A Room of One's Own

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Gender Stereotypes in a Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

Most of these two chapters is about the many ways in which women are kept out (of power, of education, of the British Museum, etc…), but there is also a subtle argument being made about whether or not women should really want to get in. Is Woolf arguing that women should be able to to all the things that men can do? Or is her point that there are not necessarily things worth aspiring to?

Throughout the first chapter, some of the ways in which we see Virginia Woolf, being female, is treated differently from men are when she is told not to walk on the grass and rather on the gravel by the lake, when she is told she cannot go into the library without a man, and in her discussion of how difficult it is for women’s colleges to raise money yet how simple it is for the men to do so. When she was pondering some thoughts and staring at a fish in the lake, a man came up to Woolf. “He was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me” (8).

Readers of this common time would see this and think of how cruel that sounds, how unjust it is, but through Woolf’s reaction to the matter we can see how normal of an act it was to the women of her time. It seemed expected and she knew that she was the one at fault. The, a short while later, when she is on her way to the library at Oxbridge, a name that seems to be derived by combining the names of two universities named Oxford and Cambridge, she is told not to enter the library. “Instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of a black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction” (9). She seems to take this rule a bit more sternly as she says “Never will I take those echoes, never will I ask for hat hospitality again” (10). The next time we see Woolf – and women in general – treated differently due to gender is in the discussion of women’s colleges. When talking to her aunt, Mary Seton, she hears her say “Mr — won’t give a penny…. How can we raise a fund to pay for offices” (22)? It is quite interesting how it seemed unnecessary to even include a person’s name in that sentence; the fact alone that this person would have to be a man is enough to convey the point that they women are trying to make about how little power they have in this time. At this part of the story it seems as though Wolf starts wondering what it would be like, had women acted more like men. “If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them… appropriated to the use of their own sex” (23).

The fact that Virginia Woolf is saying this makes me wonder if she thinks women should be able to do things that the men do. However, her argument soon seems to change when she begins speaking about how women can’t work in order to save money to pass down because they are the bearers and caretakers of their children. She speaks to how long a mother must stay with her child and how that prohibits her from working. “In the first place, to earn money was impossible for [women], and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned” (24). This second chapter is when Woolf starts to ask a lot of questions regarding the differences in power between genders and the reasons men write about women and splits them entirely into two halves of the human race. One of the questions she asks is “Why are women … so much more interesting to men than men are to women” (29). At first glance, Woolf is quite flattered by the idea of this but then she started trying to answer the questions. She comes upon the conclusion that men do this to make themselves look better than women in comparison.

Using a professor to represent the male figure at that time, Woolf mentions how he “insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority” (36). Now her perspective on wanting women to be more like men is clearly changing when she says “I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race” (23). At this point, close to the end of the second chapter, Woolf ends by talking about the bad aspects of life that come along with being a man. They include the “instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and fags; battleships and poison as; to offer up their own lives and their children’s lives”(40) and she ends that by saying “these are unpleasant instincts to harbour ” and comes to the realization that “these drawbacks, by degrees fear and bitterness modified them selves into pity and toleration” (40). After reading this, we can assume that Woolf would no longer want women, including herself, to be like men. It is not worth aspiring to be something that takes along with it such a bitterness and so many disadvantages.

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275

On Importance of a Room of One’s Own

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf, which was first published on 24 October 1929 (FAQ, 1998). The essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. While this extended essay in fact employs a fictional narrator and narrative to explore women both as writers of and characters in fiction, the manuscript for the delivery of the series of lectures, entitled Women and Fiction, which was published in Forum in March 1929, and hence the essay, are considered non-fiction (Lavender, 1999). The essay is generally seen as a feminist text and is noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.

The title of the essay comes from Woolf's conception that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf, 1989). Woolf notes that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and financial freedom will bring women the freedom to write: "In the first place, to have a room of her own… was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble" (52). The title also refers to any author's need for poetic licence and the personal liberty to create art.

The essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face.

Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, in line with the thinking of the era, believed that only the boys of the family should be sent to school. In delivering the lectures outlined in the essay, Woolf is speaking to women who have the opportunity to learn in a formal, communal setting. Woolf lets her audience know the importance of their education at the same time warning them of the precariousness of their position in society.

In one section, Woolf invented a fictional character, Judith, "Shakespeare's sister," to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare's gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women. Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith stays at home while William goes off to school. Judith is trapped in the home: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school" (47). Woolf's prose holds all the hopes of Judith Shakespeare against her brother's hopes in the first sentence, then abruptly curtails Judith's chances of fulfilling her promise with "but." While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, she is beaten and then shamed into marriage by her father. While Shakespeare establishes himself, Judith is trapped by the confines of the expectations of women. Judith kills herself, and her genius goes unexpressed, while Shakespeare lives on and establishes his legacy.

In the essay, Woolf constructs a critical and historical account of women writers thus far. Woolf examines the careers of several female authors, including Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and George Eliot. In addition to female authors, Woolf also discusses and draws inspiration from noted scholar and feminist Jane Ellen Harrison (Shiach, 1998). Harrison is presented in the essay only by her initials separated by long dashes, and Woolf first introduces Harrison as "the famous scholar… J —- H—- herself" (17).

Woolf also discusses Rebecca West, questioning Desmond MacCarthy's (referred to as "Z") uncompromising dismissal of West as an ”arrant feminist” (35). Among the men attacked for their views on women, F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead (referred to as "Lord Birkenhead") is mentioned, though Woolf further rebukes his ideas in stating she will not "trouble to copy out Lord Birkenhead's opinion upon the writing of women" (53). Birkenhead was an opponent of suffrage (Freeman, 2010). The essay quotes Oscar Browning through the words of his (possibly inaccurate) biographer H. E. Wortham (Moad, 2003): "'… the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that…the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.'"(53). In addition to these mentions, Woolf subtly refers to several of the most prominent intellectuals of the time, and her hybrid name from the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge—Oxbridge—has become a well-known term, although she was not the first to use it.

The narrator of the work is at one point identified as "Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael", alluding to the sixteenth century ballad Mary Hamilton (5). In referencing the tale of a woman about to be hanged for existing outside of marriage and rejecting motherhood, the narrator identifies women writers such as herself as outsiders who exist in a potentially dangerous space. It is important to note that Woolf's heroine, Judith Shakespeare, dies by her own hand, after she becomes pregnant with the child of an actor. Like the woman in the Four Marys, she is pregnant and trapped in a life imposed on her. Woolf sees Judith Shakespeare, Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, as powerless, impoverished women everywhere as threatened by the spectre of death.

In another section, describing the work of a fictional woman writer, Mary Carmichael, Woolf deliberately invokes lesbianism: "Then may I tell you that the very next words I read were these – 'Chloe liked Olivia…' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women" (82). Woolf references the obscenity trial and public uproar resulting from the publishing of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness published in 1928. Before she can discuss Chloe liking Olivia, the narrator, has to be assured that Sir Chartres Biron, the magistrate of Hall's obscenity trial is not in the audience: "Are there no men present? Do you promise the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you…"(82).

Woolf scholar and feminist critic Jane Marcus believes Woolf was giving Radclyffe Hall and other writers a demonstration of how to discuss lesbianism discreetly enough to avoid obscenity trials; "Woolf was offering her besieged fellow writer a lesson in how to give a lesbian talk and write a lesbian work and get away with it"(Marcus, 1996). Marcus describes the atmosphere of Woolf's arrival and presence at the women's college with her lover Vita Sackville-West as "sapphic." Woolf is comfortable discussing lesbianism in her talks with the women students because she feels a women's college is a safe and essential place for such discussions.

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218

The role of influence and freedom in A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

Both Virginia Woolf’s critical essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) and her polemic Three Guineas (1938) explore feminist issues of freedom and influence. Despite being written almost a decade later, Three Guineas further explores the ideas and values of A Room of One’s Own, thus highlighting how, despite their different contexts, there has been little change. Whilst A Room of One’s Own focuses on the financial and intellectual freedom of women, Three Guineas explores notions of educational freedom for women. Comparing the contexts of the two texts also provides us with insights into the influence of societal views and the power that educational opportunities can provide women.

Both A Room of One’s Own (A Room) and Three Guineas explore the theme of freedom through a call for progress of women’s intellectual and financial rights. In A Room, the financial restrictions on a woman’s literary potential are expressed in Woolf’s overarching argument that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. The room acts as a symbol of financial and intellectual independence, whilst the frequent repetition of the words “a room” throughout the essay emphasizes how women lack the necessary freedom to write. A woman’s intellectual restrictions are illustrated when Woolf’s narrative persona is refused entry into the Oxbridge library by a man who looked, “like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings”. The man acts as a metaphor for the blocked opportunities and societal barriers that have been imposed on women by men, the imagery emphasizing the role of men in restricting woman’s intellectual freedom. Woolf conjures the imaginary character of “Judith Shakespeare”, to further demonstrate the inequality of women. This literary allusion and the allegory of Judith demonstrate how the talents of women are being lost because they are not allowed to be creative. Despite Judith sharing the same genetic makeup, and thus the same potential, she achieved nothing due to lack of education and freedom. The three centuries between Shakespeare’s and Woolf’s contexts highlights the almost nonexistent change in woman’s intellectual freedom. Thus A Room explores restrictions the gender plays on a woman’s intellectual, creative and financial freedom. In the context of a troubled 1938 Europe, the later essay Three Guineas similarly explores the theme of freedom, focusing on educational freedom and the role that educated women can play in preventing war.

Similarly to A Room; Three Guineas also explores the role of men in preventing the educational freedom of women. The freedom from male financial reliance that education can provide woman’s with is highlighted through the metaphor of woman’s being slaves to their fathers: “to depend upon a profession is a less odious form of slavery than to depend upon a father.” Having a career and earning income, she argues, is more rewarding than being financial and intellectually reliant on the men in one’s life. This idea is further emphasized metaphorically by the truncated sentence, “You [men] are fighting with us, not against us”. The ‘war’ represents the ‘war’ between women and men in literature and the professions. Three Guineas thus highlights the limitations of a woman’s educational rights. Both essays also discuss more broadly the effects of society’s attitude towards women. A Room explores the influence of strict early 20th century societal views on women and their role in society. The long history of disrespect towards women in the literary profession is illustrated by alluding to Dr Johnson, the renowned 18th century English writer: “a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well”. The simile reflects the general male disrespect towards women, whilst further emphasizing the negative influence societal disregard of women writers. Woolf’s argument that societal influences have restricted women from literature composition is further portrayed when Woolf comments that “even a woman…has brought herself to believe that to write a book was to be ridiculous”. The narrator’s disappointed tone emphasizes the impact of societal constraints, further illustrating how a lack of a literary legacy allows women no goals to aim for. Woolf also explores the disheartening impact that a negative and often cruel reception of women writers has on women: “She was afraid of something; afraid of being called ‘sentimental’ perhaps”, the repetition of the adjective ‘afraid’ reflecting potential women writers’ entrenched fears and discouragement. The play on the adjective ‘sentimental’ reflects the pre-Depression view, that women, due to their perceived softer nature are incapable of producing good literature. A Room consequently provides us with a unique insight into the overarching influence of early 20th century, pre-Depression English society on women writers.

