The next morning, the narrator looks out at the London street and notices that nobody there much cares about Shakespeare's plays, or the topic of Women and Fiction. All are on their own journeys, self-absorbed. But then, as a man and woman meet and get into a cab, the atmosphere changes. The narrator's imagination attaches to this image. Perhaps, she considers, the image symbolizes the uniting of women and men, which eases the contrary mindset she's assumed for composing the lecture.
The narrator mentioned earlier that she instinctively feels that everything in the city is connected like parts of a machine; industry and personal life are occurring hand in hand, but as she looks now out of the window, the city seems disconnected, people going this way and that, uncaring and individual. The sight of one man and one woman getting into a cab has such a powerful soothing effect on this disconnection that she believes that it must hold the key to her argument.
She feels that the mind is a difficult organ, prone to many states of being. Is there a unity of the mind? She asks. Maybe the natural unity she felt when her mind attached to the man and women getting into the cab can be traced to the theory that the two sexes should be in a kind of union after all, that maybe each individual soul is both man and woman.
The narrator uses the image of the man and woman getting into a cab to symbolize the unity of men and women, and the satisfying effect it has on her symbolizes that somehow this unity is right and good. Characteristically, she uses her own feelings to suggest this vital nugget of truth.
Coleridge said that the great 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 books written by men about women, that it comes from their sex-conscious age. Never have men been more sex-conscious than when having to face the Suffragette movement.
The narrator sees sex-consciousness as a flaw of their society and their literature. If everyone were at peace with the different sexes and allowed themselves to be both woman and man, then they would not be offended by maleness or femaleness, and men would not have to write books explaining women, or denigrating women. Understanding and respect would naturally exist.
The narrator opens a novel written by Mr. A, a typical male novelist, and is relieved to read the assured, unhindered male voice again. But soon her reading catches on something; it is the incessant "I" word that bothers her. This shape was so dominant in the work that it cast a shadow over it. Mr. A is not incandescent like Shakespeare, he is asserting his superiority and protesting against the equality of the female character to the male. Now after the women's emancipation movement, male writers are creating male-sided fiction. Women, she advises, should not expect to find anything that speaks to them in these male-sided works. Writers like Kipling and Galworthy lack "suggestive power" with which women are able to sympathize and imagine.
Just as women writers through history have unfortunately filled a lot of their fiction with bias and bitterness, she finds that modern men are doing the same. As she expects to find a smooth, confident voice, the "I" which should hide gender instead asserts itself again and again like the angry professor stabbing at his paper. While the women of history feared their inferiority, men in modern times fear the loss of their superiority at the hands of the suffragettes (women seeking the right to vote and other pro-women reforms). So both sexes suffer and their fiction suffers because of this consciousness about sex.
Going back to the shelves, the narrator gets on to the subject of Italian literature, which she says is suffering from anxiety of being too masculine. She believes that no poetry will come out of such a beast as fascism. But it is not just men that are to blame – it is a combination of both men and women. She goes through a list of writers and tries to weigh up how much of femininity and how much masculinity they were made of.
The narrator uses the example of Italian writing to show that peace between male and female influences is necessary for great literature. The Italian government at the time was fascist, which she sees as being overly masculine as a response to its anxiety about its masculinity, and she believes that no such successful literature can emerge from such a state.
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 of his or her sex. Sex-conscious writing "ceases to be fertilized", she claims. A marriage between male and female influences must be made.
The narrator now portrays herself going to her writing desk to write this lecture that she is giving, and settles on the crucial point being that authors must write as people, not as either man or women. Only in the union of men and women can life, or art, be born.
Here, the narrator leaves off and Virginia Woolf returns. She knows that her audience will have listened to Mary's journey with their own perspectives, adding and changing to form their own opinions and detect bits of truth. She anticipates two criticisms. Firstly, they will notice that she gave no evaluation of the comparative value of the sexes, but this was never the aim and she finds trying to measure fiction a futile and quite impossible pursuit.
