University of Cambridge

Virginia Woolf and ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Virginia Woolf published her extended essay, the six-chapter, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, in 1929, based on a series of lectures she had delivered the previous year at Girton and Newnham, the two women’s Colleges at the University of Cambridge. By then, an established and esteemed novelist, the theme she was exploring was ‘Women and Fiction’. Published just ten years after women had gained suffrage in Britain, the book is regarded as a precursor to the voluminous feminist literary activity in the later years of the 20th century.

In spite of the lack of a formal academic background, Virginia Woolf was a well-read autodidact. She uses a narrative form of an imaginary young woman named Mary given any of three surnames, researching the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’. She concludes that minimally a woman needs ‘a room of her own’ (lockable) and some cash to live on (500 a year in Mary’s case). What she is clearly saying, after a careful historical analysis of lives led by men and women in relation to each other in the past, and up to the day of her deliberations, is that women are deprived of artistic and literary expression because of their economic, personal, and social subordination by men, and not because of a lack of innate ability or talent.

The purpose of this essay is to analyse, and comment upon the author’s extensive use of binary categories beginning with the central, historically loaded, categorization of the differences between men and women. Although two sets of binaries, reason/emotion, and fiction/fact, are delved into in this essay, Woolf’s awareness of the complexities of apparent binary categories is far more extensive and will be examined more closely in the following paragraphs.

Although there does not appear to be ‘opposites’ in nature, dualism seems to be deeply rooted in language and human thinking. Binary opposites or polarizations are not always logical opposites but are necessary for the units of language to have value and meaning. Following Saussurean structuralism, it is generally held that ‘binary opposition is one of the most important principles governing the structure of language’, while ‘paired contrasts’ are not always ‘opposites’, in any exact sense, they are believed to be necessary as a means of ordering the ‘dynamic complexity of experience’. Most linguists believe that ‘binary opposition is a child’s first logical operation’. Another powerful influence on binary thinking in the West was Descartes’ mind-body dualism.

Binary thinking is also hierarchical. One of the two terms is considered positive and the other negative. Religious thinking cannot exist without the polarisation of guilt and innocence. Structuralists believe that the world is organised into male/female constructs, roles, words and ideas. For example, masculinity (phallus) is associated with dominance and femininity (vagina) with passivity. Post-structuralists seek to deconstruct the whole edifice of binary thinking, not allowing one to be intrinsically superior to the other, giving instances of binary opposition contradicting itself and undermining its own authority.

However, there is increasingly a consensus forming that such ‘antitheses’ are aspects of a deeper unity and ‘all so-called opposites such as reason/emotion and spirit/substance is merely ‘apparent’ binary opposites’ (Forceville, 1996). Woolf’s essay, having utilised a plethora of binaries in her exposition, concludes with the acceptance of that ‘deeper unity’ in her acknowledgement of ‘manwomanly’ and ‘woman-manly’ qualities in human nature.

Enough has been said about the fundamental significance of binary thinking in the use of language until recent times that it is no wonder that Woolf’s essay is filled with many instances of the complexities between apparent binaries. Of course, the main concern when talking of ‘Women and Fiction’ is of defining and delineating the subject. Woolf shows that this is no easy matter. In the course of her investigations by reading books written by men on women, she unearths many ‘fictions’ like the insistence on the inferiority of women on all fronts. Such views are not based on ‘fact’. Woolf dramatizes the effect of discrimination and disempowerment of women by asking the reader to imagine an equally gifted sister of Shakespeare. Prevented from achieving any of her creative aims and ambitions, Judith Shakespeare commits suicide only after what women from time immemorial were expected and permitted to do, give birth.

Since Woolf’s lectures are given from a personal point of view and has no pretensions to being academic, she implores her audience not to expect a neat conclusion. She uses a fictional device to present her argument based very much on facts she gathers at the British Museum Library. At the Oxbridge college she visits, presumably by invitation, figures like the Beadle, Fellows and Scholars whom she introduces almost casually in Chapter One return at the end, emphasising their relevance to the narrative and her subject matter. She was debarred from trespassing on their ‘turf’, both literally and metaphorically. She was also not admitted to a library there because of her sex. She confronts and questions binaries such as illusion and truth. She also dichotomizes pre-war and post-war sensibilities. She describes the trees and the river at Oxbridge as vague and resigned at sunset, while becoming glorious and expectant in the morning. She also addresses the binary qualities of ‘laughter’ and ‘anguish’. Her thought processes are clear and well articulated mainly because of her use of such binary signifiers.