In contrast, Three Guineas, reflecting its pre-WW2 context, explores the theme of empowerment of women through education and the professions. A woman’s limited role in society due to lack of educational opportunities is reflected in the rhetorical question, “What does ‘our country’ mean to me an outsider?” emphasizing that because women lack influence and don’t have a voice, they consider themselves outsiders. Woolf quotes Sir Ernest Wild, a British Royal Naval seaman, to validate her argument that, without education, women have to rely on manipulation to influence a man: “A man liked to think he was doing his job…[a] wise woman always let him think he was running the show when he was not.” The alliterative “wise woman” suggests the general view in male dominated society that the usefulness of women is based on their natural feminine talent rather than real skills acquired through education. It is also argues that in a changing society, an “educated man’s daughter has now at her disposal an influence which is different from any influence that she has possessed before”. The repetition of ‘influence’ stresses that, through education, women have a newfound strength. They no longer have to resort to using “whatever charm or beauty…[they] possess to flatter and cajole the busy men”. Three Guineas thus demonstrates the role that education and participation in the professions can play in a woman’s influence over both the men in her personal life and the events of society in the broadest sense.

A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas have explored different aspects relating to women’s financial, creative and intellectual freedom and resultant influence. Woolf’s call for intellectual and financial freedom in A Room of One’s Own is complemented by a stronger and more urgent call given the context and the passage of time in her later discussion of the importance of educational freedom in Three Guineas.

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Looking at women from the eyes of God as illustrated in A Room of One’s Own

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

“When you’re down on the lower levels of this pyramid, you will be either on one side or on the other. But when you get up to the top, the points all come together, and there the eye of God opens” (Campbell, 31). Joseph Campbell presents this description of the Masonic symbol of the pyramid, which is an appropriate analogy of a reoccurring goal in Bloomsbury artistic creation. This goal is a detached, disinterested artistic vision, one free of a personal bias that places a persons’ vision on a side of the pyramid. This artistic integrity was highly valued in Bloomsbury creation. Virginia Woolf explores this phenomenon through gender in her essay A Room of One’s Own, as well as through the art of Lily Briscoe in the novel To the Lighthouse. This vision is not limited to creation, but applies also to experiencing art, as presented by Roger Fry in “An Essay in Aesthetics.” Likewise, Lytton Strachey, in his biography of Florence Nightingale in Eminent Victorians, exhibits the importance of detachment and a degree of objectivity when striving for a goal, by describing the aftermath that incurs when she has to overcompensate for the societal limitations of her gender.

“What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth” (Woolf, 72). In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf is attempting to define that artistic vision that each person, or at least people of genius, seem to be endowed with. Unfortunately, the ability to achieve this integrity is fragile, and the torch that illuminates the “invisible ink on the walls of the mind” is easily smothered (72). Woolf’s primary suspect for this is the effect of society on gender, specifically the treatment of women by men. To continue the analogy, this treatment put women’s artistic vision on one side of the pyramid. According to Woolf, especially before her own era, women wrote underneath a cloud of anger that prevented them from achieving artistic integrity. Woolf uses Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as an example: “She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance” (73). This personal grievance is the anger that Bronte had toward men.

Woolf does not limit this tainted vision to women. She describes men’s reaction to women’s demand for social equality. Men had always been superior, “And when one is challenged, even by a few women in black bonnets, one retaliates, if one has never been challenged before, rather excessively” (99). This motive of retaliation then has the clouding effect on men’s writing:

But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter “I” and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there …There seemed to be some obstacle, some impediment of Mr. A’s mind which blocked the fountain of creative energy and shored it within narrow limits. (100)

The letter “I” here that Woolf refers to is the personal vestment that the artist has in the writing. Woolf asserts the importance of the detached “I”, and when she uses it she limits it to “a convenient term for somebody who has no real being” (4). The “I” she prizes is the detached one, one not limited by the filter of anger, and one that presents vision with artistic integrity. This is what is meant by the eye at the top of the pyramid, which sees all four corners.

Bloomsbury valued this detachment in other fields than writing. Strachey reiterates this in Eminent Victorians. He presents Florence Nightingale’s achievements, and stresses the necessity of her rebellion against the limitations of society on women. He begins by describing Florence’s unhappiness and boredom with the traditional life, satirically stating, “It was very odd; what could be the matter with dear Flo?” for there was “plenty to do in any case, in the ordinary way, at home. There was the china to look after, and there was her father to be read to after dinner” (137). Subject to these restrictions, Florence overcompensated by becoming authoritarian, controlling, and worst of all, by destroying her femininity. It is because of this that she was no longer objectively detached from her visions of proper healthcare. Her personal motives and views become irreversibly intertwined with the originally honest and sincere inclination to help others. For instance, because of her adaptive stubbornness, she insists that the windows need to remain open. She ignores the medical fact that this meant that disease would flow in the air to patients. She had to have that stubbornness to get where she was in life, but it permanently clouded her judgment. This problem was the same one that extended to the female writers Woolf cited. According to J. B. Batchelor, Woolf specifically denounces this reaction to oppression:

[Woolf] is indignant with women such as head-mistresses and heads of colleges because they have abdicated the specialized role for which their femaleness equips them by adopting male standards. Women must not emulate men; they have a better role of their own. (172)

Only by embracing her natural femaleness could Nightingale have been able to remain detached from her aspirations, and this is something that society would not allow.

Another character in literature, Lily Briscoe, in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, demonstrates that need to break free of social conventions. Throughout the book she is plagued by criticism by Tansley that, because she is a women, she cannot paint. She is also limited by the idea that her art “would be hung in attics … it would be destroyed” (208). It is only when she ignores these clouding issues and looks for her true artistic vision that she is able to finish. “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done” (209). She was finally able to look past those limiting factors and achieve her vision.

The Bloomsbury group’s emphasis of detachment is further supported by Fry’s “Essay in Aesthetics.” This approach is different, but still rooted in experiencing or creating art without personal bias. In this case, detachment occurs because we are not required to react to what we are seeing. Fry gives an example of this, stating that the detachment “can be obtained by watching a mirror in which a street scene is reflected. If we look at the street itself we are almost sure to adjust ourselves in some way to its actual existence” (19). The experience of the audience of art that Fry is refering to is similar to the experience that a writer with artistic integrity will have. “It must in the first place be adapted to that disinterested intensity of contemplation, which we have found to be the effect of cutting off the responsive action” (29). The disinterested contemplation that Fry refers to regarding a viewer is the same that Woolf asserts a writer needs to have.

Clearly, the members of the Bloomsbury group valued an untainted, pure artistic vision, the “eye of God.” The question is then, what is pureness of vision? In Florence’s case, it would allow for undivided attention toward helping people in nursing. What, then, comes from being able to see something with artistic integrity? Referring to creators of “higher works of art”, Fry states, “We feel that he has expressed something which was latent in us all the time, but which we never realized, that he has revealed us to ourselves in revealing himself.” Woolf’s description is strikingly similar: “When one so exposes it and sees it come to life one exclaims in rapture, But this is what I have always felt and known and desired!” (72). Whether this level purity is attainable is debatable, as Woolf herself admits:

Are not all novels about the writer’s self? It is only as he sees people that we can see them; his fortunes colour and his oddities shape his vision until what we see is not the thing itself, but the thing seen and the seer inextricably mixed. (Woolf as quoted in Temple, 90)

Nonetheless, the members of Bloomsbury certainly strived for artistic integrity, and perhaps that is the reason so much of their work is still read today.

Works Cited

Fry, Roger. “An essay in Aesthetics.” Vision and Design. London: Chatto and Windus, 1920.

Batchlor, J. B. “Feminism in Virginia Woolf.” Virginia Woolf. Ed. Claire Sprague. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. 169-179

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1929.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.

Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1918.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Random House, 1991.

Temple, Ruth Z. “Never Say “I”: To The Lighthouse as Vision and Confession.” Ed. Claire Sprague. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. 90

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216

The use of symbolism in A room of One’s own

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) explores the complex nature of the numerous elements that are needed to write good fiction. A Room of One’s Own is a partially fictionalized narrative that is written from the perspective of an unknown woman who shares interchangeable views with Woolf as she critiques the ability of women to write good fiction. The essay is an extended version of numerous lectures Woolf presented at Newnham and Girton College for women, in which she brings to attention the emotions women were feeling as they were struggling for rights and freedom and most certainly, to write. Woolf argues that any good fiction must be written with the use of an androgynous mind and comments that this is what made Shakespeare’s works so fantastic. She suggests that anger in one’s writing causes anger for the reader so it must be avoided at all costs. She also brings up the issue of education and the struggles for women to get any, resulting in fewer foundations to create fiction. Freedom, both physically and financially are of the highest importance when it comes to someone wishing to write fiction. Finally, Woolf considers the circumstances of one’s birthplace and how that will impact their chances of having the opportunity to write.

In Woolf’s opinion, an important element to good fiction is to write with the use of a ‘completely’ androgynous mind. The use of androgyny when writing ensures that the writer uses “both [sexes] of the mind” in equilibrium, which ensures the mind “transmits emotion without impediment”. This theory gives men and women the ability to write without consciousness of their own sex. The resulting mind is ‘undivided’ and ‘naturally creative’. Woolf creates a symbolic representation of the importance of an androgynous mind in the works of Shakespeare as she remarks that the success of his plays as being attributed to this mindset. The narrator juxtaposes Shakespeare’s plays to the works of other male writers such as Milton and Ben Jonson as his were of the very few in history that did not present women ‘burning like beacons’. The peacefulness of this state of mind is brought to the reader’s awareness when the narrator’s mind is ‘eased of some strain’ as she is brought to the attention of a man and a woman climbing into a taxi together. This simple act in the ‘strictly sex-conscious age’ of Woolf’s novel develops a calming symbol amongst the ‘roar’ of London’s traffic and suggests to the reader that the coming together of sexes is to be in “harmony together, spiritually co-operating”; just as it is in the mind. The narrator asserts that “it is fatal” for a writer if they go about creating their works with a “pure[ly]” man or woman mind if the reader is to get feeling that the writer is “communicating his experience with perfect fullness”. Thus, good fiction will not be achieved without the individual possessing an androgynous mind.

