I’ve been meaning to revisit Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in order to analyze and critique it from a new perspective. I haven’t read that essay in nearly a decade and I’m sure my life experiences will deeply impact the way I approach and respond to the piece.
In this installment of the series I’ll intimately reacquaint myself with Virginia’s essay one page at a time. I will draw from different philosophical, sociological, and anthropological theories and texts to analyze and critique the essay through varied lenses. Additionally, I’ll offer race-, class-, and ability-based analyses that highlight the limited perspective from which Virginia wrote.
With that in mind, I’ll still respect and honor the work and theorizing of Virginia given the strong influence she had on my life and work from a young age. Not just me, of course, though. Virginia is a writer whose honest and personal narrative style made for beautifully-crafted prose and cultural criticism that ensured her placement in the literary canon.
The first few sentences remind me of a line from Dave Chappelle’s Equanimity special on Netflix. He jokingly describes an opportunity he had that “many black men in America do not have the time or the money to do”: thought about how he felt.
On the banks of a river, Woolf has the opportunity to think deeply about what the words “women” and “fiction” mean. Not necessarily for the sake of doing so, but in order to figure out how to address the topic of women and fiction as was asked of her.
She begins by briefly listing off possible women about whom she could give remarks in the style of begat-marked biblical genealogy descriptors. From Fanny Burney to Mrs. Gaskell, Virginia offers a stream of consciousness look into where her mind is traveling in order to make sense of what the words “women” and “fiction” mean to her.
Next she supposes what the title “Women and Fiction” could be referring to, as determined by the giver of the prompt. Is it “women and what they are like” (as if there is a necessary essence that every person who identifies as a woman possses), “women and the fiction they write” (as if the number of types of fiction and women is so limited that they could be summarized into a single essay in a definitive way), or “women and the fiction that is written about them” (which would be a fascinating—and potentially bothersome—topic to explore through a historical and contemporary lens given the vast amounts of fiction written about women by people who aren’t women and choose to dehumanize more than respect them). Each three would make for important topics to cover but Virginia’s gravitation toward those possibilities alone, while certainly impacted to length constraints, highlight her limited perspective with respect to the idea of women and fiction. She considered the third option, “women and the fiction that is written about them” to be the “most interesting” but proceeds to admit that theorizing about the topic would prove inconclusive.
The “first duty of a lecturer”, asserts Virginia, is to offer a “nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece forever.” Which brings her to the primary focus of the essay: the claim that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Now, my immediate response to that claim is that there are so many forms of invisible labor that prohibit some women from being able to have the time or energy to write anything of any kind. That, along with the possible barriers brought about by mental illness or trauma, can prevent a woman from being able to translate her ideas from mind to page.
Be that as it may, I’m reminded of the words of my favorite translator of Plato’s Republic: Allan Bloom. In his 1968 preface to the dialogue he states that we “apply the tools of our science to the past without reflecting that those tools are also historically limited.” He goes on to claim that we “do not sufficiently realize that the only true historical objectivity is to understand [the ancient] authors as they understood themselves.”
In some cases that line of thinking can lead to apologist interpretations of texts, and the authors who wrote them, which can cause us to, sometimes unwittingly, perpetuate norms and ideas rooted in dangerous ideologies. In this case, though, I think it would be intellectually dishonest to ignore the literary merit and importance of Virginia’s words because she writes from a position of privilege and power as a well-read, white woman.
This is when it’s important to take into account Virginia’s intersecting identities. Not only did she battle mental illness, attempt suicide multiple times, and struggle with her sexual identity, she suffered from trauma due to the loss of incredibly close family members. She may have had access to excellent libraries and may have been raised on Victorian Literature from a young age but she also was also navigating the painful complexities of existence, ultimately ending her own life by way of suicide. In the suicide letter written to her husband she wrote
“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer.”
So while I won’t deny her privilege, during my analyses and critiques of her work, I also won’t diminish her struggles.
Following her brief description of her idea of the duty of a lecturer, she goes on to ponder the “great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction” both of which she claims are unsolved. Then, after finding her way back to the topic of “the room and the money”, she informs the reader that she will “fully and freely” examine the ideas and prejudices that fuel her arguments with the added caveat that given the “highly controversial” subject, “one cannot hope to tell the truth.”
Early Modernism sought to interpret and question life and the world, through Art and Literature, with different, more imaginative tools than those that earlier periods. Doubt, individualism, critical inquiry, and the embracing of multiple perspectives were characteristic markers of the Modernist period that strayed from the more traditional, nostalgia- and ideal-driven, heroism of Romanticism.
Virginia offers insight into her changing, curious mind as she grapples with the topic at hand. “One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold,” she asserts and it is this reminder, along with the earlier words of Allan Bloom that stir within me a strong sense of longing.
Here, Virginia is talking about belief-formation. When it comes to topics I could talk about for hours and hours belief-formation is one of them. Why do we think what we think? Why do we think the way we think? What external and internal factors shape our belief-formation processes? Are there degrees of belief?
What Virginia states next comes close to a belief that I hold dear and that fuels so much of my desire to engage in respectful, passionate discourse: “One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.” In my case, I’d just add “and the complexities of existence itself” after the word “speaker”.
As I further analyze and critique this essay I’ll keep in mind Virginia’s limitations, prejudices, and idiosyncrasies as best I can in order to be charitable, intellectually honest, and respectful of her.
When thinking about women and fiction I necessarily also think about race, class, geopolitics, ability, nation of origin, language, and other inherently political issues in order to approach those topics, those concepts, in an honest way. I’m going to approach this text with the assumption that you haven’t read it before so my reactions are organic and just in case you want to be surprised by what comes next in the essay without me heavily spoiling anything.
We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of this essay but already I’m left with questions and curiosities. Not only because of my own struggles with gender identity or my thoughts about Black women’s historical relationship to fiction or whatever else, but because Virginia’s idea of “a room of one’s own” is an important one worth unpacking in order to better make sense of our relationship to Literature, to the world, to the past, to the future, to ourselves as writers and as people.