A Room of One's Own | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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A Room of One's Own | Main Ideas


Fire of Genius

Genius is a fire that wants to grow but needs fuel. In Chapter 4, Woolf says "great artists" confirm a truth that Nature allows each person to know intuitively—the artist's craft allows the "the fire of genius to become visible." Genius, with all of its fire-like qualities—illumination, burning, consuming—is one of the most important ideas in the essay. The genius of Shakespeare and Jane Austen "consumed all impediments." Genius occurs in some people—both men and women—but it needs a certain environment and situation to become fully expressed. It needs food, literally—good food, not prunes. It needs space—a room in which to work uninterrupted. As a result, the history of literature is dominated by men not because they had more genius, but because they had the right environment for the fire of genius to grow. Women, on the other hand, may be born with genius, but may not live in situations that allow this genius to feed and grow.

Destructive Patriarchy

The patriarchal system is harmful to both women and men. Clearly, women are damaged by a system that is restrictive and gives them little power over their own lives. But the destructiveness of the patriarchal system goes beyond the damage done to women. It creates a power imbalance that leads to a separation between the sexes. This separation is unnatural and leads to a feeling that the opposite gender is the enemy. Women are angry at men because the men have the power to block their efforts in writing. Men are angry at women because women are becoming a threat. Women used to make men feel superior and confident, but now women want more power. Woolf's ideal is a world in which men and women live in complementary peace with each other, and each person is at peace with their male and female natures. A patriarchal system hampers both of these things, and, therefore, has a destructive effect on both genders. When male-female integration is the goal, a system that separates them is detrimental.

Money Means Freedom

The necessity of money—enough to live comfortably and independently—is at the center of Woolf's essay. In addition to the titular "room of one's own," women writers need a steady income in order for their ability to flourish. Mary Beton, the fictional narrator of much of the essay, enjoys a comfortable income thanks to an inheritance. Before she received the inheritance, she had a number of uninspiring jobs to make a living. But each time she spends her money, she feels a little of the despair and shame of poverty fall away. This small life lesson serves as a microcosm of the state of women. Poverty is a hindrance to independence, and independence is essential to writing. Having money allows a woman freedom to give voice to her genius.

At the end of the essay, Woolf encourages her audience to strive for a room of their own and financial independence. This step will act as a building block for future generations of women writers who will have more access to money and private spaces as they build on this legacy.

Essential Oil of Truth

In Chapter 2 the narrator says she wants to "strain off what was personal and accidental ... and ... reach the ... essential oil of truth." Throughout the essay, the importance of reaching the truth is emphasized. Woolf is not just trying to argue a point. She is trying to show her ideas contain truth. This is essential to her call to action at the end of the essay where she urges the audience to help build a foundation for future women writers. A search for truth is very compelling.

Woolf wants to give her audience a "nugget of pure truth," but to do this she employs fiction—an apparent contradiction. Yet she claims fiction "is likely to contain more truth than fact." This idea—that fiction can communicate truth in a way reality cannot—is apparent throughout the essay. For this reason, she creates a fictional alter ego, Mary Beton, to stand in for herself. She also creates a cast of other fictional characters to play roles in her narrative. Through these fictional characters, Woolf can delve into the topic and drill down to the very core of truth about women and fiction.

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