Study Guide

A Room of One's Own Literature and Writing

By Virginia Woolf

Literature and Writing

Chapter 1
Virginia Woolf

Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact. Therefore I propose, making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist, to tell you the story of the two days that preceded my coming here. (1.1)

This is not the kind of answer you can give to your parents about why you're home late. But is there a way that fiction is more universal than fact? Have you ever changed up a story so you could tell the truth better?

Chapter 3
Mary Beton

What were the conditions in which women lived [during the Elizabethan era], I asked myself; for fiction [...] is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. (3.2)

A spider's web wouldn't work if it weren't attached to anything. This is a nice metaphor helping us see that fiction may be delicate and ethereal, but it's still connected to solid stuff.

The reason perhaps why we know so little of Shakespeare [...] is that his grudges and spites and antipathies are hidden from us [...] If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded, I thought, turning again to the bookcase, it was Shakespeare's mind. (3.17)

There's a metaphor here, but it's a little tricky. Woolf is saying (1) that Shakespeare's mind is on fire and (2) his desire to complain about his life or rag on others has been burned out. Without that need to complain all the time, he's able to just be a genius. (Is that all it takes?)

For surely it is time that the effect of discouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured, as I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and Grade A milk upon the body of the rat [...] Now what food do we feed women as artists upon? (3.12)

What kind of food do we feed students upon? French fries and make-your-own waffles? (Oh, that was just us?) Woolf may be speaking metaphorically here about how discouragement affects the mind, but we need to remember that Woolf feels just as strongly about actual, literal food.

Chapter 4

[Woman's] sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting room. People's feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes. Therefore, when the middle-class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels. (4.22)

What conditions are necessary to write, say, Robocop? What might you write in a solitary room instead of the living room? And why is Woolf so down on interpersonal relations?

The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women's books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will always be. (4.34)

We're picking up a major theme of A Room of One's Own here: when we think about art, we have to think about the body that produces it. Artists—as any writer could tell you—aren't just brains in vats.

For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice. (4.21)

Think of that the next time you sit down to write a paper. This is an important point in A Room of One's Own, that writers never write alone, but rather they stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before. This comes up especially at the very end of the book.

Chapter 5
Mary Beton

For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been. (5.8)

Female friendship imagined as a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Without the Nazis, presumably.)

Chapter 6
Mary Beton

Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. [...] The whole of the mind must lie wide open [...] The writer, I thought, once his experience is over, must lie back and let his mind celebrate its nuptials in darkness. (6.9)

This is the big moment when Mary discovers that her boys-versus-girls ideas weren't helpful. Is it important that we get this idea in the form of a metaphor? And does "lie wide open" really mean what we think it does?

Virginia Woolf

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters. [...] But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand [...] is the most abject treachery. (6.11)

Treachery against whom, or what? Yourself? Women? Would you agree that women really have a obligation to their gender, or is it every woman for herself?