Woolf criticises that the emotive anger is an emotion that works against one’s writing and that it causes anger in the reader, decreasing the quality of the fiction. Woolf represents this as her narrator reads from ‘Professor Von X’s’ novel ‘The Inferiority of Women’. She discovers that the strength of anger has the ability to make her “angry because he, [the author], was angry”. Woolf enhances the need for the proper emotions when writing good fiction as she symbolizes ‘Professor Von X’s’ novel to be “written in the red light of emotion” when it must be written in “the white light of truth”. The symbolization of light and dark in the novel explores the way anger operates in one’s writing, blinding them from writing the truth, and the negative affect this has on the standard of the work. Anger in fiction may only result in the author arguing ‘dispassionately’ which in turn forces the audience to only ‘think of the argument’ the author holds and not of the true meaning or potential of the fiction. Therefore, to write good fiction anger must be absent from the authors’ present emotion.

If one wishes to write good fiction, then Woolf advises that an education must be obtained, as it is the only way to flower ones’ genius. As the narrator comments, it is ironic and somewhat perplexing as she visits a male and then a female college, discovering that “men drink wine while women drink water”. Men are spoon-fed the opportunity to go to great college’s and receive fantastic educations whilst the women are stuck, sitting around a coffee table struggling to “scrape” together “£30,000” for their charity-like university. “Uneducated” women found that it would “be impossible…completely and entirely” to be offered the chance to write fiction and Woolf likens this to the “strong yellow flame”. This flame is established by the lack of women’s education to further symbolically explore the intelligence that she states woman struggle to acquire. Intelligence is the underlying construct that allows for one to write good fiction and one is “apt to play it false” with the absence of education. As a result, women will never write good fiction as to do so one must also have a good education, which women cease to be able to acquire.

A female writer’s access to privacy and a room is deemed to be one of the most important ‘materials’ by Woolf when it comes to the woman wishing to write good fiction. The symbolical representation of a room is presented in the title of the novel as it allows the barest necessity for the ‘freedom’ of uninterrupted creativity. ‘These conditions are necessary’ in the creation of good fiction and Woolf reflects on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where she comes across an ‘awkward break’ in her writing. Woolf blames the setting in which the novel was written, the family basement, for the nature of this break. The narrator emphasizes that Austen will never have had ‘her genius expressed whole and entire’ as she only had access to the family basement to write her works for in this common area she neither had ‘freedom’ nor ‘peace’. Further exploring this symbol, Woolf symbolizes the Brontë family to develop the argument that one must ‘be cut off from what is called the world’ in order to wholly flower their potential as a writer. ‘If she has a room to herself’ then she may be gifted with the opportunity to express her inner genius ‘unlit by the capricious and colourless light of the other sex’. Woolf, by the symbolizing of light, means to say that the anger of men is restrictive to the creativity of women. Woolf therefore deems it important that a ‘genius [may] bloweth’ only where one writes under the terms of their own room.

The final argument Woolf explores in her account for what makes good fiction is that it is an indispensable need for one to have ‘500 pounds’ if they ‘wish to write’. Through the symbol of money, Woolf develops the argument that money is the most needed for a woman in particular if they wish to have the freedom to write. Woolf expresses her belief that money allows one to ‘make money by the pen’ as they do not have the ‘burden’ of ‘unpaid’ bills and other commodities. The narrator assesses the financial situation for women of her era and concludes without money to support herself, a ‘poor’ woman has ‘a dog’s chance’ in having the opportunity to write fiction. Through Woolf’s personal experience, the inheritance of ‘500 pounds a year’ is a righteous gift and ‘of more importance’ than the vote. This proves that the vote was merely an insignificant symbol to women of Woolf’s time, and that money was of far more importance to earn a living and certainly to write. Woolf deems ‘the prosaic conclusion’ to be that in order to write good fiction one must have financial freedom of preferably ‘500 pounds a year’.

When taking all aspects of Woolf’s thesis into account, the reader will see that she used numerous symbols in order to convey her beliefs as to what is needed in order to write good fiction. She emphasized the need for an ambiguous mind that is also without anger for both these elements encourage peace for the reader. Woolf further created a symbol of education in order to portray the inarguable need for one to have a proper education should they wish to write and she expressed the difficulty for women to do so. Finally, Woolf underpinned the importance of a room of one’s own and money if an individual wishes to have the freedom, time and space to write good fiction. A combination of these elements are what creates a masterpiece of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where she expresses through the use of symbolism, the materials needed to write good fiction.

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156

A Review of Virginia Woolf’s Writing

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

A Room of One’s Own

Summary

During the midst of A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, Woolf utilizes the experiences of a fictitious woman to support her beliefs on the necessities of a female author. This unnamed lady narrates her thinking as she attempts to solve the same dilemma Woolf confronted, which is deciding the thesis of her essay on woman and fiction. The narrator is first encountered while gazing at a stream and contemplating the topic of her composition. Suddenly, the woman thinks of an idea and races across a female restricted area in her excitement. A security guard then reprimands her, which causes the woman to forget her idea. Subsequently, when the narrator ventures to research a poem found in the library at the college of Oxbridge, she is informed that ladies are not allowed inside without meeting certain requirements.

She then attempts to shake off her feelings of repudiation by observing the magnificent lunch and intelligent conversation of Oxbridge’s male members. After this, she returns to her female college and notices that the discussion seems less imploring than that of the other universities, most likely because of the uninspiring food her institute provides. Later on, the unnamed woman converses on this observation with a friend, in which her comrade points out that their school lacks the funds needed to provide such amenities. The narrator then deduces that discriminatory laws and gender-specific roles are to blame for this, since they prevent women from leaving an inheritance for their college.

After once more failing to select the premise of her essay, the unnamed woman resolves to conduct research at the British Museum. While she is doing do, she locates bookshelves full of compositions written by men on the subject of females, but virtually none composed by ladies on the same field. Not only this, but most of the material seems to focus on the flaws of women and why men are better than ladies. When eating lunch, the narrator notes that most of these male authors appear to write about the failings of females out of anger. The unnamed woman questions their motives, and she decides that they are seeking to assert their male superiority over ladies. As she pays the bill for her lunch, she reflects on the freedom her large inheritance of five hundred pounds a year provides. This income allows her to comprehend both gender’s struggles and inner thoughts, since her emotions are not influenced by any discriminatory working policies.

The narrator then returns to her home, where she questions if gender specific boundaries will dissolve over time. She later resorts to the facts of history to further understand women, but finds that very little information is available on ladies during the Elizabethan age. She observes that in Shakespeare’s plays women seem to be incredibly significant. However, in reality, matrons appear to be analogous to uneducated workers. It seems improbable, then, for a woman of Shakespeare’s talent to have contributed to literature like he did during that era, which the narrator illustrates through the imaginative accounts of Judith Shakespeare. The narrator speculates that Judith would have experienced extreme hardships while attempting to contribute to the acting world, and that she would have eventually committed suicide as a result. The unnamed woman decides that such a gifted female would not have existed during that period, because of her poor education, her lack of space to write, and her acceptance in the inferiority of ladies. Based on this thinking, the first women novelists were probably aristocrats that had the space and education to conduct their work. The open rebellion of standards by such middle class women as Aphra Behn then ensued, which paved the way for other brilliant female novelists. The narrator also maintains that all of these women were driven to write novels because they had educated themselves through similar literary works. Moreover, the narrator postulates that lady authors lack a feminine literary tradition that men have already constructed for themselves, which heightens a female’s task in producing a novel in comparison to a man.

The narrator then analyzes a young lady author’s first book and decides that, on the surface, this writer is an amateur at best. Although, the unnamed woman concludes that the plot constructed is ingenious, mainly because the author has created relationships between the women characters instead of just the male. The narrator speculates that an exceptional female author may arise in a few generations based on the progress she observes, if the person has financial freedom and a room of her own. As the unnamed woman regards the interactions between both sexes the next day, she notes that the perfect author would display both female and male qualities. She remarks that the self-consciousness surrounding gender has increased during her lifetime, which has caused both sexes to retaliate. This self-awareness is what causes men to create women bashing novels, though in general the author should never think of their own sex while writing.

After this last thought by the narrator, Woolf communicates through her own voice, where she ventures to counter any objections she foresees to her thesis. She claims that despite the belief that an author must rise above their circumstances, a room of one’s own and financial freedom are necessities for women authors. Without these elements, ladies will lack the ability to separate unnecessary emotions from their compositions, which decreases the work’s integrity overall. As a last thought, Woolf urges female authors to understand their current advantages as well as their disadvantages, and to write books of all genres. By doing so, their publications will influence themselves and the future women writers as well.

Theme

When analyzing A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, the requirements of an exemplary female author seems to be the major theme present. Woolf claims that the distinguishing factor for such exemplary authors as Jane Austen is that their books contain integrity, since they are able to separate their personal grievances from their masterpieces. In order to have this ability, these writers require the financial freedom that five hundred pounds a year provides. Thus, instead of constantly encountering discriminatory working policies, female authors are able to avoid the negative emotional experiences that clouds a person’s literary works. As the title suggests, Woolf also claims that a gifted female author requires a room of their own, since this privacy allows for them to direct their attention to the task at hand.

Another main idea present throughout Woolf’s composition is the discriminatory policies society has towards female authors of that time. This is especially evident when the narrator fabricates the existence of Judith Shakespeare. Though Judith has the same potential as her brother, she fails to contribute to the arts because of societal standards and discriminatory laws. Also, while writing her essay, the fictitious narrator is repeatedly hindered by society. As soon as the unnamed woman constructs an idea, a security guard confronts her for trespassing onto the grass, which causes her to forget it. The narrator’s memory elapses once more as she is denied access to Oxbridge’s library because of her gender. These are just a few examples that display society’s oppression over women, since Judith and the narrator are hindered by society while attempting to contribute to the arts. Overall, by examining A Room of One’s Own, the major themes on the requirements of a great female author and societal oppression become apparent.

Characters

The narrator- The narrator is the lone speaker throughout most of the essay, though she is never officially given a name. Despite this, she is continuously questioning society as well as gender standards, and strives to use logic in her analysis of both. She is also relentless in her pursuit to develop a thesis for her essay. Though her thoughts usually begin as simple observations, the unnamed woman develops these ideas into imploring and controversial statements, which places society in a harsh light. The narrator seems to be persistent in her quest to write a meaningful composition, even though she is often distracted by discriminatory gender policies and a general sense of anger men feel towards females. She appears to be extremely intelligent and outraged by the way in which ladies are treated. The unnamed woman assumes that her financial security allows her to impartially analyze society from both genders’ viewpoints, but she seems to mainly focus on the faults of men.

Structure

Woolf adopts a very unique plot structure during her essay, A Room of One’s Own. In order for the audience to understand her point of view, she creates an unnamed woman that justifies Woolf’s thesis through her own experiences. This nameless lady encounters a variety of different gender discriminatory policies, and in the process answers different questions she raises so as to write a meaningful essay on women authors and fiction. The imaginary character seems to be extremely thoughtful as well as educated, so that she is able to strengthen Wolf’s thesis through her own credible argument. Furthermore, this character communicates as if she has experienced all of the situations involved in being a lady, which gives her the ability to speak for all women. Woolf also seems to limit the development of the narrator so that her only purpose is to support the thesis statement. This could be because Woolf saw no need for the character to display any relationships or characteristics besides ones that would aid the task at hand. In spite of this, she does sacrifice some of the depth of the character in doing so, such as the narrator’s name and family life. Overall, Woolf creates an educated yet static character to prove her thesis, which heavily influences the structure of her argument.

