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Virginia Woolf and ‘A Room of One’s Own’
Virginia Woolf published her extended six-chapter essay, A Room of One’s Own, in 1929, based on a series of lectures she had given the previous year at Girton and Newnham, both women’s colleges. in the University of Cambridge. By then, an established and respected novelist, the theme she explored was “Women and Fiction.” Published just ten years after women won the suffrage in Great Britain, the book is considered a forerunner of the voluminous feminist literary activity in the last years of the 20th century.
Despite lacking a formal academic background, Virginia Woolf was a well-read autodidact. She uses a narrative form of an imaginary young woman named Mary who gives any of the three surnames, researching the theme of “Women and Fiction”. He concludes that at least a woman needs “a room of her own” (lockable) and some money to live on (500 a year in Maria’s case). What she clearly says, after a careful historical analysis of the lives led by men and women in relation to each other in the past, and up to the day of their deliberations, is that the women are deprived of artistic and literary expression because of their economy. , personal and social subordination by men, and not for a lack of innate ability or talent.
The purpose of this essay is to analyze and comment on the authors’ extensive use of binary categories beginning with the central, historically charged categorization of the differences between men and women. Although two sets of binaries, reason/emotion, and fiction/fact, are explored in this essay, Woolf’s awareness of the complexities of apparent binary categories is much broader and will be examined more closely in the following paragraphs.
Although they do not seem to be “opposites” in nature, dualism seems to be deeply rooted in human language and thought. Binary opposites or polarization are not always logical opposites, but they are necessary for the language unit to have value and meaning. Following Saussurean structuralism, it is general that “binary opposition is one of the most important principles governing the structure of language”, while “paired contrasts” are not always “opposites”, in any exact sense, if he believes that they are necessary as a means of ordering the “dynamic complexity of experience.” Most linguists believe that “binary opposition is the child’s first logical operation.” Another powerful influence on binary thinking in the West was Descartes’ mind-body dualism.
Binary thinking is also hierarchical. One of the two terms is considered positive and the other negative. Religious thought cannot exist without the polarization of guilt and innocence. Structuralists believe that the world is organized into male/female constructs, roles, words and ideas. For example, masculinity (phallus) is associated with dominance and femininity (vagina) with passivity. Post-structuralists seek to deconstruct the entire edifice of binary thought, not allowing one to be inherently superior to the other, giving instances of the binary opposition that contradicts itself and undermines its own authority.
However, there is increasingly a consensus forming that such “antitheses” are aspects of a deeper unity and “all so-called opposites such as reason/emotion and spirit/substance are only “apparent” binary opposites ” (Forceville, 1996). Woolf’s essay, having used a plethora of binaries in its exposition, concludes with the acceptance of that “deeper unity” in its recognition of the “manwomanly” and “woman-manly” qualities in human nature.
Enough has been said about the fundamental meaning of binary thinking in the use of language until recent times that it is not surprising that Woolf’s essay is full of many cases of complexity between apparent binaries. Of course, the main concern when talking about “Women and Fiction” is to define and outline the subject. Woolf shows that this is not an easy matter. In the course of his investigations, reading books written by men about women, he discovers many “fictions” such as the insistence on the inferiority of women in all fronts. Such opinions are not based on “facts”. Woolf dramatizes the effect of discrimination and disempowerment of women by asking the reader to imagine an equally gifted sister of Shakespeare. Prevented from achieving any of her creative goals and ambitions, Judith Shakespeare commits suicide only after what women from time immemorial were expected and allowed to do, give birth.
Since Woolf’s lessons are given from a personal point of view and have no pretense of being academic, she implores her audience not to expect a neat conclusion. She uses a fictional device to present her argument based heavily on facts she gathered at the British Museum Library. At the university of Oxbridge, he visits, presumably by invitation, figures such as the Beadle, Fellows and Scholars that he presents almost casually in Chapter One again at the end, emphasizing their relevance to the narrative and its subject. She was prevented from trespassing on her “turf”, both literally and metaphorically. She was also not admitted to a library there because of her gender. She confronts and binary questions like illusion and truth. She also dichotomizes pre-war and post-war sensibilities. She describes the trees and the river in Oxbridge as vague and resigned at sunset, while they become glorious and expectant in the morning. She also tackles the binary qualities of “laughter” and “anguish.” His thought processes are clear and well articulated mainly because of his use of such binary signifiers.
