“A Room of Their Own, at Last” – ENG 575 Final Paper

This is a very short series I’m going to do (only three posts) featuring my final papers from my Spring 2017 semester of graduate school. This particular paper was written for a Gender & Sexuality class. I ended up receiving an 88% on this paper, and the reasons I was given an 88% are particularly valid. It’s not a great paper. It’s a decent paper. I could stand to do a lot of work on it (and I might one day).

You can tell towards the end of the paper I begin to ramble. There are a few loose threads that I never tie up, because I sincerely thought the paper was supposed to be 15+ pages long. Imagine my relief (and also disgust with myself) when I discovered it was only supposed to be 12+ pages. (I ended up with 15 anyway.) I know there’s some sort of an idea here, so maybe one day I will go back and look at it again. For right now, I’m just glad to be done.

Read the entire paper after the jump (so this post doesn’t get too long and bogged down). If you have any suggestions as to how to improve it, please let me know! As far as sources used, I highly recommend reading any of Audre Lorde’s essays. I discovered her via her book Sister Outsider that my professor recommended, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading her essays in the book. While I’m not a fan of poetry, I’m certainly a fan of good writing.

The point behind this essay was me attempting to synthesize the idea of “A Room of One’s Own” (from Virginia Woolf’s exactly-titled essay) across three different works we read, Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and The Office, also by Alice Munro. I looked at the three characters and how they related to the world around them and went from there. If I had a digital copy of the assignment sheet, I would post that (alas, I do not, and I have already recycled my paper copy).

All right. Without further ado, hit the jump and read away!

Lauren Roland

Dr. Wurzbacher

1 May 2017

“A Room of Their Own, At Last”

Every decade has its own stereotype they apply to women, whether it be the “stay-at-home-mom” trope or the “flapper-girls-are-hussies” mindset. However, there are often stereotypes that span across the decades, and are even still in the front of peoples’ minds today. One of the most common ones is that a woman must never be “different,” lest they turn away potential suitors or be deemed “too strange” for the town. There are several women — both writers and artists — who fall into that category of “different:” Del from Lives of Girls and Women, the unnamed narrator from “The Office,” and Lily Briscoe from To The Lighthouse, all deal with the stigma of being labelled as “different.” It is through the way these characters differ from others in society that allows them to create the agency they need to be themselves. Each of these characters could benefit from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf says the only way for a woman to complete her writing is to acquire a room of their very own, so they are not disturbed.

What, exactly, does “being different” mean? Merriam-Webster defines “different” as “being not of the same kind,” and “not the same or shared” (Merriam-Webster). For the women in the aforementioned books, then, being “different” means going against the grain, peeling off from what is considered “normal” for a woman to think and do during the time of their stories. At the same time, Audre Lorde gives a definition of difference in her essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference:”

“Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ […] It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power resides within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identity one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression” (“Age” 116).

Lorde’s description of this mythical norm is relevant to how Del sees herself in The Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro. Del not only sees her mother as different (“Women like my mother were in the minority”), but herself as well: “I myself was not so different from my mother, but concealed it, knowing what dangers there were” (Lives 198, 91). The only thing Del learns from her mother is that she must hide who she truly is on the inside, otherwise she will be singled out and ridiculed behind her back for the rest of her life, just as her mother has been ostracized in their small community of Jubilee. Del starts attempting to subvert her mother from an early age by lying about having stage fright when presenting the encyclopedias. Her mother can see right through this, however, and says, “You want to hide your brains under a bushel out of pure perversity, but that’s not my lookout. […] You just do as you please” (Lives 76). Del sees being smart as something else she needs to hide, something that her mother is not fond of, seeing as her mother knows Del is intelligent. Del constantly compares her mother to others, even inadvertently — for example, at one point Del describes her mother as having “a loudly growling stomach, whose messages she laughed at or ignored, but which embarrassed me greatly,” which at first does not make sense as to why Del is so against her mother’s stomach making noises (Lives 90). After all, everyone has digestive issues sometimes. Her mother’s stomach is later juxtaposed with Del’s Uncle Bill’s stomach — which made “dignified, necessary digestive noises” — and we see that Del has been raised to see her mother’s stomach as unladylike, as women are to be seen and not heard, and just by having her body do normal bodily things, Del’s mother has found another way to separate herself from the others in the town and in her own family (Lives 100).

