Friday, October 12, 2012

A Room of One's Own

When I wrote my earlier post about Feminist Literary Analysis, I didn't have this book listed among my recommendations because I hadn't read it yet, and many of you were quick to point out the obvious hole it left.  But once I grabbed a copy, I absolutely loved it.  In fact, I've already read it twice.

A Room of One's Own is an elongated essay by Virginia Woolf, written in her characteristic stream-of-consciousness style.  She had been asked to discuss women and fiction, and her conclusion, in brief, was that each woman needs her own source of income and a room of her own in order to write freely.  Because she was writing in 1928, the obvious female examples who came to mind were Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters.  These women had successfully produced fiction that society embraced and valued.  The 1920s had been boosted by the surge of the first wave of feminism, and Woolf took this opportunity to continue moving it forward.  Yet in order to do so, she studied the history of women and fiction, and she emphasized the need to be conscious of the tradition we have inherited.

Nestled in a library, Woolf researched the history of women and fiction.  Yet as she did so, it became clear that we have an unfilled heritage and are missing many potential heroes of our past.  Her famous example of Shakespeare's fictional sister stands out in our mind to represent centuries of women whose voices we will never get to hear.  So when she finally reaches Aphra Behn, I am filled with appreciation and longing to lay a flower beside her grave.  (I did try to do that once when I visited Westminster Abbey, but I couldn't find it!  I am still kicking myself for not searching longer, and I hope to go back someday to fulfill this mission.)

I have read several of Woolf's novels in her stream-of-consciousness style, but I think this essay is my favorite use of it.  We feel as though we are working through every thought with her and experiencing her discoveries, surprises, and realizations in real time alongside her.  She gets distracted and side-tracked at moments, but the whole piece blends together as one continuous thought.  The chapter breaks seem unnecessary and out of place, as though the thought process should not be broken or stopped.  It made me read the book very quickly each time I read it because I felt carried by the wave of her words.  This time, it was especially fun to read it in October because of her description of this season in her writing as well.

I think that one of the most remarkable things about this book is its tone.  There is no trace of anger or bitterness when she discusses women's past oppression, and she does not indicate that men must be pushed down in order for women to surge forward.  At times, she certainly evinces some hurt caused by men and the way they have treated women.  But she states:

"I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me.  I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.  So imperceptibly, I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race.  It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole.  Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do.  They are driven by instincts which are not within their control."

Repeatedly, Woolf says that anger against men and their poor treatment of women is yet another obstacle in the progression of the female race.  Good writing is marred by traces of bitterness and contempt.  She praises the four famous novelists specifically for "writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching."  She insists that every woman must write for herself, not in reaction to others or in order to make them feel a certain way.  The best writing is based on truth and honest feelings without hidden (or obvious) agendas.

Now, I have to add a small footnote and say that I do not agree with everything Woolf says in this book.  The last chapter in particular contains some theories I do not fully support, dichotomizing things as masculine and feminine in perhaps an unhealthy light.  However, Woolf was far ahead of her time and made great strides for the feminist movement, so I do not criticize her at all.  Many leaders in the third wave of feminism have since picked up this idea and pursued its implications, and Woolf helped us get to this place.

And so, I will end my post with Woolf's wise words.  She has an amazing sense of humility underneath her brilliant wisdom and advice.  I can easily start believing that I know good literature apart from bad literature, and this blog is my soapbox to preach my taste.  But I want to keep in mind that reading is an individual experience, despite all the ways we can form community around it.  And I'll let Woolf have the last word this time.

"Here I would stop, but the pressure of convention decrees that every speech must end with a peroration.  And a peroration addressed to women should have something particularly exalting and ennobling about it... I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.  Do not dream of influencing people... Think of things in themselves."


steelsuzette said...

I love Woolf, and more the more I read her works. It's about time for a re-read of this one.
Have you read any of her diaries? I bought 'The Writer's Diary,' which is a collection of entries about writing, writers, books, etc. edited by Leonard. And it's fascinating. Her take on 'Paradise Lost' made me laugh, because it was so close to what I thought.

Blogging Profits Unleashed said...

What an utterly amazing book, one of those classic essays that I should have read a long time ago. Every woman should read this.

Amy said...

@Suzanne, I haven't read her diaries, but I will keep that in mind. Thanks!

@Blogging profits, I agree! I was actually going to start this post by saying, "Every self-respecting woman who likes literature should have this book on her shelf." Indeed.

Catherine said...

I read "A Room of One's Own" for a paper in high school, and I remember being really encouraged by it. I think going back again and reading post-college would be an even better experience!

I love the part you highlighted about not letting bitterness and hatred color our work. That's the missing piece in a lot of strong writing, I think.

Thanks for the review!

Amy said...

I appreciate the feedback! I think you would definitely enjoy re-reading this with a new perspective... I know I did!