A Room Of One’s Own

How does Woolf understand the relationship between literature, sex and gender in A Room Of One’s Own? The relations between literature and gender are historically complicated with issues of economic and social discrimination. Woman’s writing is still a relatively new area, and Woolf examines how their creativity has been hampered by poverty and oppression. Women have not produced great works like those of Shakespeare, Milton and Coleridge, and she see’s this as a result not only of the degrading effects of patriarchy on the mind but of the relative poverty of the female sex.

A woman ‘must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. ’ Men have historically fed money back into the systems that keep them in power, and made it legally impossible for a woman to have her own money. The narrator’s two meals at ‘Oxbridge’ illustrate the institutional sexism in the education system, with the poorer woman’s college providing a mediocre meal compared to the one at the men’s.

Furthermore, a woman’s traditional role as a child bearer leaves no time to earn; and without such independence, women are shut up in the houses of their husbands or fathers without the privacy needed to write without interruptions. Woolf demonstrates such interruptions within the text as the narrator’s thoughts are often hindered; she has an idea which is ‘exciting and important’ which is forgotten as ‘the figure of a man rose up to intercept me. ’ She is forbidden to enter the library, a strong symbol of the denial of education and knowledge to women.

In considering the extent and effect of these inequalities, she discovers that she has been thinking not objectively but with anger. Although ‘one does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man,’ she is aware that anger disrupts what should be a clear and rational mind. However, it appears that the men in power, the ‘professors,’ are also angry. They insist quite aggressively upon the inferiority of woman, but Woolf believes that the professor is in fact ‘not concerned with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. Without confidence we are but ‘babes in the cradle,’ and the quickest way to gain this invaluable quality is simply by ‘thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. ’ Thus the narrator see’s the professor’s degradation of woman as a ‘looking glass’ effect, with a woman serving to reflect the figure of a man ‘at twice his natural size. ’

With her five hundred pounds a year, the narrator has a personal and creative freedom which allows her to be detached and objective. While woman in fiction tend to be of ‘utmost importance,’ in real life they are ‘completely insignificant. In order to believe in himself the patriarch must not have his power challenged; and this accounts for the wider societal hostility towards the woman writer. Like Currer Bell and Mary Shelly, women are forced into anonymity by the sense of chastity dictated to them. For society met the woman writer, unlike the male, not with ‘indifference but hostility. ’ Such brutal hostility is indeed why it would be near impossible for a sixteenth century woman to write the works of Shakespeare. Woolf uses a hypothetical example of a fictional sister of Shakespeare, Judith, to illustrate this.

She has the same gift as her bother, but she wouldn’t have been send to school. She would have been told to mend stockings when caught reading; she would have to hide her work. To escape a forced marriage, Judith would run away, and at the stage door when she said she wanted to act, as her brother had, ‘men laughed in her face. ’ Alone and now an outcast, she would have inevitably ended up with child, a broken chastity which severed completely her from the wider world. Driven to madness and then suicide, she would die in obscurity.

Indeed society’s outcasts are often such women, who, suffering with their gift, are taken to near madness as that figure of a man always rises to intercept them. The tales of those who are on the fringes of society are of ‘witches;’ perhaps suppressed poets and novelists who were ‘crazed with the torture’ that their gift had caused them. A sixteenth century woman with Shakespeare’s gift would have ‘ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. Such women are so far from the normal expectations of femininity that they are stripped of humanity and made unnatural half male and female, ‘witch and wizard. ’ With the ‘enormous body of masculine opinion’ against her intellectual capabilities, a woman would have her mind ‘strained and her vitality lowered. ’ While Shakespeare’s mind was ‘incandescent,’ allowing intellectual freedom and genius, a woman’s mind will be like of Lady Winchilsea; ‘harassed and distracted with hates and grievances. ’ Lady Winchilsea suffered from these hates and her poems show it.

Her feelings seem inevitable given the ‘sneers and the laughter’ that a woman writer would experience. Duchess Margaret of Newcastle was certainly called mad, her untutored intelligence running out in ‘torrents of rhyme and prose,’ her wits ‘turned with solitude and freedom. ’ For Judith, ‘had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination. ’ And it would have been deemed insignificant. The narrator asserts that the values of woman often differ from the values of men and ‘yet is it the masculine values that prevail.

This is invariably transferred from life to fiction, and if the writer is to explore their world, then the feelings of woman in a drawing room make for an insignificant book, not as valuable as a book about war. In order to write War and Peace, Tolstoi’s many and varied experiences of the world were invaluable, and he could not have written is if he had lived in the seclusion of Eliot or the Bronte’s. This is why Austen writes with so much integrity, simply using her many observations of the common sitting room, where ‘personal relations were always before her eyes.

Anger interferes with the integrity of Charlotte Bronte, and the narrator believes that we ‘constantly feel an acidity which is a result of oppression,’ in her writing. More importantly however, like other woman novelists she is distracted and changed by patriarchal criticism. The female novelist ended up ‘thinking of something other then the thing in itself,’ by ‘admitting that she was ‘only a woman’ or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man. ’ The criticism makes them acutely aware of their gender, with the following anger causing them to write about themselves, not their subjects.