Del’s subversion of her mother — as well as her decision to hide her true self — comes under the banner of Lorde’s mythical norm. Lorde says, “As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change” (“Master’s” 112). It becomes clear in the story Baptizing that the characters in the town of Jubilee view differences as a cause for separation. Del talks of her friend Naomi and how she begins to do “what it seemed all these girls did, until they got married. She went around to various stores and had them put things away for her, which she would pay for at so much a month. […] This was all for when she would get married and start housekeeping” (Lives 199). Del sees herself as different from that mythical norm in this respect, as she is still in school and not at all planning on getting married or keeping a household any time soon. She isolates the other women and girls from herself by saying all these girls, putting herself in an entirely different category. It is interesting that it is not always the men who keep these tabs of separation between Del and her mother and the rest of the town, but rather the women themselves. After all, Del is the one who is separating herself from the other girls her age, while it is her mother who isolates herself from the town women, calling them “silly and snobbish” (Lives 82). In both cases, it is the ones who consider themselves to be outsiders who define what is normal and what is different, although in Del’s mother’s case, she does have additional people backing her up. Del describes how her Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace talk cruelly behind her mother’s back, and how her mother “would never have understood how she needed shielding, from two old ladies with their mild bewildering humor, their tender properties” (Lives 72). Even though family is supposed to back you up, Del’s aunts are decidedly two-faced, helping out Del’s mother to her face (such as is the case with the dinner party Del’s mother throws and nobody reciprocates) but complaining to Del about her behavior behind her back. Lorde is not pleased with this; as she says,

“As women, we must root out internalized patterns of oppression within ourselves if we are to move beyond the most superficial aspects of social change. Now we must recognize differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each others’ difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles” (“Age” 122).

The town of Jubilee has divided itself into class systems, which Del ends up in inadvertently contributing to at the end of the novel, when she encounters Bobby Sherriff and realizes what an asshole she has been the entire time. It is not her place to judge the people of the town, but rather her place to figure out how to survive in the town. She has isolated herself socially by choice, but she does not see that as empowering, even though it allows her to do things that the other girls in the town would never be able to do. For example, while Naomi is working a receptionist job and having sex and being required to have a shotgun wedding, Del is working on her college entrance exams, desperately hoping for the scholarship that would carry her away from Jubilee (Lives 272). Del ends up getting out of Jubilee in the end, something none of the other girls in her class are able to do. Only the social outcasts — Fern, for one — are able to leave Jubilee.

Although Del is a writer, her writing is rarely dealt with in the book directly. It is mentioned briefly in the second chapter, but the majority of the set of short stories is focused on Del’s relationship with her mother and the other people in her town. After her Uncle Craig dies in “Heirs of the Living Body,” her aunts give Del a box of his old papers, telling her that she should finish it and “Maybe you could learn to copy his way” (Lives 70). Never mind that Del is her own person; the only way she could possibly complete Uncle Craig’s manuscript — despite the fact the aunts thought “about giving it to Owen, because he’s the boy” and only gave it to Del because she is “the one has the knack for writing compositions” — is to lose her own voice and write in the voice of a man (Lives 70). Uncle Craig’s manuscript is destroyed in a flood years later, and Del only has this to say: “I felt remorse, that kind of tender remorse which has on its other side a brutal, unblemished satisfaction” (Lives 71). The only way Del believes she can acquire a room of her own is to get of of Jubilee, which she manages to do at the end of the novel. The reader has no idea what happens to her after that, only that she has left. We are not given any word on whether she has passed the examinations or not. However, Del did not have to run as far as she did. Had she only accepted the differences handed to her, realized that she was getting a much better bargain by going to college and not getting married to someone she may or may not hate simply because she was pregnant with his child, she could have accepted the otherness that made her who she was.

In Alice Munro’s short story “The Office,” a woman attempts to rent a room of her own, to use Virginia Woolf’s term, in order to finally get some writing done. What she does not expect, however, is the incredible resistance and distrust from her landlord. Since she is a woman, her sole responsibility in life should be to take care of her husband and raise her children and be happy about it. The main character is the only one who directly takes Virginia Woolf’s advice to heart: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved” (Room 4). There is a problem with this thought, however, and that is the problem of the mother: what can mothers do in order to get away from their children and write? While a father is a man who works, who can leave his work at the office and come home and relax, a mother is a woman who (usually, but not always) works in the home, and her work is always with her, tagging along on her apron-strings or helping weed the flowerbed by pulling up the flowers. There is no place for a woman to be alone in her house because her work and her “home life,” so to speak, are so intimately connected. This is why the narrator in “The Office” decides to rent a room to write in: “Imagine (I said) a mother shutting her door, and the children knowing she is behind it; why, the very thought of it is outrageous to them. […] A house is not the same for a woman. […] She is the house; there is no separation possible” (“Office” 1). Her husband grants her request, although it is clear that he sees it as only a passing fantasy and that she will soon be back. She is, but not because it was a fleeting idea: it was due to her sexist and overbearing mansplaining landlord.

