A Room of One's Own | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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A Room of One's Own | Chapter 3 | Summary



Beton still hasn't solved the puzzle of the effect of poverty on fiction, nor does she completely understand why women are so poor relative to men. She wishes for some "authentic fact." She decides to approach it from another angle: Why, in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, "when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet," did women write almost nothing? She notes how very interesting and intelligent women appear as characters in literature and poetry. In reality, however, women were treated poorly, beaten, locked up, and subject to the whims of their fathers and husbands. "[A woman] pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history," she concludes.

What was the life of an average Elizabethan woman? They had no money of their own, and they married "whether they liked it or not." Beton recalls an old gentleman saying no woman could have written the plays of Shakespeare, and she agrees: "It would have been impossible ... for any woman to have written ... Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare." To support this assertion, she creates a thought experiment—Judith Shakespeare, the Bard's gifted (fictional) sister. William went to school to study Latin, literature, grammar, and logic. He met a woman, married, and had a child. He went to London and got work as an actor and "lived at the hub of the universe ... and even getting access to ... the queen." Meanwhile, Judith was not sent to school, nor was she taught Latin or logic. She stayed home and was eventually betrothed to a neighbor. Attempting to avoid the marriage, she ran away to London. She was as gifted as her brother, and loved the theater as he did, but she was told women did not act and was laughed at. She eventually became pregnant and killed herself.

It would have been impossible for a woman in Shakespeare's time to write plays as he did, but this does not mean girls were not born with genius and creative gifts. Look for these gifted women among the insane, the suicides, the outcasts of the 16th century.

What conditions are required for a person to write a work of genius? It is an almost impossible task in itself, and the "material circumstances" of a person's life constantly work against it: "Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down." For women, the material difficulties of life are increased exponentially. In the 16th century a woman would not have a room of her own or any peaceful place to exercise her gift. In the 19th century a woman is constantly snubbed, lectured, and forced to prove herself—a constant barrage of opposition that saps her creative energy. Creative work requires there be no obstacles. As an example, the work of Shakespeare shows evidence of "a mind ... incandescent, unimpeded."


This chapter begins with many questions: Why are women poor? Why did they not write? What were their lives like? Did they have rooms to themselves? These questions stem from the previous chapters, in which the narrator considers why women's colleges have such bland food while men's have such lavish feasts. A major tenet of this essay is that money is essential to women's writing. The issue of women's poverty is a thread that can be followed throughout the entire book and forms an important part of its conclusion. The other questions, it turns out, are related. Women did not write because they were not financially independent. Their lives were characterized by the limitations of being financially dependent on men.

In consulting the library full of books to find answers, Beton realizes something important. One is that female characters in books are vastly different from women in real life. In fiction they are fascinating and vivacious. They speak and take action. In history, they are barely a presence at all. This lack of information about the stories of women is what leads Beton to invent one—the story of Judith Shakespeare. Judith's story is based in part on the few details found in history books, in part on Woolf's own imagination, and, of course, on her own experience as a woman. Woolf takes the few facts recorded in the history books and extrapolates on them, but her ideas seem to carry weight. The reader is carried along with her very believable line of reasoning.

This chapter is also the most well-known of the book, and it is frequently excerpted as a standalone essay. This is due to the fact it has an inner cohesiveness and the compelling nature of its main feature—the comparison between William and Judith Shakespeare.

One remarkable feature of this chapter is its tone. The previous chapters have carried a tone of bemusement, which readers may regard as exaggeration for effect. Beton approaches these questions logically even when she knows the answer. The narrator seems so perplexed about why women are poor and did not write. In this chapter, the author's true voice breaks through. It is clear the statement that a woman could not have written the works of Shakespeare rankles her. She seems to marvel at the question of why women did not write, noting it would be "extremely odd" if a young woman, married off as a teen and launched into a life of mothering and serving her husband, did, in fact, write something great. The answer is painfully obvious, and her sarcastic tone emphasizes this.
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