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A Room of One's Own | Symbols



Light symbolizes the genius needed to illuminate truth. Woolf refers to "that hard little electric light which we call brilliance" and notes that the "lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes." Therefore, light is genius, or artistic brilliance. Light also symbolizes the ability to see truth, or to judge between truth and illusion. She refers to the "white light of truth" and calls the reader to hold "every phrase, every scene to the light" because Nature has given the reader "an inner light by which to judge of the novelist's integrity or disintegrity."

Ten-Shilling Note

As she pays for her lunch with a ten-shilling note—part of an income from an inheritance left to her by an aunt—Mary Beton wonders at the power of that note and its siblings, which seem to magically appear in her purse. They have the power to free her form the "rust and corrosion ... fear and bitterness" she had built up when she was without money. Thus, the ten-shilling note comes to symbolize financial independence and the way money has the power to lift the burdens women endure because of their poverty.

Prunes and Custard

After a sumptuous luncheon at Oxbridge—built on a legacy of men's accomplishments and wealth—Mary Beton endures a meager dinner of beef, prunes, and custard at the women's college where she is staying. The dinner is not inspiring, and she notes, "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." This dinner symbolizes the poverty of women compared to men and helps to make the case a woman needs money in order to use her gifts to create works of genius.

Distractions and Interruptions

A man interrupts Mary Beton's path across the grass. A bell interrupts her thoughts. A restaurant check brings her contemplations back to the present. The essay's fictional narrative is littered with distractions and interruptions. These constant interruptions mimic the distractions and interruptions Woolf imagines must have been the reality for writers such as Jane Austen as they sat in their sitting rooms and were called upon to make conversation, rather than write uninterrupted in a room of their own. Woolf includes these interruptions to symbolize the struggle of women writers, and the need for a private space in which to write.


Oxbridge University is the imaginary university that provides a setting for the Chapter 1 of the essay. Its magnificent buildings become a symbol of the legacy men have built over many years. The wealth of generations of men built the chapel, placed in it lovely stained-glass windows, and made sure it was filled with singers and scholars. Similarly, the literature written by men was built up over time, from the earliest male writers through English poet John Milton, Italian poet Dante Alighieri, and English playwright William Shakespeare through the present. Male author built upon male author to bring about great literature, as stone is set upon stone to build a chapel. Both kinds of "buildings" require money. In contrast, women do not have a legacy of literature to draw upon because they never had any money. Their colleges are plain and small compared to Oxbridge, as is their literature. However, Woolf makes it clear the building blocks of women's literature are finally being set in place. She ends on a hopeful note, encouraging women to keep building.

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