It is peculiar that the narrator of this story is never given a name. A name implies agency, and as the story continues it is very clear that the woman, while she does obtain the appearance of agency, never actually obtains agency in the story at all. She ends up right back where she started: stuck at home with the children with no possibility of escape. The longer the woman rents the office, the more overbearing her landlord becomes. Eventually, it ends up with him sneaking into her office after she is gone for the day, reading what she has written, and then questioning her with, “You claim to be a writer. Well I read quite a bit of material, and I never have seen your name in print. Now maybe you write under some other name?” (“Office” 8). Not only has Mr. Malley been invading her private space and reading her writing without permission, but he is also dismissing her entirely. Even though she may not yet be published, that does not mean she is not a writer. To be a writer, all one has to do is write — or at least, that is the qualifications for a male writer. Women writers are much different: “The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” (Room 54). Simply by being female, the narrator has to justify herself and her writing to her office landlord because he does not believe she could possibly be a woman writer.

In fact, Mr. Malley declares that she is everything but a woman writer. He accuses the narrator of being a prostitute, and the narrator wonders if Mr. Malley bothered the previous (male) tenant this much. He also makes it impossible to embrace the social “otherness” that women writers need. Female writers need to be able to embrace that “otherness” in order to figure out what makes them tick. They cannot rely on society for everything, as Del’s mother found out in Lives of Girls and Women. If they do, they are only setting themselves up for disappointment. By removing the narrator’s ability to accept her otherness, Mr. Malley causes much anger on the narrator’s part. She constantly refers to her anger when she is disrupted by him. Woolf would call this a bad move on the narrator’s part. She refers to books “written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth,” which made what the books were saying less believable (Room 33). If someone writes in anger, particularly if that someone is a woman, people are less inclined to listen to them. After all, if there was a choice between listening to someone scream at you or listening to someone talk calmly and rationally with you, you would usually go with the second choice.

Mr. Malley is what society today would call a “nice guy.” At first glance, he appears to only have good intentions for someone, in this case our narrator. It starts off with small things, like undermining their choices: “What you want is a nice easy chair to sit in” and “A woman wants things a bit cosier” (“Office” 4). This would also be called “mansplaining,” where a male believes he knows more about a subject than a female does, and takes care to explain exactly why he knows things better in what is usually very simple terms. The problem with mansplaining is that most men who do it are talking down to the woman and telling her things she already knows. For example, one only has to turn to the internet to see men mansplaining periods and claiming “they’re not that bad because you can do this to relieve cramps,” despite the fact that a dozen women will comment back at him that not everybody is the same. Mr. Malley’s mansplaining about how the narrator really feels is obnoxious and rude. He is projecting his own thoughts about how a woman should live onto her and not listening to anything she says in response. He gets her a house plant to “brighten things up” for her, and she tells the reader “I hate house plants” (“Office” 5). She does not say this out loud, and instead reluctantly accepts his gift. This is what sets Mr. Malley off on a series of downright-creepy gestures. He begins showing up at her rental space at all hours of the day, not realizing (or willfully ignoring) that she rented the space in order to be fully alone. He gives her a teapot, despite her telling him that she only drinks coffee, and he tells her “tea was better for the nerves and that he had known right away I was a nervous person” (“Office” 6). This moves beyond just invading her space and has moved into invading her body. While he does not actually touch her, he does give unsolicited advice on how she should treat herself, such as drinking tea instead of coffee for her make-believe anxiety. The only anxiety the narrator has is because of Mr. Malley’s constant barging in. When the narrator tells her husband, he simply tells her to tell Mr. Malley that she is busy. Which, as all women know, is not a real “excuse” for those “nice guys” who insist they would not dream of keeping you longer than you wanted. The narrator then tells the reader that she tells Mr. Malley that she is busy every time he comes over, but he would “[ease] himself through the door, he would not keep me a minute. And all the time, as I have said, he knew what was going on in my mind, how I weakly longed to be rid of him. He knew but could not afford to care” (“Office” 6-7).

