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Set in pre-war England, the novel begins in Jacob's childhood and follows him through college at Cambridge, and then into adulthood. The story is told mainly through the perspectives of the women in Jacob's life, including the repressed upper-middle-class Clara Durrant and the uninhibited young art student Florinda, with whom he has an affair. His time in London forms a large part of the story, though towards the end of the novel he travels to Italy, then Greece. Jacob eventually dies in the war and in lieu of a description of the death scene, Woolf describes the empty room that he leaves behind.
The novel is a departure from Woolf's earlier two novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919), which are more conventional in form. The work is seen as an important modernist text; its experimental form is viewed as a progression of the innovative writing style Woolf presented in her earlier collection of short fiction titled Monday or Tuesday (1919).