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A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf

Chapter 3

Chapter 2

Chapter 4

Summary

The narrator returns home disappointed at not having rounded up some useful tidbit of truth from her researches at the British Library. She turns at this point to history, which, she conjectures, "records not opinions but facts." As her starting point, she chooses to look into the lives of English women during the Elizabethan period—an era of surpassing literary accomplishment, but only among men. It is a virtue of Shakespeare's plays, she observes, that they seem, like enchanted spider-webs, "to hang there complete by themselves." In reality, however, even his works "are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the real work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in."

History turns up little except a few terse statements about the legal rights of women in the early modern period (which were virtually non-existent). This reticence on the topic of women, and the fact of her utter powerlessness, strikes discordantly with the prevalence in literature of complex and strong female characters from ancient times to the present. "A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. ...Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband." In light of this paradox, the solution to the problem of trying to conceptualize the Elizabethan woman seems to be to pool the resources of history and fiction.

"It would have been impossible," the narrator concludes from this thought-experiment, "completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare." To illustrate this conclusion, she conjures the imaginary character of Judith Shakespeare. Judith is as gifted perhaps as her brother, but receives no education except that which she can create for herself in what free time she has. Although she is "the apple of her father's eye," her family expects her to conform to a social role that leaves no room for the development of her talent. She writes some, in secret, but hides or burns her work for fear of reprisal. She becomes engaged at a young age. When she begs to be allowed not to marry, she is chastised and beaten by her father. After this she runs away, driven by "the force of her own gift alone." She wants to go into acting, but meets with rejection and ridicule. She is finally taken up by a theater-manager, becomes pregnant by him, and commits suicide.

This is how the life of a woman with Shakespeare's genius might have looked at that time, the narrator argues. But she goes on to assert that "it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare's day should have had Shakespeare's genius"- -or no more than the first germ of genius, and certainly not the kind that would ever have translated itself into brilliant writing. "For genius is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people," except with the rarest exceptions—and even then, that social condition glares through as a limitation of the art. In that age, genius engendered witches and lunatics among women, and "Anonymous," she argues, was most likely a woman as well.

Having explored the deep inner conflicts that a gifted woman must have felt during the Renaissance, the narrator goes on to ask, "What is the state of mind that is most propitious to the act of creation?" She marvels at the "prodigious difficulty" of producing a work of genius, and observes that circumstances generally conspire against it. She cites as obstacles the indifference of most of the world, the profusion of distractions, and the heaping up of various forms of discouragement. This is true for all artists, but how much more so for women! A woman would not even have a room of her own, unless her parents were exceptionally wealthy, and in her spending money and discretionary time she would be totally at the mercy of others. Being regularly told of female ineptitude, women would surely have internalized that belief; the absence of any tradition of female intellectuals would have made such arguments all the more viable. Though we like to think of genius as transcendent, the narrator holds that the mind of the artist is actually particularly susceptible to discouragement and vulnerable to the opinion of others. The mind of the artist, she says, "must be incandescent. ...There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed."

Commentary

In this chapter, the narrator turns to history to look for "facts" about the relationship between women and literature. Relevant facts, however, prove to be few and far between. Once again, fiction is enlisted to help complete the history—and to expose, along the way, the biases and omissions of canonical knowledge. The absence of objective historical facts is a real obstacle for the person attempting to reconstruct the experience of 16th century women: "Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night." In spite of this gap in the historical record, however, the narrator provides an astute analysis of the conflicting values and impulses to which such a woman would have been susceptible. She points out that sexist assumptions would have been internalized, showing how oppression of this kind comes from within as well as from without. The touching portrait of Judith Shakespeare takes us beyond mere facts, touching the tragedy and anguish that would have been at the heart of an intelligent woman's experience at that time. Even while bemoaning the missing history, the author is aware that a purely objective view would not do justice to this subjective experience in the way the portrait of Judith Shakespeare might hope to. "Objectivity," in this instance, must take the form not of scientific detachment, but rather of imaginative engagement.

The narrator elaborates more fully the point from the first chapter that genius depends on certain conditions—and that these conditions, at the most basic level, are material and social. Because Shakespeare is so often sanctified as the pure genius who transcends all conditions of circumstance and surroundings, his era and his sister provide apt templates for Woolf's argument. There are two important ideas in play here. The first is that all art, even Shakespeare's, is in fact enabled by a historical, social, and economic reality, whether or not that reality finds articulation in the art itself. The different outcomes of William and Judith Shakespeare serve to dramatize this point, and also to account for the fact that women simply were not writing literature at that time. The second point is an aesthetic one: that good art in fact should not betray the personal circumstances surrounding its production. In order to achieve "incandescence," the intensity of the art must burn away "all desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship of grievance." It is in their incandescence that Shakespeare's plays achieve their greatness. But that characteristic is itself a luxury, and a product of social and material privilege (in much the same way that the narrator's five hundred pounds a year allows her to think about her controversial topic with charity and equanimity). The very fact that we know so little about Shakespeare as a person testifies to the greatness of his art.

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