Opinion

After reading A Room of One’s Own, a person can definitely appreciate the author’s purpose and admire the advancements in gender equality that have occurred. Despite these attributes, the text appears to be out of date and lacks a universal theme. Though a pressing issue at the time, gender discrimination seems to have almost disappeared from society, because of hardworking women, such as Virginia Woolf. Because the topic of the essay does not relate to today’s events, this composition may be considered tedious. Moreover, Woolf gives a very long winded explanation for a relatively simple argument. When the fictitious character is forced out of an area because of her gender, did she honestly need to be rejected from the library to display female discrimination? This repetition can be utilized to emphasize her point, though its overuse often causes the essay to become dull and boring. Moreover, Woolf’s argument is based mostly on fiction, from her suicidal Judith Shakespeare to the unnamed narrator. A large portion of the essay is on the events of an imaginary character’s life, as she encounters different fictitious obstacles. When the unnamed woman finds very little information on ladies from the past, she decides to construct her own history to prove her point. Though Woolf displays a mastery of the English language, this should not be used to create events to prove her thesis, which once analyzed seem to simply be emotional responses of imaginary characters in unreal scenarios. Overall, though Woolf’s thesis is beautifully explained based on her thinking, she does so through immense repetition and a long winded explanation, with very little real world evidence to support her point.

