Woolf has been asked to speak about Women and Fiction to a group of female students from the Cambridge colleges of Newnham and Girton. She explains how she came to think about these themes as expressed in the title "A Room of One's Own" when she sat down to think about the subject. She considers what one means by "Women and Fiction", thinking that the most interesting idea will be to consider all aspects intertwined, including women writers and fiction about women.
From the outset of her lecture, we are made aware of the pressure that has come upon Woolf since she was asked to impart wisdom on the subject of women and fiction. The first pages are full of her wondering how to begin, what method to use, and with her doubts that she will be able to impart anything at all. This all reveals how important the subject is to her, and how personal, and implies that what we are about to read is a personal story and not a political debate.
She soon realizes that she will not be able to offer any truth on the matter. She can only offer her opinion, that a women needs money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She can show how she came to this opinion and, through this journey, her audience may be able to draw their own conclusions. She will use the method of fiction to describe this journey, since fiction is their subject, and has invented 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, sitting on a riverbank near a college.
Woolf is open about how she plans to approach her argument—through fiction rather than overt argument claiming to impart truth. By explicitly stating that she is not attempting to state the truth but rather to describe her own personal journey, she creates a sense of intimacy with the reader, as if she has no more wisdom on the subject than they do. So, by approaching the issue through fiction, where her narrator represents every woman, Woolf gives her audience the sense that they are joined together in a collective narrative.
The narrator muses as she sits on this bank, about the nature of her mind, how it attaches itself to a thought and obsesses over it. One particular thought distinguishes itself from the rest and the narrator tries to capture it, like catching a fish. This idea becomes very exciting and precious to her and she tries to keep it from slipping away. She finds herself walking rapidly over a lawn and is soon apprehended by a Beadle, a guard, who tells her that only Fellows and Scholars are allowed on the grass. She obeys and walks on the gravel instead, not yet indignant about the injustice of the reserved lawn, but notices that her precious "fish" has disappeared.
The narrator uses the image of the fish to visualize the process of thinking. The fish is both a concrete thing and yet slippery and hard to grasp. The way she treasures the thought, pursues it with determined excitement, striding across the lawn in order to keep the thought safe until she can write it down, shows how she values thoughts—and thought—above all else. Yet her efforts to catch and hold onto the thought are thwarted by the beadle—who is both a man and a guard of the university, and who therefore represents the way that the institution of the university is protected by men for men (the scholars and fellows), excluding women in the process, and how this exclusion stops women from being able to pursue their thoughts as men can.
She carries on her way and a certain essay by Charles Lamb comes to her mind. This essay muses about how inconceivable it is that Milton's poetry ever had any word changed. The narrator remembers that Lamb came to Oxbridge and his essays are kept in a library not far from where she is walking. Thackeray's "most perfect" novel, Esmond, is also kept there. The narrator excitedly imagines finding in these manuscripts some key to the authors' intent, but when she arrives at the famous library, she is turned away because she is a woman.
The narrator's thoughts roam across literature, a literary history with which she wants to immerse herself both for the pure enjoyment of pursuing her thoughts and to investigate those works as a way of delving into the minds of those authors and, in so doing, improve her own mind and writing. But again her status as a woman stands against her and she is shut out, not only from the physical library building, but from the literary history that she so much wants to be a part of.
The narrator leaves the scene in anger. She considers what to do instead but before she can decide she hears organ music issuing from a chapel nearby. This time she doesn't wish to approach, imagining she'll be turned away, and tries to appreciate the outside comings and goings of the congregation.
The narrator's initial anger turns to a kind of grudging acceptance as she now decides not even to enter the Church and so to avoid being stopped once again because she is a woman. In choosing to remain outside she does gain a certain perspective that the men who can enter don't have, but she has given in to being an outsider to this culture (and a somewhat bitter outsider at that for all the exclusion she has experienced).
She thinks about how such a grand collection of buildings exists – it is because of the constant flow of money that the Oxbridge men are born into and then earn after they graduate. This money goes into scholarship and traditions, repairs and luxuries. The college has sustained itself in this way first from the very first Kings and noblemen to the modern scholars. The narrator is stopped in her thoughts by the clock's strike. It is time for lunch and she heads to a luncheon party at the college. She describes the sumptuous spread of food and wine in great detail, and takes special delight in describing that "rich yellow flame" of intelligent, unhurried conversation.
The college is described like a perfectly functional, self-preserving organism or machine. It has flourished for so long that it seems to renew itself, fuelling itself by taking in funds and workmanship from its male members and churning out the educated male brains that are able to then fund and work to keep preserving it. Women have no access to a cycle like this, no foundation on which to base it.. Consequently, the narrator is astonished and delighted by the feast of food and conversation she finds.
Content, she moves to a window seat after lunch and notices a cat without a tail, strolling past the window. This cat reminds her of the lunch party, which she thinks is also missing something fundamental. She tries to figure out what this something is. In order to find out, she recalls the lunch parties of the past, before the war, and remembers the guests making collectively a kind of humming noise, which she realizes is quite poetic and can be put to the verse of Tennyson.
