A Room of One's Own

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To tell her story and make her argument, Woolf invents a narrator who she says could be any woman, "call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance," she says. This narrator guides the audience (and reader) visually and intellectually through a series of experiences in which she learns how women have been poor and why. The anonymity of the narrator and her ability to sympathize not just with women but with men gives her a sense of authority and, at the same time, a sense of being a person rather than being a woman, a point of view she advises her audience to assume if they are to become good writers.

The Narrator Quotes in A Room of One's Own

The A Room of One's Own quotes below are all either spoken by The Narrator or refer to The Narrator. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Financial and Intellectual Freedom Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harcourt edition of A Room of One's Own published in 1989.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Woolf, now speaking as an unnamed narrator, has been describing a day at a fictional "Oxbridge" college. The narrator attends a luncheon party, where the food is delicious, wine is plentiful, and the attendees delight in the relaxed, idyllic atmosphere. Here Woolf alludes to the idea that we often imagine genius to be a "hard little electric light" that turns on by itself. In this passage, she shows that this is not the best way to understand the production of art and knowledge. Rather, "rational intercourse"––intellectual exchange––that takes place in settings such as the Oxbridge college is often what creates meaningful thought. The implication of this is that if women are excluded from these intellectual settings, they will not be able to produce works of genius or be thought of as "brilliant." 

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What force is behind that plain china off which we dined, and (here it popped out of my mouth before I could stop it) the beef, the custard and the prunes?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Having described the lavish and vibrant luncheon at the men's college, the narrator goes on to depict a supper at Fernham, the fictional women's college. Although theoretically Fernham is simply a women's equivalent of the men's colleges and thus might be thought to contain the same resources, traditions, and atmosphere, the reality is quite different. Unlike at the luncheon at the men's college, the women at Fernham eat simple, unappealing food served on "plain china." While this difference might not at first seem particularly meaningful, in this passage the narrator emphasizes that it is in fact the result of an important "force" in the world: the same force that allows men to engage in productive intellectual dialogue and create great works of literature, while women are hindered from doing so. 

Chapter 2 Quotes

Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

The waiter has brought the bill, and this leads the narrator to explain her financial situation: she receives a yearly allowance of five hundred pounds from her aunt (equivalent to a reasonable annual salary in today's world), which allows her to live independently. She found out about this allowance on the same day as white women were granted the right to vote in the UK, and in this passage she concludes that––based on her experience––the money has been "infinitely the more important." This is a very significant detail in Woolf's argument, which connects to a debate that remains controversial today.

The right to vote has often been seen as the fundamental factor determining the autonomy of a person within democratic society. However, in this passage Woolf implies that the right to vote is relatively unhelpful if an individual does not also have a degree of independent economic security and freedom from oppressive social forces. Note that the narrator is not suggesting that the right to vote is meaningless, or that it would make no difference if women were not able to vote. Rather, she points out that without the freedom provided by an income, a person's agency remains severely restricted. 

This argument could either be seen as elitist or anti-elitist, depending on the interpretation. Critics such as Alice Walker have argued that Woolf suggests women without an income are unable to exercise autonomy or impact society; this seems to deny the extraordinary achievements and influence of African American slave women such as Phyllis Wheatley. On the other hand, Woolf's words foreshadow the contemporary feminist argument that legal equality means little if women largely remain economically dependent on men. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

Perhaps now it would be better to give up seeking for the truth, and receiving on one's head an avalanche of opinion hot as lava, discoloured as dish-water.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has returned home, feeling disappointed about what she has so far discovered about women and fiction. She wonders if it would be better to abandon her search for truth, and instead embrace "an avalanche of opinion hot as lava." Here Woolf presents a disdainful view of "opinion," reflecting her earlier skepticism about men's writing about women. Yet when it comes to the topic of women, the search for truth is almost equally frustrating, as there is so little knowledge about the actual history of women's lived experience. Despite this frustration and the ambivalence in this passage, however, Woolf does end up concluding that it is better to seek truth than settle for opinion, which––as shown by the narrator's comparison of popular opinion to discoloured "dish-water"––will only ever obscure the true nature of the world. 

