Searching for answers to the questions she posed about men, women, wealth, and creativity, the narrator explores the British Museum in London. She soon realizes there are too many books written about womenalmost all by menfor her to digest them all. On the other hand, there are hardly any books by women on men. She wonders why there is such a great disparity, and randomly selects a dozen books. Trying to come up with an answer for why women are poor, she locates a multitude of other topics on women in the books, and a contradictory array of men's opinions on women. Frustrated, she unwittingly draws a picture of an unattractive, angry-looking professor at work on one of the books about the inferiority of women. It occurs to her that she has become angry because the professor has written angrily himself. Had he written "dispassionately," she would have paid more attention to his argument, and not to him. After her anger dissipates, she wonders why these men are all angry. She returns the books, finding them useless, and goes to lunch.
She reads the newspaper at lunch, and reflects that anyone reading it would find that England is a patriarchal society--men have all the power and money, hold all the important positions, make all the important decisions. The narrator knows that men are angry, however, and wonders why they would be angry with so much power. She wonders if holding power produces anger out of fear that others will take one's power. She then thinks that the men are not truly angry, but that when they pronounce the inferiority of women, they are really claiming their own superiority. The narrator believes life is difficult for both genders, and that it requires self-confidence. Self-confidence is often attained, she believes, by considering other people inferior in relation to oneself. She says that throughout history, women have served as models of inferiority who enlarge the superiority of men: "looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size." Men logically become angry and defensive if women ever criticize them, then, since women cease to be inferior and the men accordingly lose the status of superiority on which they are dependent.
The narrator pays her bill, and is grateful for the inheritance left her by her aunt. She learned she would receive 500 pounds a year for her life around the same time women gained the right to vote, and she believes the money is more important. Prior to that she had earned money on the odd jobs available to women before 1918. She hated doing that work, feeling like a fearful slave whose soul was rusting. Now, every time she pays for something with part of her inheritance, she feels the rust and the accompanying fear and bitterness are removed. She reasons that since nothing can take away her money and security, she need not hate or enslave herself to any man. Moreover, she feels that men, even with their wealth and power, contend with as major a problem as do powerless women: they are constantly trying to increase that power by subjugating others, and such efforts come at a heavy price. On the other hand, after her aunt's inheritance sank in, the narrator felt free to "think of things in themselves"she could judge art, for instance, with greater objectivity.
She walks home and sees various male and female workers on her street. She thinks about the relative values of the jobs. She believes that in a hundred years, women will no longer be considered the "protected" gender, but will have access to the more grueling jobs as well. She wonders what this has to do with women and fiction.
We see more evidence of institutionalized sexism; all the books in the library about women are by men, and frequently men with a chip on their shoulder. The narrator quickly identifies this chip as defensiveness. Men, used to feeling superior at the expense of women, grow angry and fearful when their superiority is threatened. Hence, they cut down the women in an attempt to enlarge themselves, as the narrator describes in the "looking-glass" metaphor.
There are two reasons why this instinctive aggression is harmful. First, it produces many of the social ills the narrator outlines, among them war. In their constant battle for power, men destroy that which they are fighting for. Remember the narrator's nostalgia for the pre-war musical hum of conversation, now replaced by regular conversation.
The second, more subtle, reason men's aggression is harmful relates to freedom of thought. The men are overly concerned with attacking the other sex and so, ultimately, end up concentrating mostly on their own gender. Their arguments lose objectivity, as they are not developed "dispassionately," and instead become subjective, easily picked-apart beliefs. Their power does not confer freedom of thought, but pigeonholes them into a confined way of thinking.
Woolf does not believe this defensiveness is exclusive to men; she points out that both men and women require "confidence" in life. She will later explore how such defensiveness impairs women's freedom. For now, however, money remains the greatest guarantee of freedom, as the narrator expresses in a well-known passage regarding the personal effects of her inheritance. It is no wonder, then, that she believes money is a greater tool than the right to vote; money eliminates a woman's dependence on a man, whereas the right to vote only gives her the right to choose which man rules over her.
As the narrator says, money has given her the freedom to "think of things in themselves." Woolf is developing an aesthetic ideology with this concept of personal freedom granting objectivity of thought, and we can trace it in her metaphors that revolve around light and refined purity. Here, as she often does, the narrator absorbs the brilliant light of the sky: "a fiery fabric flashing with red eyes." Remember also the "nugget of pure truth" the narrator says she understands the audience desires in Chapter One. Perhaps the most important metaphor combines light and refined purity in Chapter One when she describes brilliance as "that hard little electric light."
In the same way, by creating a fictional narrator, Woolf has somewhat removed her own personality from the essay and argued "dispassionately." Though the narrator is obviously based on Woolf and shares her voice, the essay is ultimately not about her, and is even less about Woolf. In contrast to the angry professor whom the narrator sketches, the narrator is detached and able to think clearly and without personal prejudices.