A Room of One's Own

by Virginia Woolf

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What is Virginia Woolf's purpose in "A Room of One's Own"?

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In "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf imagines that William Shakespeare had an equally gifted sister, Judith, who had none of the opportunities open to him. She did not go to the local grammar school and study Latin, nor did she go to London and become a...

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playwright. Woolf uses this story to illustrate the idea that, where women have achieved less than men, this has been a product of circumstances, not a lack of intellect or talent. She observes:

any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.

At the end of "A Room of One's Own," Woolf returns to this image of Shakespeare's sister to illustrate her purpose. The time is coming, she says, when women who write will not labor under such tremendous disadvantages as they have throughout history. Women must seize the opportunity this offers and work actively to increase and exploit it. If they can do so:

then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born.

At the beginning of the essay, Woolf seems merely to be describing the difficulties that have faced women writers, principally the lack of money and a room of their own. By the end, however, her purpose has become clear: she wants to make it possible for a woman to equal, even to surpass the literary achievement of Shakespeare.

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Virginia Woolf developed the book version of A Room of One's Own by expanding on a lecture she was asked to write and present about "women and fiction." She says that her first task was to decide whether this meant the fiction that women have written, or the fiction that has been written about them—largely by men. She decided to focus on the former but inevitably some aspects of the latter must be addressed.

Woolf guides the reader through the works of some great English women writers—Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot—with the goal of renewing or reinvigorating our understanding of and admiration for them. But she also wants the reader to understand the many forces that have restrained women over the last few centuries, not only in England, which have meant there were far fewer women writers (in her day—the book was published in 1929).

These factors are largely economic and social, not some innate biological male-female difference. Money and private space, Woolf wants to show, are necessary for writers: Like a man,

a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

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In A Room of One's Own, Woolf refutes men who still argue that:

women are intellectually, morally and physically inferior to men.

Woolf counters the contention that women are innately inferior to males, and for that reason unable to create the great literature of men like Shakespeare, by making a compelling case for the idea that it is economics that keep women down.

Women, she says, could write great works of literature at the same rate as men if they had the same privileges. She notes that girls in middle-class families are routinely expected not only to give up their own chance of obtaining an education so that males can be educated, but also to economize so the family can pay males's tuition, give them ample spending money, and send them on "grand tours" of Europe.

Woolf notes too that women are much less likely to have a "room of one's own" than men, and argues that such private space is necessary to the creative process. What is amazing, Woolf contends, is that women like Jane Austen have achieved what they have without the advantages men have enjoyed. Women need incomes, women need space, and women need privacy, all of which were still in short supply for women of the 1920s, Woolf argues. With these, they could achieve much more. Men also need to get over needing to feel superior to women, she says. When men begin to respect women as equals and to afford them equal opportunity, women will show their worth.

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Simply put, in "A Room of One's Own" Virginia Woolf seeks to explore the experiences of female writers. More specifically, she grapples with the specific challenges and experiences faced by writers who are women, and tries to understand why fewer women than men write (or, to put it another way, why fewer female writers are remembered in the traditional literary canon).

The resulting essay (or, depending on how you look at it, series of essays) is a remarkable achievement. Shifting back and forth between literary criticism, personal memoir, historical inquiry, and witty and imaginative anecdotes, Woolf brilliantly blends multiple genres to craft a masterful feminist critique of art, literature, and the social position of women in general. Woolf explores female oppression through the ages and concludes that a female version of Shakespeare has not surfaced because the historical subjugation of women has prevented such an occurrence from happening. Most famously, Woolf describes the conditions necessary for a woman artist to unleash her full potential: privacy (a "room of one's own"), and money (self-sufficiency). Woolf argues that, if women are to explore their artistic potential, they must be allowed to pursue these basic necessities. All in all, the essay is an imaginative and hard-hitting work, and still one of the most important pieces written in the twentieth century. 

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What aspect of Virginia Woolf's background reveals her purpose in writing "A Room of One’s Own"?

Two aspects of Virginia Woolf's background reveal her purpose in writing "A Room of One's Own." First, Woolf was denied advantages that her brothers and other men of their class were routinely rewarded. For example, while both her brothers went to college, the family did not feel it could afford to send Virginia or her sister. There were opportunities at that time for women to earn degrees from Oxford or Cambrdge, but the family assumed the women would simply get married and be supported by their husbands. Woolf was very angry at the opportunties she was denied, especially as her father acknowledged she was the brilliant one in the family.

Second, Virginia inherited money from several sources, mostly notably a Quaker aunt named Caroline Stephen, and this money, though not much, enabled her to have a room of her own in which to write. She saw the vast difference this made in her life and in her ability to become a successful writer who stayed true to herself.

In her essay, she argues that women had not produced great literature because they had fewer opportunities and next to no privacy. (She also argues that it is not because they are less capable than men--a common assumption at the time.) She points to Jane Austen, for instance, having to write her novels in a dining room while being subjected to frequent interruptions. In her own life, Woolf was an example of what a woman could do with an independent income and a room of her own. Think how much more woman could accomplish, she argues, if they could have the same university experiences as men and have more money and more privacy.

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