How Virginia Woolf taught me to embrace adversity
Graphic by Esra Rakab
I began my hopeless love affair with Virginia Woolf’s feminist writing in the twelfth grade, when I first read A Room of One’s Own.
In her extended essay, Woolf wrote on feminism and the state of women, specifically when it came to women in fiction and literature. A central component of Woolf’s extended essay is her thesis: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Woolf’s essay was an assigned reading for my twelfth-grade English literature class. Much to my delight, it was probably the shortest book I’d ever been assigned. I figured summarizing 100 pages of some antiquated author’s rambling was better than 400.
Although I would never have predicted it, A Room of One’s Own packed more antiquated rambling into 100 pages than most authors could in 10 — and I say that in the most endearing way possible because those 100 pages changed the way I view feminism.
That year, I read A Room of One’s Own twice. The first time, I thought it was the most excruciating, mind-numbingly dense and horrific piece of literature that an English teacher had ever forced me to endure. My classmates were in agreement. Whenever I tell my friends that A Room of One’s Own is my favourite book, they still look at me with complete and utter confusion.
It was during the second read that I fell madly and deeply in love. Virginia Woolf’s modernist, stream-of-consciousness style of writing became a window into the brain of her genius. Symbolism became a thread woven through every carefully chosen word. It was the first time in my life that I felt like the author was speaking to me, where I could hear a voice behind the writing.
Since it was published in 1929, I find it concerning yet significantly important how applicable Woolf’s writings are today. She was a woman and she was angry. Angry at having to live in a society not made for her. Frustrated at the lack of opportunity. A woman who was interrupted, overshadowed, denied.
She argued that a woman’s financial independence and freedom are of the utmost importance if she is to live unburdened. This, in essence, is what Woolf described as being “incandescent.” It means freedom. It means rising above your life, your circumstances and your woes. It means to become illuminated and enlightened.
Woolf believed incandescence manifests itself in prose and poetry. Incandescent writing becomes resonant and transmits the writer’s emotions like nothing else. It becomes timeless, transcending generations — Shakespeare, Austen, Keats and Sterne, to name a few.
Since freedom and fullness of expression are crucial components of any literary work, Woolf argued that the scarcity of tools available to women were the most significant barriers to equality at the time.
In my first reading of the book, when I was prone to believe that everything and anything Woolf wrote was a total load of crap, the idea of incandescence seemed like the worst of it all. It felt like Woolf, who wrote in a stream of consciousness, was telling me that I need to silence my voice in order to create a literary masterpiece.
Woolf, a woman who ever-so-ironically interjects her voice into her essay at every possible moment, was saying that my life’s experiences and struggles need to be shoved to the side.
Ironic though it may be, was Woolf herself not a woman interrupted, overshadowed and denied? Far from her own definition of incandescence, Woolf constantly interjects herself into her work. And in her writing, I see myself.
Ranting and projecting her anger at the world. Although I may not agree with Woolf on every front, she wrote with the integrity that turned A Room of One’s Own into my favourite piece of literature.
Woolfe kicks and screams that men can “lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” She detests that “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” as was deplorably the case for a great many women. She downright cries out for action and it is anything but incandescent. But it’s true and raw, and strikes a chord with me like nothing else ever has.
In reality, the minds of women like Woolf are all around us. Like many women, she was a victim of her circumstances. Her writing is a testament to her struggles, rooted in anger and screaming bloody murder at the world that tried to hold them down. As many women like her, Woolf found strength in what we now like to think of as a really long rant.
We are surrounded by people who, above all odds, turn adversity into their greatest asset. Today, we have Greta Thunberg, an environmental activist less than half the age yet twice as loud as the people she’s fighting against.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a bartender-turned-politician at the mere age of 29, was the youngest woman ever elected to the United States Congress. Even with the media latching onto classist and sexist taunts to bring her down, she was elected through a grassroots campaign and a platform for the working class.
Their work shines bright because they embrace adversity. They have voices that not only reflect their struggles but their passion. They inspire me to chase after the change I want to see in the world, no matter who may tell me otherwise.
I often find myself reaching for A Room of One’s Own largely because it makes me feel a bit less alone in my misplaced anger at the world. Virginia Woolf’s discourse, her anger at a society that told her she could never amount to anything, hits so close to home.
In dialogues surrounding gender equity, everything that Woolf had to say a whole century ago is still more than applicable. Her voice, full of adversity, passion and life, isn’t incandescent but so much more.
I have Virginia Woolf to thank for her many nuggets of truth. For teaching me that I’ll never truly be incandescent per her definition and I’m more than happy with that. For showing me how to think critically about thoughts and ideas.
So what is the most notable lesson that A Room of One’s Own taught me? That, no matter what anyone may say, my struggles are my greatest strength.