A Room of One's Own | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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A Room of One's Own | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

The scene shifts to London. It is still fall, and the audience is asked to imagine a room with a window, and in the room, a table with a piece of paper that reads, "Women and Fiction." The previous day at Oxbridge had prompted questions, among them: "Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?" and "What effect has poverty on fiction?"

Beton goes to the British Museum—which once contained the British Library—to find answers. She discovers there are plenty of books written about women, mostly by men—men with degrees and men with no apparent credential other than being men. She also discovers there are no books about men written by women. Waiting for her book choices to be delivered to her stall, she considers a new question: "Why are women ... so much more interesting to men than men are to women?"

Beton's books arrive and she takes pages of notes covering a great variety of men's opinions about women. The opinions are sometimes contradictory. The men can't seem to agree on whether women can be educated, have souls, are divine, or a host of other questions. She is overwhelmed, and in her distraction, has unconsciously drawn an angry and ugly portrait of Professor von X engaged in writing his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. This book, in particular, has made her very angry.

Beton realizes, too, there is a kind of anger in the attitude of the male writers toward the women they write about. She puzzles over the exact nature of the men's anger as she has lunch at a nearby restaurant. Looking through a newspaper, she becomes even more intrigued by men's anger—since it is quite clear men hold all the power. Yet, the anger she had perceived in the books about women was real. She concludes men's "anger" is really their way of protecting their own power: "When the professor insisted ... upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned ... with his own superiority." Furthermore, she reflects on how this general truth explains why men are angry at feminists. "Women," she notes, have acted as "looking-glasses possessing the ... power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size." The self-confidence this has given men over the centuries has been essential to them, as has the inferiority of women.

Beton's thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of the restaurant bill, which she pays, using money inherited from her aunt. She had been informed of her aunt's passing around the same time women were given the right to vote. The money came as a great relief because the odd jobs she had prior were difficult and did not pay well. When she spends money now, she is reminded of the fear and bitterness she felt during that time in her life and how having money has caused those feelings to ebb.

Returning to her home, Beton sees people going about their jobs and tasks, and she thinks about how, in the future, women will cease altogether to be "the protected sex."

Analysis

This chapter proceeds as Mary Beton—Woolf's alter ego and narrator of the fictional narrative embedded in this essay—goes to the library to find answers to her questions. Unlike the Oxbridge library, which she was not allowed in, she is welcome in the British Museum and its library. In Chapter 1 Mary used her own observations and perspective to begin asking questions. She noticed a contrast between men and women and wanted to find out more, so she consults books to gather knowledge. She wants to "strain off what was personal and accidental ... and so reach ... the essential oil of truth." While this is a worthy goal, objective truth is not what she finds in the books.

Disappointingly, the books do not contain a great deal of objective truth. Rather, Beton finds they are filled with anger, which in turn causes her to become angry. To explore this "fact" of anger, she invents a fictional male author, Professor von X, who has written a book about why women are inferior to men in every way. She considers the way men and women related to each other before the women's right's movement and how they relate now. She concludes that men are angry because their superiority is being questioned and challenged. This superiority is something they had taken for granted and, in fact, had been very useful to them, as it bolstered their confidence and allowed them to take risks they might not have taken otherwise. Despite the fact she claims to be angry, Beton's tone as she analyzes this situation is objective and reasonable. She admits, "Life for both sexes ... is arduous, difficult ... It calls for gigantic courage and strength," and men had been used to finding this courage in their feelings of superiority over half of the population. She further admits this confidence in superiority has been useful: "Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle."

However, despite its usefulness, the confidence men have in their superiority is ultimately destructive. A strongly patriarchal system is inherently self-defeating because it places both the powerful and the powerless at its mercy. The men had power and wealth but "at the cost of harboring in their breasts an eagle ... forever tearing the liver out." Now the truth of this flawed system is becoming more evident, as the hidden "eagle" is becoming more visible.

The search for truth—the stated purpose of Beton's fictional foray to the library—is ultimately not found in any of the books. It is arrived at through intuition, from the surfacing of some subconscious knowledge. In Chapter 1 Woolf explained that fiction often reveals greater truths than reality. Here, she ends up finding the "essential oil of truth" not in books but in her own subconscious mind. She draws an angry Professor von X and senses in her drawing both his anger and her own. Thus art—fiction or drawing—reveals more truth than history. An image might contain a fact dozens of nonfiction books cannot hold. This is a very important idea that surfaces again in the final chapter, as an image sparks the narrator's moment of insight into the solution to her problem. "Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams," she says, "that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top."

Imagery is very important to understanding the ideas in Woolf's essay, including the image of London as a large, impersonal machine made up of individual parts. "London was like a machine," she notes, "We were all being shot backwards and forwards on this ... foundation to make some pattern." This idea of a pattern hidden in the seemingly unrelated movements of people suggests her search for truth means finding an underlying pattern to human behavior. It also foreshadows the moment of insight she gains in Chapter 6.

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