A Room of One's Own Summary
Woolf tells us that the best way to address the topic of "Women in Fiction" is to give us a work of fiction that describes how she got to the conclusion that, in order to write fiction, "a woman must have money and a room of her own" (1.1).
Woolf's fictional narrator, Mary Beton, sits by a river on the campus of Oxbridge, a fictional-but-not-really university. She's thinking some thoughts, but her meditations are interrupted by several woman-unfriendly interactions: she's ordered off the grass that only "Fellows and Scholars" may walk on and is denied entrance to the library (1.3). Church? She doesn't even bother trying to go in there.
Time for lunch! It's a super nice one, and, after the scrumptious meal, she has some highbrow conversation with the other lucky people there. Unfortunately, seeing a tailless cat sort of derails the conversation. Oookay.
After lunch, she walks to a nearby all-female college, Fernham, for dinner. It's… not good. In fact, it's so bad that she can't even have a good conversation with her friend. We guess because their tummies are upset?
The next day, Mary visits the British Museum to try to understand more about why her experiences the previous day at the men's university and the women's college were so different. She decides she'll search for information about women. Unsurprisingly, she ends up with a lot of books to consult. Surprisingly (to her), most of these books are written by angry men.
Unable to find anything useful and rational at the library, Mary then checks out the history books on her own bookshelf, trying to answer the question of why women have always been too poor to, for instance, endow a university with enough money for a good dinner. Surprise, surprise, no one has ever bothered to write a women's history.
Finally, the narrator turns to her imagination and tells us a story about Shakespeare's (fictional) sister, Judith, who has all of Shakespeare's genius but none of his opportunities. She concludes that she would end up pregnant and then kill herself without having written a word.
But what about actual women writers? Mary mulls over women's writing and thinks that, except maybe in Jane Austen's books, every book is ruined by the writer's bitterness and anger. She pulls down a (fictional) book by (fictional) Mary Carmichael called Life's Adventure. While it broaches topics that other writers have never put on paper before, like a friendship between two women, Mary decides that the book is still flawed. Maybe in another hundred years a woman will be able to write a book of true genius.
The next and final day of the story, Mary looks out her window to the streets of London. She sees a man and a woman get into a taxicab together. Hm, this gives her an idea. Maybe genius works of literature need to be gender-neutral. Each person has a male and a female in their own mind, and they must unite in order to make a truly great book.
At this point, Woolf stops speaking as Mary Beton and tells women that they should work toward having five hundred pounds a year and a room of their own in which to write. And then, some day, women will produce a writer of true genius.
- Heads up: this essay is based on two papers read at Newnham and Girton, two women's colleges.
- Woolf was assigned to talk about "Women and Fiction."
- So, she starts off by addressing an unspoken question: what does this business about the room have to do with Women and Fiction?
- Woolf thinks about what her assigned topic might mean.
- Maybe it's to talk about women as writers of fiction. She rattles off several authors she might discuss in this vein.
- But she might also be supposed to speak about what women are like, what kind of fiction they write, or about how they appear in fiction... or it might be all three together.
- Whew. The more she thinks about the topic, the more complicated it becomes.
- All she knows is that in order to write fiction, "a woman must have money and a room of her own" (1.1).
- So this essay will be Woolf's attempt to describe how she got to that conclusion.
- In order to do this, she will make "use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist," meaning that she'll be making stuff up (1.1).
- Woolf explains that the "I" she's going to use from now on aren't meant to be her, but rather "a convenient term for somebody who has no real being" (1.1).
- Huh. Things are definitely getting weird.
- She settles on Mary Beton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael as pseudonyms. (Intrigued? Visit the "Allusions" section to learn more about the four Marys.)
- And we begin!
- Mary Beton sits by a river that flows through the campus of "Oxbridge," a fictional university that's, uh, actually either Oxford or Cambridge.
- She's fishing for an idea about the topic at hand.
- (Fishing, get it? She's sitting by a river, but fishing for an idea. Okay, we'll stop now).
- She's so excited about her idea that she... gets up and walks on the grass.
- We can already see that Mary likes to live dangerously.
- All of a sudden a beadle (a university official, but on the rent-a-cop scale) runs over to kick her off the grass, telling her that the "turf" is for the "Fellows and Scholars" of the university and that her place, as a woman, is on the gravel (1.3).
