Study Guide

A Room of One's Own Themes

  • Women and Femininity

    Pick a random page of A Room of One's Own and you're nearly guaranteed to find some reference to women. This isn't exactly surprising, since Woolf's essay is a long, hard look at how to be a woman writer in a man's world. And she's thorough about it: she takes a gander at how traditional roles like wife and mother are filled with irritating interruptions that make it so a woman can't get a thought down on paper. She cracks the history books to look at how men have written about women. She points her eye inward to look at tiny differences between how men and women read and write. In the end? Well, we can't say much for the past—but we are starting to feel a little better about the future of women.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How in the world can we understand women if they are portrayed so differently in fiction than they are in real life? Can we learn anything at all about women from fiction? What about reality in general? And what about The Real Housewives?
    2. Do men and women see the world completely differently? Is there any overlap?
    3. When it comes to stuff like politics and war, Woolf makes the point that women aren't invited to the party. This causes a "sudden splitting of consciousness" that Woolf implies hurts women's ability to write. But couldn't it actually help women writers to have their noses pressed up against the glass (6.3)?

    Chew on This

    Men couldn't ever give us a good idea of women's experiences, because women's experiences are too different from men.

    Woolf doesn't think that it makes sense to give out gold stars to authors and works of literature. But if women could be "measured" publicly the way that men are, they might make more of a splash.

  • Literature and Writing

    For one million dollars: what do geniuses need to write great books? (You've used up all your lifelines.) Oh, okay, need a hint? Well, how come Shakespeare was able to be so awesome? Instead of asking the audience, Woolf takes the history books down off the shelf and works out her own ideas. In A Room of Her Own, the simple answer is that writers need money and their own space to write anything good. But they need more than that: great writers need to send the male and female parts of their minds out on a hot date. And with this metaphor, Mary describes what's going on in the mind of an awesome writer: some sexy, sexy gender-bending.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. How could something fictional—i.e., made up—ever tell the truth? Does fiction have limits to what it can tell? How about facts?
    2. For Woolf, do life and writing have any connection? Do certain lives create certain kinds of literature? And what would a novel written by a dog look like?
    3. Do women's bodies—their physical beings—affect their writing?

    Chew on This

    For Woolf, fiction can express more truth than actual truth.

    As far as Woolf is concerned, you'll never be able to write anything good unless you're independently wealthy.

  • Wealth (and Poverty)

    We can't say whether Woolf would have liked the Wu-Tang Clan, but she'd certainly agree that "Cash Rules Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M.!)." In A Room Of One's Own, the best tool for creating women writers, and for fostering women's independence in general, is money. Not only does it give a woman the free time she needs to write, it also makes it so she doesn't have to suck up to anyone else (mostly men) in order to earn her living. That means she's free to form her own opinions. And that means she'll be able to write what she wants to without anyone else's influence.

    Questions About Wealth (and Poverty)

    1. Woolf is always hammering home how important material things like food and money are to making good art. Does her own writing reflect this? Does her prose reflect this? How, or how not?
    2. Mary inherited her money, but she tells the women in the audience to "earn five hundred a year by your wits" (4.21). Why isn't she arguing that female writers all receive a stipend? How are women supposed to earn this money?
    3. Mary talks a lot about inheritance: her own, how women like Mary Seton's mother never bothered to make enough money to hand down to her daughters. Can you inherit things other than money? If so, does that figure into Woolf's argument?

    Chew on This

    For Woolf, it's more important that a woman can make money from her writing than that her writing be any good.

    While Woolf ends on a hopeful note, she mainly writes about how hard it has been and will be in the future for women to write good books.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Isn't it ironic: in A Room of One's Own, Woolf tells us a woman needs a room of her own, with a lock on the door, in order to have the freedom to write (6.10). That is, she needs the freedom to confine herself in a room in order to have the mental freedom she needs to create art. Confusing, right? Woolf plays with what those ideas might mean: she goes over the difference between being locked out and locked in and explains that physical freedom influences mental freedom. All of this in order to perform what sounds like a freaky occult ritual: to allow dead Judith Shakespeare to inhabit a new body.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Why couldn't an Elizabethan woman write poetry in a "dark, cramped room"? What kind of room does Woolf envision?
    2. Why does Mary make such a big deal about not being able to walk on the grass at Oxbridge?
    3. Do all men have absolute freedom of mind and body?
    4. "Confinement" is also an old-fashioned word for childbirth. Could that possibly be relevant to Woolf's argument?

    Chew on This

    For Woolf, the problem with contemporary men's writing isn't that they don't have the freedom they need to write, it's that they need another group (women) to be unfree.

    The "common sitting room" is a confined space, even though it's probably bigger and nicer than any little room a woman might have to herself. This is because writing in the "common sitting room" confines women to writing only certain kinds of texts.

