My Response to: A Room of One's Own
A Room of One's Own
In a Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, Woolf goes on an intellectual hero’s journey to discover the “essential oil of truth” (Chapter 2, para. 1) about “women and fiction” (Chapter 1, para. 1). This truth, she asserts, is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Chapter 1, para. 1). The rest of the prose is her intellectual journey which led her to this conclusion. For, as Woolf says, “one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold” (Chapter 1, para. 1). Through a careful blend of analysis and speculation, Woolf sets out to prove her thesis on women and fiction, and offers hope for the future.
Woolf’s call to adventure for her journey is when she is asked to speak about women and fiction, and she willingly accepts this call. Mainly, her quest is to answer why women have not produced the same quantity of great fiction that men have. Woolf begins by telling the reader the answer, which is that it is because lacked money and a room of their own; then, the journey of justifying the answer begins. Woolf’s audience can be considered the "normal world," and by having the answer to the question, Woolf has separated herself from this world, thus fulfilling the separation component of the journey. From here, the only obstacles Woolf has to overcome are the obstacles inherent in trying to explain something. However, Woolf determines that the best way to overcome this obstacle is to blend fact and fiction, as “Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact” (Chapter 1, para. 1). Woolf, who has assumed the names “Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or … any name you please” (Chapter 1, para. 2), explicitly states when she has returned from her intellectual journey by declaring, “Here, then, Mary Beton ceases to speak. She has told you how she reached the conclusion--the prosaic conclusion--that it is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry. She has tried to lay bare the thoughts and impressions that led her to think this” (Chapter 6, para. 10). Her atonement then, is the advice she gives to the audience of (presumably) women. Woolf says,
women … you are … disgracefully ignorant… What is your excuse? It is all very well … to say … we have had other work on our hands … There is truth in what you say … But at the same time may I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919--which is a whole nine years ago she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges … you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (Chapter 6, para. 20)
By giving the audience this information, she has caught them up with her, becoming “at one” with them, otherwise known as atonement.
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Society of the Machine
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Did you feel Woolf's criticisms of women at the end were harsh?
Yes, I didn't really want to fill my post with too much opinion, but I was surprised at how harsh Woolf's criticisms of women were. Most striking may have been where she cited that they had the right to vote for nine years as if that was enough time to make a major difference. That's only two presidential and four congressional elections, plus a handful of smaller local elections, yet she seemed to imply that that was more than enough. Then of course, there's the problems with only having two colleges that you pointed out.
As far as the money goes, I also don't know what the 500 pounds translates to. That would involve adjusting for inflation and conversion between two countries, but I understood her point at least. Money is supposed to represent another form of freedom. She called it the freedom to "contemplate," but I would just consider it financial freedom. Also, since the education system wasn't as good or even non-existent around this time, you may have needed money just to be able to learn to read and write. It's possible the 500 number is still too high, but that would be something someone would have to research.
Basically, I didn't have as big of a problem with the money aspect of the argument, but I was thrown off by some of her other comments.
The “truth” Woolf discovers by the journey’s end is essentially what she laid out in her thesis: that women need money and a place free from interruptions if they are to write fiction. The money, Woolf says, represents “the power to contemplate” while the room represents “the power to think for oneself” (Chapter 6, para. 12). However, she also comes across the “truth” that twentieth century women now have those things. Although only having these rights for a decade or less at this point, by Woolf’s own admission, Woolf still considers this enough time to at least be able to start producing quality fiction on a large scale.
Woolf’s prose reads like an essay. Although not based in hard facts, it does uncover a truth which could not be uncovered otherwise. Women’s history is so poorly documented and taught, that Woolf has to speculate on many of the things she says, yet they reach a higher level of truth through their verisimilitude. About Shakespeare’s sister for example, Woolf says, “I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet” (Chapter 6, para. 22), indicating that the stories she told of her are not real, however, it presents a realistic scenarios which serves to explain a point. Take this passage, for example:
Meanwhile [Shakespeare’s] extraordinarily gifted sister … remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world … But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then … and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. (Chapter 3, para. 8).
This may not be true in the sense that the reader can independently verify it, but it is a hypothetical that could very easily happen given what is known about the time, and it is a scenario that very likely did happen to at least some women. It is because Woolf’s writing seems some true and logical that it reads like an essay. It would be improper to generalize all women’s writing based on one woman’s, but this does break the unfortunate stereotype that women are only emotional and not logical.
Have you read A Room of One's Own? (Did you enjoy it?)
Being granted the legal right to own property and vote are important things for any person to gain independence. They are real and tangible things one could point to as differences between pre and post-twentieth century women. However, being granted these rights also instills a mental independence. Woolf says about Lady Winchilsea , “It was a thousand pities that the woman who could write like that, whose mind was tuned to nature and reflection, should have been forced to anger and bitterness” (Chapter 4, para. 12). She is pointing out that the simply knowing you are legally a second class citizen will subconsciously affect your writing, and she argues that this subconscious effect was gone after the twentieth century. In this way, the culture can either nurture or poison a person’s freedom to create.
Woolf goes through an intellectual journey and hopes to carry the reader along with her. Her decision to blend fact with fiction allows her to accomplish this goal, and her advice to female writers at the end gives purpose to her journey. She effectively argues why women need freedom and independence to be able to write, but points out that cultural changes have afforded women those things. Women now have money and a room to their own.