A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the

highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has read Professor G.M. Trevelyan's The History of England in the hope of finding more information about women's lives throughout history. She is disappointed to find very little concrete detail, and no evidence of women having any influence or importance of their own. On the other hand, as Professor Trevelyan points out, in literature––such as Shakespearean drama––women are represented as being full of "personality and character" and existing at the centre of the narrative action. The narrator does not understand how to reconcile the totally unimportant role women are assigned within history with the complex, interesting, and pivotal part women play in artistic representation. 

This is one of several points when the narrator identifies the paradoxical ways in which patriarchal society constructs the role of women. (Another example is when she highlights male authors' obsession with writing about women, yet total lack of interest in listening to women's own accounts of themselves.) Woolf shows that this use of paradox enables the sustained belittling of women without women necessarily understanding or resisting the ways in which they are oppressed.

What one wants, I thought—and why does not some brilliant student at Newnham or Girton supply it?--is a mass of information; at what age did she marry; how many children had she as a rule; what was her house like, had she a room to herself; did she do the cooking; would she be likely to have a servant?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: A Room of One's Own
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Pondering the lack of knowledge about the history of women's lives––and considering the case of the Elizabethan woman in particular––the narrator suggests that what is needed is "a mass of information" about life as a woman during Elizabethan times. Note that the narrator speaks of a singular woman when in fact she is referring to any number of women. This rhetorical strategy allows her to contrast the kind of knowledge she wishes to gain with the kind that already exists. While the details of almost all women's lives have been lost to history en masse, and while existing knowledge about women tends to take the form of unfounded, subjective generalizations, Woolf here suggests that the life of each individual woman who has ever lived is worth knowing about in all its mundane detail.

Indeed, it is significant that Woolf refers to domestic questions such as "what was her house like" and "did she do the cooking." Part of the justification for the exclusion of women's lives from the mainstream historical record lies in the fact that women throughout Western history have mostly been confined to the home, and information about home life is not thought to be historically significant. Here the narrator explicitly opposes this assumption, inviting the students in the audience to take up the challenge of investigating the historical facts of women's lived experience and implying that this knowledge will prove useful.

Chapter 4 Quotes

What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has conceded that some upper class women have historically been able to pursue literary endeavors, and considers individual cases of women who have done so. One such case is Margaret Cavendish, a childless noblewoman who was widely mocked for her attempts to write poetry. The narrator clearly feels sympathy of Margaret, and expresses the idea that if she had been a man she would have been respected for her literary efforts.

Once again, the narrator invokes the concept that intellectual companionship is essential to achievement. Margaret was passionate and dedicated, but because she was a woman she remained isolated and her potential was wasted. The narrator compares Margaret's loneliness and thwarted ambitions to a "giant cucumber" choking to death a bed of roses and carnations. Here the cucumber––a phallic symbol––suffocates the flowers representing Margaret's mind. 

All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, […] for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she—shady and amorous as she was—who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you to-night: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:
The narrator has discussed the life of Aphra Behn, a 17th-century writer who is widely thought of as the first professional female writer in England. Unlike the noblewomen the narrator has previously described, Aphra Behn was middle-class and wrote in order to earn money after the death of her husband. The narrator admits that Behn's legacy is not wholly positive, but argues that "all women" should nonetheless honor her, because it was her example that paved the way for women to actually earn a living by writing. The narrator encourages the audience to pursue this goal, all the while implying that it is still extremely difficult. Indeed, she stresses that it is "not quite fantastic" for her to suggest to the young women in the audience that they write professionally, meaning such a career is possible, but still only barely. 

She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: A Room of One's Own
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has spoken admiringly of Jane Austen, comparing the way in which Austen-as-the-author disappears in her novels to the genius of Shakespeare. She speaks less approvingly of Charlotte Brontë, who––despite her talent––is not able to conceal her own bitterness within her work. According to the narrator, this makes her write "foolishly" and distracts from her characters. However, the narrator empathizes with the reason for Brontë's bitterness, considering she died "young, cramped and thwarted."