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213

The Politics of Knowledge in Feminist Literary Theory

June 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

To a substantial degree, the political system of patriarchy is dependent on the manipulation of knowledge. The biological, psychological, and economic discrimination against women, as well as other marginal groups, has relied upon the establishment of a singular construction of “truth” that is fundamentally exclusionary, yet regarded within the system as natural and objective. What is considered “outside” or “other” than the dominant notion of “truth” as defined by this patriarchal system is regarded as inferior and secondary. The political situation of women, as marginalized outsiders, has thereby relied upon a system of misrepresentation and misinterpretation. Feminist theory has thus been concerned with unraveling this long history of discrimination through the re-appropriation of knowledge by and about women. This project may sound straightforward, but the nature of knowledge for feminist theory is problematic on many levels, from linguistic and psychological to social and historical. This process of rebalancing the politics of knowledge involves validating female literary production, battling basic binary oppositions such as male/female that have been internalized by women themselves, breaking down representations of women based on such binary oppositions, and finding an authentic female voice and language that is not marked by the psychological and social conditioning of patriarchal society, among others. These goals and projects are crucial if a knowledge emptied and freed of patriarchal influence is to be found and established. The beginning of the problematizing of knowledge within a political context can be said to begin with Virginia Woolf’s seminal work, A Room of One’s Own. Woolf points to the persistent suppression of female literary production, as women are kept from learning and confined to the roles of wife and mother. If a woman in Shakespeare’s time had comparable genius, she “would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at” (Woolf, 75). Despite holding potential and capability, and without social and economic freedom, or “a room of one’s own,” women are kept imprisoned by ideologies of what a “woman” is. In this way, Woolf recognizes that gender identity is constructed by “law and custom” and can consequently be challenged. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir further elaborates on the constructed ideologies of womanhood that are regarded as natural and true. De Beauvoir points to how “man defines the human, not woman, in an imbalance which goes back to the Old Testament… Woman is riveted into a lop-sided relationship with man: he is the ‘One’, she is the ‘Other.’” Such modes of representation are fundamentally political, as “man’s dominance has secured an ideological climate of compliance: ‘legislators, priests, philosophers, writers and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 119-120). Such supposed “knowledge” of the meaning of womanhood has been used for centuries to keep women subjugated to men. Following from Woolf and de Beauvoir’s recognition that the “knowledge” of gender identity is in fact socially constructed is the exploration of how these constructs are formed and maintained. For a number of feminist literary theorists, language is a primary source of this construction. Semiotics has taught us that our ideas are not linked by any natural means to the words that are meant to represent them. That is, “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (Saussure, 272). Further, as poststructuralism has demonstrated, this process of signification is fundamentally unstable. Signifiers are not naturally linked to what they signify; rather, they “lead a chameleon-like existence, changing their colours with each new context” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 145). This context through which language is formulated is historical, social, and ultimately political. According to Michel Foucault, “what is ‘true’ depends on who controls the discourse’ (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 121), “discourse” being defined as what “determines what it is possible to say, what are the criteria of “truth”, who is allowed to speak with authority, and where such speech can be spoken” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 147). In a patriarchal system, it is men that hold this authority. They control meaning, being the arbitrary relations between signifiers and signifieds. For feminist literary theory, this has meant a long history of negative representations of women, from Aristotle’s contention that “the female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities” and John Donne’s reiteration of Aquinas’s notion that “form is masculine and matter feminine: the superior, godlike, male intellect impresses its form upon the malleable, inert, female matter” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 115). Women are seen as passive, weak and inferior, while men are seen as active, strong and superior, among a great number of binary oppositions that comprise perhaps the strongest binary opposition of all, that of male/female. The discourse of patriarchy has thus kept women in a secondary state, beneath that of the dominant social group. According to this “symbolic order of culture” women “do not speak, desire, or produce meaning for themselves, as men do, by means of the exchange of women.” Recalling de Beauvoir’s observation of woman as the symbol for “Other,” women are only considered human beings insofar as they are like men. In short, the “human subject” can only be conceived as male (de Lauretis, 298). In this sense, the “domination of discourse” by men “has trapped women in women inside a male ‘truth’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 121). The challenge for all women is how to break free of this knowledge system, and by extension, the repressive political order that is supported by it. This challenge begins with an understanding of male “knowledge” as a system of constructions that keeps women oppressed, and efforts to recover alternative truths written by women themselves. Kate Millet’s work, Sexual Politics, was pivotal in solidifying the notion that patriarchy is a pervasive “political institution” that “subordinates the female to the male or treats the female as an inferior male” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 123). Borrowing from social science the difference between sex and gender, where “sex is determined biologically but ‘gender’ is a psychological concept which refers to culturally acquired sexual identity” she attacks “social scientists who treat the culturally learned ‘female’ characteristics (passivity etc.) as ‘natural’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 124). Millet privileges literature as a space in which the culturally imposed knowledge that is keeping women politically repressed can be and has been challenged. However, given that men have long shaped “literary values and conventions,” it is “possible for the female reader to collude (unconsciously) in this patriarchal positioning and read ‘as a man’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 125). That is, while breaking down the illusionary knowledge that supports patriarchy is certainly fruitful, it is difficult to remove oneself entirely from the system whilst working within its confines. Elaine Showalter refers to this practice of deconstructing the ideology underlying “the images and stereotypes of women in literature, the omissions and misconceptions about women in criticism, and women-assign in semiotic systems” as “feminist reading or the feminist critique” (Showalter, 459). While this work is certainly illuminating and rewarding, it is limited to merely “redressing a grievance” and building upon “existing models.” Showalter argues that this “feminist obsession with correcting, modifying, supplementing, revising, humanizing or even attacking male critical theory keeps us dependent upon it and retards our progress in solving our own theoretical problems”. As long as feminist literary theorists “look to androcentric models for out most basic principles—even if we revise them by adding the feminist frame of reference—we are learning nothing new”. Beyond merely revising male-centred discourse, what feminist criticism needs is to find “its own subject, its own system, its own theory, and its own voice” (Showalter, 260). This involves rejecting the male canon in favour of literature by women, through which the formerly male human subject can be conceived as female as well. Showalter’s concern with finding alternative methods of reading and interpretation is echoed within the work of French feminist theorists such as Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva. Both attempt through their writings to subvert and reorder the symbolic order that keeps women politically repressed. In “Castration or Decapitation?” Cixous focuses on the masculine economy of power that keeps women passive, silent, and powerless. According to Freud and Lacan, woman is “outside the Symbolic, that is outside of language, the place of the Law, excluded from any possible relationship with culture and the cultural order” (Cixous, 483). This is because she lacks the “transcendental signifier” of the phallus, which orders masculinity. Without this lack, she cannot participate in the construction of meaning, leaving her outside the masculine economy. The masculine economy is defined by the concept of debt, wherein “the child owes his parents his life and his problem is exactly how to repay them.” This obligation is threatening to man, who wants to “hastily… to return the gift, to break the circuit of exchange that could have no end” in order to “owe no one a thing.” Difficulty arises when this system is confronted with love, which is “hard to give back” since it is in a sense a gift, but one that has no definable way of repaying; it is open-ended. Woman, as the object of love, is consequently “the place of this mystery” and “stands in the place of not knowing” as her role as “Other.” This dynamic enables man to define his masculinity, “to keep overcoming, dominating, subduing, putting his manhood to the test, against the mystery he has to keep forcing back” (Cixous, 485). In this masculine economy, woman is kept passive and silent. Cixous then explores the notion of an alternative economy wherein women regain their voice and power, affirming their difference and creating their own knowledge, thereby rejecting the knowledge of the masculine economy in which woman only exists in relation to man. For Cixous, this requires allowing women to speak and to write, but not to produce writing “that’s in effect masculine.” Here, language stands on its own as being masculine or feminine, so that the gender of the text does not determine which economy it is representing. A true female text is “an exploration of woman’s powers” that is fundamentally political and defined by a “female libidinal economy” based on the fullness of the “gift” that is not withheld. The feminine text is overflowing in its openness and ability to cross limits, in contrast to the closed and incorporated masculine “system of returns” that is marked by withholding and resolving debt (Cixous, 489-490). In this way, Cixous challenges how ideas of “woman” have been constructed within patriarchal culture, offering a way for women to re-imagine and re-construct their own textual representations, and ultimately gaining the power that comes with such knowledge. In “Stabat Mater” Julia Kristeva similarly explores the notion of a “feminine text.” Stylistically, her essay is non-linear and decentred, retaining an open discourse that consciously subverts that of Cixous’ closed, masculine economy. The work consists of a dialogue between abstracted idea of mother, versus the mother as an actual, individual woman, that is, between the Virgin Mary and Kristeva’s own experiences as a mother in the twentieth century. In this way, Kristeva challenges the abstracted fantasy of idealized motherhood as represented by the mythical Virgin Mary, seeking a more authentic representation not just for herself, but also for all mothers. Kristeva deconstructs and exposes the historical roots of the symbolism surrounding the “virginal cult in Christianity” (Kristeva, 188). Aside this linear narrative is a poetic and openly personal description of the experience of childbirth and motherhood. The result is both an explanation and a demonstration that motherhood “today remains, after the Virgin, without a discourse” (Kristeva, 202). While the radically non-linear linguistic explorations of Cixous and Kristeva are certainly fruitful, they also risk moving away from the important political aspects of overcoming such conventional representations of women. Where ‘woman’ is recognized as “not a physical being but a ‘writing-effect’” feminist theory may become overly abstracted from the quite physical and embodied focus of its analysis. What is important to many theorists is maintaining the contextual and political aspects of the discourses within feminist theory. That is, ensuring that above all that feminist literary theory contains a social critique, despite ontological difficulties “about the nature of speech [and] about the status of significance” which “forces us to reconceive the very concepts and relations of ‘self’ and ‘world’” (Con Davis; Schleifer, 569). This raises a new debate about the political ramifications of the nature of perception and the possibility of an exclusive female subjectivity. This is in many ways a return to a central conflict within feminist thought: namely, who is it that is said to “know” and what power does this “knower” hold?Diana Fuss addresses the problems raised by the idea of an inherent female subjectivity in “Reading like a Feminist.” She asks, “What is it exactly that underwrites and subtends the notion of a class of women or a class of men reading?” (Fuss, 581). To assume that women hold their own particular way of reading and writing is an “essentialist” viewpoint, essentialism being “what is taken for granted, assumed, or presented as ‘natural’ in discourse (Con Davis; Schleifer, 566). In this sense, to assume the existence of a female subjectivity as many feminist theorists is to move away from discipline’s social constructionist roots, whereby terms such as “woman” and “feminist” are themselves arbitrary and politicized distinctions. Fuss argues that the construction of “a class of women” based on “‘essence’ or ‘experience’” leaves no space for “the real, material differences between women” such as “class, race, national, or other criteria”. Where in such categories are the differences between “ ‘third world’ readers, lesbian readers, and working-class readers?” Given their “generality”, essentialist categories such as “‘the female experience’ or ‘the male experience’” are ultimately of “limited epistemological usefulness” because their reference point is one that is continually shifting and far too diverse (Fuss, 583-585). Fuss supports this viewpoint using Lacan’s poststructuralist psychoanalytic theory of the unstable subject, whereby the “‘I’…is not given at birth but rather is constructed, assumed, taken on during the subject’s problematic entry into the Symbolic”. It follows that “the question ‘who is speaking’ can only be answered by shifting the grounds of the question to ‘where am I speaking from?’” (Fuss, 586). In other words, subjectivity is always determined by the social, historical, and political position from which one speaks or acts. There is no intrinsic “feminist approach to reading”; rather, “ways of reading are historically specific and culturally variable, and reading positions are constructed, assigned, or mapped”. Essentializing notions such as “a shared woman’s experience” or “a female reader” are thus inaccurate theoretical grounds. The only stable essence within feminist theory, Fuss concludes, is politics, as “politics is precisely the self-evident category in feminist discourse—that which is most irreducible and most indispensable” (Fuss, 589-590). In this sense, essentialist categories such as “class” and “women” are political constructs that should only be used sparingly and strategically for political ends as “determined by the subject-position from which one speaks” (Fuss, 587). For feminist theory, this means that the essentialist category of women as a class” should be retained only “for political purposes” so that “politics emerges as feminism’s essence” (Fuss, 590). In “Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism” Cora Kaplan also emphasizes the need for feminist theory to maintain its own “radical social critique” in order to remain connected to the very social processes from which it arises. Kaplan argues that feminist criticism is “implicitly conservative in its assumptions about social hierarchy and female subjectivity, the Pandora’s box for all feminist theory” (Kaplan, 593). Like Fuss, Kaplan focuses on the need for feminist criticism to attend to social and historical context: “…“without the class and race perspectives which socialist feminist critics being to the analysis both of the literary texts and of their conditions of production, liberal feminist criticism, with its emphasis on the unified female subject, will unintentionally reproduce the ideological values of the mass-market romance” that “tends to represent sexual difference as natural and fixed”. Kaplan outlines three strategies which feminism has employed to deal with the problem of “the concept of the inner self and moral psyche”. Firstly, “women’s psychic life” was deemed to be “essentially identical to men’s” although “distorted through vicious and systematic patriarchal inscription”. The second strategy seeks to validate women’s psyche as inherently different from men, and often “in direct opposition”. The last strategy refuses to acknowledge the issue of gender construction in this way, viewing the notion of psychic difference as ideological (Kaplan 595-596). Kaplan rejects all of these strategies. Rather than seek out a unified female subjectivity through a common method reading or writing, or through the commonality of the body, her strategy is to distance any such universal representations of women’s experience as a source of fact. Instead, Kaplan argues in favour of the inclusion of additional social categories such as class, recognizing that there is a “fusion of class and gender meanings” in literary representation (Kaplan, 602-604). It is this particular sort of historical understanding of the female subject that “we must uncover and consider”. As opposed to seeking stable, transhistorical answers to questions of what characterizes femininity or female textuality, Kaplan proposes that the psyche be redefined as “a structure, not as a content”. In that way race and class are included in feminist politics, and it is through the analysis “of how these social divisions and the inscription of gender” surrounding the historical subject “are mutually secured and given meaning” that “we can work towards change” (Kaplan, 609-610). In “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault” Judith Butler, like Fuss, resists the notion of a female essence. Drawing on Beauvoir’s statement that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” Butler assumes that “become” means “purposely assume or embody”. She then asks the question, “If genders are in some sense chosen, then what happens to the definition of gender as a cultural interpretation of sex, that is, what happens to the ways in which we are, as it were, already culturally interpreted? How can gender be both a matter of choice and a cultural construction?” (Butler, 612). The answer to this question rests on the manner in which the body and embodiment has been culturally interpreted. That is, the binary in which men have been associated with “the disembodied or transcendent feature of human existence” while women account for the opposite, representing the “bodily and immanent feature of human existence”. Since in this symbolic order women are the “Other” for men, it follows that in order to “safeguard” their disembodiment, men have needed to keep women embodied (Butler, 615). Following from the Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, man is considered master of the bodily sphere, having transcended it, while women are kept enslaved within the body (Butler, 616). This cultural interpretation of the body demonstrates that “natural sex is a fiction” and what may be considered “distinctly feminine” is merely a historical development with the end cause of men holding authority over the female body (Butler, 620). Butler concludes that women do not “belong in the order of being”, rather they are locked into “a mode of becoming that is arrested prematurely” by the “reductive imposition” of a category that decides what she is supposed to mean in relation to men. To overcome this categorization, “the task is not simply to change language, but to analyze language for its ontological assumptions, and to criticize those assumptions for their political consequences”. In sum, it can be concluded that “women have no essence at all” since they have no true signification beyond the role as symbolic “Other” within patriarchal discourse. It follows, then, that women have “no natural necessity” as well, for “what we call an essence or a material fact is simply an enforced cultural option which has disguised itself as natural truth” (Butler, 622). In this sense, Butler’s conclusion can be seen as the culmination of the criticism of Fuss and Kaplan, wherein retaining essentialist categories such as “women” or “femininity” that suggests a unified female subjectivity must be rejected entirely in order to break free of a politically repressive, male-dominated discourse. A central concern of feminist theory is the importance of locating and tearing down the systems of knowledge that support patriarchy. Recognizing that it is through the unnatural constructs of what is considered inherently “female” that women have been politically repressed, feminist theory is faced with the formidable political challenge of breaking free of this male-dominated discourse. This project has meant denaturalizing and deconstructing the “objective knowledge” that has justified patriarchal oppression and attempting to regain control of the meanings and representations associated with “female.” The manner in which this occurs, however, is very much disputed. The viewpoints of Fuss, Kaplan and Butler contrast on several levels with those of Showalter, Cixous and Kristeva. Where the latter strive to uncover what it is that makes women “different” through their language and literary history, and by exploring the possibility of a “woman-text,” the former resist ascribing women with any such “essence” at all. The problem with re-interpreting and re-presenting what is considered “female” can be seen to rest on conceptions of difference. Early theorists have sought to validate “female” difference while remaining within an essentially male-dominated discourse. Many insights have come from deconstructing male representations of women and re-imagining how “woman” may be freely expressed in text. However, this feminist discourse is fundamentally reactionary as it retains the male/female binary opposition. Seeking the “essence” of the “female” effectively validates this binary. To be “gynocentric” or “woman-centred” implies that the binary of centre/periphery has merely been redrawn, shifting the terms of inequality rather than eradicating them altogether. The work of Fuss, Kaplan, and Butler demonstrate that such binaries should be surpassed altogether. Affirming the fundamentally political nature of feminist discourse, these theorists renew feminism’s focus on the social and historical contexts in which knowledge is formulated. Like the work of earlier theorists, the notion of singular or universal “truths” that are removed from time or place is problematized. Such notions lead to a privileging of some narratives over others; focusing on the contextual differences between all narratives neutralizes this conflict. However, this later feminist theory does not concern itself with replacing old representations of “woman”; rather, it focuses on the variety of social, historical, and political differences that have been marginalized by male-dominated discourse. The new discourse encompasses a range of knowledges that surpass that of generalized “woman” to include class, race, ethnicity, homosexuality, and many others, in a process that is materialist, political, and revolutionary. Works CitedJudith Butler. “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault” in in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 612-623. United States: Longman, 1998.Helene Cixous. “Castration or Decapitation?” In Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 2nd edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, pp. 479-491. New York and London: Longman, 1989.Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, Editors. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition. United States: Longman, 1998. Diana Foss. “Reading Like a Feminist” in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 581-591. United States: Longman, 1998.Cora Kaplan. “Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism” in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 593-610. United States: Longman, 1998.Julia Kristeva. “Stabat Mater.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 2nd edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, pp. 185-203. New York and London: Longman, 1989.Teresa de Lauretis. “Semiotics and Experience” in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 297-318. United States: Longman, 1998.Raman Selden, Peter Widdowson, and Peter Brooker. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, 5th edition. Great Britain: Pearson Longman, 2005. Elaine Showalter. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, pp. 457-478. New York: Longman, 1989. Virginia Woolf. Extracts from “A Room of One’s Own.” In Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, edited by Mary Eagleton, pp. 73-80. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

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Making Room for Women: Virginia Woolf’s Narrative Technique in A Room of One’s Own

