A Room of One's Own | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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A Room of One's Own | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Beton wakes up the next day—the day after reading all those books, October 26, 1928—and notices London doesn't seem to care much about women and fiction, or even about Shakespeare's plays, for that matter. Suddenly, as she watches the people in the street, there seems to a pause during which a leaf falls and the river flows as if carrying people along in its current. In this pause, she notices two people, a man and a woman, get into the same taxi. This coming together seems very different from the way she has been thinking—about the genders being separate, and about her mind as separate from the rest of existence. This leads her to conclude the genders were meant to work together, and, furthermore, each person has both a man's nature and a woman's nature: "In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female." She contemplates English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's assertion that the great mind is androgynous.

Beton opens a book by a male author, and she is at first comforted and at home in the directness of its sentences and the confidence of its tone. But she quickly tires of it. She thinks male authors, now so very aware of and defensive of their maleness due to the women's movement, are beginning to have less androgynous brains. "Men ... are now writing only with the male side of their brains," and their writing is poorer for it.

To wrap up her thoughts, Beton concludes, "It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex." At this point, Beton's part in the essay concludes, and Woolf explains that Beton has shown her thoughts as to why a woman must "have five hundred a year and a room ... to write fiction or poetry." Woolf rejects any thoughts about weighing men's writing against that of women or judging between the two. She defends her insistence on a woman's need for material things, saying, "five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate," and "a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself." She goes on to reiterate the hardship women have had to endure for centuries: "Intellectual freedom depends upon material things ... women have ... been poor ... from the beginning of time."

To conclude the "lecture," Woolf exhorts women to strive to have money and a room of their own. In a few generations, she says, the "dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body ... she ... so often laid down," and will draw life from all the women writers who came before her.

Analysis

This chapter opens with a chaotic scene of a busy London street. The people are going about their business unaware of anything beyond their own lives. There are "no two people ... alike; each seems bound on some private affair of his own." Yet as Beton watches, she has a moment of insight. This moment is described almost as a moment out of time, or in slow motion: "A ... suspension of traffic ... A single leaf detached itself ... and in that pause ... fell." In this paused moment, she senses an invisible river bringing three things together from different directions: a man, a woman, and a taxi. This image of a man and a woman getting into a taxi takes on significance beyond the concrete or literal. Beton's mind connects and resonates with this image, seeing in it an insight that might provide answers to some of her questions. "The sight was ordinary enough," she notes, "what was strange was the rhythmical order with which my imagination had invested it."

This image of disengaged and separate people coming together in some kind of union becomes a metaphor for the unity of the mind. Beton realizes that she has been thinking more of the separations between things—between men and women, between herself and others—and this is part of the problem. The male and female parts of each person must be unified in order for genius to be expressed without impediment. To further elaborate on this idea, she describes reading a book by a male author. She detects in his writing a consciousness of gender she feels is detrimental to the truth of his work. This supports the main idea of the destructive patriarchy. It shows how the imbalance of power erodes the work of not just those who have less power and so struggle against their limitations (women), but also erodes of those who have more power and so must defend it against usurpers (men).

To conclude the essay, Woolf sheds her Mary Beton persona and directly addresses her audience—presumably women writers. She encourages them to work incrementally for the future of women in general, and specifically for women writers. This recalls the imagery of Chapter 1, as she imagines the building of the great chapel and other university buildings and the great wealth of generations that went into the building. It is true—and her essay provides ample evidence—women are at a disadvantage because of generations of poverty and limited existence. Yet progress has been made, and it takes time to build something great and lavish. Woolf exhorts the women writers of her time to obtain money and a room of their own—and to write. They might not be the Judith Shakespeare who can write unhindered, but they can prepare the way for her. "Without that effort on our part," she tells them, "without that determination that ... she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry," such a Judith Shakespeare will never come to be.

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