A Room of One's Own

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Creating a Legacy of Women Writers Theme Analysis

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Creating a Legacy of Women Writers Theme Icon
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A Room of One's Own was fashioned out of a series of lectures that Woolf delivered to groups of students at Cambridge women's' colleges. She addresses these women explicitly and draws on certain assumptions and common knowledge—that they are all learned for example and that they're women—so we immediately have to consider the particularity of the occasion when reading the text. As a successful woman, Woolf stands before these women scholars as their elder and somewhat superior but also as their compatriot. They are allies in the same cause, to become educated women and contribute to their society and the canon of scholarship and literature that inspires them.

Woolf is aware throughout that she, and these lectures, are part of the legacy and history of women writers (and thwarted women writers). From that starting point, of her as participating in a kind of legacy and offering something to the minds of the future, Woolf as the narrator invokes the women writers of the past and present to help her make her argument. From real authors like George Eliot and Lady Winchilsea to the invented Mary and Judith Shakespeare characters, Woolf presents a network of women who've missed out on their potential because of their status as women and the conditions of poverty and lack of education that that status implies. By creating an imaginary sister for Shakespeare, Woolf emphasizes the anonymity and invisibility of women; she makes us imagine many more forgotten women that history has left behind and whose minds will never be expressed.

Woolf describes male geniuses like Shakespeare as incandescent figures, known entirely by virtue of their work and not by their own lives. Woolf shows that it is very difficult for women to be this way, because their lives necessarily impose on them to such a degree, with childbearing, with homemaking, and with suffering. Therefore both women's fiction and the women themselves are defined by their deprivations rather than being incandescent, like the major male writers.

Woolf claims that as well as all the social conditions that have inhibited women, it is also this lack of history and legacy that continues to inhibit them, This is why she appeals to the young women before her: to use their education to be a different kind of generation and to create a history for their daughters like young men have always had to admire and emulate.

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Creating a Legacy of Women Writers ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Creating a Legacy of Women Writers appears in each chapter of A Room of One's Own. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Creating a Legacy of Women Writers Quotes in A Room of One's Own

Below you will find the important quotes in A Room of One's Own related to the theme of Creating a Legacy of Women Writers.
Chapter 1 Quotes

All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.

Related Characters: Virginia Woolf (speaker)
Related Symbols: A Room of One's Own
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Woolf has been asked to give a speech on the topic of women and fiction, and here she admits that her speech will be limited to "an opinion upon one minor point" related to this issue. She explains that she believes a woman must have money and "a room of her own" to write fiction––two things which, historically, extremely few women have possessed. The fact that Woolf presents her main argument right at the beginning of her speech highlights the way in which this argument is both simple and non-negotiable. While other writers and philosophers had invented much more complex explanations for why there were so few female authors in comparison to male ones, Woolf insists that the only valid explanation is the socioeconomic subordination of women.

Woolf seems to intentionally downplay the weight of her argument by saying "All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon a minor point." This may be a sardonic reflection of the low expectations for women's intellectual and argumentative capacities at the time. The use of the word "minor" is certainly ironic, as Woolf's point––as she herself admits in the second half of this passage––has hugely significant consequences for our understanding of both women and fiction. Indeed, A Room of One's Own resulted in a major shift in the way people viewed the literary canon; in response to Woolf's intervention, it became common to search for or imagine the voices of people who would have been able to write had their socioeconomic circumstances been different. 


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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 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

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. 
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. 

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

Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.

Related Characters: Virginia Woolf (speaker), Judith Shakespeare
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final section of the speech, Woolf has dropped the narrator persona and is speaking as herself. Having reviewed several of the main issues of the speech and responded to anticipated criticism, she returns to the character of Judith Shakespeare, "this poet who never wrote a word." Although Judith's story reflects Woolf's rather pessimistic depiction of women whose ambitions were suffocated before they could ever be realized, Woolf ends on a hopeful note by implying that Judith "still lives" within herself and the audience, as well as other women who remain at home attending to domestic tasks. 

Woolf implies that women are connected to one another across the barriers of history, geography, and socioeconomic class, and that this connection inspires women to have a sense of duty to each other. On one hand, this is uplifting and inspirational, a silver lining to the tragic story of Judith Shakespeare and the countless other women whose lives and ambitions have been thwarted by sexism. On the other hand, it is possible that Woolf is being overly optimistic here in proposing a supposedly universal connection between women. Critics of A Room of One's Own have pointed to the fact that Woolf provides a sense of hope to young, educated, upper-class women, but promises nothing to other women other than vague references to female solidarity. Such promises might make little difference to the lives of women who remain socially, politically, and economically oppressed, with no hope of achieving independence or autonomy over their own lives.