The binary theme continues with her contrasting the sumptuous lunch given at a well-endowed male preserve at Oxbridge with the rather ‘poor’ meal for dinner at a female college. While gold and silver are said to be ‘buried’ within the 500-year old grand buildings patronised by Kings and nobles, the women’s college built in the 1860s had a struggle to raise the initial 30,000. She contrasts the safety and prosperity of men against the poverty and insecurity of women throughout history reflected in every facet of their lives.

In Chapter Two, she deals with the binaries of interest and confusion as well as amusement versus boredom allied with the roles of masculinity and femininity. When she speaks of the freedom from fear and bitterness that the inheritance from Mary’s deceased aunt gave her, she can also contrast that with the pity and tolerance (‘toleration’) she feels for womankind from her position of freedom. Reflecting on the culinary pleasures she enjoyed the previous day, she wonders why men drink wine while women drink water. She also contrasts two types of anger she felt over Prof von X’s peroration over ‘The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex’. Her anger at the treatment of women at first was a complex emotion of disgust while it then transforms into a ‘simple and open’ anger that she could use constructively.

By the time she reaches Chapter Three, she has not unearthed any facts, but only opinions totally detrimental to women (fiction). She now turns to historians (fact). She refers to Prof. Trevelyan’s ‘History of England’. There she finds the abominable treatment of women by men during Elizabethan times regarded as the norm. Wife-beating was a regular practice. Marriages were pre-arranged to suit the men. Contrastingly, women who were portrayed in literature possessed personality and dignity denied to the ordinary middle-class woman. Women ‘burnt like beacons in works of all the poets from the beginning of time.’ While women in literature, like Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Emma Bovary could be ‘heroic or mean’, ‘splendid or sordid’, ‘infinitely beautiful or hideous in the extreme’, the average woman was a complete nonentity, hidden from view. Binaries abound in this chapter as in ‘women are imaginatively of the highest importance’ while ‘practically she was completely insignificant’.

When we reach Chapter Four, we come across the struggles of Lady Winchilsea with poetry, with Aphra Behn having more success with her plays. This further supports Woolf’s insights into why and how women were denied free expression. Woolf first uses the word ‘incandescent’ with which she describes the creative mind, as a quote from Lady Winchilsea. She needed for her mind to have ‘consumed all impediments and become incandescent.’ But unfortunately it was ‘harassed and distracted with hates and grievances’. Aphra Behn was the first woman in England to make a living by her writing, although her personal life is not said to have been worthy of emulation. However, Behn opened the way for the 18th century women novelists like the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and George Eliot. In describing them and the novels of the early 19th century Woolf speaks of their virtues in binary terms as swift not slovenly, expressive without being precious.

In Chapter Five Woolf introduces a representative contemporary woman fiction writer she calls Mary Carmichael. This is an imaginary figure chosen to show what is lost in writing from a position of defensiveness and protest. Woolf lauds the fact that Carmichael is no longer self-conscious of being female in her imaginative writing. There are binaries like ‘heavenly goodness’ and ‘hellish depravity’, compared with writing that is ‘serious, profound and luminous’ with others, ‘lazy-minded and conventional’. She advises contemporary women writers to ‘illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities’. Although Carmichael’s fiction may be ‘pulped by the publisher in ten year’s time’, Woolf is confident that her successors in another ‘hundred years’ would have achieved their full and glorious potential.

In Chapter Six Woolf describes a man and woman approaching each other from opposite sides of the street. The setting is a London street viewed by the author from her apartment window. They get into a taxi and are driven away. For Woolf this is a symbol of the binaries coming together. The strain she had being going through over the last two days eased, and she now has an insight into the ‘unity of mind’. As Coleridge had said, great minds are androgynous. The true creator is ‘incandescent’ and ‘undivided’. Sex-consciousness stands in the way of creativity. She says that ‘it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.’ She finally arrives at the conclusion that good writing flows from a marriage of opposites. Gender, masculinity/femininity is no longer relevant. Honest, creative and lasting fiction arises from a mind that is uncluttered and can face facts.

Virginia Woolf has engaged in a thorough examination of many binary concepts including masculinity/femininity, reason/emotion, and fact/fiction in her extended essay ostensibly dealing with women and fiction. This brief analysis reveals her arriving at the conclusion that it is the androgynous mind, which is ‘naturally creative, incandescent and undivided’ that can arrive at ‘truth’ by ‘bringing together many varieties of error’. Her understanding of the vagaries and complexities of binary thinking reflected in this book shows her to have been one of the pioneering, formative minds of her time.

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