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A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf

Chapter 1

Summary Chapter 1

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 continues.

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.