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The scene changes from Oxbridge to London, where the narrator sits in a room attempting to write about Women and Fiction. She reviews the questions raised during the previous day at Oxbridge ("Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?") and then resolves upon a trip to the British Museum in order to "strain off what was personal and accidental in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth." She looks in the catalogue in the British Library for books about women and marvels at how many have been written, and under the rubrics of how many different disciplines. Checking the "M" listings, she finds that no such archive exists on the topic of males.
Arbitrarily selecting a few of these books, she finds a great array of opinions and topics and finally pauses resentfully with one professor's statement of "the mental, moral, and physical inferiority of women." She decides that these studies, whatever their differences, had all "been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth." They betray an underlying anger that prevents them from approaching their subject objectively. "Why are they angry?" the narrator asks herself as she breaks for lunch. She concludes that if the author of the study on the inferiority of women had argued dispassionately, she would not have become incensed herself: "I had been angry because he was angry." The narrator intuits a depth of motivation and response underlying this issue, and she decides that male scholars have been less interested in the inferiority of women than in preserving and authenticating their sense of male superiority. Women have served as mirrors to men, in this sense, for centuries.
Here, the narrator is interrupted by the necessity of paying the bill. She takes the opportunity, while on the subject of her own finances, to inform us that she was left a legacy of five hundred pounds a year by her aunt, Mary Beton. She remembers getting the letter at the same time that women were granted the vote, and observes that the inheritance was more important in securing her freedom. It relieved her not only of the obligation to work for a living, but also of hatred and bitterness of temperament. It allowed her to forgive men for their collective injustices toward women, and to see males too as victims in some ways of their education and culture. Ultimately, the financial freedom gave her the "freedom to think of things in themselves."
Returning home, the narrator finds herself entering into a strikingly domestic setting. She thinks to herself that it is nearly impossible to say whether the kinds of labor that have traditionally been performed by women are more or less valuable than the (usually more quantifiable) work done by men. The question is unanswerable: not only does domestic labor fall outside of any economic indexes of value, but its cultural value also changes "from decade to decade." She envisions a future in which there will be no gender-based division of labor. "But what bearing has all this upon the subject of my paper, Women and Fiction?" she wonders as she enters the house.
The narrator's first naive belief in the British Museum as a bastion of unadulterated truth is an ironic swipe on Woolf's part, and she quickly disabuses her protagonist of this error. Woolf herself does not hope to uncover any trans-historical truth about women, in part because her project is to show that the status of women (and literary achievement in general) is context-bound and historically relative. She does leave room, however, for a certain kind of objectivity in one's approach to the question. The work that has been done by men was written in anger, she is sure: "When I read what he wrote about women I thought, not of what he was saying, but of himself. When an author argues dispassionately he thinks only of the argument; and the reader cannot help thinking of the argument too." She advocates for a disinterested approach, which means that she must purge herself of her own anger at the kinds of analyses she has been reading. Her goal is to place herself above the fray of the war between the sexes, where the air is clearer and one is more likely to arrive at some kind of truth. The fictionalization of the essay is one of Woolf's strategies for removing the argument from her own personal injuries and resentments.
Woolf is careful not to blame men for the unequal treatment of women over the centuries. Or, inasmuch as she does blame them, she attributes the violences of patriarchy to universal human foibles. "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." For men, over the ages, women have served as an instrument for reinforcing that necessary self-confidence. Women have been the mirrors in which man wished to see only the reflection of his own grandeur. If this has been detrimental to women, it is nevertheless true, the narrators surmises, that "mirrors are essential"—to "heroic action" as well as to violence. Yet in spite of her unwillingness to pass judgment in a personal or resentful way, she takes a stand against this sexist mode of operation from a cultural point of view, invoking fascist and dictatorial political regimes as the extreme models of this kind of thinking.
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