A Room of One's Own | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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A Room of One's Own | Chapter 5 | Summary



Beton now speaks about writing in her own century. She notes that women now write more than just novels and that women do almost as much writing as men. She invents an imaginary author, "Mary Carmichael," and analyzes her book Life's Adventure. She observes the sentences do not flow well, her scenes do not proceed in order—the author has broken the sentence and the sequence. However, Carmichael has every right to do this if she "does them not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating." So she reads on. She comes to the sentence, "Chloe liked Olivia," and realizes women usually do not like each other in literature. They are jealous of each other or are shown in love triangles with men—and always in relation to men. But in Carmichael's novel, two women are friends and colleagues and share a laboratory in which they work together on medical research.

Many great male writers had "some need of and dependence upon certain persons of the opposite sex." These men surely got more from women than just sex. Men and women both have creative power, but women's creative power "differs greatly from the creative power of men." Women writers, like Carmichael, are better suited to tell the stories of women than are men, but they can also help to present a more complete picture of men by writing about men from a woman's perspective.

Mary Carmichael's novel, the narrator concludes, is not a work of genius. But she does not view men as an "opposing faction" as writers before her had done. She only has a tinge of the fear of previous women authors. She writes "as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman." In time, with "a room of her own and five hundred a year," Carmichael may write an even better book.


In this section, Beton invents another Mary—Mary Carmichael, author of the mediocre Life's Adventure. Carmichael and her book provide a lens through which Beton can assess the current state of women's writing. She evaluates Carmichael's writing's merits—sentence structure, plot, coherence—in light of her predecessors, such as Jane Austen. She finds things to criticize and finds the prose lacking overall. Yet she finds things to praise. For example, Carmichael's writing is mostly free of the consciousness of gender previously found in women's writing. It also describes relationships—between friends or work colleagues—not found in other novels, either those written by men or those by women. These observations can be interpreted as Woolf's assessment of the state of women's literature at the time. It is in transition, just as women's roles in society are in transition.

Carmichael's life and potential also contain a hopeful message for women writers. Although her work is not wonderful, it has potential. Carmichael, given the opportunity to write another book, might greatly improve. Again, Carmichael represents all of women's literature. Just as she might improve if she has 500 a year and a room to write in, so will women's literature become better over time, as long as women writers have financial resources and a space to call their own.

Notably, this chapter focuses on—and praises—the differences between men and women. Women can see things men cannot see, and vice versa. Women and men can develop relationships in which they draw some creative spark form each other. In fact, she suggests more genders would be even better: "If an explorer should ... bring word of other sexes ... nothing would be of greater service to humanity." Yet at the same time, these differences should not cause men and women to see each other as the "opposing faction." It is not differences between men and women that are problematic, but their antagonism. This recalls the idea in Chapter 2 that men's writing about women is full of anger because they are used to being in power and having women support them, and they do not like to see this power challenged. Anger between men and women is fostered by a power imbalance, and this, ultimately, is bad for everyone.

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