Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Essay on A Room of One's Own

Essay on A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf, one of the first great modernist female writers, creates a poignant, sharp criticism about the injustice of the inequity between the sexes in respect to art in general, and literature in particular. Using the "stream-of-consciousness" technique, new at that time, Woolf allows the reader to reach their own conclusions about a very unmanageable topic, women and fiction. Rather than simply blasting society, men, or the status quo in a damning, blame placing essay, Woolf simply takes you along on a semi-fictional lecture tour where she runs into the everyday kind of injustice and blaring opposition between men and women's facilities and treatment. Taking this kind of low key, less in-your-face approach to shedding light into the dark places of society, it is harder to deny or feel defensive about the truth she shows.

The basis for the essay is on a lecture she gave in late October, 1928, at Newnham and Girton, the two women's college at Cambridge, England. Woolf had written the lecture in May; in 1929, she expanded it into what is now "A Room of One's Own," and the essay was published in book form on Oct. 24, 1929. Woolf cannily utilized the setting of the lecture. The fictional university she visits in the essay, Oxbridge, is an amalgam of England's prestigious Oxford and Cambridge universities, and the comparison of the luxurious male and mediocre female facilities must have surely hit home at Newnham and Girton. The language Woolf uses in describing the male college referenced bags of gold endowed upon the sacred institutes of learning by "kings and nobles". She spoke of the deep reaching stone foundations that must have been hauled here from "ancient countries" all for the sake of imparting knowledge upon those who had the privilege of being born a male. While the women's college was built by committee who could barely scrape up enough money to buy books.

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The comparison that exemplifies the differences the best was the description of the dinners served at each respective college. At Oxbridge she is served partridges with their "retinue of sauces", beautiful vegetables, and a massive sugar pudding. She commented on how there was no need to hurry, and the conversation flowed. The quote used is an example of Woolf's amazing ability to use words to capture an emotion, "We were all going to heaven and Vandyck is of the company".

One of my favorite references in the essay was the mentioning of the manx cat that over the college lawn as she was eating her lunch. She commented on the lack of the cat's tail and how it seemed to be lacking, a direct reference, in my opinion about the lack of a female penis how it made her somehow distinctly less deserving of all the riches and opportunities that a male had.

After finishing her lunch and lecture at the college, she walks through the late October afternoon to Fernham, the women's college where she is staying as a guest. She has a dinner of plain soup, mediocre beef, vegetables, and potatoes, and bad custard, prunes, biscuits and cheese, along with water. She feels one cannot "think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." This stark comparison of meals leads her to speculate on who's fault it is that women do not have great colleges, endowed by kings. She begins a historical commentary on how women, even if they had time to work, could not keep their owning. She uses an amazing example in Shakespeare's sister when she points out that even if women have the ability and desire to create, they are held in check by social and political straights that would cause the most talented women to end up going mad.

Through a series of examples of different female writers throughout time and classes, Woolf exposes the gender-consciousness that she believes cripples both male and female writers. Most men, she maintains, derogate women to maintain their own superiority; most women are angry and insecure about their inferior status in society. Male writing, then, is too aggressive, whereas women's writing is reactive. Both genders obscure their subjects and instead focus on themselves and their own personal grievances. The writer of incandescent genius, Woolf maintains, rises beyond his or her petty gripes and attains a heightened, objective relationship with reality; the subject is the world, not the writer's self. Woolf considers this genius possible only if the writer has, an "androgynous" mind.

The point she is making is that education and school is about more than just books, or walls, or paper. There has to be an atmosphere for learning, for creativity, for genius. The world and it's menial cares can not get in the way. Women need a way to get away from the weight of partridgeless dinners and children and darning socks, they need to not be confined by libraries that will not admit them with out letters of introduction, or Victorian paths that do not allow them to deviate. Women need the ability to observe life and develop their ideas and talents and a place to retreat to where they do not feel the inferiority imposed upon them by men. They need a room and some money of one's own.
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