Woolf has been asked to speak on the topic of Women and Fiction. Her thesis is that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." This thesis has a limited scope, she admits—one that "leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved." Yet she extends the hope that her reflections may shed at least some light on those questions as well. The essay is designed as an explanation of how Woolf arrived at her thesis. To present this argument, she says, she must take a detour through fiction: "I propose making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist, to tell you the story of the two days that preceded my coming here—how, bowed down by the weight of the subject which you have laid upon my shoulders, I pondered it, and made it work in and out of my daily life." With this introduction, the narrative portion of the essay begins.
The narrator sits on the banks of a river at "Oxbridge" (a fictional university meant to suggest Oxford and Cambridge) pondering the question of women and fiction. She represents her musings metaphorically in terms of fishing: "thought... had let its line down into the stream" of the mind, where it drifts in the current and waits for the tug of an idea. As soon as she gets a bite, however, she is interrupted by the approach of the Beadle, a university security guard who enforces the rule by which women are not allowed to walk onto the grass. She scurries back to her proper place on the gravel path, remarking that while "no very great harm" had been done, she had lost her "little fish" of an idea.
As she revels in the tranquility and beauty of her surroundings, the narrator remembers an essay by Charles Lamb about revisiting Oxbridge. She is inspired to view the manuscript in the library, only to be told that "ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction." The library is fortress-like—impermeable and indifferent—in stark contrast to the narrator's own vulnerability. "Never will I ask for that hospitality again," she vows in anger. Distracted by the sound of organ music, the she watches as a cross-section of the university population assembles for a service in the chapel. She is struck by the insularity of the academic setting, seeing the university as a kind of laboratory or museum and its inhabitants as odd specimens who have no place in regular life. Soon they have all gone inside, however, and she remains outside, weighed down with the feeling her own exclusion.
The narrator then reflects on the history of the university, thinking in particular of the materials, labor, and money upon which it was founded and maintained. The clock strikes, interrupting this train of thought. She describes the elaborate lunch that was served at the college, where the flood of wine and the dessert and the wealth of good company create an overwhelming sense of abundance and optimism. "And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, ...the profound, subtle, and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational conversation."
Her attention is then distracted by the sight of "a cat without a tail," which looks odd and out of place in these opulent surroundings. The sight of "that abrupt and truncated animal" prompts her to as sense that something is lacking in the lunchtime atmosphere and conversation. To answer the question of that lack, the narrator shifts the scene to a similar luncheon party, before the war, in similar rooms—"but different." She speculates about the change in the kind of conversations people had before World War I, and the kind of poetry they wrote, and observes that a drastic change has taken place. The romantic views of a Tennyson or a Rosetti no longer seem possible in the post-war era; the difference being that that earlier poetry "celebrates some feeling that one used to have (at luncheon parties before the war perhaps)." The new poetry, however, expresses thoughts and emotions so gut- wrenchingly new that readers cannot respond to them with the same familiarity or comfortable recognition. "Hence the difficulty of modern poetry," which comes as a kind of disillusionment. While thinking through this problem, the narrator misses her turn to "Fernham," which represents the relatively new institution of the women's college.
The narrator describes a meal at Fernham, which compares but poorly with the grand luncheon earlier in the day. "The lamp in the spine," she writes, "does not light on beef and prunes." Everything looks slightly less hopeful from this perspective, and we see that with reduced privilege comes a corresponding atrophy of one's sense of power and possibility—"that is the dubious and qualifying state of mind that beef and prunes at the end of the day's work breed between them." Conversation is gossipy rather than profound, and the narrator retires to the room of her friend Mary Seton with a vague feeling of discontent. They discuss the founding of the women's college, which involved a arduous and often discouraging effort to raise sufficient financial and political support. The picture contrasts sharply with the history of male universities, which have been continually and generously supported for centuries.