At the beginning of A Room of One's Own, Woolf swears up and down that she won't be able to say anything really profound about Women and Fiction. "All I [can] do," she writes, "[is] to offer you an opinion on one minor point–a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" (1.1).
Are you picking up a note of false humility there? Yeah, us too. Woolf doesn't consider this a "minor" point at all.
The book isn't all humble pie, though. Woolf cracks a few jokes at the expense of prunes and sexist old men, calling prunes "stringy as a miser's heart" (1.26) and sarcastically praising an old bishop who writes both that "Cats do not go to heaven" and "Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare" (3.7).
We're looking at some clever rhetoric here: she's softening up the audience so that they're more willing to listen to her point. Effective?
We think so. When she finally tells us that Shakespeare's sister "lives in you and me" (6.23), we almost feel like heaving ourselves up out of our ergonomic chairs and penning a great work of literature.
How could all of these genres describe a book thinner than a paperclip? Two reasons.
You'll find the tragedy and the historical fiction in Woolf's story of Shakespeare's sister. Woolf uses a real person from history (William Shakespeare) to weave a fictional story. And Judith Shakespeare ends up killing herself before she could use her considerable literary gift. So, a tragic historical fiction.
When Mary tells us all about how the writer's mind works—complete with the winding river (check out "Symbols"), she goes straight into philosophical literature. And check out the way she tops it off with her vision of the couple getting into the taxi cab (6.3). That is some real philosophical viewpoints there.
Okay, are you with us so far? We tend to associate parables with the New Testament, but a parable is just an allegory with a message, usually using humans instead. So—human figures? check. Short? check. Moral lesson? check and check. Woolf's message is that denying women opportunities, money, and privacy makes it impossible for them to write well, which is a huge loss for everyone.
Now that we've softened you up with a few easy ones, let's tackle the shaggy beast of Modernism.
Woolf is a major, major Modernist writer, and the thing about Modernism is that there are about as many ways of doing it as there are people writing it. Here, though, we can say that Woolf's Modernism involved thinking about thinking, then trying to get that down on paper as accurately as possible.
Right at the beginning Woolf tells us that she's "going to develop in your presence as fully and freely as I can the train of thought which led me to think [that women need money and rooms of their own in order to write fiction]" (1.1). That business about developing a thought "fully and freely" is something Modernists try to do. In other books like To the Lighthouse, Woolf uses fancy literary techniques to get us to really experience another person's thought.
A Room of One's Own isn't experimental in that way, but it sure does want us to feel what Mary's feeling.
Woolf isn't all mysterious about the title of A Room of One's Own; she really lays it right out there. The point of her essay is that women—and all writers—need to have rooms of their own. Preferably with locks.
These private rooms give women the ability to think independently and without interruption. And this simple, practical title goes along with Woolf's thesis: that it's the simple, practical, material things that are most important when you're trying to figure out how to let genius flourish—or flow like a river. Check out "Symbols" for more on this.
A Room of One's Own ends with a call to action: Woolf tells women to get off their butts, work hard, find a private room, and earn five hundred pounds a year. This way, in a few generations, a Shakespeare-level female writer will have the tradition, space, and money she needs to write great things.
Woolf makes these points with the kind of creepy image of Shakespeare's sister coming to life by "put[ing] on the body she has so often laid down" (6.23). What does this mean? You can't have a great female writer unless there are not-so-great writers that come before her and influence her. And you can't even do that if nobody has any time, money, or space in which to work.
You might have noticed that we don't move around much in A Room of One's Own. We stroll around a few campuses outside of London, visit the library, then spend the rest of the time in Mary Beton's apartment, leafing through books and looking out the window. In fact, as the essay goes along, our surroundings get smaller and smaller: first the natural world of the campuses, then the library, then a room in the narrator's apartment.
How could Woolf have something to say about enormous subjects like Women and Fiction if she stays in such a small space?
Okay, maybe not so claustrophobic after all.
Apart from her trip out of town to visit Oxbridge University and Fernham College, Mary spends her time in London. (Check out "Themes: Visions of London" for more about this.) But one major reason that London matters as a setting is that it's teeming people and symbols. Even if Mary is just staring out the window at leaves falling and people getting into taxicabs, she's soaking in the city and all that it means.
