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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.
Why have women have always been so poor, the narrator
wonders, thinking about how different things would have been "if
only Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt
the great art of making money and had left their money" for the
education of their daughters. She is forced to concede, however,
that a great sacrifice would have been required: "There would have been—that
was the snag in the argument—no Mary." Plus, law and custom conspired
to prevent those women from having any legal property rights at
all; they were themselves considered property. The chapter's closing
reflections are on "the urbanity, the geniality, and the dignity
which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space," the effect
of poverty on the mind, and particularly "the effect of tradition
and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer."
Woolf elects not to respond to the problem
of "women and fiction" by delivering pat remarks on famous women
writers, hoping instead to explore the issue in deeper ways. She
recognizes that her chosen approach is such that she might "never
be able to come to a conclusion" or distill "a nugget of pure truth"
for her listeners to carry home. "When a subject is highly controversial,"
she explains, "one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show
how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold." By choosing
fiction as the medium for her argument, Woolf continues to thematize
the complex network of relationships between truth and fiction,
facts and lies, and opinions and emotions. "Fiction is likely to
contain more truth than fact," she explains. "Lies will flow from
my lips, but there may be some truth mixed up with them."
The "I" who narrates the story is not Woolf—it matters
little what name we give her, Woolf insists—and yet her experiences
and thoughts are to provide the background and argument for Woolf's thesis.
Already, the narrative situation illustrates one of Woolf's fundamental
aesthetic principles: Art should have a kind of "incandescence"
in which everything that is purely personal burns away, leaving
something like the "nugget of pure truth" to which Woolf has referred.
The imagery of light and fire that is already accumulating in this
chapter are meant to suggest this kind of aesthetic purification.
Woolf's aesthetic argument will be developed more fully as the essay
The orientation here, however, is materialist and social,
and Woolf's thesis—that "a woman must have money and a room of her own
if she is to write fiction"—announces that focus in no uncertain terms.
What are the basic material and social conditions in which aesthetic
achievement becomes a realistic possibility? By addressing this
question, she hopes to situate the problem of women and fiction in
an objective and historicized framework—in rejection of a theoretical
tradition founded on the assumption that women are naturally inferior
to men. Woolf's argument constantly returns to the concrete material
details of the situations she describes: the food that was eaten,
the money that was spent, the comfort of the accommodations, and
the demands on people's time. Her strategy is designed to convince
the reader of the deep relevance of these physical conditions for
the possibility of intellectual and creative activity.
As Woolf describes her narrator's thoughts on women and
fiction, she emphasizes the role of interruptions in the reflective
process. By dramatizing the effects of these interruptions, Woolf bolsters
her argument that a private room is a basic requirement for creative
work. The fact that women have not historically been granted space
or leisure for uninterrupted thinking is, in Woolf's view, a determining
factor in the history of their literary achievements. Intelligence,
at least in the model of Charles Lamb, works by "wild flash[es]
of imagination" or the "lightning crack of genius"—insights which
nevertheless take time to gestate. Yet time and time again, just
as our narrator seems to be on the verge of an insight of this sort,
her thinking is cut off—usually by an authority figure trying to
keep her in her place. Where a man would have been given free rein,
the narrator is restricted to a narrow path on the Oxbridge campus.
Nor is she permitted to enter the college library. These obstacles
symbolize the effects of an educational culture that radically restricts
the scope of a woman's intellectual exposure. Woolf identifies the
fact of being denied access—whether to buildings or ideas—as another
type of infringement on the freedom of the female mind. This exclusion
is a more radical kind of interruption, one that disturbs not just
a single thought or reverie, but the life-long developmental of
an individual or the historical development of an intellectual tradition.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Room of One's Own!