The Locked Library
In the speech by Virginia Woolf compiled in, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf tackles many important issues with passion and tangible haste. She speaks of the frustration associated with being a woman – especially one who wants to write and find answers. Her speech is heartfelt and driven by personal experience. She holds a passion for the future of women, and the future of women’s literature. Woolf is genuinely concerned, and while she is irritated she can ambitiously support all of her notions. Her frustration brings hope to the future women writers. With this scene, Woolf provides generation after generation with a greater understanding and appreciation of the struggle for womens’ individualism: the right to think and read according to one’s free will.
One scene in her monologue illustrates the trying challenges women deal with on a daily basis. This scene is essential to the core of Woolf’s speech. Man, the library and money in this scene are all symbolic representations of the patriarchal system under which women fought a constant battle to develop their creativity and pursuit of knowledge; the essence of our female oppression. It shows womens’ ongoing battle, and also sheds an ironic light on their seemingly dark future.
If a woman’s question cannot be answered, she will not be able to learn. Woolf illustrates herself in true, free form on her stroll along the river – questions flowing. She discusses issues of literature, when it occurs to her that all answers can be found in the nearby Library: “But then one would have to decide what is style and what is meaning, a question which—but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself.” (Woolf, 6) Woolf continues to the door, but before she can enter she is stopped by the doorman. This scene represents Woolf’s dilemma in its entirety: Women are barred from their own intelligence by the boundaries of society — be it money, gender or class.
Supporting this theory, Mary Gordon wisely states this concern in her forward to A Room of One’s Own: “Genius needs freedom; it cannot flower if it is encumbered by fear, or rancor, or dependency, and without money freedom is impossible (viii).”
The power of man limits the aspirations of women. In this scene outside the Library, the doorman holds Woolf back from entering the building. Man is seen in the figure of the dark guardian angel, for it represents the “good” he thinks he is, but on the outside his actions are black, giving women no light for the future. His pompous wave, already assuming that her gender could speak for herself, shoves Woolf off in a dark gloomy, frustrated direction. She had not even knocked on the door:
I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction. (Woolf, 6).
The manner in which the angel turns Woolf away encapsulates the attitude of men and the pursuit of knowledge at this time. Woolf’s portrayal of men is that they believe Women have no right to be in a Library, without a man’s permission. Man pushes woman into the public world, where she has no privacy of thought or the ability to expand, learn and grow. The woman’s pursuit of knowledge is strictly limited to the outside world, as opposed to the one found through reading and writing books.*
The doorman’s gown is black, and silvery – illustrating his money and power. It is ironic that Woolf speaks of this encounter with consideration, describing him as kindly gentleman. The irony adds to the harshness of Woolf’s being rejected – her character instinctively role-plays how a proper lady should act in this situation. Woolf speaks as if she is undeniably wrong by innocently trying to enter the library. It is apparent to her readers and her listeners that she had every right to find the answers to her questions, and that this male power is absurd.
The library represents the locked up creativity of women. Woolf curses the library. However, she does not curse what it holds within — but the mere fact that she cannot enter: “That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library.”(Woolf, 7) This library parallels the female condition: womens’ untouchable creativity: “Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever.” (Woolf, 7) Therefore, Woolf decides her treasures or creativity will remain at peace in the depths of her mind. She can curse her situation and but ultimately her intelligence locked.
Woolf is infuriated by this event, and with words of sarcasm and disbelief, her naivety finally turns into anger: “Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger.” (Woolf, 7) Events, like this scene, discourage women around the world, who by experience do not attempt to reach their full potential and turn away from the challenge. This supports Woolf’s claim that women need money and a room of one’s own, to pursue knowledge and literature. Woolf greets the day with a positive attitude and state of mind:
Still an hour remained before luncheon, and what was one to do? Stroll on the meadows? Sit by the river? Certainly it was a lovely autumn morning; the leaves were fluttering red to the ground; there was no great hardship in doing either. (Woolf, 7)
This quote shows her apparent state of acceptance, as women have accepted their position for centuries. There is no challenge in sitting by the river, but without a challenge the minds of women remained as closed as the guarded library doors — treasures buried within.
Money, too, is a factor woven in this speech and engrained in our society. Woolf demonstrates how money controls the freedom of women. Woolf’s needed letter of permission to enter the library, the silvery wings of the guardian angel, and finally her encounter at the church are all connected with money – or lack thereof. Discouraged from entering any place of greatness like the library, Woolf does not even try to enter the church; instead she watches from a distance as music plays around the magnificent building. Still, Woolf reasons, matter-of-factly, that she might be stopped for her “baptismal certificate, or a letter of introduction from the Dean.” Her caustic tone reflects social commentary on the absurdity of the situation.
In Woolf’s speech, she introduces Lady Winchelsea. Winchelsea summarizes the plight of women, as she describes her angst and frustration even as a woman who has the money to write poetry:
How are we fallen! Fallen by mistaken rules,/ and education’s more than nature’s fools;/ debarred from all improvements of the mind,/ and to be dull, expected and designed; / And if some one would soar above the rest,/ With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,/ So strong the ‘opposing faction’; still appears,/ the hopes to thrive can ne’er outweigh the years. (Woolfe, 57-58).
Lady Winchelsea is irritated even though she has the opportunity to write. She recognizes the underlying issues that hinder woman, or the “opposing faction.” That would be, men.
The essence of the oppression of women is bound up in scene outside the Library.. All the questions come crashing in like a title wave. Why is it that Woolf cannot enter a library or even think about entering a church simply because she is without a man and money? Or the right to pursue knowledge? Why are these women subjugated, not even free to read at their own will?
The answer lies in tradition, in the prongs of society. Women become numb to the ways they have been programmed. Woman stay “debarred from all improvements of the mind,/ and to be dull, expected and designed” (Woolfe, 58). Or in other words, locked out of libraries, fitted and molded by the society that hinders the growth of a woman’s future. Women fail to see their shackles. Woolf seemingly accepts parts of her fate. Fortunately, she fights back by exposing this event in a new light – illustrating the very cycle keeping women in chains: If women are not allowed to be in such places such as a public library, men will continue to have power. Women will be barred against their own creativity. Woolfe illustrates a profound, new woman — one to imitate and appreciate for generations and generations to come. She speaks out and recognizes the outrageous idea that woman are of a lesser species than men. Women must continue to fight for the key to their own knowledge, intelligence, and libraries. And of course, for a room of one’s own.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Books, London, 1945.
(C) Abbie Wasserman, 2012. All rights reserved.