Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Room of One's Own

            Today, let’s talk about the big, bad Virginia Woolf.  Woolf graced the world with her presence in 1882 and graced the literary community with her first published work in 1990. She couldn’t vote, but she could certainly write. Much of her work touts the *radical* notion that women can do things well. The catch? Women’s limited resources inhibit their intellectual potential.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf argues that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf, 6). The extended essay comes from lectures she gave to women’s colleges in 1928. It explores the conditions required to produce a creative work and emphasizes the necessity of literal space and privacy, which women simply did not have at the time. She invents the fictional sister of Shakespeare—Judith. Judith might have the same skills and ambitions as her sibling, but because she has meals to cook, children to raise, and shelves to dust, she is forced to squash her imaginative spirit. William is over here whipping out sonnets on the regular, and all she can do is call him Bill behind his back to belittle him. She laments her wasted talent so much that she kills herself.

Of course, the gender dynamics of the sixteenth century differ from that of her own generation. In the early 1900s, there were some—though, not many—female writers. But even then, a woman had a pickaxe in her hand instead of a pen (Woolf, 80). Her writing served as a therapeutic exercise in which to (rightfully) bitch (however unconsciously) about her inferior position in society. She wasn’t creating art with unperturbed vigor; she was constantly grinding against a strong patriarchal current that guffawed at her attempts. To highlight the prevailing sexist mentality, Woolf smugly quotes a contemporaneous male preacher, who said, “‘A woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all’” (Woolf, 56). Actually, sir, there are some that do it quite well: 

Woolf also observes the strange contradiction between the way females are depicted in literature (by male authors) and the way they’re considered in real life. Poets prattle on about the magic splendor of women. If that’s how men really feel, then it’s nonsensical that “the spirit of life and beauty [is left] in a kitchen chopping up suet” (Woolf, 45). A male chopping his own suet?! The horror. [What is suet, and is it the same as the System of a Down song "Chop Suey"?]

I find Woolf’s perspective particularly interesting because she has her own room and she has money—her aunt died and left her the big bucks. These opportunities provide her clarity of mind in such a drastic way that she can’t deny their importance. It’s nice when someone gets ahead in life and doesn’t forget about the little people. Even more curious is the fact that Virginia Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder, which contributed to her suicide by drowning. Might I point out the irony of The New Yorker’s recent article “The Bath: A Polemic”**, which was originally shared on Facebook with the caption “There’s a reason Virginia Woolf insisted on a room of one’s own, and not a bubble bath”? Perhaps there’s more than one reason why Woolf isn’t associated with bubble baths? Might I also point out that the article is pretty stupid/useless?

Drowning jokes aside, I think that this woman is excellent. She says things like “we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex” and she lights a fire in my soul that’s grounded in tangible frustration (Woolf, 22). Her brilliance is timeless because she attacks the root of the problem: people who are at a disadvantage culturally and financially have physical and spiritual barriers that prevent them from entering a mental space that allows for pure creativity. Because this situation disproportionately affects women, where does that leave us? Her lectures culminate in an inspirational urge to move forward. She encourages listeners to write despite circumstance, but also strive to speak out against those circumstances and thereby incite social progress.

The essay is relatively short (my copy is 112 pages). I think that it should be mandatory reading in high school; understanding how populations are deprived is hugely essential to interacting with them in a non-douchey way. Additionally, Woolf knows how to slip humor into her writing, and I respect any author who can simultaneously speak about a serious subject with deference and interweave an appropriate light heartedness. Woolf’s impressive and sensitive dexterity make A Room of One’s Own four out of five humps. I’m docking her one hump because I don’t agree with everything she says. I appreciate that she starts a much-needed conversation about a subject that’s not easily definable—creative poverty—but I don’t necessarily think that it’s inextricably linked to financial poverty. I think that Woolf wrote what she wrote with an enlightened perspective of her time. That perspective can help us today as a launch pad, but I think that it’s imprudent to view it as the end-all-be-all feminist doctrine.

*Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: The Fountain Press, 1929. Print.

**Klein, Jessi. “The Bath: A Polemic." The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 23 May 2016. Web. 25 May 2016.

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