A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf
published in 1928
First read on March 11th 2015
A Room of One’s Own was more complex than I’d expected. Both the writing and the ideas are not always easy to grasp and made me reluctant to write the review (because there were so many things to be thought over, talked about and thoroughly debated).
The amazing thing about A Room of One’s Own and at the same time what makes it so hard to review is how intricately Virginia Woolf weaves her threads of thoughts. I cannot really talk about one of her ideas without mentioning the others, because only together do they make a complete picture.
I hesitate to write a summary because I know I can’t read for others. So this is for those of you who have already read A Room of One’s Own, and for my future self.
Virginia Woolf writes a lot in metaphors and symbolism and creates these… archetypes? The Professor, for example, who stands for white (although VW did not say so), middle and upper class, well-educated men mad at feminist movement and who feel threatened at the thought of women being equal to men. Why? Well geez, because their foundation of self-confidence depends on half of the human population (=women) being inherently inferior to them. The easiest way to gain self-confidence, after all, is to think that one is inherently better at something (or just better) than others.
Another strand of thought: Consider the paradox of how women were portrayed in the great literature written by men and how they really were in the times it was written; consider Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Flaubert. Their female characters are intelligent, witty, articulate, complex and subject to moral ambiguity. Why didn’t women write about themselves, though? Here VW comes up with Shakespeare’s imaginary sister who was just as talented as him. And how she would have killed herself or gone mad. If the society was indifferent towards men becoming artists, it was downright hostile to women becoming artists. Plus, they were expected to marry and birth a child every year; they were not taught how to read or write; they could not legally own anything and had hardly a room of their own to retreat to.
So what changed? Why did women start writing, and why did they choose novels particularly? It changed, VW argues, with Mrs Behn, who wrote for a living after the death of her husband to support herself and her family. “Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.” (p. 65) So why novels? If women wrote, they must have written in the common sitting-room where it was noisy and they were always bound to be interrupted. So they chose novels, VW continues to theorize, because novels require less concentration than epic poems or long plays. Also, people’s feelings and their relationships to one another were on constant display in sitting-rooms. So naturally, women started to write about what was familiar to them.
VW also has a strong opinion on what makes a great literature in regards to those that were written by women. VW feels women should write when they are calm, not when they are in rage against the injustice women have to endure. She also says that women should not copy men’s writing style – that women should write as women. Or rather, they should write authentically – whatever she does with her words, she should do it for the sake of creating and not because she’s afraid of being called “sentimental” or her prose “flowery” in order to ‘prove’ that she is ‘as good as’ men. Because by adhering to the standard men have created (non-flowery and whatever), we are exposed to the danger that those “standards” become the norm, something to strive for. That’s the problem of sameness when people say “Ok, gender equality, so women should be treated like men”. No. Why are men the yardsticks?
To write authentically, one has to write without fearing, and thus bowing to, the criticisms. Furthermore, so VW, everyone has both man and woman in them. These two beings have to be in harmony in order for the person to write well. She cites Shakespeare, Keats, Sterne, Cowper, Lamb and Coleridge as androgynous writers.
She also circles back to the title theme of the book/speech and says that to become a famous and great writer/poet/dramatist/musician/artist, one has to be financially well-off. Emily Brontës and Robert Burns are exceptions. “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things.” (p. 106) In the end, she appeals to women to write in whatever format, be it novel, history book, science manual, or biography. Jobs – the kinds that women were forbidden to have – have been open to women for years as VW writes her speeches. We have the means to secure the “material things” and thus our intellectual freedom. We should write, and write authentically; “to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-pod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.” (p. 105)
I am going to follow Virginia Woolf’s advice, and write without fearing or even regarding the mighty power of her words as one of the great writers’.
Her ideas, even though they were written almost a century ago, are still relevant and thought-provoking. She does not call it as such, but she has captured the problems of stereotyping the gender and the prejudices that still prevail the society. I especially found her imagery of looking-glass striking; I have found it can be actually applied to other situations as well – not just male/female, but cis-gender/transgender, heterosexual/non-heterosexual, socially “accepted” beauty/”unconventional” beauty, intellectual “superior”/”inferior”, etc. etc.
However, she is too hasty when she says gender inequality is overcome; just because women have the same opportunities as men does not mean that we all can realize them to the same extent or without resistance.
In re androgynous writers – I think we should all be androgynous humans, period, because the more we try to define femaleness and maleness, the more boxes we end up creating. And shoving all kinds of people into these boxes hurts everyone.
Just a quick reference to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, another book/speech that I can’t read for anyone; they have to read it for themselves. CNA writes in direct opposition to VW regarding the anger: “Of course [my article] was angry. Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s approach is similar to Emma Watson’s (as UN Ambassador) #HeForShe campaign.
I couldn’t use a better quote to close this post than We Should All Be Feminists‘ final sentences:
My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’All of us, women and men, must do better.