Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


When the narrator is interrupted in A Room of One’s Own, she generally fails to regain her original concentration, suggesting that women without private spaces of their own, free of interruptions, are doomed to difficulty and even failure in their work. While the narrator is describing Oxbridge University in chapter one, her attention is drawn to a cat without a tail. The narrator finds this cat to be out of place, and she uses the sight of this cat to take her text in a different direction. The oddly jarring and incongruous sight of a cat without a tail—which causes the narrator to completely lose her train of thought—is an exercise in allowing the reader to experience what it might feel like to be a woman writer. Although the narrator goes on to make an interesting and valuable point about the atmosphere at her luncheon, she has lost her original point. This shift underscores her claim that women, who so often lack a room of their own and the time to write, cannot compete against the men who are not forced to struggle for such basic necessities.

Gender Inequality

Throughout A Room of One’s Own, the narrator emphasizes the fact that women are treated unequally in her society and that this is why they have produced less impressive works of writing than men. To illustrate her point, the narrator creates a woman named Judith Shakespeare, the imaginary twin sister of William Shakespeare. The narrator uses Judith to show how society systematically discriminates against women. Judith is just as talented as her brother William, but while his talents are recognized and encouraged by their family and the rest of their society, Judith’s are underestimated and explicitly deemphasized. Judith writes, but she is secretive and ashamed of it. She is engaged at a fairly young age; when she begs not to have to marry, her beloved father beats her. She eventually commits suicide. The narrator invents the tragic figure of Judith to prove that a woman as talented as Shakespeare could never have achieved such success. Talent is an essential component of Shakespeare’s success, but because women are treated so differently, a female Shakespeare would have fared quite differently even if she’d had as much talent as Shakespeare did.

Literary Lineages

Woolf and her narrator constantly evoke authors throughout history because they believe that all books draw from those that came before them (“For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common…”). This reasoning is why she looks to the more obscure women writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Margaret Cavendish or Aphra Behn. She suggests that Jane Austen, for all her talent, owes her work to the now almost forgotten Fanny Burney, and George Eliot, Eliza Carter. At the end of the essay, she expands this legacy even wider to the Greek poet Sappho and Japanese novelist Lady Murasaki. She also speaks of men’s writing in the same way, discussing Chaucer drawing influence from now unknown poets who wrote before him, paving the way for Marlowe and Shakespeare. Her belief that new literature grows from its predecessors explains why she delves into history to answer why so few women have written works of genius.