Woolf’s Androgyny and the Single Room

In reading A Room of One’s Own, it is difficult to tell whether Virginia Woolf cares more passionately for her gender or for her craft. Guiding the future of the art of fiction, rather than scorning men or even fighting for justice, seems to be the aim of her rather woeful depiction of women throughout history. That is not to say that Room is simply about writing; rather, Woolf’s love of the art has allowed her to use the interaction between gender and writing as a microcosm for a principle that underlies every aspect of human society: creativity, industry, politics, love, and even the mind itself. She argues that human beings — both individuals and collectives — cannot reach their full actualization unless both genders are equally realized and joined together. “A room of one’s own” thus prescribes two things for women: first, the actual independence needed to write, and second, a sovereign sense of female identity that will arise only from female freedom. It seems society has already granted the first “room”; nearly eighty years after Woolf’s writing, much of modern society allows women the sort of provisions Woolf marked as necessities for the independent mind. However, while modern society has largely achieved Woolf’s material goal, there is no foundational dichotomy between the sexes. Relationships between men and women have not become marriages of equal yet distinct parts. On the contrary, society has largely dissolved the dichotomy itself. Women have indeed gained the social and economic independence that describes one aspect of the “room of one’s own,” but this independence has not created a separate, distinctly feminine standard. Rather, it has reduced gender itself to the sort of subjective, cultural aspect that even Woolf claims stunts the expression of true genius. Woolf begins her commentary on the plight of female writers by arguing for the literal definition of “a room of one’s own.” She claims that man has left woman without material, social, or emotional independence — necessary conditions for a writer to flourish. Woolf argues that material independence is the most basic of requirements for individual independence, but in her unsuccessful attempt to learn the cause of female poverty, Woolf’s narrator realizes that the answer is largely irrelevant: society has granted women no social independence with which to employ the wealth denied them. Rather, it has regarded women as nothing more than accessories to the male population, depriving them of a history and actively discouraging them from taking any independent occupation (namely, writing). A woman cannot be independent if she always measures her abilities against men, nor if she writes out of scorn for injustice. Such personal emotions have marred the works of great female authors such as Charlotte Bronte, whose writing is tainted by her very hatred of male oppression (69). Female writing has lacked purity and integrity, for the female mind has been bound to the man — to his money, to his standards, and to his faults — and polluted with a myriad of male influences. Female writers have been forced to see the world through man’s lens and man’s standards. True humanity, Woolf argues, is “incandescent,” and one cannot fully perceive it if it is clouded by the external. Indeed, it is the need to free the female mind from an external defined and dominated by men that makes it so important for women to have rooms of their own. The second meaning behind “a room of one’s own” is far more symbolic and indicates an entirely new, distinctly feminine creative identity that will both equal and complete the masculine. To achieve this second room, Woolf claims the writer needs to express a sort of truth inherently contained in her mind. One holds every phrase, every scene to the light as one reads — for Nature seems, very oddly, to have provided us with an inner light by which to judge a novelist’s integrity or disintegrity. Or perhaps it is rather that Nature… has traced in invisible ink on the walls of the mind… a sketch which only needs to be held to the fire of genius to become visible. (72)Woolf argues that when the female mind is free of masculine oppression, an entirely new, distinctly feminine form of fiction will blossom — a room of their own. Woolf calls it something that “differs greatly from the creative power of men” (87). Like Woolf’s hypothetical author of Life’s Adventure, the fully realized feminine creative power must exist unconscious of its own femininity, lest it bind itself once again to the external and foreign standard of masculinity. Woolf explains in Chapter V that establishing the second type of “room of one’s own” will call forth humanity’s missing piece and create a cultural dichotomy in which the male and the female complement one another. Neither gender can be fully actualized without the stimulation of the other. Thus, Woolf places gender, in any form, as a foundational aspect of the human being. In light of that viewpoint, as femininity establishes a room of its own, the dichotomy between the genders ought to have a great impact on society; looking back almost 80 years, has Woolf’s prediction held true? She predicts that in one hundred years, women and men will be socially equal (40). Even her descriptions of her present context in 1929 are rather optimistic. Given the level of independence women enjoy today, Woolf was probably accurate in her first definition of “a room of one’s own” as the requirement for such female independence. In many contemporary societies, women have access to monetary and social independence. They can lead lives and careers of their own without men, and the feelings of indignation against men that harmed writers such as Bronte have all but cooled. They have the first type of “room of one’s own,” and it has indeed allowed for the greatest level of female independence