Woolf wrote A Room of One's Own when the battle of the sexes was raging. Sure, women in England had many of the rights they have today—owning property, voting, having careers—but the battle sure wasn't over, and the struggle was still fresh in everyone's mind.
Woolf reminds her listeners and readers of the state of affairs:
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; that in 1919—which is a whole nine years ago—she was given the vote?
This little jab works on two levels. First, check out that "whole nine years ago" jab: what she really means is that she can't believe it took so long for women to get the vote.
But it's also a little wakeup call. Sure, they haven't had these rights for very long, but they do have them now—so, women had better get out there and start changing and achieving.
Woolf isn't trying to write a difficult book here. She really wants everyone to understand her basic argument—that the material conditions of an artist's life totally affect the work they produce. Let's take a look at the beginning:
But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what, has that got to do with a room of one's own? I will try to explain. When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. (1.1)
Hey, throw in a few '80s pop culture references, and that's practically the way Shmoop talks. Talk about student-friendly! That said, Woolf has an encyclopedic knowledge of literary figures, and she's not afraid to use it. So you might find yourself consulting the nice people at Bartleby.
If most books show you a totally finished building with a nice façade, Woolf is giving us a tour of the construction site.
Mostly, authors work hard to make you forget that the fictional character is just words on the page. But here's Woolf, introducing her fictional narrator: "call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance" (1.2), because "Mary" is "only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being" (1.1).
And when we get to Fernham, Woolf pauses again to remind us that she's making this story up: "I dare not forfeit your respect and imperil the fair name of fiction by changing the season" (1.23). Just as we're ready to kick back and enjoy the story, she reminds us that she's in charge. She's not changing the season because it would be jarring to us, but she could if she wanted to.
Where normally an author would simply introduce the character, Woolf is more interested in showing us the inner workings of fiction than trying to get you to suspend disbelief. Basically, she's pulling back the curtain.
So, when we say this style is "self-conscious," by the way, we don't mean that Woolf is shy, or anything. We mean that the style of writing is self-conscious: as you read, the text keeps reminding you that you're reading a piece of fiction created by another person. So, what does this have to do with Women and Fiction?
Woolf's insistence on the five hundred pounds a year and the private room are about the very practical things that make fiction-writing possible. So maybe this self-conscious style is a kind of practical illustration of the writer's task. We're not just reading a story, we're seeing how a writer works.
Surprise! The entire essay is one long allegory.
An allegory is a really long—say, book-length—metaphor, where various concrete things in the text stand for various immaterial concepts. (Need a good example? Check out George Orwell's Animal Farm, in which animals stand for political viewpoints.) It's a bit musty as a literary convention, but Woolf manages to use it in a subtle way. Let's check it out:
What if the campuses of Oxbridge and Fernham stand in for men's and women's educational opportunities? What if the British Library represents all of the angry anti-woman rhetoric out there? What if the narrator's home library is a trip through a few thousand years of history and literature? And what if her window looks out toward the writers of the future who will be able to forget about their own sex as they write?
Yeah, it's looking a lot like an allegory to us.
Using allegory lets Woolf illustrate of one of the themes of the text: documenting the little insignificant details of everyday life is the way to get at the largest, most important things. "What is meant by 'reality'?" she asks. And then goes ahead and answers her own question: "It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun" (6.16).
It's the most beautiful thing we've ever seen.
Okay, let's take a break from all the subtlety. The room is right in the title of the book, so we know it's important. And at the end of the book she puts its meaning right out there. We're going to set it out so you know how important it is:
a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself. (6.12)
We all know this, right? Think about being a teenager (whether that was 20 years ago or, you know, right now). The ability to close your door and do your teenage thing, whatever it is—write poetry, play your guitar, make youtube videos, look up pictures of One Direction—is super important to figuring out who you are and what you want out of life. It means you have a few minutes without your parents nagging you to be who they want you to be and decide what your very own life's work is going to be.
Well, for a long time, women were basically treated like teenagers who were never allowed to lock the door. For Woolf, having a private room means a female writer can get out of the drawing room where others are always interrupting her.
For Woolf, the problem with writing in the living room is that it forces women into writing books about people's relationships with one another, and a locked room offers a woman the privacy to concentrate on the individual's relationship with important things like the universe or truth.