The binary theme continues with her contrasting the sumptuous lunch given at a well-endowed male preserve in Oxbridge with the rather “poor” dinner meal at a female college. While gold and silver are said to be “buried” in the grand 500-year-old buildings patronized by kings and nobles, the women’s college built in the 1860s struggled to raise the first 30,000 .She contrasts the safety and prosperity of men with the poverty and insecurity of women throughout history reflected in every facet of their lives.
In Chapter Two, he deals with the binaries of interest and confusion, such as amusement versus boredom allied with the roles of masculinity and femininity. When she talks about the freedom from fear and bitterness that the legacy of Maria’s dead aunt gave her, she can also contrast that with the pity and tolerance (‘tolerance’) she feels for the woman from the their position of freedom. Reflecting on the culinary pleasures she enjoyed the previous day, she wonders why men drink wine while women drink water. She also contrasts two types of anger that she felt about Prof. von X’s perusal on “The mental, moral and physical inferiority of the female sex.” His anger at the treatment of women at first was a complex emotion of disgust, while later it turned into a “simple and open” anger that he could use constructively.
By the time she reaches Chapter Three, she has not discovered facts, but only opinions totally prejudicial to women (fiction). Now back to the historical (facts). It refers to Professor Trevelyan’s “History of England.” There is the abominable treatment of women by men during the Elizabethan times considered as the norm. Wife beating was a regular practice. Marriages were pre-arranged to suit men. In contrast, the women who were portrayed in literature possessed the personality and dignity denied to the ordinary middle-class woman. Women “burn like torches in the works of all poets since the beginning of time.” While women in literature such as Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Emma Bovary could be “heroic or mean”, “splendid or sordid”, “infinitely beautiful or terrible in the extreme”, the average woman was a nothing complete, hidden from view. . Binaries abound in this chapter as in “women are imaginatively of the highest importance” while “practically it was completely insignificant”.
When we get to Chapter Four, we find Lady Winchilsea’s struggle with poetry, with Aphra Behn having more success with her plays. This also supports Woolf’s intuitions about why and how women were denied free expression. Woolf first uses the word “incandescent” with which to describe the creative mind, as a quote from Lady Winchilsea. He needed his mind to “consume all impediments and become incandescent.” But unfortunately he was “vexed and distracted with hatred and lamentations.” Aphra Behn was the first woman in England to earn a living from her writing, although it is not said that her personal life was worthy of emulation. However, Behn paved the way for 18th century novelists such as the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and George Eliot. Describing them as well as in early nineteenth-century novels, Woolf speaks of their virtues in binary terms as swift and not neglected, expressive without being precious.
In Chapter Five Woolf introduces a representative contemporary female fiction writer she calls Mary Carmichael. This is an imaginary figure chosen to show what is lost in writing from a position of defense and protest. Woolf praises the fact that Carmichael is no longer self-conscious about being female in her imaginative writing. There are binaries such as “heavenly goodness” and “hellish depravity”, compared to the writing “serious, deep and bright” with others, “lazy-minded and conventional”. She advises contemporary writers to “illuminate your own soul with its depths and its lows, and its vanities and its bounties.” Although Carmichael’s fiction may be “pulped by the editor in ten years,” Woolf is convinced that his successors in “a hundred years” more will have achieved their full and glorious potential.
In Chapter Six Woolf describes a man and a woman approaching from opposite sides of the street. The setting is a London street seen by the author from his apartment window. They get into a taxi and get kicked out. For Woolf, this is a symbol of binaries coming together. The tension she had been going through for the past two days has eased, and she now has a vision of ‘oneness of mind’. As Coleridge had said, great minds are androgynous. The true creator is “incandescent” and “undivided.” Gender awareness gets in the way of creativity. She says that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think about his sex.” Finally he comes to the conclusion that good writing is born from a marriage of opposites. Gender, masculinity/femininity is no longer relevant. Honest, creative and lasting fiction arises from a mind that is uncluttered and can face the facts.
Virginia Woolf engaged in an in-depth examination of many binary concepts including masculinity/femininity, reason/emotions, and fact/fiction in her seemingly extended essay on women and fiction. This brief analysis reveals that she has come to the conclusion that it is the androgynous mind, which is “naturally creative, incandescent and undivided” that can arrive at “truth” by “uniting many varieties of error.” His understanding of the vagaries and complexities of binary thinking reflected in this book shows that he was one of the pioneering and formative minds of his time.
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