in history. With this independence, has society, as Woolf is convinced, under the grime of male oppression uncovered a new branch of humanity, a missing spouse whose absence has blighted human creativity throughout history? On the contrary, it seems that rather than the second half of a dichotomy falling back into place, the dichotomy itself is unraveling. Woolf argues that female independence would lead to two distinct shapes of fiction, yet the foundation of female literature has increased dramatically in the last century, and the styles of male and female writers have become less distinct. Ayn Rand wrote of the epic, Mark Twain of the trivial. If Woolf is correct when she argues in Chapter III (40) that all fiction necessarily hangs in reality, then surely today’s body of gender-neutral fiction proves an increasingly gender-neutral culture. Modern society has granted women independence, but they have done everything but establish a distinctly feminine room of their own. Given these results of a society that has not fostered a distinctly feminine creative mode yet has still granted women independence, in what state does that leave Woolf’s argument? Was Woolf simply wrong? Was there never a fundamental gender dichotomy? Have women in the last century simply become like men have always been? Although she overestimates gender’s impact on the natural state of humanity, Woolf was perhaps correct in her argument that women must detach from masculine standards to be free. There is not a new female identity; rather, the old male identity is dead. The old masculine standard was forged by generations of men who lived through generations of gender oppression and would therefore be most favorable to men and to conditions of gender oppression. That is the same standard that Woolf’s narrator encounters in Chapter II, the ambiguous “professor” who studied, evaluated, and judged women by weighing them against himself. Woolf’s solution was to even the scales by introducing a counterweight — a sovereign, equally powerful feminine standard. However, modern society has instead destroyed the masculine standard itself. While today a woman can exist without a husband, a man can also exist without a wife. In such developed societies, man is capable of managing his own domestic concerns (conventional “woman’s work”) in the same way that a woman is capable of providing herself with monetary income. Modern society has introduced a third, gender-neutral standard. Woolf sought to change women, but both genders have changed, moving toward the center and adopting a single human identity. Certainly there are still many distinctions between the two sexes, but society is rapidly reducing them to simple subcultures rather than Woolf’s foundational principles of identity, transforming them into the sort of subjective, personal qualities Woolf herself claims the writer must avoid in Chapter IV. As previously explained, one of the basic external influences that cloud the genius of the writer is what Woolf considers “private prejudices” (71). On the one hand, we feel You — John the hero — must live or I shall be in the depths of despair. On the other we feel, Alas, John, you must die, for the shape of the book requires it. Life conflicts with something that is not life. (71)The situations in which one most obviously notices gender are distinctly superficial lifestyle differences such as social rituals and clothing preferences. One often sees a distinct feeling of fraternity or sorority in groups of men or in groups of women, but is such a relationship not also present in those of the ethnic culture? And what is culture but a set of personal preferences, of “private prejudices”? Is culture not the “life” that conflicts with the “non-life”? Indeed, in the following paragraphs, Woolf praises books such as War and Peace that have preserved their integrity though translated and exported. Gender does not usually affect modern developed societies in fields such as art, industry, or politics, and if it does, only very covertly. Rather, the two genders are most distinct in matters of love, courtship, and sex — the very areas Woolf’s Elizabethan poets glorified. It almost seems as though society has not aligned fiction with gender, but rather gender with fiction. Woolf may not have predicted it, but modern society has demoted gender to something that even Woolf would have decried as harmful for the writer to acknowledge. Even in 1929, Virginia Woolf notices the liberation of female creativity. The foundation of the feminine standard has yet to be established, but Charlotte Bronte and the fictional Mary Carmichael have grasped at it, and Jane Austen has even caught it and now stands blinking in its brightness. The site has been marked, the ground broken, and the dig begun. Woolf claims that under the dirt of male oppression, societal inequality, and female poverty lies humanity’s missing half. But consider for a moment the significance of Woolf’s feminism, if it were true: she condemns nearly every great work of literature, from Plato to Shakespeare, to a half-existence; an existence that their authors wrote to a flawed standard and their readers evaluated on the basis of a flawed standard because it was a standard under the aegis of gender. Indeed, Woolf seems to call into retribution the entire body of human literature. Society has shown, however, that the plight of women in history has not been because femininity is made of different stuff, but because people thought it was. With female independence, modern society has not found its missing piece, as Woolf suggests, but has discovered its very lack of pieces. Society has not given women a room of their own, but has instead adopted a new room in which both men and women reside. Cited:Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1989. Print.

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