The narrator’s problems extend beyond Mr. Malley, however, because not only can she not achieve social isolation, but she also does not embrace the term writer. She does not seem to see herself as such, despite the fact that she has followed Woolf’s advice on the subject as best as she could. The first thing you have to do to be a writer is to believe you are a writer; the second thing you have to do is write. At the end of the story, the narrator admits “I have not yet found another office. I think that I will try again some day, but not yet” (“Office” 10). She allows her search for freedom to be marred by one bad egg, Mr. Malley. She says “I have to wait at least until that picture fades that I see so clearly in my mind, though I never saw it in reality […] While I arrange words and think it is my right to be rid of him” (“Office” 10).

Lily Briscoe, star of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, is different from the other two situations discussed above. She is not a high school girl trying to figure out her way in the world, but she is also not a married woman trying to balance her home and private life. Rather, Lily is a thirty-three year old woman (forty-three, by the end of the novel) who does not have any serious relationships going, but Mrs. Ramsay is confident that Mr. Bankes will marry her. Lily, on the other hand, thinks, “For at any rate, she said to herself, catching sight of the salt cellar on the pattern, she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle” (Lighthouse 104). In this passage, Lily has been watching Mina and Mr. Ramsay interact, while at the same time pondering why her latest painting just is not working. She does not seem bothered by the idea that she might not get married one day. Despite Mrs. Ramsay’s interest in marrying her off, Lily does not seem to think very much of marrying Mr. Bankes — in fact, Mr. Ramsay later remarks to himself that nothing had ever come of it — and instead wanders from the idea of love to simply thinking about her latest painting. The casual mention of the painting at the end of the sentence shows just how little thought she has been giving to everything, and that her mind is entirely focused on her work.

When Lily is painting, she spends her time separated from everyone else in the group, usually up on a hill overlooking the rest of them. Once, Mr. Bankes watches her paint, but his criticism — “What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’? he asked. It was Mrs. Ramsay reading to James, she said. She knew his objection — that no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness” — sticks with her even a decade later:  “She remembered how William Bankes had been shocked by her neglect (in her painting) of the significance of mother and son. Did she not admire their beauty? he said” (Lighthouse 55, 179). Although Mrs. Ramsay appears to mean well, it is clear that Mr. Bankes and Lily Briscoe could not be a couple, for he does not understand her need to paint. She is not painting things in a clear manner, where the subjects are easily discernible, but she is painting in her own style, a different style, and Mr. Bankes cannot seem to understand that.

Lily’s major altercations, however, happen with Charles Tansley. Tansley would be the sort of man today who would “mansplain” thing to women in order to put them down and show that the women are not as smart as they think they are. Lily’s confrontations with Tansley appear throughout the first half of the novel, as Tansley does not appear to have come back to the lighthouse after the ten year gap. During a dinner in the first half of the novel, Lily is sitting next to Tansley, “the most uncharging human being she had ever met. Then why did she mind what he said? Women can’t write, women can’t paint — what did that matter coming from him, since clearly it was not true to him but for some reason helpful to him, and that was why he said it?” (Lighthouse 88). Even though Tansley has ever so graciously provided his commentary on a subject that nobody asked him about, Lily is simply refusing to acknowledge that anything he says is true. In this, it shows that even though Lily assumes Tansley to be arrogant, Lily herself is pretty self-important as well. These two young people are making their lives harder by claiming that they are original (Simons 7). Tansley believes his thoughts are original and that everybody should bow to him, while Lily sees herself as being important because she does not paint in the traditional way and she is not gaga over men like girls younger than her. Both Tansley and Lily appear to want the same thing, though: attention. Tansley wants it from everybody while Lily wants it mostly from Mrs. Ramsay (but will not say no if she gets it from Mr. Bankes, too). In an attempt to be social — or maybe just to antagonize Tansley further — Lily asks Tansley if he will take her to the lighthouse. She calls it a trick: “She had done the usual trick — been nice. She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that, she thought, and the worst (if it had not been for Mr. Bankes) were between men and women. Inevitably these were extremely insincere” (Lighthouse 95). It is unclear whether Lily sees this trick as something to gain male attention or whether it is a trick to irritate Charles Tansley further, but whatever she intended, all it does is make him wax on about the lighthouse.