- You know, in case she soils it with her lady-shoes. Or something. We really don't understand this. Usually "Keep Off The Grass" signs apply to everyone.
- This unpleasant run-in makes her forget her idea, but she keeps walking.
- She decides to try her luck at the library, but can't go in there, either. A guy at the door tells her that ladies are not allowed into the library.
- So she walks past a church and sees all of the old deans of the university heading to services. She thinks about all the money the university founders had to lay out to pay for this fancy school.
- Time for a ritzy luncheon at the university.
- Honestly, at this point we're surprised they let her in.
- After the meal, she sees a tailless cat that helpfully becomes a metaphor for the world after the First World War: "something [seems] lacking" (1.7).
- She imagines that before the war men and women hummed the poetry of Tennyson and Rossetti under their breath.
- As opposed to now, when presumably all they hum is "Call Me Maybe" and "Gangnam Style."
- Right when we think she's gone off the deep end, she acknowledges that this fantasy is a little absurd.
- After lunch Mary walks to a dinner at an all-women's college, but not before getting a little lost on the way.
- And the dinner? Not good, especially after that awesome lunch.
- She talks with her friend, Mary Seton, about how hard it was for the founders of the all-women's college to scrape together the money for it.
- She still can't get that awful dinner out of her head, and she's bummed to think about how women have always been poor.
- As she walks back to her hotel, she wonders "what effect poverty has on the mind" (1.31).
- Back in London, Mary goes to the library to try to sort out all these pressing problems.
- (Libraries, Shmoopers, were these archaic buildings full of books where people used to find information before Google. The one Mary goes to probably even has a card catalog.)
- So, this is good: there are a ton of books about women.
- But… they're all written by men. Not so good.
- And what weird is that women tend to not write books about men.
- We get a few examples of wildly contradictory statements about women by famous men like La Bruyère and Napoléon.
- Overwhelmed, Mary doodles a picture of an imaginary person she calls "Professor von X."
- He's the author of a book on the inferiority of women, and he's very ugly and very angry.
- She realizes that the books she has consulted in the library are worthless because "they were written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth" (2.12).
- Translation: one woman did these guys wrong, and they decided that all women were fickle and untrustworthy.
- Over lunch, Mary wonders why these men are angry. She thinks it might be that the men are just really focused on making themselves feel superior.
- Time the pay the bill. Mary is lucky, because she has an inheritance from a dead aunt, also named Mary Beton.
- It's pretty awesome—and weird—that she never has to worry about money because of this inheritance.
- One especially nice thing is that she doesn't have to depend on a guy to provide for her. That means she's got free time to write and think about stuff.
- After totally failing to answer her questions at the library, Mary cracks open the history books.
- She wants to look at the lives of women during the Elizabethan era (Shakespeare's time) because it blows her mind that there weren't any women authors when it seems like every dude with a quill pen was writing amazing sonnets (3.2).
- She's blown away by the difference between women's lives as shown in the history books (they were illiterate and beaten up by their husbands) and the way male authors portray them (as these strong, awesome characters).
- She realizes that her question—why didn't women write during the Elizabethan era?—is basically impossible to answer because there isn't any information about women's lives back then.
- So Mary puts on her imagination cap and spins a story about Shakespeare's hypothetical sister, Judith, who had as much talent as he did.
- Instead of going to school and learning Latin and history, Judith has to stay home and mend stockings and mind the stew.
- Eventually, she runs away from home to avoid marrying some guy who smells like sheep. She wants to be on the stage in London, but ends up pregnant.
- Are you sad yet? It gets worse. Judith kills herself and is "buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle" (3.7). I.e., an unmarked grave.
- Mary decides that if an awesome work of literature is hard for even the luckiest of men, it must have been almost impossible for women back then.
- So what does a genius need to produce good stuff?
- Still standing in front of her bookshelf, Mary considers several woman writers over time, and how their gift was perverted by anger and bitterness.
- You'll notice that Mary has a very complete bookshelf.
- Lady Winchilsea and Margaret of Newcastle were "lad[ies] of title" who were too angry at their condition to write the beautiful texts they were capable of (4.1).
- Then we turn to Aphra Behn, the first woman to make money by writing.
- Not that she was wearing furs and sipping Cristal, mind you. Her life was very hard.
- So why is it that so many of these works by women were novels? Surely someone would have wanted to write a poem or a play or something.
- Here's an idea: women couldn't just run off to their rooms to scribble verses in their locked diaries.