April 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

“Like most uneducated Englishwomen, I like reading.” Can these words really belong to Virginia Woolf, an “uneducated Englishwoman” who knew half a dozen languages, who authored a shelf’s length of novels and essays, who possessed one of the most rarified literary minds of the twentieth century? Tucked into the back pages of A Room of One’s Own, this comment shimmers with Woolf’s typically wry and understated sense of humor. She jests, but she means something very serious at the same time: as a reader, she worries about the state of the writer, and particularly the state of the female writer. She worries so much, in fact, that she fills a hundred some pages musing about how her appetite for “books in the bulk” might be satiated in the future by women writers. Her concerns may be those of a reader, but the solution she proffers comes straight from the ethos of an experienced writer. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Woolf asserts early in her essay. This “one minor point,” as she calls it, could have major repercussions for the future of literature. It would certainly, in the least, enrich the life of Virginia Woolf the reader. But before this can happen, Virginia Woolf the writer must demonstrate how a few hundred pounds and some privacy translate into a wealth of new books by women. To do this, she uses a most natural example: A Room of One’s Own itself. Before it became a seminal feminist text or the source of countless cultural clichés, this essay was first a piece of writing by a woman of some means and leisure. It is both the result and the purveyor of a set of ideal creative conditions for the female author. Employing an innovative narrative technique, Woolf manifests how these external conditions come to bear on women’s prose style.A Room of One’s Own is Virginia Woolf’s fictionalized response to a very factual request. “We asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?” Woolf asks, anticipating her audience’s bewilderment at the title of her work. It has to do, she explains, with women writers’ need for money and personal space. But it can only be properly explained through fiction. “I am going to develop in your presence as fully and freely as I can [my] train of thought…making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist,” she explains. One can imagine that this statement only further perplexed Woolf’s original audience of female undergraduates in 1928. But Woolf is adamant here. She has no desire to rehash remarks about the usual suspects of women’s literature. Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters – these women will eventually be mentioned, but Woolf is no historical surveyor. She writes modernist novels; naturally, she will write about women and fiction in that same modernist, novelistic mode. But the fictional form of A Room of One’s Own indicates more than Woolf’s predilection for the novel as a writer. Rather, prose fiction has been the tendency of successful female authors since their historical emergence. Woolf, who notes later that the finest male writers compose “with the unconscious bearing of long descent,” knows that her gender has no Shakespeare, no Milton, no Keats. Nor have women had their hands in biography, philosophy, or history. How is a woman to write, then, without the gracefulness with which tradition imbues the contemporary author’s pen? Woolf confronts this problem by writing in the mode of the richest tradition available to a woman writing – the novel. Here the female author has Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch to bolster her claim to the form. A male author may demand his own stake on the basis of Tom Jones or Bleak House, but he cannot deny any woman her fair share in the history of the English novel. For Woolf, a “long descent” is a crucial condition affecting a writer’s talent; she writes in novelistic form because it is the one which she truly can trace back through her “mothers and grandmothers.”If female authors have had the best luck as novelists, women personages have likewise fared better in fiction than in history. A trip to the British museum confirms that, while men have had plenty to say about the contemporary inadequacies of the opposite sex, “nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century.” There are scraps of knowledge about wife beating and childbearing, but the thoughts and habits of females have been shrouded by years of social insignificance. It is no wonder Woolf prefers to talk about women through fiction, for in history they have a tendency to completely disappear. This is not so in the literature of this very same past. Male historians took no interest in women, but, as she points out, male fiction writers certainly did. From Lady Macbeth to Madame de Guermantes, literature recounts the lives of hundreds of dynamic females. “Imaginatively woman is of the highest importance,” Woolf observes, “but practically she is completely insignificant…she is all but absent from history.” It makes sense, then, that Woolf would write A Room of One’s Own in the genre that held women to be of the greatest importance rather than the one that found in them nary the least significance.Just as Woolf found a form fit to the woman writer, so she discovered a sentence to accommodate her as well. Like Jane Austen laughing at the “man’s sentence” of the nineteenth century, Woolf smiles at the realist prose in vogue in her day and politely pushes it away. She opts instead for a style which underscores her interest in how exterior conditions act and react with the mind. Her own evaluation of her style is deceptively simple. According to Woolf, her sentences “follow a train of thought.” The sentences and the writers contained within A Room of One’s Own have much in common – they are all meditative and meandering beings sometimes harassed by material conditions. Consider, for example, Woolf’s narration of her visit to the British Museum:”London was like a machine. We were all being shot backwards and forwards on this plain foundation to make some pattern. The British Museum was another department of the factory. The swing-doors swung open; and there one stood as if one were a thought in the huge bald forehead which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names. One went to the counter; one took a slip of paper; one opened a volume of the catalogue, and…..the five dots here indicate five separate minutes of stupefaction, wonder, and bewilderment.”The beginning of this passage is lyrical, poetic, very “writerly.” Rich in simile, musical and brisk in style, the first four sentences flow from a mind in comfortable and free circumstances. If London is a machine, the person speaking these words is a carefree cog, at ease functioning as an individual unit and as a tiny part of the larger mechanism. When a wrench is thrown into the works, though, the cog malfunctions as much as the machine. Woolf’s prose, sensitive to its subject matter, reacts the way a real person might. Here shock is not expressed “I was astonished” or “I could not believe.” It gets recorded, rather, as “five dots” signifying the ineluctable blankness of a mind confronted with the truly unnerving. Like the mind of a young female writer, Woolf’s sentences are impressionable; they are words with a lively inner reality in the act of interpreting an unpredictable outer one.Sometimes, though, this outer reality proves to be a tedious interruption, as Woolf’s writing strives to demonstrate. Her stroll across the Oxbridge campus is a vivid instance of this. Glancing about the college, Woolf thinks of an essay by Charles Lamb about a certain manuscript of Milton’s kept in the Oxbridge library. This leads her to muse first upon how Milton revised his poem, next upon the fact that the manuscript of Thackeray’s Esmond resides in the very same building. Her mind is busily engaged in these profound thoughts when both her person and her intellect are abruptly stymied on their path:”But then one would have to decide what is style and what is meaning, a question which – but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of wings, a deprecating silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.”Here is a woman, intellectually curious, well-read, receptive to the great thinkers and writers of the past, turned away by a persnickety Beadle and a tradition of patriarchic oppression. The dash in the first sentence frustrates not only the clause, but the intellectual potential of the young lady herself; the sentence is not allowed to develop fully, nor is she.The first chapter of A Room of One’s Own is strewn with such interrupted efforts. Later we find her pensively considering the wealth of Oxbridge: “It was impossible not to reflect – the reflection whatever it may have been was cut short. The clock struck.” And heading up to Fernham after the lapsing of a few more hours: “Why, if it was an illusion, not praise the catastrophe, whatever it was, that destroyed illusion and put truth in its place? For truth…those dots mark the spot where, in search of truth, I missed the turning up to Fernham.” Barely does the crescendo of thought come than reality – unyielding, misogynistic – crushes it yet again. Woolf’s prose mimics these frustrations, describing and demonstrating the intellectual opportunities (or lack thereof) of women writers.Woolf further augments her reflective style with a deft use of symbolism. In the early pages of A Room of One’s Own, symbols of truncation and arrested development abound, often opposed by symbols of affluence and maturity. Dining sumptuously at Oxbridge, for instance, Woolf is startled from her post-prandial leisure by the sight of a tail-less cat lumbering past the window. “The sight of the abrupt and truncated animal padding softly across the quadrangle,” she reflects, “changed by some fluke of the subconscious intelligence the emotional light for me. It was as if some one had let fall a shade.” It is hard to ignore, suddenly, that the banquet upon which she has just feasted was prepared for men, members of an academic institution from which she is barred admittance. The meager dinner at Fernham a few pages later provides another counterpoint for the Oxbridge luncheon. She reports: “Dinner was ready. Here was the soup. It was a plain gravy soup. There was nothing to stir the fancy in that.” Woolf really could have chosen any material condition common to both colleges – plumbing, size of the library, quality of the teaching – in order to juxtapose symbols of wealth and poverty. Food, though, works the best with her prose style because it exerts the most immediate and consistent effect on human beings. It leaves an impression on the quotidian experience of men and women alike. According to Woolf, “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” It seems reasonable to add to this list “write well,” for women’s lack of both stuffed pheasants and literary tradition are not entirely unrelated.Also not entirely unrelated are the shape of the female literary tradition and the structure of A Room of One’s Own. The essay’s tone develops like a timeline of famous woman authors. First, like Lady Winchilsea, ur-woman writer of the seventeenth century, the speaker flares up with anger at the thought of her restrained opportunities. Here she is on being barred from the library: “Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger.” And here we find her with Mary Seton in one of the anemically furnished rooms of Fernham: “we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us?” The speaker of these early pages is incensed at the condition of women and her words redound with Winchilsea’s indignation. “How are we fallen! Fallen by mistaken rules,/ And Education’s more than Nature’s fools;/ Debarred from all improvements of the mind,/ And to be dull, expected and designed,” the poet wrote of women in the late 1600s. Two hundred years later her frustration rears its head again through Woolf’s eloquent pen.With a shift in scene, though, comes a shift in tone. Under the vaulted ceiling of the British Museum appears a speaker whose rage smolders less spectacularly than Winchilsea’s, a Charlotte Bronte-like lady whose anger emerges indirectly. There are no declarations of ire or disgust in this setting, only actions that manifest these repressed feelings. Woolf’s doodling is one such example. She says:”While I pondered I had unconsciously, in my listlessness, in my desperation, been drawing a picture of Professor von X engaged in writing his monumental work The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex…The professor was made to look very ugly in my sketch…Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable morning’s work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. A very elementary exercise in psychology showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt.The “submerged truth” here, as Woolf finds it to be later in her evaluation of Jane Eyre, is that women resent men for suppressing their active and intelligent natures. Woolf’s sketching and Bronte’s transitioning both have “that jerk in them, that indignation – one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire.” Some progress has been made since Winchilsea; the woman writer has at least let her genius peek through. But it remains “deformed and twisted” by social constraint and its attendant anger.Woolf sequesters the reader into the present state of women’s literature with the imaginary novel Life’s Adventure by the neophyte writer Mary Carmichael. This novel, Woolf says, “must be read as if it were the last volume in a fairly long series, continuing all those other books – Winchilsea’s poems and the novels of the four great novelists.” Life’s Adventure is a kind of culmination of women’s writing thus far. And as such, its achievement is modest but noteworthy. Carmichael writes unfettered by the anger and resentment of her predecessors, “as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages are full of that curious sexual quality that comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.” Likewise, gone is the anger and self-consciousness of the narrative voice of A Room of One’s Own. In the privacy of her home library where she leafs through the novel, Woolf’s own voice becomes that of the modern female writer – eager, free, perceptive, and yet still lacking something. “Give her another hundred years” Woolf says of the woman writer; then she will have more tradition, money, and privacy abetting her art.But who is this woman writer of the future? Woolf claims that she, like Shakespeare, like Keats, like Coleridge, will possess an androgynous mind. Her intellect will be a fusion of male and female sensibilities and she will write with the unconscious bearing of complete genius. No personal vendetta to voice, no inequalities to rage against, this woman would be in “some state of mind in which one could continue without effort because nothing is required to be held back.” As Woolf describes this unborn talent, though, it suddenly becomes clear that her descriptions belongs not to some book to be written, but the very one that she has already written. The reader has just experienced androgynous prose, for how else could we explain how full and natural the narrative of A Room of One’s Own seems? Woolf is no Mary Carmichael, languishing without adequate material comfort and conditions. She is a woman with five hundred pounds a year, a room of her own, and a deep investment in the literary tradition to which she is adding her own volumes. If more women lived as I do, she seems to say, there would be more To the Lighthouses, more Mrs. Dalloways, more Orlandos, more women and fiction of the highest intellectual and aesthetic caliber.A Room of One’s Own is a utopian text written in a utopian style. It began with the topic “women and fiction,” but Virginia Woolf delicately steers her prose toward envisioning a paradise of readers and writers where, regardless of sex, good living and good literature abound.

