Questions for Discussion on A Room of One's Own

Updated July 14, 1997
Created July 14, 1997

1. See Quotation 1: On Narrative Voice

Critics have often remarked on the way Woolf plays with narrative voice in Room, her disclaiming of the "I" in favor of the voice of the three "Mary’s." What is the effect of this displacement of the "normal" narrative voice, the presumed omniscient narrator? Do you agree with Marcus that Woolf uses it to create a "triologue" (speaker-listener-reader)? What is the effect at the end of Chapter 6, when Woolf switches to "my own person"? Why is the identity of the voice itself "not a matter of any importance" (5)?

Identify each of the Mary’s in the text (see outline for help). Then consider the un-named Mary, Mary Hamilton, who is the narrator of the Scottish ballad from which Woolf takes the names of the three Mary’s she does name. In the ballad, Mary Hamilton is to be hanged the next day. Marcus claims that Mary Hamilton is an underlying voice of Room. Woolf’s readers would definitely have been familiar with the ballad. What difference does it make to know about the three Mary’s?

        From the Scottish Ballad of Mary Hamilton

          "Yestreen Queen Mary [queen of Scots] had four Maries,
           This night she’l hae but three;
           She had Mary Seaton, and Mary Beaton,
           And Mary Carmichael, and me."

2. See Quotations 2-4. The critics who consider Woolf "too sensible to be a thorough-going feminist" (Sackville-West review) might draw attention to Woolf’s attention to the plight of men in patriarchy, as in the quotation about "how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in. . . ." (Chapter 1, 24). Is this a case of Woolf a) appeasing male readers, b) making men into "the other," c) making the argument more complex [e.g., the conditions of men and women are not symmetrical, one cannot just reverse the positions), d) something else? Look for other quotation that support your view (e.g., quotation 3 seems to support position b).

3. See Quotations 5-8. In a letter to her friend Ethel Smyth, Woolf wrote : "I believe unconsciousness, and complete anonymity to be the only conditions . . . in which I can write. Not to be aware of oneself." (Letters 5: 239) Consider the relation of anonymity to Woolf’s arguments about androgyny in art. How do you reconcile her arguments for anonymity and androgyny with her statements about a woman’s "sentence" (76-77) and the need to "think back through our mothers" (quotation 8)?

4. Jane Marcus in "Sapphistry" (see annotated bibliography) reads Room in relation to the obscenity trial against Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Woolf and others had written letters in support of Hall in Sept. 1928 which was being tried when Woolf wrote Room. Marcus identifies Judith Shakespeare with Radcylffe Hall herself (who was actually descended from Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna Hall) as the symbol of the oppressed woman artist, and Room’s fictional narrator (whom she identifies as Mary Hamilton, rather than Mary Beton, Seton, or Carmichael) with Mary Llewelyn (the lover of Hall’s main character, Stephen Gordon, a woman trapped in man’s body). What do you make of this "still practice"? What difference does it make to think of Woolf’s narrators in this way?

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