Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf 1927
Born 1882

Kensington, Middlesex, England 

Relevant Work A Room of One's Own


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biography Edit

  • Virginia Woolf received her early education via her parents, both from "highly literate and artistic" backgrounds (NATC 892).
  • Following the death of her father, Virginia, age 22, began to write.
  • Her husband, Leonard, purchased a printing press in 1917, which published all of Virginia's works beginning with Jacob's Room, as well as other modernist texts (T.S. Eliot's Wasteland and the translation of Sigmund Freud's writings).
  • Virginia produced novels, biographies, and essays, exploring feminist and modernist themes, including sexuality, class position, insanity, motherhood, and stream-of-consciousness narratives.
  • She suffered severe depressive periods and nervous breakdowns before eventually taking her own life.

A Room of One's Own Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

The text was written during the trial of Radcliffe Hall's lesbian novel. It was also published during the same month as the stock market crash of 1929. Her book was so successful that the earnings enabled Woolf to add a room of her own onto her house in Sussex (895).

"Working at the intersection of modernism and feminism, both of which she stood for, Woolf analyzed the differences between women as objects of representation and women as authors of representation, and invited her audience to think about 'the books that are not there.' In the process, she opened up the territory of modern feminist criticism" (892).

"Her novels experiment increasingly with form and style...radical[ly] rethinking...what a novel can do.... Her later novels take diverse approaches to expanding the form" (893).

"Woolf has also been seen as a representative of the sexual sea change that came after, and out of, the Victorian era. She grew up, like many others, in a world of exaggerated gender roles, secret transgressions, and repressive silence about sexual matters (she was apparently abused in her childhood by her two stepbrothers)" (894).

Key Words and Terms Edit

Androgyny - the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics. Gender ambiguity may be found in fashion, gender identity, sexual identity, or sexual lifestyle.

Fatal - something leading to death, failure, destruction, etc. Woolf brings up (not explicitly, but it's definitely a thread throughout the piece) the word "fatal" four times in the beginning sentences of the last paragraph (904). It's in regards to how we as a society regard sex, sexuality, gender, and beyond by boxing someone in and forcing works to define itself as such.

Anon - the abbreviation of anonymous often used by those who don't want to assign a name to their work. Woolf said, "I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman" (898).

Key Quotations Edit

"She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage" (897). "Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes" (898).

"When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, or a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put on her" (898).

"Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman." (898)

"[A]ny woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half lizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty" (pg. 898).

"And, determined to do my duty by her as reader if she would do her duty by me as writer, I turned the page and read... I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present?" (898)

"'Chloe liked Olivia...' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." (898-899).

"It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex." (899).

"And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends...But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men" (899).

"Now all that, of course, has had to be left out, and thus the splendid portrait of the fictitious woman is much too simple and much too monotonous. Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer!" (899-900).

"And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man's brain, the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman's brain, the woman predominates over the man.The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually cooperating. If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her" (901).

"Doubtless Elizabethan literature would have been very different from what it is if the woman's movement had begun in the sixteenth century and not in the nineteenth" (902).

"...that some of the finest works of our greatest living writers fall upon deaf ears. Do what she will a woman cannot find in them that fountain of perpetual life which the critics assure her is there. It is not only that they celebrate male virtues, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible" (903).

"Poetry ought to have a mother as well as a father" (904).

"However, the blame for all this, if one is anxious to lay blame, rests no more upon one sex than upon the other" (904).

"Even so, the very first sentence that I would write here, I said, crossing over to the writing-table and taking up the page headed Women and Fiction, is that it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly... And fatal in no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death" (904).

"Call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or any other name you please—it is not a matter of importance" (Woolf).

"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" (Woolf). "It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare" (Woolf).

Discussion Edit

"Shakespeare's Sister" Edit

In this portion of her essay, Woolf discusses the fate any woman with literary talent would have faced in the 16th century. She points out that talent is not enough to ensure success; the individual must also receive an education and financial and moral support from her family and community. During the 16th century, when a woman was expected to lead a domestic life and was educated only in ways that were necessary for that role, it would have been impossible for a woman to find success or fulfillment in any other societal role. After trying to make something of her natural talent, a 16th-century woman would have been rejected, exiled, or possibly killed by her community. This is Woolf's theory as to why we see virtually nothing written by women until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The author also suggests that when women's writing did make it into the public sphere, it was authored anonymously. Essentially, Woolf's thought experiment regarding Shakespeare's sister demonstrates how it would have been impossible for a woman with literary talent and imagination to have a career or live a fulfilling life the way a man of equal talent could.

Woolf links the talent of writing with mental illness, a connection which could be related to her personal struggle with mental illness. She suggests that " reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils...we are on the track of a lost novelist [or] a suppressed poet...who mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to" (898). Through this statement, Woolf claims that unexpressed or unaccepted talent will inevitably force an individual to lose his or her "health and sanity to a certainty" (898). However, this type of reaction may not be as universal as Woolf imagines.

Because Woolf struggled with mental illness her whole life, it is not difficult to infer that, in this piece, Woolf is imagining herself and the reactions she would have displayed had she been born in the 16th century's restrictive environment. It is difficult to imagine that every talented woman found no place for her expression or was driven to insanity by her limited place in society. Such a universal claim cannot be the case. Instead, there certainly were ways for women to contribute creatively to their societies without being shunned. They could tell stories to their children and perhaps sing songs at community celebrations and gatherings. Unfortunately, as Woolf notes, little of this has been written down or recorded. Still, it seems extreme to claim that nearly all talented women were exiled or went insane because of their unused gifts. Sixteenth-century women must have been far more resourceful and creative than to simply allow their gifts to be entirely stifled. They must have found outlets for their thoughts and creativity, although, unfortunately, those outlets were not preservable.

