The Various Settings in A Room of One's Own
The commentary that makes up Virginia Woolf s A Room of One's Own is delivered by a female narrator on the move. She is first depicted wandering out-of-doors on the grounds of a university campus. Immediately afterwards, she makes her way indoors into various rooms and halls belonging to two of the many colleges that readers can assume make up this university. Next, she is depicted visiting the British Museum in the heart of London. She ends the book located in her London home. The mobility of this narrator points to the importance of setting in the novel. Setting, the context within which actions and persons are placed in literary works, is an integral means through which authors communicate their ideas. Elements of setting include historical time, location and place, and general environment or social milieu.
The first major setting of the novel is the grounds of a fictitious university the author calls "Oxbridge." As the name of this locale makes clear, the reader is supposed to call to mind Cambridge and Oxford Universities, two of the oldest universities in England. Both were established in the early thirteenth century and both were centers of learning even before they were officially established as universities. Each is made up of numerous, differently named colleges.
During the course of waiting for and keeping her two appointments at Oxbridge, the narrator (who henceforth will be referred to as Mary Beton) does various things and various things happen to her. She sits by the river that runs through the campus thinking about a future lecture she must give on the topic of women and fiction, she walks around (continuing to think) and is told to stay on the paths and keep off the "turf," she tries to go into a library but is not allowed to do so, and she has lunch at one college and then dinner at a second (‘‘Fernham,’’ an all-women's college).
The locale of Oxbridge invokes the entire cultural heritage and history of England. The two universities to which this name refers are the country's two most prestigious centers of learning. Oxford and Cambridge Universities are the places where England as a nation defined itself and where the nation's beliefs and traditions were handed down from generation to generation. These institutions groomed generations of privileged young men for the highest positions of power and leadership in the country. Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Woolf s time symbolized the greatness, promise, and identity of the nation.
In depicting the narrator suffering a series of exclusions on the grounds of Oxbridge, Woolf s polemic for women's access to education is well illustrated. Mary's exclusion from various parts of the university dramatizes the recalcitrance of the status quo, or the difficulty that women face in trying to change society's rules and boundaries for behavior and opportunity. In first placing the narrator on the grounds of Oxbridge, Woolf indicates how women tend to be associated with nature as opposed to intellect. As outsiders in relation to the inner domains of the nation's major universities, it is as if the women of England have been erased from the story of the nation's past, as if they, in their own historical ways and capacities, did not contribute in any way to the nation's greatness.
Some of the language Woolf uses in the description of how Mary is denied entry into the Oxbridge library is telling. Mary has been thinking about past fiction writers such as William Makepeace Thackeray and past essay writers such as Charles Lamb. When her thoughts light on Charles Lamb, she thinks about one of his essays in particular, on John Milton's Lycidas (Milton is an English poet of the seventeenth century and Lycidas is one of his poems):
Lamb wrote how it shocked him to think it possible that any word in Lycidas could have been different from what it is. To think of Milton changing the words in that poem seemed to him a sort of sacrilege. This led me to remember what I could of Lycidas and to amuse...
(The entire section is 9,750 words.)