A Room of One's Own | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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A Room of One's Own | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Virginia Woolf has been asked to give a lecture on women and fiction, and she has titled this lecture "A Room of One's Own." She begins by discussing her thought process about how to approach the assigned subject and explains her chosen title. At first, she wondered about the meaning of "women and fiction." Had she been asked to lecture on women, or female fiction writers, or men's fiction writing about women, or all three? Rather than come to a grand conclusion about these large and complex topics, however, she decided to focus instead on a related, yet smaller, issue. She has concluded, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." The lecture will walk her audience through the thought process that led to this conclusion. It is possible, Woolf allows, that "The ideas ... behind this statement ... have some bearing upon women and some upon fiction."

To help guide her audience through her thought process, Woolf is going to use "all the liberties and licenses of a novelist" to tell the story of the preceding two days, in which she gave deep consideration to "women and fiction." She invents a fictional self, inviting the audience to call this fictional self, "Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael," or any other name.

Mary Beton begins her story. It is a lovely October morning, and she sits by the banks of a river in Oxbridge, burdened by the enormity of the question of "women and fiction." A small thought occurs to her, and after a while this thought tugs at her mind and becomes both exciting and important. She rises and walks quickly across the grass, but just as quickly a man with an expression of indignation on his face also rises and gestures urgently to her that she should stay on the path and not trample the grass. She has an idea of visiting the library, where several famous manuscripts are housed, but a kindly gentleman at the door tells her women are not allowed unless accompanied by a Fellow or are in possession of a letter of introduction.

Angry, Beton considers what to do next. She hears the music of an organ coming from the chapel and watches as the congregation walks inside for a service. She considers how the great university was constructed, so long ago, with the wealth of kings and queens, and how it endures based on the wealth of businessmen and merchants.

Beton's contemplation is interrupted by the luncheon bell. Luncheon is a grand affair, full of decadent food and plenty of wine, and infused with a sense of peace, goodwill, and leisure. She catches a glimpse of a Manx cat with no tail, however, which pauses and seems to "question the universe." This breaks the mood for Beton, and she imagines a past luncheon, not unlike the present one. She senses there is some intangible difference between the past luncheon and this one. She finds part of an answer in the romantic love poems of British poets Alfred Tennyson and Christina Rossetti, which seem to echo what men and women hummed to themselves at luncheon before the war.

Dinner is at Fernham, a women's college, and it is plain and uninspiring, consisting of prunes and custard among other things. Afterwards, Beton again thinks of the treasure of kings that allowed Oxbridge to be built and the wealth of generations that had added to its richness. She compares this with the way the women who founded Fernham had to struggle to get enough money for a women's college. This thought makes her angry, and she rants about "the reprehensible poverty" of women. She wonders why they did not go into business and in doing so leave plenty of money to found grand universities and fund fellowships dedicated to women. She realizes if their foremothers had been in business, they would not have had families. Furthermore, only for the last 48 years have women been able to keep the money they earn. Late into the evening, Beton continues to think of the "safety and prosperity of the one sex and ... the poverty and insecurity of the other."

Analysis

A Room of One's Own is an argumentative essay that makes the claim that "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," and then uses several fictional narratives to walk through the supporting reasons. The opening chapter of this extended essay introduces the structure, narrator, claim, and important symbols that will develop the argument. Woolf begins speaking for herself, as if giving a lecture to a group of women writers. This is a reminder the printed version of the book was originally a series of lectures given to female university students. She will circle back to this at the very end of the essay, as if returning to a frame story.

In fact, this essay is nearly as much a work of fiction as it is a novel—the main difference being that the fictional narrative supports an argument, rather than a plot or character arc. Within the frame story, Woolf will provide her audience with a fictional narrator, usually called Mary Beton, and a number of other fictional characters—Professor von X, Mary Carmichael, and others. These characters help her explore aspects of the lecture topic of "women and fiction" and ultimately prove that women writers must have money and a room of their own.

Several symbols are introduced in this opening chapter, and the ideas they represent can be traced throughout the essay. One, of course, is Oxbridge. The land was once marshland, but over time and "with infinite labor the grey blocks ... were poised in order one on top of another." This building process becomes a metaphor and a symbol of the great legacy of literature written by men. In contrast, the women have no such legacy, and they are only now beginning to make their own foundations and their own buildings—both literal and metaphorical. This contrast continues as the narrator eats at both Oxbridge and at Fernham, the women's college. The food is sumptuous at Oxbridge, but meager at Fernham, and the prunes and custard of Fernham become a symbol of women's poverty.

Finally, it is important to notice the number of distractions and interruptions in Mary Beton's narrative. She is intercepted by a man as she walks across the grass of Oxbridge. Another man blocks her path at the door of the Oxbridge library. Her thoughts are interrupted by a Manx cat whose lack of a tail makes her consider what she herself lacks. These kinds of interruptions continue throughout the essay and represent the many interruptions women writers have historically endured due to family and social responsibilities. That women are constantly interrupted is, later, used to explain why women turned to writing novels. But the interruptions also help make the case that a woman writer needs a room of her own where she may work uninterrupted.

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