A Room of One’s Own: Seeing and Being Seen

Cover of A Room of One's Own

A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf



Late again!  It seems even reading A Storm of Swords was enough to let me catch up with myself. I’m a slow writer and a fast reader, and I attended ALA last week, which certainly inhibited the blogging (but had many other virtues, indeed).

I’ve read A Room of One’s Own before, and I’ve always admired it, but it’s one of those books that it’s difficult for me to say anything about.  Woolf is so… mellifluous, reasonable, and at the same time bases her argument so firmly in the contingent and subjective that it’s difficult to break in with questions and answers and thoughts.  I don’t feel like I have much to say about the androgynous mind (I feel the same ambivalence as many; that it’s great to value things that have otherwise been dismissed as feminine but kind of essentializing the way that she does it).  So I’m just going to kind of point at something that has some resonance for me.  I’m overquoting here and rambling quite a bit, yes. I hope it makes some sense anyway. As I say, it’s always been difficult for me to write about Woolf.

Woolf (or her literary avatar) spends some time in the library attempting to address the subject of Women and Fiction.  As she does this, it becomes very clear that Women And is an extremely popular subject—it’s definitely not Gender And and there is certainly never any hint of Men And! Rather, she finds the figure of Woman (Woolf at some point begins abbreviating to simply “W”) emerging as a topic of discussion—which is obviously very different from considering the contributions of women as people.  She includes a long list of pseudo-subject headings to illustrate this point, ending with something of a crescendo:

  •                 Shakespeare’s opinion of
  •                 Lord Birkenhead’s opinion of
  •                 Dean Inge’s opinion of
  •                 Dr. Johnson’s opinion of
  •                Mr. Oscar Browning’s opinion of

…And you begin wondering, as those who set up this system and wrote all these books never did, what do women think of them?

She goes on:

Here I drew breath and added, indeed, in the margin, Why does Samuel Butler say, “Wise men never say what they think of women?” Wise men never think of anything else apparently. But, I continued, leaning back in my chair and looking at the vast dome in which I was now a single but somewhat harassed thought, what is so unfortunate is that wise men never think the same think about women. … Are they capable of education or incapable? … Have they souls or have they not souls? … Some sages hold that they are shallower in the brain; others that they are deeper in the consciousness. … Wherever one looked, men thought about women and thought differently.

She mentions many male writers and their various thoughts and pontifications concerning The Nature of Woman.  This is really about the male gaze, insofar as it uncovers the tendency of literature to frame women as objects to be defined and described by men, while it doesn’t account for either how women themselves see the world or any such definition of men. She’s certainly not the only person to have said so. But one of the things that makes Woolf so simultaneously fun to read and difficult to respond to is that instead of clearly establishing a theory and holding forth on what it all means, she tells a circuitous story and leads you toward it but never quite pulls all the pieces neatly together.

She does, however, give some space to female responses to the male gaze.  There is her own unflattering sketch of “Professor von X” who represents all the authors above, and her casual psychologizing of him, which she admits is rooted in resentment:

Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them? Yes, said the sketch, anger had. It referred me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral, and physical inferiority of women. … One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man—I looked at the student next to me—who breathes hard, wears a ready-made tie, and has not shaved this fortnight. One has certain foolish vanities.

Her judgment of the professor (and this is synecdoche; “the professor” is not a single person here), at least in the context of her story, are made as a sketch, hastily scribbled over, in a personal notebook that nobody will ever see, while the professor’s judgment of women are published in a book which is available in the British Museum next to hundreds on the same topic.

Of course, the sketch has a double life, as it’s also part of this essay which is now a fairly canonical part of British literature.  So there’s that.

Woolf also takes a moment to point out how such criticisms are received when they are made public:

Does it explain my astonishment the other day when Z, most humane, most modest of men, taking up some book by Rebecca West and reading a passage in it, exclaimed “The arrant feminist! She says that men are snobs!” The exclamation, to me so surprising—for why was Miss West an arrant feminist for making a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement about the other sex?—was not merely the cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself.

So… you have Napoleon and Dr. Johnson arguing in a scholarly way about whether women are capable of education, but for Rebecca West to say that men are snobs is totally unacceptable. Woolf does theorize a little about this, to the effect that the role of women has been to make men feel more important (she writes, “they say to themselves as they go into the room, I am the superior of half the people here, and it is thus that they speak with that self-confidence, that self-assurance, which have had such profound consequences in public life and lead to such curious notes in the margin of the private mind.”)

Woolf praises Jane Austen’s sentences, but I wonder if Austen is also important to Woolf because in her books, women think about men and form their own opinions.  Pride and Prejudice is a book about Elizabeth’s often inaccurate snap judgments and how her mind is changed over time; Darcy and Wickham are seen through her eyes and her opinions of them are very important.  So this is part of the equation.

The other part shows up late in the book, which Woolf expresses her astonishment at a fictional novel in which Chloe likes Olivia, and Woolf underlines it:

[I] read how Chloe watched Olivia put a jar on the shelf and say how it was time to go home to her children. That is a sight that has never been seen since the world began, I exclaimed.  And I watched too, very curiously. For I wanted to see how Mary Carmichael set to work to catch those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex. … [N]ote… what happens when Olivia—this organism that has been under the shadow of the rock these million years—feels the light fall on it, and sees coming her way a piece of strange food—knowledge, adventure, art.

Is she overstating her case here? I’m not sure that this is really a sight that had never been seen before, but certainly this paragraph makes it impossible not to realize what is missed when literature is dominated by male authors and the genres and stock characters that have been developed in patriarchal societies.  It’s about the perspective and the missed opportunities, not necessarily the écriture féminine.


Filed under Literary thoughts

2 responses to “A Room of One’s Own: Seeing and Being Seen

  1. Wow, fantastic review! I think you are right that she is hard to respond to because she never really puts the pieces together. But I kind of really love that, that she can trust the readers to do that themselves. Loved all the points you picked out and made!

  2. Thanks! It was kind of a struggle to write.
    I love that too; it feels more conversational and thoughtful than recognizably didactic, like she’s thinking through things and inviting the reader to do the same. But yes, it makes it a little difficult to figure out where to respond.

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