Austen and Emily Bronte did not alter their values ‘in deference to the opinions of others. ’ They have lasted because they wrote ‘as woman write, not as men write. ’ The man’s sentence, though perfect for Johnson and Dickens, is ‘unsuited for a woman’s use,’ and Austen adapted it to what felt natural for her. The shape of a novel is also built by men, but while other forms of literature were hardened and set in a male dominated literary tradition the novel was ‘young enough to be soft in her hands. Women wrote novels because they were adapted to their needs, and ‘framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. ’ The nineteen year old Mary Shelly was a silent listener amongst her husband’s intellectual circle. Self educated, she wrote Frankenstein which was published in 1818, however many believed it to be her husbands work as a young girl could surly not write such a dark story. John Wilson Crokers review said the author could be ‘as mad as his hero. ‘ Her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, locks himself in seclusion to create.

His creation, like Shelly’s novel, is in itself a ‘hideous progeny,’ a name she gave to her own novel which seemed at the time to be so ‘unfeminine’ as to be monstrous. But for or the female novelist expressing values thought of as just feminine and thus so far unexplored by the great male writers, ‘so much as been left out, unatempted’ Mary Cavendish’s Life’s Adventure begins to tentatively express the relationship between two female characters, whereas such relations are expressed by male writers ‘are too simple,’ such as Cleopatra’s simple jealously towards Octavia in Anthony and Cleopatra.

For fictitious woman are shown ‘almost without exception’ just in their relation to men, which narrator points out that that is but a small part of a women’s life. Men cannot give an interesting or truthful account about the other sex who are just ‘married against their will, kept in one room, and to one occupation. ’ Therefore the ‘only possible interpreter’ is love, forcing the dramatist to view woman in the lover’s extremes of passion or bitterness. This explains the antithetical nature of woman in fiction and the few parts they play.

Nevertheless, women are by far the most popular topic among male writers, and in their daily lives they sought out female company. For only a woman, the narrator believes, can show ‘some different order and system of life, and the contrast between this world and his own. ’ The natural differences would ensure that the ‘dried ideas in him would be fertilized anew. ’ It is women that renew male creative power, and so ‘every Johnson has this Thrale, and holds her fast. A woman’s own creative power ‘differs greatly from the creative power of men,’ and these differences should be nurtured as woman have the ability to see what the man cannot; himself. The narrator describes a ‘spot the size of a shilling at the back of the head which one can never see for oneself, and thus ‘a true picture of man as a whole can never be painted until a woman has describes that spot. ’ Frankenstein’s monster, though an outcast, is self educated and intelligent.

However the values of the outside world dictate that his body is monstrous and he can never be accepted; one feels perhaps the anger and segregation of patriarchy, the chip in Shelly’s shoulder. And yet he shows Frankenstein to himself in resembling the darkness of his creator. The monster is a subversion of nature, not only because of his reanimated corpses limbs but because he is the child of just one parent; a father. The difference of sex should be embraced within the creative process, as ‘a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more then a mind that is purely feminine.

Not to think specially or separately of sex is to write with an androgynous mind which is truly clear. When the narrator reads a man’s work she finds it somewhat blocked, for in asserting his own superiority he is not only ‘inhibited and self conscious’ but writing with just the male side of his brain, with a mind ‘separated into different chambers. ’ Woman not only find such books dull in their perpetual emphasis on male values, but inaccessible. Thus the perfect state in which to create is in which some ‘marriage of opposites’ has been consummated.

The narrator suggests that the men of Italy working to develop fiction in the Fascist era can only produce a ‘horrid little abortion,’ with an unnatural birth in a kind of ‘incubator. ’ One is again reminded of Frankenstein’s monster which, like Fascist’s poetry, will ‘never live long,’ for ‘poetry ought to have a mother as well as a father. ’ It is therefore ‘fatal’ for a writer think of their sex. Shelly herself creates a man who unnaturally ‘gives birth;’ thus his creation is an ‘abortion,’ and for it he loses his humanity.

She was clearly aware of the dangerous and alienating effects of creativity. Frankenstein looks at his creation as his inferior, stressing the monsters inhumanity in an attempt to bring back his own fading humanity. The monster, who show’s him for the thoughtless creator he is, becomes a terrible looking glass. Frankenstein see’s the sleeping monster as beautiful in sleep, yet horrific in waking, an antithesis which mirrors the patriarchs.

An outcast, a monster, is a woman with a gift, and thus her work is ‘disfigured and deformed. Whether Shelly’s monstrous progeny is an example of this or she reflects patriarchal attitudes in the segregation of the monster, she is nevertheless an example of one who does not ‘sacrifice’ a vision for others; she writes as she wishes to write. Woolf hopes that others will take this further and acknowledge that ‘our relation is to the world of reality and not to the world of men and woman. ’ But before there can be complete integrity and equality within literature, all writers must have ‘money, and a room of ones own. ’