We have to ask, though: what's more real or more important that our relationships with each other? Isn't Woolf being a little sexist here herself, by saying that things that women write about—relationships and people—aren't as important as abstract concepts?
Well, you're in for a happy surprise: Mary Beton has a magical purse. When she reaches in to pay for lunch, she tells us, "There was another ten-shilling note in my purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath away—the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. I open it and there they are" (2.13).
All right, fine. It's not really a magical purse. It's just a way of talking about Mary Beton's inheritance and the kind of mental freedom she gets from financial security. Now that she's got enough money to live on, she doesn't need to do jobs she doesn't like and she doesn't need to suck up to anyone, especially not to men (2.14). That means she can decide for herself what she likes and dislikes, and she has the time and the comfortable room she needs to write all about it.
Want us to blow your mind a little more? "Purse" is a really old euphemism for (and slightly dirty way of talking about) a woman's genitalia. Mary Beton has a self-sufficient purse: she doesn't need a man to fill it.
You figure that one out.
How can you tell when a simple landmark has grown up into a symbol? When it just won't stay in its place.
Early on, Mary Beton is hanging out next to a river on the Oxbridge campus thinking about women and fiction:
The river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning tree, and when the undergraduate had oared his boat through the reflections they closed again, completely, as if he had never been. (1.2)
Well, that's a nice image—even a beautiful one. But what's it doing 91 pages later, when Mary is having her epiphany about how the writer's mind has to be both sexes at once? A leaf falls, and
somehow it was like a signal falling, a signal pointing to a force in things which one had overlooked. It seemed to point to a river, which flowed past, invisibly, round the corner, down the street, and took people and eddied them along, as the stream at Oxbridge had taken the undergraduate in his boat and the dead leaves. (6.2)
Okay, so the literal river at Oxbridge seems to be related to an invisible river that moves people and things around London. And then it comes back—along with the undergraduate—just a few pages later.
After the writer's mind has "celebrate[d] its nuptials in darkness," he
must pluck the petals from a rose or watch the swans float calmly down the river. And I saw again the current which took the boat and the undergraduate and the dead leaves; and the taxi took the man and the woman, I thought, seeing them come together across the street, and the current swept them away, I thought, hearing far off the roar of London's traffic, into that tremendous stream. (6.9)
Now that little river at Oxbridge isn't only related to that invisible river we talked about above, but also to what has to happen in a writer's mind. At this point, we can be confident we're dealing with a symbol.
Okay, so we have a symbol. Great. What does it mean? Well, what do rivers do?
They flow. Bingo.
Woolf's main argument about the room of one's own and the 500 pounds a year is an argument for being able to let your thoughts flow without interruption. Mary's thoughts are flowing nicely at Oxbridge until the beadle interrupts her. A woman writer's thoughts can't flow in a drawing room, because people are always coming in and out, interrupting her. So this lazy, flowing river symbolizes the way a writer's mind needs to operate—male or female. Slow, meandering, and uninterrupted.
When Mary Beton eats at Fernham, her meal is a non-delicious combination of beef, prunes, and custard. And boy does she have words to say about that.
Here she is on the prune:
If any one complains that prunes, even when mitigated by custard, are an uncharitable vegetable (fruit they are not), stringy as a miser's heart and exuding fluid such as might run in misers' veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years and yet not given to the poor, he should reflect that there are people whose charity embraces even the prune. (1.26)
The beef, prunes, and custard are so bad that, sitting with her friend after dinner, she can't even think straight. She keeps returning to the bad meal and what it says about women artists. Two chapters later, she's still thinking about the meal: "Now what food do we feed women artists upon? I asked, remembering, I suppose, that dinner of prunes and custard" (3.12).
So, you've probably figured out that the bad meal at Fernham is a symbol for the bad intellectual food women receive, too. But it's also literally a bad meal—and how can you write with indigestion?
Remember what Mary says in Chapter 1: "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well" (1.26). Woolf emphasizes this point to argue that, duh, people's bodies matter. Whether you're cold, hungry, sick, or tired matters. And if you're eating bad food, waking up at night to tend to your family, or denying yourself rest because there's domestic work to be done—you're not going to do good work. You just can't.
We mean, you can barely drive a car under those circumstances—much less produce an eternal work of literature. Right?
