of our concern’ (258).  Our sense of time is most palpably felt in our relations to the objects of our attention and emotional life.  Some of the most potently-charged sites of grief are the objects we associate with the person we have lost, especially the objects associated with daily life, which so vividly bring to mind the continuity forged by the habits of ordinary life which death has now ruptured.  The grounding of loss within the world of objects--the spatialization of loss—is a way that the mind attempts to wrestle with a sense of absence that it cannot quite make sense of or tolerate.  In this novel, the pathos of this gesture and the sense of absence within the shapes that Jacob used to inhabit capture the wound of grief, a wound as difficult to comprehend as it is unavoidable.  



In The Sea, Banville represents grief as a process of working through one’s memories of the dead, a process that is temporal as much as spatial or anchored by objects.  The crisis of grieving is in some ways a crisis of memory, a threat to the continuity of the life story of the person who undergoes a rending loss. This novel illustrates that the work of grieving is the work of reengaging the life story which organizes memories:  directly or indirectly, through sensory pathways, and through the more conscious mode in which the mind recalls narrative memory.  Rudiger Imhof argues that in this novel “the sea stands for memory itself”; he describes its narrator, Max Morden, as feeling “that he has missed something, only he has no idea what it might have been. . .” so that his  process of revisiting memories is “partly aimed at discovering that something” (167).  This novel consists of the narrator’s reflections upon his wife Anna’s death and his attempt to contextualize it within his larger life story:  a project of recollection in every sense of the word.  Morden grieves by rifling through his memories of their life together, but also by recollecting his life story before Anna.  The loss of an unfulfilled and outgrown childhood love seems to prefigure--in retrospect at least--the loss of Anna, which perhaps can only be integrated into awareness by analogy to the earlier, more familiar, integrated loss.  

For Morden, the process of thinking back through his life story involves a mingling of past, present, and future, so that multiple times seem to coexist and blend.  Part of this effect is inherent to the processes by which we both project the future and delve into the past in order to establish a sense of coherence in our selves that persists across time.  We use our life stories to establish a sense of who we are, and the effort of forging the idea of our selves is always up against awareness of how limited we are in the face of mortality.  In a book on Banville written before this novel that explores issues of self, narrative, and memory as recurring themes in Banville’s oeuvre, Joseph McMinn describes Banville’s narrators as tending to have a “troubled sense of self” (4), as engaged in a struggle to rework the narrative of the past in a way that offers consolation.  For McMinn, the novels are “driven by a provisional faith in the ability of the imagination to construct, or conjure, fictional accounts of the past which offer some form of aesthetic comfort” (4).  We often see Banville’s narrators forging narratives, creating a metafictional dimension that takes the novels beyond merely offering an image of some present. In this case, Morden is generating narratives in art history studies but also in the story he is telling us about his personal past.  The present can feel elusive in metafictional narratives, during the project of reframing the narratives of life stories, and in the depths of grief, all of which apply to this novel.  And the moment of the “now” is always difficult to capture.  According to Roger Luckhurst and Peter Marks in their work on loss, “[t]he instant of the ‘now’ always eludes the grasp, can never be self-identical: it is either no longer or not yet present. This effect can be marked as a loss. . . Or else the difference at the heart of the ‘now’ can be seen as a constituitive and productive heterogeneity, a circulation of multiple times within the single instant” (3).  The coexistence of multiple times, in narrative and in a consciousness that organizes and/or is organized by, can be seen as either frustrating or rich, in the sense that this synchrony offers much complexity to work with.

These dynamics are always potentially at work in shaping narratives of self-reflection, but especially during the infinitely laborious experience of grieving, which involves grasping for the ever-receding present.  Morden is grieving for the past, the dead, and also perhaps his own mortality, which these other losses all ultimately imply.  Imhof describes him as “trying to discover himself in a senseless world, where things endure while the living lapse”; his life experiences become a collection of “portents of mortality,” revealing that “quotidian mysteries have merely been a preparation for his end.”  (179).  He is sorrowing over Anna but also over his own mortality.  Laura Izarra contextualizes this novel within Banville’s larger body of work, arguing that here “he discards masks in favour of an over-consciousness of self” and dramatizes “the process of altered consciousness undergone by a subjectivity when facing inevitability, tragic losses, senescence, and death” (188).  The progression of Morden’s narrative is all this; it bears witness to the subject’s struggle to come to some sort of terms with its ultimate vulnerabilities.  

For Morden, the failed promise of the immortalizing power of memory is in part what catalyzes this struggle.  Acts of memory in narrative form do not necessarily strengthen one’s grasp on the memory of those who have died.  He explains that the dead are remembered by the living but in different ways in each mind:  “Thus in the minds of the many does the one ramify and disperse.  It does not last, it cannot, it is not immortality.  We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations” (87).  Memory does not preserve us in any coherent way, nor do the remaining bits of matter that may retain traces of us: “[t]rue, there will be something of us that will remain, a fading photograph, a lock of hair, a few fingerprints, a sprinkling of atoms in the air of the room where we breathed our last, yet none of this will be us, what we are and were, but only the dust of the dead” (87).    His own memory project is the attempt to recover the past through narrative means, in particular by maintaining a connection to the lost Anna or her antecedent, his childhood love Chloe through his storytelling.  But this effort cannot succeed in capturing its object; after offering a set of memories in detail, he explains:  “All this I remember, intensely remember, yet it is all disparate, I cannot assemble it into a unity. . .”; she is “always just beyond focus, moving backward at exactly the same rate as I am moving forward” (104).  About all this, he wonders:  “This is the mystery that baffled me then, and that baffles me yet.  How could she be with me one moment and the next not?  How could she be elsewhere, absolutely?” (104).  His attempt to make sense of the way people depart from our lives to live on elsewhere points obliquely to the same process in the case of death. In neither case does the one left behind in a state of longing find what he or she seeks.  But on the other hand, looking for a substitute way to sate this longing is a passionate pursuit, and though it is bound to fail, is dynamic and enlivening even in this time--at the depths of grief--which can so easily bind the self in stasis.  