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Exploring Freedom and Influence in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas

April 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

Both Virginia Woolf’s critical essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) and her polemic Three Guineas (1938) explore feminist issues of freedom and influence. Despite being written almost a decade later, Three Guineas further explores the ideas and values of A Room of One’s Own, thus highlighting how, despite their different contexts, there has been little change. Whilst A Room of One’s Own focuses on the financial and intellectual freedom of women, Three Guineas explores notions of educational freedom for women. Comparing the contexts of the two texts also provides us with insights into the influence of societal views and the power that educational opportunities can provide women.

Both A Room of One’s Own (A Room) and Three Guineas explore the theme of freedom through a call for progress of women’s intellectual and financial rights. In A Room, the financial restrictions on a woman’s literary potential are expressed in Woolf’s overarching argument that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. The room acts as a symbol of financial and intellectual independence, whilst the frequent repetition of the words “a room” throughout the essay emphasizes how women lack the necessary freedom to write. A woman’s intellectual restrictions are illustrated when Woolf’s narrative persona is refused entry into the Oxbridge library by a man who looked, “like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings”. The man acts as a metaphor for the blocked opportunities and societal barriers that have been imposed on women by men, the imagery emphasizing the role of men in restricting woman’s intellectual freedom. Woolf conjures the imaginary character of “Judith Shakespeare”, to further demonstrate the inequality of women. This literary allusion and the allegory of Judith demonstrate how the talents of women are being lost because they are not allowed to be creative. Despite Judith sharing the same genetic makeup, and thus the same potential, she achieved nothing due to lack of education and freedom. The three centuries between Shakespeare’s and Woolf’s contexts highlights the almost nonexistent change in woman’s intellectual freedom. Thus A Room explores restrictions the gender plays on a woman’s intellectual, creative and financial freedom. In the context of a troubled 1938 Europe, the later essay Three Guineas similarly explores the theme of freedom, focusing on educational freedom and the role that educated women can play in preventing war.

Similarly to A Room; Three Guineas also explores the role of men in preventing the educational freedom of women. The freedom from male financial reliance that education can provide woman’s with is highlighted through the metaphor of woman’s being slaves to their fathers: “to depend upon a profession is a less odious form of slavery than to depend upon a father.” Having a career and earning income, she argues, is more rewarding than being financial and intellectually reliant on the men in one’s life. This idea is further emphasized metaphorically by the truncated sentence, “You [men] are fighting with us, not against us”. The ‘war’ represents the ‘war’ between women and men in literature and the professions. Three Guineas thus highlights the limitations of a woman’s educational rights. Both essays also discuss more broadly the effects of society’s attitude towards women. A Room explores the influence of strict early 20th century societal views on women and their role in society. The long history of disrespect towards women in the literary profession is illustrated by alluding to Dr Johnson, the renowned 18th century English writer: “a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well”. The simile reflects the general male disrespect towards women, whilst further emphasizing the negative influence societal disregard of women writers. Woolf’s argument that societal influences have restricted women from literature composition is further portrayed when Woolf comments that “even a woman…has brought herself to believe that to write a book was to be ridiculous”. The narrator’s disappointed tone emphasizes the impact of societal constraints, further illustrating how a lack of a literary legacy allows women no goals to aim for. Woolf also explores the disheartening impact that a negative and often cruel reception of women writers has on women: “She was afraid of something; afraid of being called ‘sentimental’ perhaps”, the repetition of the adjective ‘afraid’ reflecting potential women writers’ entrenched fears and discouragement. The play on the adjective ‘sentimental’ reflects the pre-Depression view, that women, due to their perceived softer nature are incapable of producing good literature. A Room consequently provides us with a unique insight into the overarching influence of early 20th century, pre-Depression English society on women writers.

In contrast, Three Guineas, reflecting its pre-WW2 context, explores the theme of empowerment of women through education and the professions. A woman’s limited role in society due to lack of educational opportunities is reflected in the rhetorical question, “What does ‘our country’ mean to me an outsider?” emphasizing that because women lack influence and don’t have a voice, they consider themselves outsiders. Woolf quotes Sir Ernest Wild, a British Royal Naval seaman, to validate her argument that, without education, women have to rely on manipulation to influence a man: “A man liked to think he was doing his job…[a] wise woman always let him think he was running the show when he was not.” The alliterative “wise woman” suggests the general view in male dominated society that the usefulness of women is based on their natural feminine talent rather than real skills acquired through education. It is also argues that in a changing society, an “educated man’s daughter has now at her disposal an influence which is different from any influence that she has possessed before”. The repetition of ‘influence’ stresses that, through education, women have a newfound strength. They no longer have to resort to using “whatever charm or beauty…[they] possess to flatter and cajole the busy men”. Three Guineas thus demonstrates the role that education and participation in the professions can play in a woman’s influence over both the men in her personal life and the events of society in the broadest sense.

A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas have explored different aspects relating to women’s financial, creative and intellectual freedom and resultant influence. Woolf’s call for intellectual and financial freedom in A Room of One’s Own is complemented by a stronger and more urgent call given the context and the passage of time in her later discussion of the importance of educational freedom in Three Guineas.

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The Androgynous Ideal; Androgyny in Virginia Woolf’s Writing

March 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the works of Virginia Woolf freedom is an often unattainable ideal. Woolf discusses freedom at great length in her texts, ranging from the broader freedom of the individual to live as they please in her fiction to the creative freedom of the artist in her nonfiction. There are a few instances in her work where freedom becomes a possibility in both the lives of the individual at large and the artist. The titular character of Orlando is able to live a life that defies definition due to their ever-changing gender, while in the book length essay A Room of One’s Own Woolf provides the writer with a more creatively limitless form of writing. Both of these works present different types of freedom, personal and artistic, but the catalyst for these freedoms is the same: androgyny. Androgyny, for Woolf, is a liberating state, one that allows us to distort or escape what she sees as the most constraining discourse in our society: gender. In fact, Woolf presents androgyny as the state in which the individual is the freest. This essay will argue that Woolf’s writing explores a concept of freedom, both personal and artistic, only achievable through a distortion and rejection of gender through androgyny, looking at the subversive life of Orlando and the rejection of gender in A Room of One’s Own.

Sandra Bem defines the androgynous individual as ‘an individual who does not rely on gender as a cognitive organizing principle and whose personality therefore combines both masculine and feminine elements’.[1] By stating that the androgynous individual does not have to ‘rely on gender as a cognitive organizing principle’ Bem defines androgyny as not simply the mix of masculine and feminine. Rather, androgyny is freedom from, and ultimate rejection, of the discourse that is gender, the mix of masculine and feminine is simply the product of said freedom. Furthermore, the idea of gender as ‘as cognitive organizing principle’ means that everything about us as individuals is regulated and sorted through gender: the clothes we wear, the acts we perform, the words we use; everything about us is gendered. By Bem’s reasoning to be androgynous is to be free from gender, to defy gendered definition and exist beyond what Judith Butler calls the realm of cultural intelligibility: an ordered and coherent subjectivity regulated by gender. Butler writes that ‘“Intelligible” genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire.’[2] Androgyny is a freedom that allows the individual to defy and distort Butler’s realm of cultural intelligibility. To be androgynous, therefore, is to confuse and reject the standards normalized in our society, to refuse the default and chose an unintelligible alternative.

The novel Orlando presents a version of androgyny that subtly challenges the notion of cultural intelligibility. Subtitled ‘A Biography’, the novel uses the form of the biography and the narrative voice of the biographer to present the expectation of the culturally intelligible subject, only to contradict that expectation with the fantastical and amorphous life story of Orlando. In her essay ‘The Art of Biography’ Woolf writes that the form of the biography ‘imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact.’[3] The biography as a form, according to Woolf, is rigid and controlling. In biography there can be no room for doubt or inconsistency, and thus the narrative of the biography, the voice of the biographer (which we shall assume is a male voice), is the voice of truth. Orlando opens with a sentence that directly assures the reader that the biographer is the harbinger of truth: ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it’.[4] This sentence is designed to convince the reader that the biographer can see the truth, that despite what may ‘disguise’ reality there is ‘no doubt’ that the biographer is telling the honest facts. The biographer in Orlando is the voice of truth, of expectation and the norm. That Orlando could be a woman disguised as a man by ‘the fashion of the time’ is not a possibility as this goes directly against the norm that the biographer is fated to maintain. Furthermore, at the start of the novel Orlando is undoubtedly male and so the biographer presents the expectations of the male subject:

‘From deed to deed, from glory to glory, from office to office he must go, his scribe following after, till they reach whatever seat it may be that is the height of their desire. Orlando, to look at, was cut out precisely for some such career.’ [Woolf, pp. 11]

The biographer has an expected norm for Orlando and as Orlando, at the novel’s beginning, is, ‘to look at’, the archetypical nobleman there is ‘no doubt’ in the biographer’s mind that this expectation shall be met. Gender, rigid and full of norms, has determined what Orlando’s life as a nobleman is to be, robbing them of the freedom to choose the life they truly want, and the biographer, ‘his scribe’, is there to record and define this life. The biographer in Orlando thus comes to act as the maintainer of a culturally intelligible and coherent subjectivity. It is the job of the biographer to check Orlando still exists in the realm of the intelligible and define Orlando’s life as truthfully and solidly as possible.

