All bets are off: Woolf, Benjamin, and the problem of the future in Jacob’s Room

Scott McCracken


Virginia Woolf and Walter Benjamin shared an interest in the temporalities of modernity. This article reads Woolf’s early novel Jacob’s Room (1922) alongside Benjamin’s scattered writings on gambling – many of which were unpublished in his lifetime. One of the article’s premises is that the understanding of time for both Woolf and Benjamin was conditioned by the experience of defeat. Each looked for ways of thinking that might turn the mentality of defeat into something else. For both writers, this meant confronting the way in which the experience of defeat constrains our openness to what is to come. Both sought forms of writing that might re-open the future as possibility. In ‘Notes on a Theory of Gambling’, Benjamin argues that the gambler leaves placing the bet until the last possible moment, because until the bet is placed, all possible futures remain open. In Jacob’s Room, Woolf adopts a similar strategy, returning to the moments in Jacob’s life when things might have been different, the last possible moments, when what otherwise seems an inevitable, predetermined march towards war, and Jacob’s death, might have been averted. The concept of the bet in Woolf’s work, including war as the biggest gamble of all, opens up the possibility of alternative futures buried in the past.


Modernism; Benjamin, Walter; Woolf, Virginia; Jacob’s Room; Gambling; The Future

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