Last Updated September 13, 2023.
A Room of One’s Own is a nonfiction essay that was initially presented at the Arts Society at Newnham in 1928. Woolf was asked to speak on the topic of women and fiction but found that they are both “unsolved problems” due to the enigma of their “true natures.” Ultimately, the essay attempts to explain why men are more capable of writing fiction than women. Stated simply, it is because they have money and a room of their own.
In true essay format, Woolf begins by writing from a second-person point-of-view and directly addressing the audience. She begins with an “I’m going to” and lays out how she will format her presentation of findings. Throughout the essay, metaphors and imagined female artists help establish the basis for Woolf’s thesis. Her narrative format is also useful in engaging the audience, as it creates a more dramatized telling of Woolf’s research.
Importantly, this research utilizes fiction to support her argument, explaining: “Fiction must stick to facts, and the truer the facts the better the fiction.” This essay is separated into six sections that, for the most part, follow women from several centuries earlier to Woolf’s contemporary context. This history—and its unraveling to the current time period—unfolds through the narration of both Woolf and her female narrator.
Sections 1 and 2 follow the narrator as she conducts her research on the topics of women and fiction. Fittingly, being a woman, she faces obstacles that slow down the research process. For example, she is not allowed (due to her sex) to enter the university library without permission. Like the women she researches, she finds herself disadvantaged because of her gender. This female disadvantage, she finds, has always been prevalent in the writing of men about women. It is an endless cycle that allows men to keep women in an insubordinate position.
Sections 3 and 4 continue to follow the narrator, but now she makes great progress in furthering her thesis by creating the fictional sister of William Shakespeare. This sister, Judith, kills herself because she is unable to act for herself in a restrictive society. Though possessing the same “genius” as her brother, Judith does not have the privilege of a decent education and a job at a theater. The narrator concludes that lack of wealth and being of the female sex are responsible for the suppression of the emergence of female “genius.”
Sections 5 and 6 mainly focus on contemporary literature and how it was influenced by all the books that precede it. These books have been—and continue to be—written by women and men influenced by their anger and “sex-consciousness.” It is only with an “androgynous” mind, one that is “naturally “creative, incandescent and undivided,” that a person can successfully translate their emotion to written words.
It is with this in mind that Woolf ends her essay. She calls for women to write for wealth and for rooms of their own. With these interwoven themes, this essay is a piece of both feminist and literary criticism, pointing out not only the inequality of gender roles but also the way they contribute to and affect the literary canon.