As the novel progresses, however, Orlando defies the expectations of the biographer and freely lives beyond the realm of cultural intelligibility. It is their ‘transformation’ from man to woman that frees Orlando from the strict definitions that the biographer has imposed. Before Orlando’s transformation the narrative of the biographer was rigidly assured in its subject, but upon that transformation inconsistencies arise and the rigidity of that narrative starts to collapse. Upon Orlando’s immediate transformation the biographer says ‘we have no choice left but to confess – he was a woman.’ [Woolf, pp. 83] ‘We have no choice to confess’ shows that the biographer, unlike the omniscient doubtless figure Woolf envisions in ‘The Art of the Biography’, has, in Orlando, met the limits of understanding. Pushed to the edge of cultural intelligibility, Orlando becomes to the biographer a paradox, shown through the oxymoronic ‘he was a woman.’ What was so set and clear to the biographer in the novel up to this point becomes undefinable, his subject so unintelligible that he states it is ‘irritating […] to see one’s subject, on whom one has lavished so much time and trouble, slipping out of one’s grasp altogether’. [Woolf, pp. 155] As Orlando grows into their androgyny they experience greater freedom from the limiting discourse of gender and cultural intelligibility embodied by the biographer. The biographer, meanwhile, becomes unable to hide or disguise Orlando’s unintelligibility, ‘to mitigate, to veil, to cover, to conceal, to shroud’ the now wholly subversive existence of Orlando. [Woolf, pp. 170] Unable to contain or hide Orlando’s unintelligibility, their androgynous freedom, the biographer finds himself struggling to maintain a coherent intelligibility within the novel’s narrative. As Christy L. Burns writes: ‘the notion of an essential self [is] comically reduced to a belief that Woolf’s less than competent narrator struggles to defend’.[5] Orlando’s subjectivity is freed by their androgyny beyond the limitations enforced by the role of the biographer. Freedom from the confines of the biographer is achieved by Orlando through fulfilling an androgynous life.

A pursuit of freedom from convention and expectation is evident in Woolf’s exploration of artistic imagination. While in Orlando androgyny is explored through how the individual can defy definition or containment through an androgynous life, in A Room of One’s Own Woolf argues that an androgynous style of writing frees the author and allows them to pursue a form of literature more creative and fulfilling. In the essay, Woolf shows a keen awareness of the limitations set by gender, noting how the traditionally submissive role of women within society and their historical exclusion from higher education has limited their creative capabilities. Woolf, however, does not ignore how gender as a discourse not only constrains women creatively but also creates a barrier for men. Woolf writes that ‘Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create any more than a mind that is purely feminine’.[6] Gender, for Woolf, is thus a creative blockade that disallows artists of either gender to create art of any more substance than an artist of the opposite gender. Gender puts limits on the imagination, creating a stunted dual subjectivity where there is a clear distinction between male and female: ‘in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates the man.’ [Woolf, pp. 88] It is from this duality of the mind that Woolf offers a solution to the limits created by gender; androgyny. Mary Jacobus writes that Woolf’s androgyny is one where ‘the split [between masculine and feminine] is closed with an essentially utopian vision of undivided consciousness.’[7] Jacobus interprets Woolf’s androgyny as not the individual exhibiting masculine and feminine traits, but rather where the division between masculine and feminine is destroyed. If there are no more distinctions between male and female as Jacobus contests that Woolf envisions and gender as a discourse, as Butler writes, exists because of the relationship between male/man and female/woman, then there is no such thing as gender; gender is surpassed.

Thus Woolf presents a type of androgyny that presents an absolute freedom from gendered discourse as gendered discourse no longer exists. When she writes that ‘Coleridge certainly did not mean, when he said that a great mind is androgynous, that it is a mind that has any special sympathy for women’ she is saying that the androgynous mind is not one that inhibits both masculine and feminine elements, but rather surpasses them. [Woolf, pp. 89] She argues that ‘the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.’ [Woolf, pp. 89] Therefore the androgynous mind does not exhibit the best qualities of gender norms: the traditional sensitivity of women and the strength of men. To the androgynous mind these qualities are innately parts of the artist. As Marilyn R. Farwell writes, Woolf’s androgyny permits a ‘freedom from the emotional extremes of sexual stereotypes [that] will lead to a complete objectivity.’[8] Woolf argues that it is through abandoning gender entirely, through living freely from that particular discourse, that the artist is given the opportunity to create and imagine without limits and with total objective honesty. Woolf makes the case for a form of androgyny that closely resembles Bem’s: a non-reliance on ‘gender as a cognitive organizing principle’, it just so happens that the abandonment of gender distinctions is so easily interpreted by those subjectivities still existing within the discourse of gender as exhibiting both masculine and feminine traits when really it is just the exhibition of traits without a gendered definition.

Therefore in A Room of One’s Own Woolf does not advocate for the celebration or empowerment of one gender or another, but rather for the repression or disregarding of all gender. Woolf argues that in order for the woman writer to succeed in her pursuits she must not free the femininity in her but rather destroy it in order to free the creative. Gender in this essay, unlike the controlling gender policing of Orlando’s biographer, is divisive. Woolf writes that ‘No age can ever have been so stridently sex-conscious as our own’, noting how ‘The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion’. [Woolf, pp. 89] To focus on gender is for Woolf to not pursue freedom from it but rather reinforce how it divides us. Gender norms are designed to defend themselves when challenged; for a woman writer to declare ‘I am a woman writer and I wish to be taken seriously’ causes a man writer to write solely to ‘celebrate male virtues, enforce male values, and describe the world of men’, writing with an ‘emotion [… that] is to a woman incomprehensible.’ [Woolf, pp. 92] Gender, therefore, is so divisive that it creates miscommunication between the sexes. Woolf writes that ‘it is fatal for anyone who writes to think about their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly’. [Woolf, pp. 94] For the writer to free themselves from the creative limitations imposed by gender they have to abandon their gender entirely. Woolf’s vision of androgyny in A Room of One’s Own is a celebration of creative empowerment and a denouncement of partisan male and female empowerment. As Lisa Rado notes ‘the empowerment [Woolf’s androgyny] is designed to produce is predicated on the repression of her own female identity’.[9] Subjectivity, Woolf argues, should not be divided by the labels of male/man or female/woman. Instead we should disregard these labels and empower a creative genderless subjectivity.

In a sense, in A Room of One’s Own Woolf is directly challenging the authority of the biographer in Orlando. The biographer constantly attempts to rigidly maintain the cultural intelligibility of Orlando: ‘He – for there can be no doubt of his sex’ and ‘he was a woman’ are examples of how the biographer constantly attempts to maintain Orlando as a binary being, ‘he’ or ‘she’. But by the vision of androgyny in A Room of One’s Own the biographer, by maintaining traditional gender roles, is failing to see the true Orlando; his creative purpose, to record the life of his subject honestly, is compromised by his inability to see past gender. His failure to see Orlando as ‘woman-manly or man-womanly’ but rather only seeing him as either man or woman, one or the other, is perhaps the biographer’s biggest failure and thus he is denied the creative freedom to accurately record the life of Orlando. As Makiko Minow-Pinkney writes: ‘Androgyny in Orlando is not a resolution of oppositions, but the throwing of both sexes into a metonymic confusion of genders.’[10] This failure to recognize Orlando for what they truly are is shown in the biographer’s attempt to describe Orlando immediately after their transformation: ‘Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been.’ [Woof, pp. 83] The biographer struggles to resolve the opposition of Orlando’s sexed body, for the sex of Orlando’s body is a subject in which there has been consistently ‘no doubt’ or ‘denying’, with Orlando’s subjectivity. To the biographer Orlando is the same and not the same simultaneously, the biographer unable to make any sense whatsoever of Orlando’s cultural intelligibility. By failing to comprehend Orlando’s androgyny the biographer is denied the creative freedom to succeed in writing a biography of his subject that is ‘based upon fact’.

Unlike the biographer, Orlando themselves seems to inhabit the rejection of gender that Woolf calls for in A Room of One’s Own. Their life in England is defined by a collage of performative acts that to the biographer signal a constant to-and-froing from male to female, but to Orlando these performative acts are not gendered. Instead they have freed themselves from gender so these acts are genderless, they are simply undefined or unregulated actions. The biographer writes that:

‘The curious of her own sex would argue, for example, if Orlando was a woman, how did she never take more than ten minutes to dress? And were not her clothes chosen rather at random, and sometimes worn rather shabby? And then they would say, still, she has none of the formality of a man, or a man’s love of power. She is excessively tender-hearted.’ [Woolf, pp. 111]

The biographer notes how Orlando performs acts that by his limiting view of gender are deemed male or female which are in direct conflict with her sex. She cannot be a woman as she takes no care in how she dresses, yet neither can she be a man as she has none of the sternness or formality necessary. She is something in between man or woman, but the biographer is unable to recognise or name what that thing is. Orlando, by performing acts that distorts the biographer’s understanding of them, refuses to pass as either man or woman. The writer Sandy Stone writes of passing that it ‘means to live successfully in the gender of choice, to be accepted as a “natural” member of that gender. Passing means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is effacement of the prior gender role’.[11] To pass in Orlando’s case would be to accept and live up to the expectations of their now female sexed body; to take longer than ten minutes to dress and refuse to look shabby. Orlando, by refusing to pass as either male or female, is accepting that before they were gendered as male and now they are gendered as female. By refusing to pass Orlando lives freely from what was expected of them before their transformation and what is expected of them now. By living a life that is androgynous by the standards set out by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own Orlando lives free from the expectations set out for them by society, they free themselves from the limitations of gender.

The freedom to live as one wishes or to write as best as one can is, according to Woolf, dependant on the surpassing of gender. To surpass gender is to live androgynously, to live beyond the limitations that gender creates. Woolf often explores the concept of freedom as something which is hard to attain. It is perhaps only due to the fantastical nature of Orlando’s life, one that spans many centuries and treats gender so casually, that freedom is achieved. Likewise, perhaps the idea that gender should be abandoned entirely in A Room of One’s Own is far too utopian or idealistic to ever have any chance of becoming the default for the artistic mind. Androgyny, as equally hard to achieve as it is to describe, is perhaps too unrealistic a state to be the goal of either the individual or the artist. Freedom, therefore, is often a fantasy or merely a theory. But nevertheless, Woolf presents a form of androgyny that offers the possibility of freedom from gender, just one of many discourses that often deny us, individual or artist, the freedom we desire.

Works Cited

[1] Sandra Bem, ‘Androgyny and Gender Schema Theory; a Conceptual and Empirical Integration’, in Psychology and Gender, ed. by Theo B. Sonderegger, (Nebraska; University of Nebraska Press, 1984), pp. 189 – 190

[2]Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 23

[3] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Biography’, in Virginia Woolf Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 120

[4] Virginia Woolf, Orlando, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 11

[5] Christy L. Burns, ‘Re-dressing Feminist Identities: Tensions Between Essential and Constructed Selves in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, Twentieth-Century Literature 40.3 (1994), pp. 346

[6] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, (London; Penguin, 1993), pp. 89

[7] Mary Jacobus, ‘The Difference of View’, in Women Writing and Writing About Women, ed. by Mary Jacobus, (New York; Routledge, 2012), pp. 20

[8] Marilyn R. Farwell, ‘Virginia Woolf and Androgyny’, Contemporary Literature, 16.4 (1975), pp. 447

[9] Lisa Rado, ‘Would the Real Virginia Woolf Please Stand Up? Feminist Criticism, the Androgyny Debate, and Orlando’, Women’s Studies, 26.2 (1997), pp. 151

[10] Makiko Minow-Pinkney, Virginia Woolf & the Problem of the Subject, (Brighton; Harvester Press, 1987), pp. 122

[11] Sandy Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto’, The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, (London; Routledge, 2006), pp. 231

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