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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,
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.
The narrator's ability to consider the subject of gender
inequality with disinterestedness stems in large part from her financial
independence. She has five hundred pounds a year, and the effect
of that income is to dissolve the frustration and vulnerability
that would color her thinking and writing in a negative way. It
is for this same reason that the writer of literature, in Woolf's
view, must enjoy the luxury of financial freedom. Artistic production,
even more perhaps than rational argumentation, requires that all
traces of the particular self be distilled in the "white light of
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Room of One's Own!