Leaving Oxbridge behind, the narrator finds that the appropriate sequel to her first lecture is a visit to the British Museum in London, in quest for the "essential oil" of truth. Her Oxbridge day had started off a barrage of questions in her mind about the poverty of her sex, and for these big questions, she feels she needs the unprejudiced wisdom of books.
We started off at the Oxbridge colleges, which symbolize the elite academic circle that the narrator wishes to join and now, the full scale of the problem becomes apparent as she must journey to the capital city of England—London—and the archetypal setting of learning and knowledge, the British Museum.
The narrator arrives through a wet city day to the doors of the library and as she enters, under the dome which seems to hold all knowledge under it, she beholds the extent of the library, and sees that amongst all the books written by men are hardly any written by women. She is almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of paper before her. And one other thing that becomes clear is that all kinds of men, with degrees, without degrees, novelists and historians, have all written extensively on the subject of women.
The narrator describes the library as if it brightens up the darkness of the London streets. This is how she sees knowledge and thought. But her description also hints that it is a very masculine building –the dome is depicted as the bald head of a professor. The overwhelming number of books written by men alienates her, and there is the complicating factor that while there are few women authors, an increasing number of the books written by men are about women.
Yet on the subject of men under the letter M, women did not have the same presence. She questions why men would be so endlessly interested in women and selects several volumes for her task. But she finds that, unlike the young researcher next to her, who grunts with satisfaction at finding the oil of truth every few minutes, she has not been trained for research. Her mind boggles with questions. The index of topics regarding the poverty of women seems endless and endlessly bleak.
Woolf uses the image of the library shelves to show visually how absent women authors have been in history and in literature, but also how those male authors write more often on the subject of women than on the subject of men. She seeks to get to the bottom of this difference through research, but in doing so reveals one of the reasons that books by women are so rare: lack of education afforded to women, which makes the narrator unable to compete with the young male researcher next to her.
The narrator notices an interesting contradiction in the views of these male writers on the topic of women. While one thinks that women have no character at all, another believes they are the very height of humanity – how do we account for this discrepancy? Meanwhile, she also notices that her notes and ideas are scattered and ill-formed. She thinks she might as well have left the books unopened because she hasn't been able to make any conclusions. But she has made a drawing on her paper, of a typical professor, bejowled and angrily stabbing his paper.
The way women are praised one moment and insulted the next in the history books exposes how little control they have over their own history. There are no women voices to dissent or fight back, so the name of woman is thrown around for one man's use after another. The consequence is that women's existence is unclear and her legacy completely controlled by men. This lack of control comes out in the narrator's subconscious angry doodle.
The narrator realizes that she has expressed her own anger in this portrait, and tries to locate where this anger had come from. She remembers that its source is the title of the professor's manuscript "the mental, moral and physical inferiority of the female sex". Looking around the library, at the unattractive breed of male scholars, she feels a vanity and an injustice at being thought inferior. She is relieved to find the source of her anger, but what about the professor's anger? Where has that come from? She figures that all of these books about women have been written in the "red light of emotion" and not the "white light of truth" and considers them useless for her purposes.
The narrator has come to a very important point of her argument, simply by describing her firsthand experience of the library. She has, first, located her own sense of anger, which represents the anger of all women, at being called inferior and not being able to argue against it despite what she sees as its obvious fallacy. Yet she has also come to the realization that the men writing these books, too, are angry. While she knows the source of her anger, though, she has yet to understand the source of the men's anger.
Still thinking about the topic of male anger, the narrator leaves the library to get lunch at a restaurant. While she eats, she reads a newspaper. It is overrun with headlines that show the "inferiority" of women, men fulfilling every role in politics and sport and the women belittled. The anger of men is detectable here too despite their obvious authority.
The library represents the literary world and now the newspaper widens the view of the gap between men and women to a "real world" national scale beyond the walls of academia. The newspaper shows that the societal sense of female inferiority, and the male anger that the narrator detects toward women, occurs in all classes, all places, and is occurring constantly.
Perhaps, the narrator thinks, it is to do with their power that they are so angry – in order to have confidence in their position of superiority, they constantly endeavor to make women more inferior, perhaps. This puts in a new light many moments of her life, where men have seemed indignantly offended by feminism. She decides that women through time have served as a kind of magnifying mirror for men to view their size and worth in, and if women start telling the truth, men will see themselves diminished and unfit.
The narrator has begun to shed more light on men and the source of their anger toward women. Now she realizes that maybe men are to be pitied too. The anger that they show outwardly toward feminists can be seen as insecurity—because men need women to be inferior in order to maintain their own sense of superiority—just as her own anger comes from her insecurity about the inferiority of women. At the same time, by identifying these mutual senses of inferiority, the narrator is beginning to see men and women as sharing something vital.
The narrator's thoughts are interrupted by the waiter handing her the bill for lunch. She takes this opportunity to explain her financial circumstances to her audience. She inherited a yearly allowance of five hundred pounds from her aunt, whom she names Mary Beton, and lives very comfortably on this sum without needing male support. She received the news of this legacy on the same day as the vote was given to women and admits that the money was the more significant milestone, giving her a great deal more freedom than the vote.
The narrator confesses that she does not suffer as most women do from lack of funds. She has been arguing that money is instrumental in allowing women to write fiction but now she shows from personal experience how money has allowed her basic freedoms like paying bills and being able to travel. In saying that having money gives her more power than being given the right to vote she is making a strong point, since the right to vote is often held up as the embodiment of freedom. The narrator clearly disagrees, and makes the point that those lacking money can't act as they choose, or pursue what they wish, but must instead always be trying to find enough money to get by.
Women's occupations are generally tedious and difficult and earn little money, and the narrator's temper has been therefore remarkably improved by her steady income and it also made her more sympathetic to men. Perhaps men too are victims of society and have had faulty educations. She sees that both men and women are driven by instincts beyond their control. In fact, she finds that her five hundred a year has given her the ability to see things as they are, without prejudice or opinion.
The narrator's financial security makes her see things in a different light. She realizes how much easier it makes the job of writing and she's also able to sympathize with men, instead of feeling bitter. This implies that if other women had financial freedom, they too could share this perspective and see the world more clearly, their worldview less constricted and twisted by their lack of freedom. Later, the narrator will discuss how this typically narrow ad embittered worldview of women—caused by their lack of money—affects the novels they write.
The narrator heads home, where "domesticity prevailed", the house painter and maid working hard for the household. In her present state of mind, the narrator considers that the relative value of these occupations has changed in modern times – it is no longer really possible to say which is better. And she guesses that in a hundred years, the state of women's occupations will be very different again, a revelation that has numerous implications for women and mothers, and fiction.
The narrator has been out into the world and found that the poverty of women can be found everywhere, but as she returns home, to the domestic realm, to the sight of a traditionally stratified scene, where men's and women's occupations have different values, it occurs to her that change is not only possible but has occurred because where in the past a house painter would be more valued than a maid, that is no longer the case. And if gendered occupations have the power to change in value, so does fiction.