As Woolf takes over from her fictional narrator, she reminds her audience that what she just related was a subjective account of her experiences. She implies that in reality, things like inferiority and superiority don't exist in any measurable way, and putting values on human things is quite impossible. It is even more impossible to put value on fiction. By reminding them of this, Woolf gives her audience the power to decide for themselves.
The second criticism could be that Woolf has been too concerned with money. Haven't there been poor writers who have risen above their circumstances and shouldn't that be encouraged? To answer this she quotes from The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, which admits that unfortunately our list of "great" writers is predominantly well-to-do. She furthers this point by saying that while men with intellectual freedom have had the chance to be writers, women have always been poor in terms of the intellectual freedom granted to them.
Woolf is very ready to answer this potential criticism about her materialistic, money-based view of the topic of women and fiction, armed with plenty of evidence. It becomes obvious that the majority of great writers have been wealthy men. It is rare to find a poor man who has made a name for himself in literature. In this way both sexes have been plagued by the need for financial freedom.
Some of the women in front of her may wonder why, then, if it is both so difficult to write fiction and socially dangerous, is Woolf so obsessed with it? Because she loves to read, she says. She charges her audience to write books about everything, to improve fiction, but also philosophy, history, and every other subject, to create influences for other women.
In keeping with the method that she proposed at the beginning of her lecture, Woolf gives us a subjective answer to this question rather than trying to provide objective truth. From her point of view, to have a legacy of women writers would provide her with a world of stories and reading pleasure.
Woolf suggests that her motives are not entirely selfish, though. There is something about writing that is connected to goodness. Uneducated as she is, she doesn't know why, but she knows that when one reads King Lear for example, reality seems to be realer, life is intensified. Her speech is drawing to a close but she knows that convention demands that she make some kind of noble final statement to inspire her audience for the future. It should be something about responsibility and the influence they can have. But Woolf would rather give a "brief and prosaic" message that the young women should be themselves, and shouldn't live for influencing others but instead "think of things in themselves".
The narrator has been battling throughout the essay to describe the difference between individual and common experience and where real truth can be found. Now she finds that in order to give her audience a worthy conclusion, she needs to find a balance between those two things. She does this firstly by saying that the creation of fiction is both selfish and for the common good. And she does it secondly by telling the young women the contradictory message that to create a legacy for women, they should always focus on the work itself.
Woolf acknowledges that women are supposed to hate women. She is expected to end with something disagreeable. But she likes women. Still she mustn't continue praising them in case a professor is hiding in the cupboard behind them, so she goes back to her inspiring final message. She reminds the women that they, as a sex, have never gone into war, never founded a civilization, never written the works of Shakespeare, but while one could explain this with many excuses, it is also true that there are now women's colleges and women's votes; and so she implores her listeners to seize these opportunities.
Woolf has shown her audience how far women have come, from Judith Shakespeare's wretched life to Mary Carmicheal's confession that women like women. But she must still watch her words for fear of professors hiding in cupboards ready to condemn her. She acknowledges that recorded history is driven by great actions by men, and relatively few by women. But she notes also that the world is changing, that women occupy a new place on the world stage, and that women must take advantage of their newfound opportunities.
Finally, Woolf conjures the character of Judith Shakespeare again, who died and lies beneath the omnibuses driving the streets of London. But it is not over for Judith, she claims. Poets live in a different way from other people, and these women of Newnham and Girton colleges to have the opportunity to give Judith the life she never had.
Woolf here transforms Judith Shakespeare, who began as a symbol of the tragic intellectual poverty of women, into a symbol of hope and a call to action for the women in her audience, a suggestion that they have the opportunity, through both life and literature, to give Judith—and, by extension, all the forgotten women— life again, a life that is not a tragedy. In life, they can do so by continuing to build a tradition of literary women and a society that is not patriarchal and which ensures no future woman becomes a Judith. And, through, literature, to write Judith and all of the lost women back into history.