Virginia Woolf’s Book “Three Guineas” Essay (Critical Writing)

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Oct 19th, 2020

Within the context of feminist activism and social thinking, the writings of Virginia Woolf present an insight into the problematic socioeconomic processes of the twentieth century: wage discrimination and social exclusion of women. At the very beginning, it is important to note that Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas is not a literary piece that had been extensively analyzed as to its role as an educational treatise. Nevertheless, Three Guineas established her as a “significant voice in the cause of pacifism” (Taylor 186). For Woolf, the issues of pacifism, education, and the role of women were inseparable; in Three Guineas she wished to reeducate those who were miseducated. The quote “What is this mysterious process that takes about three years to accomplish, costs a round sum in hard cash, and turns the crude and raw human being into the finished product – an educated man or woman?” (Woolf 184) appeals to the value of education and its definition in the context of the twentieth-century society.

Issues Raised in Three Guineas

Three themes or questions were raised in Three Guineas, which is a work of non-fiction (novel-essay) written with the purpose of tying up the loose ends that remained from Woolf’s previous extended essay, A Room of One’s Own. The first question raised in Three Guineas related to how could war be prevented, the second was about why women are not supported through education, and the third related to the reason for women not being allowed to pursue a professional career (Turkovich par. 3). Since Three Guineas was structured as a series of letters, the questions raised encouraged a dialogue and the political debate about the issues at hand, instead of laying out material in a traditional essay manner. With the use of dialogue and the diversity of characterization, Virginia Woolf managed to give voice to societal groups that were never heard.

The motif of guineas represented the money in the hands of a woman as well as a symbol of power since education was only available to the rich and powerful. The three letters included in the essay could not be regarded as letters a regular woman of that time could write. Contrast to the majority of women of that time, Woolf was powerful – she had money, demands, her own beliefs, and opinions. Due to the nature of its tone, Three Guineas was considered the most controversial piece of Woolf’s writing; some critics went so far as saying that the essay was resentful and reminded a “series of complaints” (Correia 6). Nevertheless, the angry tone of the essay is what distinguished it from many others; the author did not want to diminish the importance of the problems she raised nor did she want to underestimate her privilege in the situation at hand (William and Linder 11). In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf preached that an independent woman had to have her own money and a place for living, and she was privileged enough to have enough money, a space for writing, and therefore, her independence. In Three Guineas she contested that an independent woman is fully capable of doing what men do in their lives; she pointed out the injustices in the way society was developed and organized, and she did so with the use of an angry tone.

Value of Education and the Role of Gender

As evidenced by the quote given in the introduction to the paper, Woolf’s objection to higher education was that it was too costly and turned “human beings” into “finished products.” She argued that the immense costs put into education were evidence for the value placed upon it by all members of the society (Taylor 219). Despite the fact that Woolf opposed the high costs and the policies of exclusion regarding education, she still held a view that it was an important component of a civilized society. One of her arguments supporting education was that the majority of men who ruled England for the past five centuries had a university education. Woolf continued to underline the fact that the round sums of money spent on higher education for those men could have been shared with their daughters, but instead, this money contributed to fueling their political ambitions and disregarding the role of women.

Nevertheless, Woolf argued that women continued to value the importance of education despite being excluded from it. To her, this became “the greatest testimony to the value of education” (Woolf 25). While sacrificing their pleasure and comfort, the daughters and sisters of the highly educated men still had a desire to be valued in the society, which Woolf found quite remarkable. In the past, women could only become professional wives; such ‘positions’ did not require them to have formal education. Moreover, the role of wives could have been undermined by any formal learning a woman received in her lifetime (Taylor 220). In addition to this, the Church did not support the belief that women should receive high education and did everything in its power to prevent it from happening, going as far as asserting that a woman’s wish to be educated contradicts the will of God (Woolf 152). The lack of money, oppressive ideologies, and ridicule also greatly limited women’s attempts to become educated; however, there was really nothing that could have stopped them on their way to becoming independent and valued in the society. Therefore, Woolf came to a paradox in Three Guineas: while the external factors significantly hindered women’s attempts to become educated, the value of education did not diminish among women and remained strong until finally, learning became equal for all.

Woolf contested that the role of a woman in the society was not defined by how educated she was but by what relationships she had with men: “[…] necessary to coin this clumsy term – educated man’s daughter – to describe the class whose fathers have been educated at public schools and universities” (218). Therefore, women who had educated men as their fathers or brothers were considered mere ‘shadows’ and were not regarded as valuable members of the society. Such women were the subjects of patriarchal power despite the fact that they could have contributed a lot to the society had they been treated as equals to men. Furthermore, Woolf criticized the idea of Arthur’s Education Fund that was used to invest significant amounts of money into the education of a male offspring, disregarding his female siblings.

The role of gender in education was a topic Virginia Woolf had been passionate about, and because she had enough power and a voice that was valued in the society, she wanted to represent women and ask men questions, which they had to answer (Bechtold 4). Woolf addressed her letters to the anonymous “Sir” who had no definite identity, but in his core represented a powerful and an educated man. Woolf appealed to the Sir in her letters as if he had been waiting to respond to her questions, and listen to the demands and recommendations the author expressed in her writing. In many ways, the fact that Woolf expressed her own beliefs and opinions with regards to areas not intended for a woman elevated the importance of having a dialogue between the representatives of the opposite sex to find common ground about the issues at hand. The overall intention behind Three Guineas was to provoke thought and discussion among the powerful members of the society. Moreover, the issues Woolf raised could still be applicable to the modern societies where the role of women is greatly underappreciated.

Concluding Remarks

Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas is a powerful piece of literary work that encouraged heated debates among the powerful members of the society. At the same time with expressing her pacifist thoughts, the author paid extra attention to underlining the importance of education for women, whose role in the society was equaled to their relationships with men. Being a powerful woman with a voice and strong opinions, Woolf created an educational treatise in which she appealed to men and asked them questions about the inequalities of the society of that time. In her writing, Woolf came to a paradox: despite being limited from accessing education through any means, women still understood the value of being educated and wanted to overcome the boundaries the society created for them.

Works Cited

Bechtold, Brigitte. “More than A Room and Three Guineas: Understanding Virginia Woolf’s Social thought.” VcBridgew, Web.

Correia, Marta Pereira. “Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas: The Past, the Present, and Into the Future.” SigarraUp, Web.

Taylor, Rod. “Modernism and the Wreck of Education: Lawrence, Woolf, and the Democratization of Learning.” Ebookcompanion, Web.

Turkovich, Marylin. “Virginia Woolf: Three Guineas.” Voiceseducation, Web.

Williams, Carl, and John Linder. “Persuasiveness of the Text: An Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas.” Digitalscholarship, Web.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Oxford World’s Classics, 2000.

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