Mary's luncheon at Oxbridge is truly awesome. The food is amazing, the conversation is interesting and witty, even the cigarettes are good. It's like Thanksgiving dinner, but without the weird uncle.
There's only one tiny thing that mars the afternoon:
A cat without a tail. The sight of that abrupt and truncated animal padding softly across the quadrangle changed by some fluke of the subconscious intelligence the emotional light for me. It was as if some one had let fall a shade. Perhaps the excellent hock was relinquishing its hold. Certainly, as I watched the Manx cat pause in the middle of the lawn as if it too questioned the universe, something seemed lacking, something seemed different. (1.7)
Wait, we think we've got this one. This tailless cat symbolizes some kind of larger lack that Mary can't quite put her finger on—although it has something to do with World War I.
See, before WWI—according to Mary—men and women went to luncheon parties humming Tennyson and Rossetti's poetry under their breath. The cat is "abrupt and truncated": in other words, a symbol of post-war writing and also women's experience.
To be honest, this seems like a bit of a curve ball. We're talking about women, and all of a sudden—boom!—diatribe about the state of culture generally. Is there a way they're connected?
Woolf plays fast and loose with her narrative technique in A Room of One's Own (as she does in much of her other writing), so pinning the narrator down is tricky.
At first, Virginia Woolf is speaking as herself. Before long, the "I" becomes Mary Beton—but even that "I" isn't important: "call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance" (1.2).
Why does Woolf choose to have Mary Beton in the picture at all? Wouldn't it be easier for her to just speak in her own voice and talk about her own experiences? After all, her experiences were pretty similar to Mary Beton's—just check out her "Character Analysis."
Well, Virginia Woolf knew the limitations of a first-person narrator: it's too easy for people to say that your experiences aren't universal. Enter Everywoman Mary Beton.
Woolf is asked to address a couple of audiences on the topic of Women and Fiction. Okay, not a dramatic call—but definitely a literal one.
Mary visits seductive but forbidding Oxbridge and endures a horrifying meal at Fernham before descending into the even more fearsome depths of the British Museum library, where she finds shelves of books about women's inferiority written by angry men.
Amazingly, she survives.
Mary has a vision of the male and female parts of the mind working together. This allows her to get beyond all the finger-pointing and name-calling going on between men and women. But even though she has had this vision, she has yet to find a female writer who is really writing as well as she could be.
We admit it: this is where A Room of One's Own as a quest narrative kind of breaks down. The final ordeal isn't something that Mary has to go through; it's something that the women writers of the future need to do. They need to fight for their money and private room so they can write beautifully about what's going on in their minds. (And we suspect that Woolf might have had an ordeal of her own.)
At the end of the book, the goal—for society to produce a female writer unencumbered by her sex and able to allow her genius to blossom—is at least a hundred years away. Bummer.
Mary has meals at Oxbridge University and Fernham College that show her how different men's and women's experiences are. (Plus some unpleasant encounters at Oxbridge.) This sets the stage for her investigation of why it's so hard for women to write.
Mary visits the library to solve this little problem. Too bad that it's useless: all the books are written by angry dudes who seem way too interested in asserting their own superiority. If she can't trust the guys who write the books, how is she going to learn anything about women and writing?
Things turn a corner when Mary realizes that writers need to let the male and the female parts of their minds out to play if they want to write well. No more "Girls rule; boys drool" (or the other way around)—it's time to grow up.
Woolf takes off the Mary Beton mask and considers a few possible objections to the ideas she just put forth. Now that Woolf has gotten her ideas across, it's time look at the gory details.
We go out on a positive note, when Woolf urges women to write and write so that a future incarnation of Judith Shakespeare can be born. All right! Someone hand us a pen!
Mary notices that, unlike the ladies room, the women's college is way worse than the men's college. This leads her to realize that there are serious questions to be asked about Women and Fiction.
At the library, Mary finds herself face-to-face (or eye-to-text) with the angry sexism of male writers and The Patriarchy. She imagines the fate of Shakespeare's sister in this environment, and it is super depressing. This is really low: she finds herself getting mad at all the men who've been oppressing her and her sistahs.
Taking a deep breath, Mary steps away from a battle-of-the-sexes approach to these problems and instead says that men and women need to welcome the other sex into their minds—uh, so to speak—in order to write well. And women just need to keep writing.