Woolf repeatedly insists upon the necessity of an inheritance that requires no obligations and of the privacy of one's own room for the promotion of creative genius. She gives an historical argument that lack of money and privacy have prevented women from writing with genius in the past. Without money, women are slavishly dependent on men; without privacy, constant interruptions block their creativity. Freedom of thought is hampered as women consume themselves with thoughts of gender. They write out of anger or insecurity, and such emotions make them think about themselves rather than about their subjects. Aphra Behn is the first female writer to earn her own money from writing. She paved the way for 19th-century novelists like Jane Austen who were able to write despite the lack of privacy in their family sitting-rooms. Woolf believes that contemporary female writers still generally operate out of anger or insecurity, but that in the future, with money and privacy, their minds will be freed and their genius will blossom.
Coleridge's Androgynous Mind
Woolf adapts Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's idea that the "androgynous" mind is a pure vessel for thought that inspires the most objective and creative relationship with reality. Woolf does not view androgyny as asexual, but rather as a union of male and female minds, which she believes are different. She encourages this differentiation but sees their fusion as a necessity; both genders have a blind spot about their own and the opposite sex, and are dependent on each other to flesh out an accurate portrayal of humanity (she also contends that the sexes are dependent on each other to renew creative power). For instance, Woolf believes a female writer must find a sentence for womanly needs. Ultimately, the androgynous mind, like Shakespeare's, is unconcerned with its owner's petty grievances; it rises beyond and filters out its personality as its genius shines incandescently upon the world.
The Aggression of Men
Woolf posits that men historically belittle women as a means of asserting their own superiority. In her metaphor of a looking-glass relationship, men, threatened by the thought of losing their power, reduce women to enlarge themselves. However, just as women's writing suffers from the emotions of anger and fear, men's writing suffers from this aggression. The men the narrator reviews do not write "dispassionate," detached arguments that would otherwise convince the reader, but expose their own prejudices. In the end, their writing revolves around them rather than around their subject. Woolf points out that war is a greater societal byproduct of this consuming aggression and defensiveness.
Much of "A Room of One's Own" is dedicated to an analysis of the patriarchal English society that has limited women's opportunity. Woolf reflects upon how men, the only gender allowed to keep their own money, have historically fed resources back into the universities and like institutions that helped them gain power in the first place; in contrast, the women's university the narrator stays at had to scrap together funds when it was chartered. Woolf compares the effect of the relative wealth of the male and female universities: the luxurious lunch at the men's college provokes pleasant intellectual banter, while the mediocre dinner at the female college hampers thought. Women are not even allowed in the library at the men's college without special permission, or to cross the lawn. Woolf stretches back to Elizabethan times to give a fictional-historical example of sexism: Judith Shakespeare, imagined sister of William, leads a tragic life of unrealized genius as society scorns her attempts to make something of her brilliant mind. Woolf traces such obstacles against women writers through the modern day; beyond her main treatment of money and privacy (see 500 Pounds and a Room of One's Own, above), she touches upon topics such as the masculine derogation of female books, subjects, and prose style.
Metaphorical conceit of light
Woolf threads a conceit throughout "A Room of One's Own" of light and purity as a metaphor for genius. The word most frequently associated with genius is "incandescence"; for Woolf, genius objectively illuminates the reality of the world while not concerning itself with its owner's personal grievances. The flexibility of light as a metaphor allows Woolf room to couch more subtle ideas within her words; when she says that Mary Carmichael's depiction of a female friendship may allow her to "light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been," the possible image of female genitalia serves notice of both Carmichael's potential genius and revolutionary subject matter.
A Room of One’s Own Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Room of One’s Own is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
She maintains throughout the essay that money, and the privacy of a room of one's own, are necessary for freedom of thought. Without these advantages, women are slavishly dependent on men, and they write out of anger or fear. I believe that the...
Fiction in books? 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...