BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
Summary: In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf imagines
that Shakespeare had a sister, a sister equal to Shakespeare in talent
and genius, but whose legacy is radically different. This imaginary
woman never writes a word and dies by her own hand, her genius unexpressed.
But had she been allowed to create, urges Woolf, she would have reached
the same heights as her immortal sibling.
Surprisingly, this long essay about society and art and sexism is one
of Woolf's most accessible works. Woolf takes us on an erudite yet conversational--and
completely entertaining--walk around the history of women in writing,
smoothly comparing the architecture of sentences by the likes of William
Shakespeare and Jane Austen, all the while lampooning the chauvinistic
state of university education in the England of her day. She concluded
that to achieve their full greatness as writers, women will need a solid
income and privacy.
1. Is this book more fitting for a female reader than a male
2. Is this book typical of other works of Woolf's that you have read?
If so, is it more like her journals or her novels? Why?
3. Do you sense a "stream of consciousness," in the writing
style, and if so, does this detract from your reading appreciation and
4. Do you feel that Woolf's comments about the plight of women geniuses
might be autobiographical?
5. Woolf has been accused of upper class snobbery-of being "classist,"
i.e., judging the lower classes as inferior. Do you feel this is a fair
6. What passages in the book speak directly to you? Why?
Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own: Feminist Manifesto or
a Call for Good Art?
A Room of One's Own has become a symbol, a catchphrase, a banner,
and a bumper sticker. People's ideas about what it is about might have
moved well beyond what's actually contained in its pages. But what is
Woolf actually saying?
Is this a treatise on the importance of a woman having a room of her
own? Women are comforted by the idea that a major female author has
insisted on the need for, and maybe even the right to, a room of our
own-a place away from the small, daily distractions that can break up
our train of thought. A place for privacy and quiet contemplation. We
want to be told by this literary genius that we deserve a place where
we are simply there for ourselves and our own creativity. In other words,
a sanctuary where 51% of the population can, for a short while, be,
not just nurturers of others, but nurturers of ourselves, without feeling
guilty. Without feeling selfish.
In fact, I counted references to this "room of one's own,"
only seven times in the whole book. The first time I spotted it was
on page 45-almost halfway through the book. You can count the references
on a hand and a half. So, is this what the book is about? To answer
this question, we need to look at another question: Is this book a feminist
Is this book a call to arms for women? Is it a rallying cry for us to
claim our right to self discovery and expression? In other words, can
we view this as a piece written by a spokesperson for women, telling
men about injustices we face and how our inner genius is not allowed
to come out? Yes and no.
In Woolf's intellectual journey to discover the history of women's literary
genius, she very often does talk about issues directly related to feminism.
She points out the obvious inequities: that women in her day were not
allowed in the library; that women (including herself) were not permitted
to have a formal education; that women had only very recently been granted
the right to vote; that women's education groups did not have nearly
the same funding as men's; that women prior to her time weren't even
permitted to write. Feminist statement? Absolutely.
She also articulates the less-than-obvious. She talks about what current
feminist theory calls the masculine "gaze." Men, the theory
goes, are in the position to "gaze" at-examine, write about
and define-women. Women are simply the objects of the gaze. Women, then,
do not examine, write about, and define themselves. The only definitions
women have about themselves have been made by men. The only language
women have to speak about women has been formulated by men. And men,
suggests Woolf, can be ridiculously and maddeningly inaccurate.
Feminist statement? Yes, again. And perhaps my favorite part of the
book. For what Woolf does is suggest that the male "gaze"
(or pen) has appropriated (or stolen) woman's voice; and in her passages,
she is re-appropriating (or taking back) that voice. If she only rarely
refers to a room of her own; she certainly is bent on acquiring a language
of her own--a language that seeks to figure out how men became the "gazers"
and women, the "gazed upon's." (pp. 26-27; 28-29; 30). And
why do men gaze? Because they are angry at women! Feminist? Yes, again.
Another way in which this book can be seen as feminist is in Woolf's
search for a lineage of women writers-female predecessors who have laid
the ground work, done the heavy lifting, and provided a female language
from which current and future women writers can draw upon as models.
Woolf searches high and low through history and is hard pressed to find
women writer pioneers. Or even women, at all. She feels "the accumulation
of unrecorded life." (89) Woolf then resorts to her imagination
and conjectures that Shakespeare had a genius sister. While Shakespeare
flourished; this genius sister kills herself because of lack of support.
(pp.47-48). Feminist? Certainly. But then, intellectual that she is,
what we might perceive as feminism starts to fade away.
She becomes not so much concerned with the plight of women; she is now
concerned with the nature of "genius." She is vacillating
between being a "feminist" and being an "artist"
(gender-free). As she "approaches the bookcase" of women writers
from the 17th century to the present, we can surely see her seeking
out a female lineage (a feminist pursuit, even today as academics seek
to build a female "canon" or body of work over time). But
she is not content to simply make a simple feminist statement of "there
just aren't a lot of books written by women." No. What she is looking
for in the few books she finds, is a hint of genius. And here she becomes,
once again NOT feminist. For she says that women hold grudges--they
are indignant about their plight as women writers not receiving equal
treatment-and the writing suffers, because it is full of anger (pp.
58-65). Not even Charlotte Bronte is free of this indictment (73). A
literary critic? Certainly. A feminist? I'm not so sure.
How does she reach a resolution (for she must, for her sake, as well
as ours)? She lands on this: Genius is not the realm of men or of women;
it is the realm of both. Genius, perhaps, is found in an ideal "soul,"
which has two equal powers: male and female, "spiritually cooperating,"
neither tendency predominating over the other. (p. 98) She has reached
a point of ruminating about androgyny, where "it is fatal to be
a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly."
(104) And you thought this was a book about a Room of One's Own!.
Woolf is far too intellectually intricate to be so straightforward as
stating that women have a right to a room of their own. She is, herself,
a genius, with a fully flowering intellect, neither overly female nor
overly male, which when transmitted from pen to paper, is unhindered
by grudges, rebukes, a sense of injustice, or an inability to hear the
voice of both sexes equally. This is what she might mean by a room of
one's own--this ability to interact with reality as clearly and lucidly
as possible for the sake of good writing. She has found a room of her
own. And we are the richer for it.
York Times Article from November 10, 1929 (registration
The Orlando Project:
A History of Women's Writing in the British Isles
Questions and related information provided by Nancy Dunlop.
This discussion guide made possible with public
funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored
by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.