In the "Shakespeare's Sister" portion of A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf discusses the hypothetical life that a sister of Shakespeare would have lived had she had a similar talent for the arts. Fairly clearly we see that in this scenario had Shakespeare had a sister like this she would no doubt not succeed in the same way he did due to the misogynistic way of thinking that was so prevalent. Woolf goes on to demonstrate how women were predestined not to succeed in the same way men could and how often their very existence can be limited to their relationships with different men in their lives (fathers, husbands, etc). In the Norton her bio says that ideas like this went on to open up a lot of space for feminist criticism.

"Chloe Liked Olivia" Edit

In this piece, the narrator is reading Mary Carmichael's Life's Adventure, when she reads the words, "Chloe liked Olivia." This invokes a realization in which Woolf is arguing that in literature, woman were, up until the nineteenth century, rarely considered in relation to other women, but instead were only seen as responding to men. She notes that even when women were seen interacting with one another, it was often out of jealousy and not friendship. Women were never portrayed as having other women for friends but were only depicted associating positively with men, as though that was all that women had in their lives. With that, Carmichael's text reveals how the women, Chloe and Olivia, have other pursuits outside of the home as they work in a laboratory together. The narrator recognizes the importance of thus pivotal transition in that Carmichael is going where no writer has been (898-899).

It's worth noting as well that this particular piece is often used in Queer Theory. While "Chloe Liked Olivia" is neither explicitly platonic nor explicitly romantic, it has been incorporated into lesbian literature and theory. There is even an anthology of lesbian literature from 1994 that is titled "Chloe Plus Olivia." [1]

"Androgyny" Edit

In the third and final passage, the narrator catches a glimpse of a woman and a man getting into a taxi together. This sight sparks an idea that when the mind is androgynous, or in harmonious unification of being both male and female, complete satisfaction and happiness takes place. She argues that if writing is conscious bias in being either purely male or purely female, it ceases to be fertilized. Thus, writing must be woman-manly or man-womanly in order to exercise total freedom of thought (900-904).

The concept of total freedom of thought has been given--and suggestively squandered--by men. Woolf explains: "it was delightful to read a man's writing again. It was so direct, so straightforward after the writing of women. It indicated such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself" (901). This freedom is given when a mind has never been "thwarted or opposed, but had had full liberty from birth to stretch itself in whatever way it liked" (901). The advantage male writers have had in constructing their texts is this freedom of thought--an affordance to take risks and express one's self in whatever ways are most sensible to them. Freedom of thought is the ability to think without worry of unreasonable censorship, unfair criticism, or oppression stemming from sexist norms. Men are given this freedom from birth, causing them to write (predominantly) as men. Women have had to fight for it, causing them to see it from another perspective--one that causes Woolf to believe writing as a man or woman is fatal (904).

Feminist Theory Edit

The idea behind "Shakespeare's Sister,' is not to point out the waste of hidden talent, but to have the reader question, why gender is the deciding factor in creativity, talent, or skill? A definition of Feminist Theory, in What is Feminist Theory, simply says,"Feminist theory is a theory on women’s rights and gender equality. It involves the study of women’s roles in society which include their rights, privileges, interests, and concerns. It serves as an extension to feminism which evaluates the rightful place of women in the society" ( Even though Sister was genetically built of the same components as her brother and possessed the same creative drive, according to convention; biologically, she didn't stand up to the gender test of ability and would have to hide her skill, train in domesticity, and/or kill herself out of frustration.

Frustration pointed out in the last (2nd) paragraph on page 897, "It is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare's day should have had the Shakespeare's genius...", how would they have known? Women were not allowed to showcase talent or forced into cultural disregard of their talent for training, "...forced to it (Domestic life), by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom"(897). If there was genius of the same caliber as Shakespeare it may have been found in one who was created the same as Shakespeare, brought up in the same way as William, desired the same career as him, and was the closest to being an exact copy with the exception of gender, which does not remove the imagination, creativity, or genius from the brain. We can never test this idea because her life was not allowed to go beyond the gender restrictions and in the end, caused her to take her life.

Read more: What is Feminist Theory? | What is?

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

"Woolf’s example helped drive Cunningham to become a writer himself. His novel The Hours essentially retells Dalloway as a story within a story, alternating between a variation of Woolf’s original narrative and a fictional speculation on Woolf herself. Cunningham’s 1998 novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, then was adapted into a 2002 film of the same name, starring Nicole Kidman as Woolf." [2]

Woolf has also been critiqued by Marxist theorists, who take issue with the connection she makes between freedom and the possession of property. Woolf herself came from a privileged social class and, in A Room of One's Own, argued that women need 500 pounds a year to be truly free.

Related Works Edit

  • Haraway, Donna. A Manifesto for Cyborgs.
  • Foucault, Michael. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1.
  • Woolfe, Cary. "Human, All Too Human."
  • Horace: Ars Poetica.
  • De Pizan, Christine. "Christine's Reaction to Jean de Montreuil's Treatise on the Roman de la Rose."
  • Gilbert & Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic.
  • Faderman, Lillian. Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian and Bisexual Literature from the 17th Century to the Present.

References Edit





Leitch, Vincent B., editor. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. "A Room of One's Own." A Room of One's Own. Project Gutenberg Australia, July 2015. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

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