Written in 1928, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own deals with the relationship between women and literature: how women are perceived in the field, what it means for them to be writers, and how it affects their writing. The book aims to incite its readership to become writers by comparing the history of women’s literature to that of men’s and by suggesting that financial independence and credibility are newly acquired opportunities that should be used to their full potential. Though there likely is a fair amount of men among this readership, Woolf’s feminist essay mostly addresses young women in university.
Using as narrator a fictional character named Mary Breton, Woolf briefly reviews the history of literature in chronological order from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, her present day. She introduces some of her key arguments in the first chapter. Her walk on turf instead of gravel, being refused entry to the library at Oxford University, and the plainness of her supper compared to her luncheon remind Mary Breton of the current social and financial disadvantages of womanhood as she contemplates the loss of musicality in post-war literature.
However, she truly begins her research in the second chapter, at the British Museum in London. While observing male authors’ numerous and often contradictory works about women, Mary Breton notices in Professor von X’s essay an element of anger that spurns from men’s desire to remain superior as women’s financial independence and social worth increases.
In the third chapter, she theorizes how women writers of the Middle Ages died or fell into anonymity. She does so by imagining Shakespeare’s sister as a playwright whose potential for genius is suffocated by the oppression of her gender.
The fourth chapter addresses women’s literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth century: the corruption of their writing by anger, ignorance, and the absence of a female literary tradition as well as the importance of Aphra Behn, one of the first middle-class women to write for financial gain.
Twentieth century literature is explored in the fifth chapter through Mary Carmichael’s first novel, a mediocre book that, in contrast with the works of men, features a relationship exclusively between women whose concerns expand beyond the domestic as well as a narrative almost devoid of the frustration that plagues the previous works of women.
Finally, in the sixth chapter, Woolf uses the image of a man and a woman sharing a taxi to discuss the need, when writing, for an androgynous mind in which the male and female perspectives cooperate and motivates the female members of her readership to use their newly acquired financial independence in order to write as women.
The notion of patriarchy is recurrent in the text. Male authors and critics such as Professor von X diminish women in their studies and essays in order to maintain their social position of superiority. There are many books about the nature of men and women, but nearly all of them are written by men. The dominance of male values creates an environment of mass oppression toward women and causes history to “repeat itself”. Throughout time, hostile environments have kept women from reaching their intellectual potential. Until recently, women’s inability to acquire money has restricted their view of the world to the domestic. Even in the twentieth century, women are forced to walk on gravel instead of turf and are forbidden entry to the Oxford library.
Because of the male monopoly over intellectual disciplines, no explicit history of womanhood has been recorded. There is therefore no literary tradition for women writers to follow. For this reason, the first literary works by women are novels, a young form of writing that only appeared a few centuries ago. There exists little if any documentation about women writers before the eighteenth century: “it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.” Because they would have been scorned and ridiculed, or possibly killed, the few women dedicated enough to write in spite of the rigid social conventions would have done so anonymously.
This conflict between man and woman is detrimental to the creative state of mind. Every mind possesses two sides: both a male and a female half. In order to reach a level of creative genius, these two halves must cooperate. They must work in unison. In other words, in order to write with the same skill as great artists such as Shakespeare, the mind must attain a state of androgyny: “the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; [...] it transmits emotion without impediment; [...] it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided.” The androgynous mind is at peace with both sexes. Lady Wichinlsea cannot achieve this level of creativity because of the frustration she carries regarding the oppression of women. The same way, Professor von X’s writing is flawed because of the anger that accompanies his superiority complex.
Thus the creative state of mind is devoid of frustration and self-awareness. In the twentieth century, writers have become too self-aware to be geniuses. That is because the very notion of the creative state of mind has not been investigated until recently. The world in general opposes such research because it has no concrete, practical use. It is too remote from material concerns. Furthermore, it is easier to read old works about love because the emotion has been acknowledged and understood for quite some time.
Twentieth century literature deals with new emotions that are in the process of being discovered and evaluated: “The very reason why poetry excites one to such abandonment, such rapture, is that it celebrates some feeling that one used to have [...] But the living poets express a feeling that is actually being made and torn out of us at the moment.” To deal with the unfamiliar promotes self-awareness and hinders the creative state of mind.
By making the issue of women writing a matter of revolution, by associating it to a claim for freedom, Virginia Woolf succeeds in convincing her readership of its need to write. Her narrative style, which constantly moves from one train of thought to another, is tortuous but inciting. By creating a narrator instead of assuming this task directly, she emphasises that her message is addressed to any woman scholar. A Room of One’s Own deals with womanhood in the literary field, a seldom explored facet of the woman condition and an issue that is still relevant today.