Out of all these characters, none but Lily Briscoe seems to see accepting their “otherness” as being creatively liberating. Del has to leave town to get away from the stereotype she has attached to her there in association with her mother. She forever associates the town of Jubilee with being different, and she is not a fan of the way she is different. The unnamed narrator of “The Office” is trapped in an unhappy home life but cannot accept her “otherness” of being a writer enough for her to go out and create a new life — or at least a life away from the children — for herself, as it would be unacceptable. She has been too scared (or too scarred?) by Mr. Malley to attempt anything, at least for a while. The tone at the end of the story suggests that she will never look for another place to write because it marks her as being too different. Lily, on the other hand, sees her creative difference as something to embrace. It takes her a while — ten years, to be precise — but she ends up painting her picture of Mrs. Ramsay long after Mrs. Ramsay has died. She accepts that she is not going to marry. She is okay with differing from that “mythical norm.” This is something Woolf does not talk about in A Room of One’s Own: embracing your “otherness.” Sometimes, you do have to accept that you are weird. Once you manage to do that, life usually gets a little better. You are no longer worrying about what others are thinking of you, because you are confident in who you are. It is freeing. Lorde sums this up well: “But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist” (“Master’s” 112). If people start assimilating into society, they are going to lose what makes them special and unique in the first place. It is one thing to forget that one is a unique individual with their own tastes and ideas of how lives work, but it is another thing entirely to be the loud and proud “spescheul sneauxflayke” that makes their differences the only thing they are.

While all of these stories were written decades ago — Lives of Girls and Women being published in 1971, “The Office” in 1968, and To The Lighthouse in 1927 — the problems they bring up are still being dealt with today. Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” was published in 1979, and “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” was first delivered as a speech in 1980. People are still writing about these subjects today. There is still a gender gap between male and female writers, as exemplified in “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink” by Francine Prose, who discusses the lack of reviews of women’s books in publications such as the New York Review of Books, and it was written in 1998. She talks about how “the statistics outdo one’s grisliest paranoias” (“Scent”). It is not often that one uses the word “grisly” when talking about writing book reviews. She goes on to say “It’s not at all clear what it means to write ‘like a man’ or ‘like a woman,’ but perhaps it’s still taken for granted […] that men write like men and women like women — or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important — anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise” (“Scent”). It has been proven through several experiments (though perhaps not all that scientific) that it is very biased to assume that women write a specific way and that men write a different way. Often it is very difficult to pick out the differences. In fact, Prose goes back and writes a 2011 commentary on her original article, titling this one “On Women Writers and V. S. Naipaul,” which only serves to further the fact that things have not changed much since Virginia Woolf first published A Room of One’s Own in 1929. While a man can publish something new and experimental, a woman will be called names and ignored if she attempts to do the same thing. There is a reason James Joyce is considered a genius for Ulysses. The example Prose uses is that of author V. S. Naipaul, who “claimed no woman was his equal and that he too could instantly sniff out that telltale estrogenic ink” (“Women Writers”). The original piece was written in 1998, remember, and Prose assumed it would be universally accepted that it is unacceptable to talk about women writers as being others by now. She was proven wrong with Naipaul. She continues with, “Of course, the idea that Naipaul imagines he is a better writer than Jane Austen would be simply hilarious if the prejudice it reveals weren’t still so common and didn’t have such a damaging effect on what some of us have chosen to do with our lives” (“Women Writers”). The more women writers are put down, the harder it is to find people to review their books. The fewer reviews their books receive, the fewer books they typically sell. The fewer books they sell, the less money they make — and then they are brought back to that vicious cycle of having to find a place and a time to write in between making money at another job. Then they are ridiculed for not having anything published, such as Mr. Malley does to the unnamed narrator in “The Office.”

The world has not been kind to women writers (or artists, actors, and other creative types), but there is still a way to change that.

“Too often, we pour the energy need­ed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences are insurmountable barriers, or that they do not exist at all. This results in a voluntary isolation, or false and treacherous connections. Either way, we do not develop tools for using human difference as a springboard for creative change within our lives” (“Age” 115).

Lorde’s description of difference is a telling one. It is telling how we need to recognize and understand the differences between “us” and “them.” There is so much that the world can still change, and it is up to us to start that change and give women a room of their own.

Works Cited

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007. 114-23. Print.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007. 110-13. Print.

Munro, Alice. Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Vintage International, 2015. Print.

Prose, Francine. “Scent of a Woman’s Ink.” Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s Magazine Foundation, June 1998. Web. 01 May 2017.

Prose, Francine. “On Women Writers and V. S. Naipaul.” Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s Magazine Foundation, 9 June 2011. Web. 01 May 2017.

Simons, Ilana. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York & Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse. Ed. Mark Hussey. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005. Print.

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