Call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or any other name you please—it is not a matter of importance.
This line comes from Chapter One, and its enigmatic and elusive tone regarding the true identity of the narrator is maintained throughout the text. Woolf and the narrator both struggle with the same issues, but they are two distinct entities. The narrator is a fictionalized character—an invention of Virginia Woolf—and she remains vague about her true identity. In this quotation she even instructs the reader to refer to her by different names. This lack of one “true” identity for the narrator gives A Room of One’s Own a sense of being universal: the ideas apply to all women, not just one. The lack of one identity also makes the narrator more convincing. By taking on different identities, the narrator transcends one single voice, and consequently she makes herself a force to be reckoned with. Her blasé attitude about something that is considered fixed and important by most people—identity—makes her all the more intriguing.
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
This phrase from Chapter One is perhaps the most famous line from A Room of One’s Own, and it functions as the thesis of the work. The phrase “a room of one’s own” has gained such a stronghold in our culture that it has almost become a cliché. With this line, and the entire book, Woolf has touched off one of the most important assertions of feminist literary criticisms. The oft-held argument that women produce inferior works of literature must necessarily be qualified by the fact of the circumstances of women. Unlike their male counterparts, they are routinely denied the time and the space to produce creative works. Instead, they are saddled with household duties and are financially and legally bound to their husbands. By being deprived of rooms of their own, there is little possibility for women to rectify the situation. Even though this is clearly a historical truth, Woolf’s assertion was revolutionary at its time. It recast the accomplishments of women in a new and far more favorable light, and it also forced people to realize the harsh truths about their society.
One must strain off what was personal and accidental in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth.
This assertion, presented in Chapter Two, characterizes the narrator’s initial mission in A Room of One’s Own. She endeavors to find the absolutely essential truth and expose it, but over the course of the text, the narrator comes to realize that no absolute truth exists. She sees that the experience of each person and his or her life is inextricable from his or her perceptions of reality. In other words, we cannot remove the self, the historical period, or any other inherent biases from someone’s opinion. Everything depends on everything else, and the kind of person someone is absolutely influences everything he or she does—even the kind of art he or she creates. This idea is connected to her argument that the plight of women has influenced the dearth of good literature that they have produced. The narrator fictionalizes A Room of One’s Own, demonstrating this synthesis of fact and fiction.
It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.
This passage in Chapter Three is one of the most significant conclusions of A Room of One’s Own. While the more common argument is that the lack of important, impressive literary works by women proves that they are less capable than men, the narrator takes the opposite approach. She chooses to examine her historical period and question the context in which women are judged. What she realizes is that the playing field is incredibly unequal. Given the circumstances of the treatment of women of her time, there is no way they could have rivaled men in literary achievements. The narrator invents the figure of Judith Shakespeare to illustrate this point. She tells a story of a fictional twin sister of Shakespeare, who is just as talented as her famous brother but, because she is a woman, her talent leads to a very different end.
Life for both sexes—and I look at them, shouldering their way along the pavement—is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion that we are, it calls for confidence in oneself.
Woolf presents this claim in Chapter Two. She asserts this point amidst a discussion about the unequal treatment of women by men. In this discussion, she cites men as the reason for this—she believes that men have systematically subordinated women in order to reinforce their own confidence as the more capable sex—but she does not blame men for this. Rather, she sympathizes with men in their quest for confidence, and she speaks of the importance of confidence in creating art. The lack of confidence amongst women has led to the generally inferior quality of their art. To Woolf, the anger in women about their plight as second-class citizens is reflected in their writing. And yet, they persist. She relates the fact that women continue to write even though they are actually lacking in confidence to the way that people continue living their lives even when wracked by doubt about their relevance in society. In this way, she depicts women as valiant.
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