A Room of One's Own

A Room of One's Own Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5

The narrator looks at her shelf of contemporary books by both men and women on a variety of topics women could not have written about a generation ago. She feels the female writer, now given a broader education, no longer needs the novel as a means of self-expression. She takes down a recent debut novel called "Life's Adventure, or some such title," by Mary Carmichael. Viewing Carmichael as a descendant of Lady Winchilsea, Aphra Behn, and the other female writers she has commented on, the narrator dissects Life's Adventure.

First, she finds the prose style uneven, perhaps as a rebellion against the "flowery" reputation of women's writing. The narrator reconsiders; maybe Carmichael is purposely deceiving the reader with unexpected stylistic shifts. She reads on and finds the simple sentence "'Chloe liked Olivia.'" She believes the idea of friendship between two women is groundbreaking in literature, as women have historically been viewed in literature only in relation to men. Romance, the narrator believes, plays a minor role in a woman's life, but the excessive concern fictional women have for it accounts for their extreme portrayals as beautiful and good versus horrific and depraved. By the 19th century, women grew more complex in novels, but the narrator still believes that each gender is limited in its knowledge of the opposite sex.

She reads on and discovers that Chloe and Olivia share a laboratory. The narrator reflects more on how impoverished literature would be if men were viewed only as lovers of women. She believes that if Carmichael writes with some genius, then her book will be very important. She reads another scene with the two women in it and thinks it is a "sight that has never been seen since the world began." Her high hopes for Carmichael's description of the intricacies of the female mind make the narrator realize she has betrayed her original aim: not to praise her own sex. She recognizes that for whatever mental greatness they have, women have not yet made much of a mark in the world compared to men. Still, she believes that the great men in history often depended on women for providing them with "some stimulus, some renewal of creative power" that other men could not. She argues that the creativity of men and women is different, and that "It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like menŠfor if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?"

The narrator believes Carmichael has much work to do "merely as an observer"; she will have to "go without kind or condescension" into the lives of the "courtesan" and "harlot" whom male writers have stereotyped. However, the narrator fears Carmichael will still write about these controversial subjects with self-consciousness. Yet there are countless other women whose lives are unrecorded, and Carmichael will have to do them justice as she discovers her own mind‹but she will have to do so without anger against men. Moreover, since every one has a blind spot about themselves, only a woman such as herself can fill out the portrait of men in literature. However, upon reading more of Carmichael's novel, the narrator feels the author is "no more than a clever girl," even though she bears no traces of anger or fear. In a hundred years, the narrator believes, and with money and a room of her own, Carmichael will be a better writer.


Woolf views Carmichael as the descendant of the tradition she outlined in Chapter Four, and she represents an enormous change in the state of writing: an average female writer is finally able to write without anger of hatred, without a stifling awareness of her gender, with a standard "feminine" sentence as a model.

The narrator applauds Carmichael's treatment of the relationship between Chloe and Olivia. Indeed, a female friendship seems the only possible subject she might endorse; if Carmichael wrote about men, the narrator might criticize her for writing with anger, and if Carmichael wrote about women and men, she would probably denounce her for continuing the portrayal of women merely as lovers.

A female friendship, however, is material with which only women have first-hand experience. Carmichael's novel compensates for the blind spot men have in describing humanity, especially since she writes without anger of fear (or excessive praise of her own gender, as the narrator realizes she herself has done). But the narrator does not see this blind spot as a travesty; rather, it means the sexes are different and can complement each other in their attempt to understand themselves. Similarly, each gender has a blind spot about itself, and only through the observations of the opposite sex can it gain full enlightenment.

Woolf continues her metaphors for genius as light, and possibly adds a sexual twist in this chapter. Carmichael writes, at first, as if she is "striking a match that will not light." Later, when Carmichael has proved herself more able, the narrator wonders if she will "light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been." Perhaps in describing this unexplored region of female character, Woolf draws a parallel to the undiscovered area of female genitalia: "It is all half lights and profound shadows like those serpentine caves where one goes with a candle peering up and down, not knowing where one is stepping."

Nevertheless, Carmichael is a decent writer, and what is important to Woolf is that her writing does not suffer from anger or fear, but from a simple lack of genius and craft. Though she is obviously an inferior writer to Charlotte Brontë, Carmichael does not bear the same grudges which hamper her writing. In some time, given more socioeconomic opportunities, Carmichael‹and all contemporary female writers, Woolf seems to imply‹will blossom.