The narrator reflects on the general public's understandable indifference to literature on the morning of Oct. 26, 1928. She watches a young man and woman get into a taxi, and their unity soothes her; she wonders if her thoughts these past two days of men and women as different have been straining. She wonders what "'unity of the mind'" means, since the mind always changes its focus. Perhaps the unity of the man and woman in the taxi is satisfying because the mind contains both a male and female part, and for "complete satisfaction and happiness," the two must live in harmony.
This fusion, she believes, is what poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was describing when he said a great mind is "androgynous." Coleridge did not mean that the androgynous mind favors women in any way; in fact, it does this less than the single-sexed mind. Rather, the "androgynous mindtransmits emotion without impedimentit is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided." Shakespeare is a fine model of this androgynous mind, though it is harder to find current examples in this "stridently sex-conscious" age. She believes the Suffrage campaign for the women's vote provoked men's defensiveness over their own sex. She reads a new novel by a well-respected male writer. The writing is clear and strong, indicative of a free mind, but she later notices he protests "against the equality of the other sex by asserting his own superiority," and this is as destructive an impediment as any; only the androgynous mind can foster "perpetual life" in its reader's mind. The narrator blames both sexes for bringing about this self-consciousness of gender. She judges the androgyny of various famous writers. She iterates her idea: if a writer's mind is purely male or female, if there is not total freedom of thought, then the writing will not be "fertilised." The taxi takes away the man and woman.
Woolf takes over the speaking voice. She says she will respond to two anticipated criticisms of the narrator. First, she says she purposely did not express an opinion on the relative merits of the two genders--especially as writers--since she does not believe such a judgment is possible or desirable. Second, her audience may believe the narrator laid too much emphasis on material things, and that the mind should be able to overcome poverty and lack of privacy. She cites a professor's argument that of the top poets of the last century, all but three were well-educated, and all but Keats were fairly well-off. Without material things, she repeats, one cannot have intellectual freedom, and without intellectual freedom, one cannot write great poetry. Women, who have been poor since the beginning of time, have understandably not yet written great poetry.
She also responds to the question of why she insists women's writing is important. As an avid reader, the overly masculine writing in all genres has disappointed her lately. Moreover, she believes that good writers make good human beings who are intimately connected with "reality," and who may communicate this heightened sense of reality to their readers. She encourages her audience to be themselves and "Think of things in themselves." She reminds them of what men have thought of women. She admits that the young women in the audience have made few significant strides in life even though numerous opportunities have been opened up for them. She says that Judith Shakespeare still lives within all women, and that if women are given money and privacy in the next century, she will be reborn.
Woolf begins by admitting that thinking of gender differences has been straining, and this concept is her major point in the chapter and throughout the essay: gender-consciousness hampers creative output and dims the incandescence of genius. She cites Coleridge's idea of the androgynous mind as the goal for human mental endeavors, and it follows from Woolf's previous notions: since it is of both genders, the androgynous mind does not harbor any anger over gender inferiority. Rather, the androgynous mind finds objectivity in its relationship with, as Woolf calls it, "reality." In other words, the androgynous mind is not concerned with itself, but with its subject, an impulse Woolf has lauded throughout the essay.
It is important to remember that androgyny does not imply a total absence of gender, but such a complete fusion that obliterates any gender-consciousness and frees the mind. Therefore, one may still write about men and women, as Woolf has previously encouraged in her discussion of Mary Carmichael; it only means that one should not do so with any sexual ax to grind. This is why Woolf's narrator is a woman; it allows Woolf to write with, as she put it, "integrity" (we believe in the truthfulness of the narrator; had Woolf written as a man, her essay might have smacked of implausibility). However, Woolf constantly restrains herself from writing with anger or fear, checking herself when she slips into such imprisoned thought. Ultimately, the androgynous mind is a highly gendered concept; when Woolf uses the word "fertilised" to describe the interaction of the sexes in the androgynous mind, she emphasizes the productivity of both genders in it.
While Woolf anticipates two criticisms of her work, she ignores two strong rebuttals. She does not consider the idea that writing out of protest can often be more powerful than writing out of complacency; that independence can make one lazy and eliminate the burning desire to write often found in "hungry" writers; that the rebellion in more "imprisoned" writers may force them to contemplate their own anger more than their subjects, but that their anger often is the subject. Woolf's insistence upon the absence of anger and protest in minority writing has undergone much revision in recent years, but her idea still holds much sway in feminist thought.
Woolf's other idea that is less palatable now is her (and the professor's) "proof" that genius flowers only in the rich and educated. Although she previously recognized that women writers in the past had less opportunity to write, both in terms of free time and training, here she inexplicably overlooks it when the subject is the poor. Still, she uses the idea only to promote the necessity of financial independence for women which, along with their need for privacy, caps the essay's main premise.