Virginia Woolf is one of the most highly acclaimed female authors and feminists of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Her essay and lecture, ‘A room of one’s Own,’ clearly demonstrates her attitude and opinions towards a patriarchal society during her lifetime. Woolf portrays her judgments through the use of language, style, narrative, and outspoken viewpoints about men, male-dominance, and female subservience. The end of chapter six is a clarification and summary of Woolf’s beliefs, which are expressed throughout the essay. This essay will provide a critical analysis of this part.
Woolf’s use of style, language, and narrative is evident throughout the extract. She particularly uses irony and sarcasm combined with humour in order to contradict the general opinions of men, as well as to emphasise and clarify her argument. “Like most uneducated women…I like reading books in the bulk.” This quote is particularly ironic, in that one must be educated in order to be able to read accurately. Here, Woolf is using the male belief that women are uneducated with the intention of rebelling against the society in which she lives, as she challenges the ‘male’ form of literature. Woolf does this by outwardly criticizing male-dominated genres, for example, she claims that biographies are “too much about great men,” and that “history is too much about wars.”
Moreover, through using irony and sarcasm, Woolf demonstrates how ‘male dominance is expressed and secured institutionally.1’ It is expressed through the fact that the majority of literature about women is written by men,2 and secured through male supremacy in literature as a whole. For example, the majority of famous authors, (including those in the canon,) are middle or aristocratic males.
Woolf moreover emphasises gender hierarchy throughout the essay in numerous ways. She develops the ‘looking glass theory’ of gender hierarchy,3 in which she argues how men insist on women’s inferiority in order to affirm their own superiority. “Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule…reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.4” Gender hierarchy is in many ways similar to her other novel ‘Orlando,’ which allows the reader to ‘consider the construction of gender hierarchies, then to explore the possibility of their subversion.5’ Both ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘Orlando’ gives the experience of being constructed as ‘gendered subject’ rather than being seen as an individual.
In ‘A Room of One’s Own’, there is no one name or characteristic for the narrator of the extract, hence the use of the first person narrative of ‘I.’ Here, ‘I’ is used as a textual necessity, as it is a suitable term to describe somebody who has no real meaning or identity within the world. Woolf uses this subtle method to portray how women are excluded from society in terms of education, literature, and rights. Moreover, Woolf’s use of the first person narrative allows the extract to become more personalised towards the reader, in that they can place themselves within the extract and relate to the points raised within it. Woolf automatically gives the reader a sense of ambition by allowing this form of involvement in her work. “I hope you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle…confining you to fiction.”
She moreover inspires the readers and listeners to have an aspiration in life, despite the restrictions of being a woman. ‘She…possesses a style…which ensures that ‘the spirit of personality permeates every word she writes’.’6 Woolf writes in an extremely inspirational narrative, however she moreover realises the authoritative nature of a hierarchal society, the lack of education women have in order to pursue their ambitions, and how society stops her, and other women, from fulfilling their very few career choices. She demonstrates this using a combination of emotive words and sarcasm, “I should remind you how much depends upon you….
But those exhortations…can be left to the other sex, who will put them…with far greater eloquence than I can compass,” but also through criticising her own sex for lack of spirit and motivation. “You are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant.” During this extract, Woolf has the ability to give hope to others but at the same time is realistic about her expectations of society developing into a completely equal culture. “Do not dream of influencing other people…Think of things in themselves.”
The mix of realism, leadership, and female criticism is envisaged in Woolf’s fictional character of, ‘Shakespeare’s sister,’ who summaries the inner fighting spirit within all women. This has a reverse effect on the readers and listeners, as it gives other women the opportunity to become more individualistic within them, despite being hidden in society. “It is much more important to be oneself than anything else.” The statement is contradictory to the male belief that women should not be seen as people but merely mothers, or objects of ownership. “I like their (women’s) unconventionality…their anonymity.”
Therefore, for a woman to be self-confident is an act of rebellion within a patriarchal society. ‘The implication is that women can only operate within the constraints of patriarchy as surfaces with no depth, mirroring that ‘confidence in oneself’ which men have created precisely by denying the alterity of women.7′ Woolf, in some ways seeks revenge on the patriarchal society through the characters of ‘Professor X,’ and ‘Mr John Langdon Davies.’ She gives ‘Professor X’ neither a name nor identity, and, through this illustrates how women are excluded from society. ‘Mr John Langdon Davies’ opinion reflects the extreme chauvinism in Woolf’s era.
Overall, Virginia Woolf’s, ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ is an essay with shifting but frank viewpoints. It encourages the reader to see that women’s futures and lives are varying, unstable, and dependent on the patriarchal society. However, although ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ is an outwardly feminist text, it does not argue for a matriarchal society, but a just and liberal culture that allows both women and men to have the freedom of choice and absolute equality.
Brosnan, Leila, ‘Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and journalism’ Edinburgh University Press (1997.)
Hanson, Clare, ‘Women Writers, Virginia Woolf,’ Macmillan Press (1994.)
Roe, Sue, Sellers, Susan, ‘The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf,’ Cambridge University Press (2000.)
Woolf, Virginia, ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ Penguin classics (2000.)