- Family duties meant that they had to write in the living room, and a novel is about public relationships between people, like the kind you might see in the living room.
- Plus, you can write a novel even if your family is asking you to wipe their noses and cook them dinner every five minutes.
- If you like Jane Austen now, imagine how much you would have liked her if she'd had her own space.
- Mary gets fancy, linking the literal interruptions that plague women writers to the figurative interruptions she talked about before, where a woman's bitterness and anger might interrupt the flow of her text.
- Another reason women have a hard time writing is that they don't have a long tradition, the way that male writers do.
- So women have to figure out a way to write that fits their perspectives.
- Woolf compares this to finding clothes that fit your body (4.34), the way that you have to try on a bunch of dresses before you find the one that fits just right.
- One thing is for sure: whatever kind of writing women do in the future, it's going to have to be able to withstand constant, annoying interruptions.
- Now Mary turns to the section of her bookshelf for women writers of today.
- Women aren't just writing novels anymore: they're writing histories, works about archaeology, you name it.
- We told you Mary's bookshelf is enormous. Also: weird way to organize your books, right?
- She randomly picks out Life's Adventure by the (fictional) author Mary Carmichael.
- Uh-oh. Something's wrong with the sentences.
- First, they seem "interrupted." Something is hindering "the smooth gliding of sentence after sentence."
- And then the plot seems weird, too. She's messing with "the expected sequence" (5.3).
- Mary's about to tell us what she read next when... she interrupts herself to make sure that there "are no men present" (5.4).
- Once she makes sure that "Sir Chartes Biron" isn't hiding behind a curtain, she reveals that two female characters "like" one another.
- Crazy, right?
- The point is that, before this book, women could only be jealous of one another or not have a relationship at all. They were "not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex" (5.5).
- In other words, women in literature never had a relationship because they just liked each other (or even hated each other). There had to be some kind of man involved.
- (Good think that's not true anymore, right? Well. This seems like a good time to bring up the Bechdel Test.)
- She pauses to imagine if the opposite were true and realizes that there wouldn't much literature left if men were only seen by and in relation to women.
- Catching herself giving props to women, Mary checks herself.
- Since women's lives have been lived privately—that is, not recorded in books—for nearly all of recorded history, it's hard to see if women deserve praise or not.
- Mary thinks about how much "unrecorded life" there is out there (5.14).
- The chapter ends with Mary imagining Mary Carmichael as a horse that has to jump over fences as male busybodies shout distracting criticism.
- While Life's Adventure is pretty good, it will take another hundred years before Mary Carmichael (or, more accurately, the women who come after her) will be poets.
- The next day, Mary's at her window looking at the streets of London.
- She sees a man and a woman get into a taxi together and drive off. Something about the way they and the taxi all seemed to flow together and then off into the stream of traffic gives her the idea that "thinking of one sex as distinct from another is an effort" (6.3).
- A writer's mind has to have both sexes in order to be any good.
- She takes the case of Mr. A's book, which is too masculine and therefore not interesting. (He just gets straight to the sex scenes.)
- Or the critic, Mr. B., who is also so lacking in a female side that "his feelings no longer communicated" (6.5).
- Then Mary treats us to a glorious sex metaphor for the self-fertilization of the writer's mind by the male and female parts. What ho, botany!
- Finally, Virginia Woolf takes off her mask and ends Mary's portion of the book.
- Now she addresses three criticisms that her listeners/readers might have:
- (1) She doesn't go into whether men or women are better at writing, and whether one sex is better at writing a certain kind of book.
- LOL, Woolf says. That's a really immature way to think about it. What's important is that women should be able to write exactly what they want.
- (2) Mary is a material girl, putting too much emphasis on things like money and private rooms.
- Well, Woolf throws down a (really long) quotation from a literary critic making the point that material things are important to writers.
- She ties things up with "That's it. Intellectual freedom depends on material things. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom" (6.14).
- (3) Why should women even write books, if it's so difficult and unrewarding?
- Woolf has a few responses to this question: that, selfishly, she likes to read lots of books and that lately there haven't been enough interesting ones; and also, she just has a "conviction" that good books are desirable (6.16).
- She ends the essay with a "peroration" (look it up) that is also another answer to the question of why women ought to write books: because maybe, if enough women write for long enough, then they will eventually produce something worthy of Judith Shakespeare.