The Burden and Blessing of Privilege in Woolf's "A Room of One's Own"

"She thinks she has no soul, no interior life, but the truth is that she has no access to it." -David Denby

“A Room of One’s Own”, by Virginia Woolf, is replete with thoughts on interiority. As Woolf reflects on the lives of women and men, she invites us to reflect on the cloistered privilege of men: “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in[…]” (Woolf 24). On the heels of the frustration of being turned away from the Oxbridge library, the thought seems strange, initially. A closer look at the text, however, reveals that Woolf is ruminating on a patriarchal structure in which the men are locked, literally and metaphorically - a structure that is not steadfastly beneficial to men, as it creates anxieties, distortions of viewpoint, and an angry dread of usurpation of power and wealth. This situation of men, Woolf theorizes, is perhaps worse than that of the excluded women who are, in a very important sense, free to move about in and out of their own minds, thinking beyond their own experience, and exploring rational thought with the abandon of one who has little to lose.

The juxtaposition of freedom against restriction is beautifully communicated by Woolf through a series of images involving Oxbridge and the British Museum (monuments to patriarchy), and Fernham, a women’s college with, for all its lack of steadfast tradition and monumentality, a vitality and openness very unlike the “…huge, bald forehead…” that is the British Museum (26). The repeated likening of the museum and Oxbridge to a “vast dome” serves metaphorically as a reference to the collective interiority that characterizes the patriarchal institutions in which the men are locked - securely locked into their insecurity: “Innumerable beadles were fitting innumerable keys into well-oiled locks; the treasure-house was being made secure for another night” (13). Conversely, Fernham is a place of unlocked doors and the appropriate measure of pleasant idleness in the fresh air. Idleness, traditionally viewed as a moral vice (most especially as it pertains to women) is turned on its head by Woolf when she proclaims, “…it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top” (31). When Fernham is described, we find it “…wild and open…” - decorated with “…daffodils and bluebells…” and with “[s]omebody in a hammock….” (17). This luxury of access to oneself, as if our thoughts were worth accessing and nurturing, is a pervasive theme in Woolf’s thoughts on women’s writing.

While the ultimate expression of this feminine freedom and potential requires, according to Woolf, “500 £ a year and a room of one’s own”, she conveys a greater sense of optimism for the advancement of women than, say, the likelihood that the rule of patriarchy will be voluntarily relinquished by the angry, male possessors: “Logically they [women] will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shop woman will drive an engine.” (40). In contrast, the outlook for men is described in more dire terms. “True, they had money and power, but only at the cost of harbouring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, for ever tearing the liver out and plucking the lungs - the instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and goods perpetually […]” (38). The words for ever and perpetually refer to patriarchy in perpetuity, rendering men embroiled in a system which offers them no relief from their own privilege. Woolf is able to think creatively about the present and likely future situation of men in a way that eventually leads her to think, “…as I realized these drawbacks, by degrees fear and bitterness modified themselves into pity and toleration…and the greatest release of all came, which is the freedom to think of things in themselves” (39). Unlike the men, who think and write about women through the lens of intense insecurity, Woolf is free to find the “essential oil of truth” regarding men, women, society, and literature precisely because she can think of things in themselves (27). The very structure of “A Room of One’s Own”, beginning en media res and darting in and out of stream of consciousness, flaunts this freedom from convention and celebrates a clarity of thought, an incandescence that presents the potential interiority of woman at its clearest and best.

Woolf’s reflection on interiority, privilege, and opportunity transcends wistful hope for a better future than women. To say that Woolf hoped for better days, or that men were unlikely to discover better days for themselves because of self-imposed social structure, is to miss the real value of these reflections in Woolf’s writing, which is something more significant than future hope or rational, critical thought on the present. Woolf’s musings serve at once as empirical evidence of the literary power of women and as the debunker of the myth that men possess every advantage. Where men have a literary tradition and their monuments to themselves, they also have the attendent “fixity” that restricts and immobilizes (38). While women do not have a literary tradition upon which to draw, they have insight into relationships and their own interiority that facilitates the writing of novels. But Woolf’s thoughts on privilege and interiority are more than a checklist of which sex possesses what advantages and disadvantages; rather, these thoughts are explored as a means of instructing and educating women about the pitfalls of authorship which can and should be avoided.

This luxury of access to oneself, as if our thoughts were worth accessing and nurturing, is a pervasive theme in Woolf’s thoughts on women’s writing.

In Chapter four of “A Room of One’s Own”, Woolf takes to task Charlotte Brontë for being distracted by anger and bitterness, saying that “[s]he left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance” (72). Just as men sacrificed the ability to find truth to the rantings spawned from insecurity, so too Brontë gave way to fear, says Woolf, to the detriment of her writing. When I think of self-consciousness and/or defensiveness as a barrier to creativity and expression, I cannot help but think of acting. When learning the craft of acting there is much discussion about “truth” - truthful moments, acting truthfully, giving the truth to the audience. In acting, presenting the truth to the audience involves much more than emotion. The actor must ask questions and find the truthful answers about a character. Work must be done. When the actor is certain about a character, the audience will be too. We are, as writers, to be concerned about our characters (our own and those we create) to the exclusion of all else. This is tremendously challenging. Cultural sound bytes, personal demons and, to our shame, even the success of others crouch in the corners of our minds when we try to express ourselves. I’m not doing this right. Someone else could do this better. I should be doing something more productive right now. This is silly. How to shut these discouragements off? How do we find the courage to say what we really mean? By doing it with or without the courage and discovering, to our amazement, that the world will not fall in around us if we fail, or if someone suggests we’ve failed. Woolf was criticized, but look at what she managed to do for women! She told the truth and was believed.

While Woolf seems ambivalent on some issues, such as writing androgynously versus writing as a woman, there is no such ambivalence regarding truth in “A Room of One’s Own”. She is clear that truth is essential to literary success and that it is often our insecurities that sink our efforts. This situation is not unique to women. Woolf writes “Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others” (56). Later, regarding the unsuccessful novels of women she says, “It was the flaw in the centre that had rotted them. She [Brontë] had altered her values in deference to the opinions of others” (73). This kind of voluntary, self-inflicted restriction must be thrown off if we are to succeed.

At nearly forty-five years of age I have finally thrown off most (not all) of the restrictions I have embraced most of my life. At nineteen years of age I did not have the courage to finish college, take the stage, write what I really thought, or accept criticism without crumbling under the weight of it. I spent years suffering for my lack of courage and self-possession. Now, perhaps with more reason than ever to feel awkward doing these things that I wished I’d done when I was younger (Everyone around me is so young! What kind of role could I play on a university stage? My political views are not the same as my instructor! I should be quiet. This backpack looks ridiculous on me…I’m sure of it), I am able to acknowledge these insecurities, see them as the lies they are, and discard them. Years ago, while I was pursuing the safety and anonymity of marriage, my nineteen-year-old peers were reading Woolf. I’m glad they did. Now I attend college with their smart, strong, dynamic daughters who will advance a female tradition that I hope we never allow to lock us in…or out.

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia, and Susan Gubar. A Room of One's Own. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005. Print.

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