Once again, the narrator depicts the experience of being a woman––and especially a woman with creative, intellectual ambitions––as being characterized by a kind of suffocation and lost potential. The word "cramped" echoes the description of the cucumber "choking" the flowers to death in the discussion of Margaret Cavendish, and strengthen's Woolf's point that without a room of her own a woman's talents will end up smothered by her circumstances. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described a hypothetical contemporary novel by Mary Carmichael called Life's Adventure, which contains the sentence "Chloe liked Olivia." Presupposing that the audience might be scandalized by this, the narrator encourages the women listening to remain calm and admit that "sometimes women do like women." This mention of homosexuality is one of the most important moments in the speech. At the time, open discussion of homosexuality was highly taboo; while male homosexuality was widely acknowledged and explicitly forbidden, many people did not believe––or at least did not openly admit––that female homosexuality even existed. However, depictions of lesbianism were beginning to emerge in contemporary literature, and Woolf highlights this as another reason why literature by women was so important. 

Note the narrator's specification that lesbianism can be discussed only "in the privacy of our own society." Public representations of lesbianism, for example in Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, had led to scandal and censure. Another important reason for the existence of intellectual spaces for women, therefore, is that they provided the conditions for lesbianism to be discussed openly. In making this point, the narrator is not assuming that the majority of her audience are lesbians, and that this would be directly meaningful to them in this sense. Rather, lesbianism is presented as a fact about some women's lives that is obscured when intellectual endeavors (and specifically depictions of women) are dominated by men. 

Awkward though she was and without the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had—I began to think—mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Mary Carmichael
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator evaluates Mary Carmichael's imaginary novel, assessing how Carmichael measures up against male authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Lamb. Although she remains critical of several aspects of Carmichael's writing, she praises the way in which Carmichael writes "as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman," which she calls "the first great lesson." This is another controversial moment in the speech. Depending on one's interpretation, Woolf might be implying that women writers should strive to rid themselves of any sense of inferiority to men; perhaps this is what the narrator means when she speaks of "forgetting" one's sex.

On the other hand, some feminist critics have identified this passage as evidence of internalized misogyny. Woolf seems to suggest that women's writing can only be truly excellent if it does not bear any marks of the author's gender. The fact that earlier in the passage the narrator compares Carmichael's work to the male authors Thackeray and Lamb could indicate that the "genderless" standard against which she measure women's writing is in fact a male standard. Indeed, later feminist theorists have argued that it is impossible to forget or conceal the identity of an author, including the author's gender. This view contends that genderless writing is a myth created by the pervasiveness of male authors whose gender is not seen as relevant because it is the norm.

Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Mary Carmichael
Related Symbols: A Room of One's Own
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

Having finished reading Mary Carmichael's imaginary novel, the narrator admits that Carmichael was "no genius," but that given her circumstances the novel was impressive. She adds that if Carmichael were to receive the prescribed allowance of five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own, as well as the freedom to "speak her mind," she would write a much better novel. Again, Woolf seems careful not to overestimate women's existing literary achievements. Instead, she stresses their potential, and emphasizes the idea that the work people produce is highly determined by their social situation. For Woolf, the tragedy of women's place in intellectual history lies less within the notion that female genius has gone unnoticed, and more in the idea that women have not been able to realize the true extent of their own capabilities. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

The sight of two people coming down the street and meeting at the corner seems to ease the mind of some strain, I thought, watching the taxi turn and make off.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

The next day, the narrator observes that the people on the street around her seem indifferent to the questions about women and fiction that she has devoted so much time to considering. However, she then notices a man and woman get in a cab together, a sight that captures her attention and eases her mind. She admits it is strange that such an ordinary scene should have this substantial an effect on her, and this leads her to consider the mysterious nature of the human mind.

It seems that what she finds so absorbing about the man and woman is the naturalness of their union. This part of the speech hints at the "strain" that can result in obsession over the gulf between men and women. It is a relief to the narrator to be reminded that––in spite of all the difficult issues to do with gender, power, and freedom that she has been pondering thus far––in reality men and women go about their lives together, largely untroubled by the problems she has been discussing.

