A Room of One's Own

by Virginia Woolf

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Critical Overview

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A Room of One's Own is widely acknowledged to be a major work of feminist thought, just as many of Woolf's novels are considered major works of English-language fiction. A Room of One's Own is especially admired for its unparalleled breadth of inquiry and for the power of its metaphors. Its story of ‘‘Shakespeare's sister,’’ its notion of ‘‘aroom of one's own,’’ and its idea that women ‘‘think back through [their] mothers,’’ for example, are staple phrases of post-1950s feminist dialogues. The book's reputation rests not only on the way in which it captures the concerns of the author's own time, but also for the way in which it anticipates so much of the thinking and writing of contemporary feminism and literary theory.

Numerous feminists claim thatARoom of One's Own is the single most important twentieth-century feminist text. In 1983, for example, in '‘‘I Have Bought My Freedom': The Gift of A Room of One's Own,’’ Patricia Joplin states, ‘‘It would be hard to find any major work of American feminist theory, particularly literary theory, that is not to some degree indebted to A Room of One's Own.’’ Jane Gallop, in Around 1981: Academic Literary Theory, calls Woolf's book ‘‘the founding book of feminist literary criticism.’’ In fact, the book that launched academic feminism after World War II, Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, is said to be closely modeled after Woolf's book.

While no feminist dismisses Woolf' s book outright, numerous theorists question or contest some of the arguments presented in the book. For example, Alice Walker's ‘‘In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens’’ questions some of the author's assumptions and points to alleged conceptual limitations. Walker, an African-American feminist and fiction writer, says that Woolf's focus on ‘‘high art’’ is a classist position. For Walker, many poor women (i.e., not just women with rooms of their own and inheritances) produce great art; one must simply look "low" as well as "high." By looking "low," Walker means that quilts, beautiful gardens, and other art forms should be valued as much as printed books and formal paintings. Other feminists question the validity of Woolf's notion that there is a difference between men's and women's literature. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar point out, there seems to be no empirical truth to the claim that women's sentences are different from men's. In their book No Man's Land: The War of the Words, they suggest instead that Woolf is presenting a ‘‘fantasy about a utopian linguistic structure’’ that does not describe women's language, but rather their ‘‘relation’’ to language.

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Essays and Criticism