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A Room of One’s Own ~ Virginia Woolf

December 6, 2010

Genre: Adult Fiction/Essay
Publisher: Mariner Books
132 pages
ISBN: 9780156787338
Source: Library

There is no summary of this essay that will do it justice so I’ll simply say, “Read it”.

When I picked up Woolf’s essay, I thought I’d be in for a feminist rant. After all, it has been hailed as one of those amazing, post-suffrage bits on how women relate to the world and to men. If it had been, I would have been satisfied but it was so much more.

She begins with Cleopatra and moves to the eternally modern woman. Her thesis is that women have the capacity and potential to have potential, that they are not genetically stunted but are limited in lack of education, means, and plain old space, in a way that stunts true creativity that men have been allowed.

She does not exactly rave on about how men are either superior or inferior, simply that women have been banished from conversations, resources and institutions where learning is gained by the male mind. One of the best lines in the work, in the regard to the above observation, comes from a discussion of limited access to public and private works based on gender.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind. p.76

In this, there is not a hatred but a defiance and a plan of action to settle a score.

As the piece moves toward a steadier, more hopeful light, she discusses the art form of writing as it has emerged from society through men and then women, creating different paths through the sexes and through time periods. The novel, Woolf proposes, was an original and natural platform for artists like Austen and the Brontes to explore the publishing world as it allowed printed expression through the emotional intelligence taught in parlors, not parliament.

Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs of their own uses. There is no reason to think that the form of an epic or of the poetic play suits a woman any more than the sentence suits her. But all the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she became a writer. The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands – another reason, perhaps, why she wrote novels. p.77

As far as the work holds up to 2010, it shows the same as it showed nearly a century ago: We have come far but we have a long way to go. Women are only getting started and are, thus, both more stringently and less harshly judged.

There is no mark on the wall to measure the precise height of women. There are no yard measures, neatly divided into the fractions of an inch, that one can lay against the devotion of a daughter, or the fidelity of a sister, or the capacity of a housekeeper. Few women, even now have been graded at the universities; the great trials of professions, army and navy, trade, politics and diplomacy have hardly tested them. They remain even at this moment almost unclassified. p. 85

In the end, she concludes that women should not strive to be like men as their highest goal but should not seek to hold their accomplishments higher. It is simply, an androgynous goal of egalitarian intellect that she is striving for.

It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if the two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? p. 88

So, truly, this is not a man-bashing, vote collecting, sapphically saturated sack of silliness. It is, without a doubt, a peaceful, academic call to analysis and research on the subject of the ways in which men and women relate to each other, rather than holding one above and the other below.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2010 11:56 am

    I have always been a little intimidated by Woolf, and that feeling has kept me from picking up any of her books. It seems like I should try this one, so I am going to add it to my list. Thanks for the great review!

    • December 8, 2010 7:21 am

      I think that you would really enjoy this. It’s a great meditation on writing in addition to gender issues. Let me know what you think if you get around to it!

  2. December 7, 2010 7:02 pm

    Amazing review and Bravo! Well written and eloquence that would make Woolf stand & applaud. Seriously this is what writing is about and you GOT IT! Reading your words in awe.

    • December 8, 2010 7:20 am

      Why thank you! I really enjoyed Woolf and can’t believe this is the first I’ve read of her work.

  3. December 8, 2010 10:16 pm

    You’re the second person who has been so enthusiastic about this Woolf essage in the last few weeks, so I think I will give it a go

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