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The Narrator Character Timeline in A Room of One's Own

The timeline below shows where the character The Narrator appears in A Room of One's Own. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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Creating a Legacy of Women Writers Theme Icon
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...her setting "Oxbridge" from two recognizable settings, Oxford and Cambridge. She has also invented an "I" voice with which to tell the story. This "I" could be any woman, she says,... (full context)
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The narrator muses as she sits on this bank, about the nature of her mind, how it... (full context)
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The narrator leaves the scene in anger. She considers what to do instead but before she can... (full context)
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Thinking of men and women humming Tennyson at lunchtime makes the narrator burst out laughing, and she has to excuse herself and explain that it was the... (full context)
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The narrator believes that these verses are so beautiful because they make one recall feelings of the... (full context)
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...splendor of colors in the twilight bring a romantic mood to the gardens and the narrator thinks she spots the famous feminist Jane Harrison. But she is interrupted from her exciting... (full context)
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The narrator and her friend Mary Seton retire to a sitting room and "repair some of the... (full context)
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The narrator considers what their mothers had been doing that stopped them creating a legacy, with colleges... (full context)
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Putting blame aside, the narrator and Mary Seton gaze out of the window at the awe-inspiring college buildings, and ponder... (full context)
Chapter 2
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Leaving Oxbridge behind, the narrator finds that the appropriate sequel to her first lecture is a visit to the British... (full context)
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The narrator arrives through a wet city day to the doors of the library and as she... (full context)
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The narrator notices an interesting contradiction in the views of these male writers on the topic of... (full context)
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The narrator realizes that she has expressed her own anger in this portrait, and tries to locate... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Perhaps, the narrator thinks, it is to do with their power that they are so angry – in... (full context)
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The narrator's thoughts are interrupted by the waiter handing her the bill for lunch. She takes this... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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The narrator heads home, where "domesticity prevailed", the house painter and maid working hard for the household.... (full context)
Chapter 3
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The narrator returns home disappointed that she hasn't found some nugget of truth with which to explain... (full context)
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The narrator goes again to books, this time a History of England, and finds a mere few... (full context)
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...women, with all the missing facts, about what she ate, what she did, and the narrator suggests that a young woman in the audience might try to accomplish it. For it... (full context)
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In fact the narrator believes that a woman like Judith, with all Shakespeare's talents, would never... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Continuing from her explanation of Shakespeare's ‘incandescence', the narrator shows how it's practically impossible for a woman to possess the same quality. Just look... (full context)
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But the narrator does admit that women of higher standing have better luck. Men react more favorably to... (full context)
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The narrator is imagining what Lady Winchilsea's comforts and trials must have been like because very little... (full context)
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The narrator then turns to her next example, Margaret of Newcastle, who, like Lady Winchilsea was noble... (full context)
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The narrator continues her tirade, now pulling Aphra Behn from the shelf. Behn is unlike the others... (full context)
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...them with an insight into collective experience – this all leads to good fiction, the narrator claims. (full context)
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The narrator explains that middle-class women had been trained for centuries for novels, by having to observe... (full context)
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Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a good novel, the narrator believes, even though Austen wasn't proud to be writing and had to hide the manuscript... (full context)
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The narrator goes on to explore what it takes for a novel to rouse the emotions in... (full context)
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The narrator quotes a passage from the New Criterion about how female novelists should only write according... (full context)
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...novel is different in that it is newer and more open to women, but the narrator imagines that as women become freer in society, they will open up the form of... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...they are more artful and have less of women's struggling within them. To investigate, the narrator opens a novel by Mary Carmicheal called "Life's Adventure". Though this hypothetical text is a... (full context)
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The narrator finds herself praising Olivia for her complexity and tells herself off – there's no justification... (full context)
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With this in mind, the narrator warns Mary Carmicheal that by staying outside the viewpoint of Chloe and Olivia, she risks... (full context)
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The narrator stops herself from continuing to tell Mary what she should write, and instead goes back... (full context)
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As she reads, the narrator waits nervously for the important moment that Mary Carmicheal must show if she is to... (full context)
Chapter 6
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The next morning, the narrator looks out at the London street and notices that nobody there much cares about Shakespeare's... (full context)
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...mind is androgynous, with feminine and masculine aspects and no fight between the two. The narrator goes to the library again and thinks she has begun to explain the expanse of... (full context)
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The narrator opens a novel written by Mr. A, a typical male novelist, and is relieved to... (full context)
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Going back to the shelves, the narrator gets on to the subject of Italian literature, which she says is suffering from anxiety... (full context)
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Going to her writing desk, thinking of the first line for Women and Fiction, the narrator settles on the most important idea, that it is fatal for a writer to think... (full context)