The tailless Manx cat is a symbol of how society has been transformed since the horrors of the First World War, and despite the pleasures of the party the narrator senses this same lack in the conversation around her. By defining this lost something as poetic or musical—the artistic humanities—seems to indicate that Woolf sees the terrible mechanization of the war, which took so many lives like a kind of great killing machine, has cut off the present from the more idyllic, more human past.
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 strange cat that amused her. The party breaks up and the guests head home. The narrator walks towards the imaginary women's college "Fernham" and, with plenty of time before supper, thinks again about Tennyson's lines and then a similarly beautiful verse of Christina Rossetti's.
The narrator's thoughts about Tennyson seem so ludicrous to her that she can't possibly share them with her friends despite her love of good conversation. Yet, it is obvious from her thoughts that she herself hums and thinks in verse and does things in a melodious way, connecting her to that past before the war. Meanwhile, it's worth noting that there are colleges for women, separate from those for men.
The narrator believes that these verses are so beautiful because they make one recall feelings of the past, of past luncheon parties for example. The reason that modern poetry has trouble finding the same beauty is because it cannot evoke memories in the same way. She wonders when people stopped "humming" at lunch. Was it after the war? Perhaps the sight of such stupidity and ugliness made people stop humming. While busily thinking about the difference between truth and illusion, the narrator misses the turn to Fernham, the women's college, so that she must retrace her steps.
The difference between the nostalgic effect of the poetry of the past and the challenge of modern poetry leaves the narrator feeling disillusioned and detached from the art form that she loves so much. Again she shows poetry to be a direct product of the life and times of its poets. While she is thinking generally about society here—about how the suffering of the war has affected people's ability to write and connect to poetry—she is also setting the stage for much of the exploration of the rest of the book: if suffering and stupidity of war have affected society's ability to create poetry, then is it any wonder that women—who have for so long been treated as inferior—have produced difficult, twisted poetry.
Finding herself at Fernham College, the October 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 academic reverie by the arrival of her soup for dinner. As she did with the luncheon, the narrator describes her supper at the women's college in great detail, but this meal is much humbler. Not only is the height of the feast a bowl of prunes and custard, but the conversation is also lacking.
The narrator initially depicts the fictional women's college here as an almost mythical place, a utopia of natural beauty from the gardens and twilight, all associated with the powerful figure of feminism, Jane Harrison. But that image is compromised when the narrator is confronted with the meager supper of prunes and custard and lacking conversation at dinner. The men's college's bright conversation and rich meal stands in stark contrast to the women's situation even in an atmosphere of progress for women, which the mere existence of the women's college represents. At the same time, the fact that it is a women's college, separate, again shows how women are kept outside of that male society.
The narrator and her friend Mary Seton retire to a sitting room and "repair some of the damages" by discussing people. But the narrator's mind is haunted by the image of the masons and money-makers that founded and preserved the men's college. She guides the conversation towards the problem of the women's colleges. Mary Seton recites the financial history of her college, which basically involves constant and belittling fundraising efforts.
The image of the superior men's college—in construction and in finances-- haunts the narrator's experience at Fernham. In contrast, the narrator and Mary Seton recognize that their own college is just trying to tread water—that it lacks the tradition that could provide a foundation for the women to focus on what they want to. Instead, they must focus on just keeping the college alive with fundraising efforts.
The narrator considers what their mothers had been doing that stopped them creating a legacy, with colleges and scholarships like the men had. She realizes that it was family life – there wouldn't even be a Mary Seton if her mother had wanted to create a legacy, or Mary would have had to have given up the pleasures of her childhood, which depended on her mother. But, to hypothesize about the legacy their mothers would have made is useless – it was impossible for them to earn money.
And now the narrator comes to the crux of it, to the source of the difference between the men's college's rich intellectual history versus the relative paucity of the women's college in those things. Family life: having and raising kids. Women must bear and care for children, and doing so takes so much time and energy that there simply is no way for women to have the time to build the same intellectual and financial tradition as men. And then the narrator adds the kicker: not only do women not have the time because of their domestic duties, society doesn't allow them to occupy roles that make money. Even if Mary Seton's mother had wanted to forgo having a family and focus on building a legacy, she couldn't—because she has no way to make enough money to earn the money needed to allow the independence required for such legacy-building work.
Putting blame aside, the narrator and Mary Seton gaze out of the window at the awe-inspiring college buildings, and ponder the generations of penniless mothers. The narrator remembers all the sights and feelings of her day, and how unpleasant it was to be locked out of the library that morning, but eventually decides she must "roll up the crumpled skin of the day" and retires to bed.
As she predicted, the narrator has found that truth, cause, and blame are difficult to attribute in the case of women and fiction. This brings her very early on in her argument to the realization that she will have to find some other way to reconcile the question. So, gazing at the scene of her subject, she lets her feelings and sensations come to the fore.