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BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE

Title: A Room Of One's Own
Author: Virginia Woolf

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.

Questions:
1. Is this book more fitting for a female reader than a male reader?

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 understanding?

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 assessment?

6. What passages in the book speak directly to you? Why?

Related Information:

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 manifesto?

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.

New York Times Article from November 10, 1929 (registration required)

The Orlando Project: A History of Women's Writing in the British Isles

International Virginia Woolf Society

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.

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