As Morden sifts through his memories, he comes to the awareness that the moments to which we assign special symbolic significance in our life stories are not the only ones with the potential for momentous change.  An attempt to soften the pain of grief rarely does anything but defer or disavow that pain, but Morden’s efforts to grapple with the meanings of the loss do lead him somewhere, to a new understanding of his own life story and of life stories in general.  In recalling the past with the Grace family, he contemplates a seaside moment in which his desire is awakened for the matriarch of the family (later to be transferred to Chloe):  “And my life is changed forever.”  He goes on to say:  “But then, at what moment, of all our moments, is life not utterly, utterly changed, until the final, most momentous change of all?” (25).  Every moment contains this boundless potential for loss and transformation; in this way death is not different from other moments except in scale.  Morden’s process may or may not meet the conventional criteria of “successful” mourning, including the step of turning away from the old attachment to form new ones.  What does happen for Morden is that he comes to understand that the moments in which our attachments and passions begin are transformative; that love and loss are inextricably connected; and that every moment contains the potential for radical change and new narrative direction.  

Though much may be gained by not hurrying through, we naturally wish to escape the pain of acute grief.  To that end, we may pressure ourselves to grieve quickly, judge others for the way they grieve, or expectations the narratives others construct about loss to take a particular form.  Whether in response to our own grief, that of others, or both, all of these tendencies can thwart genuine integration of absence into the life or lives that remain.  An overly facile response to grief can generate a sort of false life story.  Especially in a cultural context that values quick grieving and a clear sense of closure, we need narratives that resist the idea that intimate loss can be devastating and chaos-creating, that instead reflect the real force of grief as it unfolds.  How else are we to learn how to encounter grief for ourselves when the time comes?



In their ways, these novels find ways of giving voice to the pain of acute grief, building narrative forms that provide the time and space for grief to develop fully, allowing the mind to move freely as it grapples with the pain.  These narratives find ways to avoid flattening the depth of loss into cliché or forcing the grieving process into a teleological template of linear progression and resolution, which would constrict the work of grieving.  Instead of conventional engagements with loss, Jacob’s Room uses indirection to confront its readers with the catastrophic loss of a generation through the exemplary death of one its members, asking us to read his entire life through the filter of foreclosed possibility.  This novel spatializes the experience of loss and absence, which is difficult to represent and engage any other way.  The Sea opens up the web of memory and the self at its core to recollect and reshape a life story in light of loss.  In these forms of narrative exploration, these novels find ways to incorporate the irreducible beyond-ness of death.  To avoid glossing over the devastating power of loss, they explore how narrative can serve as the means to encounter the pain of grief, to make an approach that respects the depth and opacity of fresh loss.  

Rather than a rejecting life, these approaches do justice to an inevitable part of it.  Their focus on dealing with death is, at its heart, an attempt to grapple with the challenges of living relationally.  Confronting death and the dead is, here, what it is for Derrida--a way of learning to live:  “To live, by definition, is not something one learns. Not from oneself, it is not learned from life, taught by life. Only from the other and by death. In any case from the other at the edge of death” (xviii). These novels and the film represent the work of grieving for a beloved other as it truly is—devastating, disorienting, disabling.  Such uncompromising representations of grief illustrate our non-mastery of the human experience and our radical vulnerability.  This is far from a sign of turning away from life; as Butler puts it in Precarious Life,  “if we have lost, then it follows that we have had, that we have desired and loved” (20). Our vulnerability in the face of grief is the foundation of openness to living relationally, with all its risks, because the cost of protection from loss is perfect solipsism.







Works Cited


Archer, Jane.  “The Characterization of Gender-Malaise:  Gazing up at the 

Windows of Jacob’s Room.”  In Gender Studies:  New Directions in Feminist Criticism, edited by Judith Spector, 30-42.  Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State Univ. Popular Press, 1986.  


Banville, John.  The Sea.  London: Picador, 2005.


Bazin, Nancy Topping and Jane Hamovit Lauter.  “Virginia Woolf’s Keen 

Sensitivity to War:  Its Roots and Its Impact on Her Novels.”  In Virginia  Woolf and War: , Reality, and Myth, edited by Mark Hussey, 14-39.  Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1991. 


Bishop, E. L., “The Shaping of Jacob's Room: Woolf's Manuscript Revisions,”  

Twentieth Century Literature.  32, no. 1 (Spring 1986):  115-135.


Blain, Virginia.  “Narrative Voice and the Female Perspective in Virginia Woolf’s 

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Elizabeth A. Weston "Narrating Grief in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and John Banville’s The Sea". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available December 5, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: June 22, 2010, Published: November 1, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Elizabeth A. Weston