  • Contrasting Regions: Oxbridge and Fernham

    What did you have for breakfast this morning? Last night's pizza and a flat coke? A tasty bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar? For Woolf, these are really important questions. "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well," she writes, "if one has not dined well" (1.26). A big part of the first chapter of A Room of One's Own is devoted long descriptions of two meals: one at the ritzy all-male university of Oxbridge and the other at the shabby all-women's college, Fernham. While Oxbridge is luxurious and locked up tight, like a bank or a private club, Fernham is accessible to anyone who walks in, even though they can only offer people meals of stringy beef and prunes. Woolf builds the whole argument of the book around the differences between these two places.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: Oxbridge and Fernham

    1. Why so much emphasis on the meals? Did Woolf originally deliver this lecture on The Food Network?
    2. How does Woolf use her language and syntax to give you an idea of Oxbridge's luxury? How does she convey Fernham's poverty?
    3. Is it important that Woolf keeps using the word "flowing" in her descriptions of Oxbridge? Why or why not?
    4. If there's a relationship between good food and good thinking, could you just go out to a fancy restaurant instead of studying for an exam?
    5. What's the benefit of being stuck in a "miraculous glass cabinet" as you stroll through the Oxbridge campus (1.4)?

    Chew on This

    Fernham seems like an awful place, yet when the narrator arrives at Fernham, she lovingly describes the overgrown beauty of the campus gardens. The Fernham campus, with its overgrown, unlocked gardens, is a symbol for the positive side of women's educational and intellectual situation.

    Woolf places too much emphasis on food and luxury; it's possible (maybe even easier) to make good art without having spent hours at a fancy lunch.

  • Power

    James Brown said it best: "It's a Man's Man's Man's World. Why? Because men have all the power. Or do they? You could argue that A Room of One's Own is all about power: men's power over women, women's power over men and over themselves, and even artistic power. Woolf carefully traces the effects of power on the minds of both men and women, showing that the power that men have has to come from believing that women are inferior. For Woolf, too, the power of authority is the power to interrupt. In order for women to write well and express their thoughts completely, of course, they can't be interrupted. They have to take back the power.

    Questions About Power

    1. Do women have any power at all in the patriarchy that Woolf describes? If so, is it a power worth having?
    2. Does the ability to write (and be published) give the writer power? Power over what? or whom?
    3. Why does Woolf make the man who prevents Mary from entering the library "kindly"? Wouldn't it make more sense to have him be mean?
    4. What would happen if women stopped being magical magnifying glasses for men?

    Chew on This

    If you can write about someone else, you have power over that person.

    Mary Beton's inheritance makes it so she doesn't have to be a magical "looking glass" that enlarges men.

  • Warfare

    We hear you: A Room of One's Own isn't about war at all, right? It's about women sitting around and writing in private rooms. And you'd be right: war is not the main subject of Woolf's work. But she was writing just after World War I, and she does carefully examine how war touches her topic of women and fiction. People were still figuring out what World War I—one of the bloodiest wars in history—might mean about human nature itself. And by 1928, people could see the conflict of World War II on the horizon. Little did Woolf know that World War II would change the role of women forever. Dun dun dun!

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How in the world is a disfigured cat an image for the world after World War I?
    2. Is there something kind of uncool in Woolf's idea that wars help men by providing them with experiences they can use in their fiction?
    3. Why don't we document the details of women's daily lives as thoroughly as war?

    Chew on This

    Woolf's position on warfare is muddled: on the one hand, men have convinced everyone that it's really important and needs to be documented in literature, to the detriment of books about the more female realm of domestic life. On the other hand, she wishes that women could participate in wars in order to gain the kind of experience needed to write interesting fiction.

    Woolf's association of World War I with a Manx cat is an illustration of her philosophy that the most mundane things need to be documented because they are how you get at "reality" (6.16).

  • Visions of London

    There's just something about writers and cities. In a book in which so little happens, the setting in which things do happen is important. Aside from her visit to Oxbridge and Fernham, Mary Beton never leaves London. London is also where all the excitement is: Judith Shakespeare escapes to London because it's the only place she can gain the experience to write her plays and poetry, and Mary Beton has a vision of the London street that inspires her with the idea that she needs to finish her essay. In A Room of One's Own, London is a big "machine" or a "factory" and everyone, even a woman writing at a desk in her own room, is an employee (2.2).

    Questions About Visions of London

    1. What kind of stuff would the "factory" of London make (2.2)?
    2. How could there be a connection between all of the boring things that go on in London every day and that "fiery fabric" London creates (2.15)?
    3. If no one in London cares much for literature or for Mary's topic, why work on it (6.1)? Why is London important to Mary if it's so indifferent to her work?
    4. Is it significant that when the "machine" of London takes a rest for a second, the "force in things which one had overlooked" becomes perceivable (6.2)?

    Chew on This

    Woolf forgot to mention that a writer's room needs to have a window that opens out onto a lot of action.

    Without the stimulation of the London streets, Mary would never have been able to finish her argument.