Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1429
Set at Oxbridge (a veiled Oxford University) and at sites in London, A Room of One’s Own critically examines the intersection of women, writing, fiction, and gender. The work is nontraditional in terms of its format (the chapters can be read as one continuous essay or independently), content (historical facts mix with stories and memoir), point of view (an intimate first-person female voice), and audience (by a woman for women; male readers must read through women’s eyes in a reversal of the male gaze). A Room of One’s Own is a groundbreaking, genre-expanding inquiry into the effects of gender on literary production.
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Based on lectures Virginia Woolf delivered at Newnham and Girton colleges in 1928, the six interrelated essays seek to answer why, historically, fewer women than men have written. The title of the book refers to Woolf’s belief that a woman writer needs privacy, space, and sufficient financial means to practice her craft. Additionally, Woolf calls for an expansion of the literary canon to include “room” for works by women. Initially, Woolf announces that she will speak in the persona of another—“call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please”—but the author’s musings supersede these personas, each of whom will make an appearance in a chapter—while Woolf’s presence is felt throughout.
Several incidents that Woolf recounts in A Room of One’s Own, including being driven from male-exclusive university turf, are drawn from her own experiences as a woman barred from men’s venues. In the essays, Woolf approaches the literary canon as a male realm from which women have been excluded.
Woolf begins her first chapter with an apologia. She informs readers that she will not be able to provide them with either the truth about women or about literature. Instead, she offers her opinion that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” The arguments presented in this and subsequent chapters support her assertion of these two requirements. Woolf continues her discussion by contrasting the education of men and women; her visits to representative colleges reveal the wealth of the first and the poverty of the second. The men’s abodes have private rooms; the women share tight quarters. Men’s colleges boast well-stocked libraries; women’s colleges provide sparse classrooms. Male students feast; female students sup. Woolf observes, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Woolf explains this disparity as one based on tradition, whereby, for centuries, women have been legally barred from possessing wealth, and their education has been held in low regard by society. While it appears that Woolf scolds the founders of women’s colleges for not providing more amenities, in actuality she honors them for making the effort despite social custom and female penury.
In chapter 2, Woolf relocates her investigation of women and fiction to the British Museum in London. Searching the card catalog, she is amazed by the multitude of works about women composed by men, but notes that few women have written books about men. Men, it seems, cannot agree on what they think of women. Depending on the reference one consults, women have either little character or characters that surpass those of men. These texts agree, however, on the general superiority of men over women.
Woolf next refers to and consults a fictitious reference book called The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex and concludes that the professor who composed it had been angry. (She wonders why all the professors who have written about women were angry.) Drawing upon the practice of psychology, she reasons that men have demeaned women to inflate their own sense of importance. Woolf concludes that labeling one gender inferior grants superior status to the other gender by default. In short, male superiority is not proven or earned; it is simply stated.
Chapter 3 finds the narrator consulting works of history and literature in search of answers to the question of gender and the economy, including how women’s poverty affects their creativity. She finds abundant references to women in fiction written by men, but only two references to women as historical persons. From the work of historians, she reads that women had few freedoms, little education, and were the legal property of their fathers and husbands. In contrast, from the works of playwrights and poets, she finds images of powerful, yet beautiful or evil, women in the extreme. Almost absent from history, women are abundant in fiction.
To explain the disparity, Woolf presents the story of Judith Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s fictional sister. Woolf imagines Judith to be sixteen years old with creative gifts equal to those of her brother. Unlike William, though, she is denied an education and her days are occupied by menial chores. Judith writes in secret, hiding her poems in an apple loft. When her father insists that she marry a local boy of his choosing, she escapes to London, where she is mocked by men during her search for employment in the theater. Crazed by the passion of her suppressed art, pregnant with a stage manager’s child, and alive in a time and place that is not ready for female genius, Judith commits suicide. The story reveals what might have happened to a woman with Shakespeare’s talent in Shakespeare’s day.
In chapter 4, Woolf considers the matriarchy of women writers that began with seventeenth century playwright Aphra Behn. Restoration society had considered women like Behn immoral for earning their livelihoods as writers. Woolf discusses how chastity, a virtue bestowed distinctly upon women, relates to their silencing. A chaste woman does not express her ideas in public; she certainly does not publish them in a book or parade them on the stage. However, to beget succeeding generations of poets, playwrights, and novelists, there must be a lineage of great voices; Woolf believes men have the advantage over women in this regard. She credits fourteenth century playwright Geoffrey Chaucer for preparing the way for William Shakespeare and credits Shakespeare for inspiring other male writers of note. She decries women’s brief lineage but praises modern literary foremothers such as Jane Austen, sisters Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, and George Elliot. With the exception of Austen, these women published under male pseudonyms, for even in the nineteenth century chastity was a factor inhibiting female expression. Woolf credits Austen and Emily Brontë with possessing minds as incandescent as that of Shakespeare, for they did not let gender inequalities impede their craft. Additionally, Woolf praises Austen for crafting sentences uniquely suited to a woman’s voice and for adapting the novel to a female form. Charlotte Brontë and Elliot had been constricted, Woolf believes, by their anger at the limitations society placed upon women.
Chapter 5 finds Woolf exploring works by women of her time. In addition to composing novels, her contemporaries produced works that include biography, travel, philosophy, and aesthetics. This chapter, however, concentrates on one novel—a fictional work called Life’s Adventure by the fictional Mary Carmichael—and Woolf assumes the role of literary critic, assessing the work’s merits. Initially, her response to the novel is negative, citing terse sentences and jarring sequences, until she notes something new: the words “Chloe liked Olivia,” a statement suggestive of female friendship and perhaps even lesbian attraction. Woolf believes that relationships between women have been glossed over or omitted in works about women written by men. She finds that not until the time of Austen are such relationships authentically presented in literature. Men, Woolf concludes, have the tendency to see women through their own eyes and not through the eyes of women, a precursor to her discussion of androgyny in the final chapter.
In chapter 6, Woolf employs the image of a man and a woman entering a taxicab to symbolize a mind that is androgynous. According to Woolf, only men who write without male biases and women who write unimpeded by female constraints are able to create authentic male and female characters. In such writers, both genders reside and govern their creative faculties. Woolf credits Shakespeare with possessing such a mind.
Casting off pseudonyms and claiming her own voice, Woolf challenges her readers. Her parting words exhort readers, ostensibly the same college women who made up her audiences at Newnham and Girton colleges, but by extension all women who have had the benefit of a formal or informal education, to prepare the way for the arrival of a female Shakespeare.