From Oxbridge to Fernham: Virginia Woolf's Argumentative Style
Throughout A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes in a distanced, narrative style, assuming the perspective of an anonymous woman who researches the role of women in fiction and discovers various literary disparities between the sexes. She eats lunch at Oxbridge, a generic “male” university, and dinner at Fernham, a generic “female” university. While describing her experience at each university, this anonymous narrator argues that writers’ material environments shape their works through the use of marked changes in sentence structure, foreshadowing, and digression. The narrator claims that good food breeds good conversation, anticipating her later argument that comfortable living quarters breed good writing. Building to the aphoristic sentiment that “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” the narrator fixates on the food served (Woolf 20).
This is a conscious attempt to “defy…convention;” unlike most writers, she believes the quality of conversation cannot be separated from that of the food served (Woolf 17). Hence, she describes the luxurious platters set before her and links them directly to the lighting of the “subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (Woolf 17). Food alone, though, is not enough to light this flame; it must be good food. Without the comfort that often accompanies wealth, people cannot be expected to spend their time discussing heaven or contemporary literature. Instead, they will carry out their business quickly, searching for greater comfort before settling down to speak at length. They also lack palatable subject matter to discuss.
Claiming that “dinner was not good” is impolite and brings rebuke (Woolf 20), just as speaking of gender disparity attracts claims that one is an “arrant feminist” (Woolf 30). Clearly, food is not the only aspect of a writers’ material environment, as even the narrator finds contentment in drink and flame after her disappointing dinner, but if food is a necessary condition for inspired thought, it is no stretch to say that the other “amenities” lacking in women’s lives could similarly affect their works (Woolf 81). The narrative structure allows Woolf to explore and illustrate one example where the lack of material luxury prevents creative thought before she moves to her broader argument. The narrator uses very differently structured sentences to describe the luncheon and the dinner, not only telling but also showing how material wealth inspires thought. At lunch, the sentences she uses are complex and descriptive. Appositives and similes abound in flowing sentences like “The partridges, many and various, came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent”(Woolf 17).
The sentences vary in structure, but they all transition seamlessly, almost giving the impression that the whole narrative is one unbroken stream. They are adorned with positive connotations, with rosebuds and does suggesting gentleness and the coming of spring. The narrator explores every aspect of a seemingly mundane setting, giving each object she sees equal literary volume without disregarding any, just as the she argues Mary Carmichael should. Meanwhile, at dinner, she uses plain sentences, hitting the reader over the head with a barrage of unadorned, simple sentences. “Dinner was ready.
Here was the soup. It was a plain gravy soup,” she writes (Woolf 21). Admittedly, there are some longer sentences, for it would be grossly uninteresting to read an entire passage of simple sentences with the verb was. They are rarer, though, and they lack the precision of the luncheon’s sentences, tumbling off into descriptions of prunes in general rather than introducing new subjects or describing the specific meal in front of her. While at lunch, she uses adjectives from “foliated” to “crimson,” (Woolf 17) here she scarcely uses more descriptive words than “plain” (Woolf 21).
Despite women’s current poverty, the narrator believes they have great promise. In a flight of fancy, she imagines that spring has arrived at Fernham. Woolf makes full use of her unconventional choice to insert fictional narrative into argumentative writing. Without fiction’s ability to depict the world as it might have been, she could not describe the intense colors and beautiful flowers she sees in the “gardens of Fernham” in spring (Woolf 19). The digression into the narrator’s imagination parallels the luncheon.
There are striking colors, silver and purple and gold, and beautiful flowers that harken back to the luncheon’s rosebuds. Women, the narrator seems to argue, could potentially have an environment as conducive to rational thought as that of men. They could be equally insightful and clear of thought, and Fernham could produce scholars like “J—— H——” (Woolf 19). Curiously, only the dinner pulls the narrator out of her reverie. Fernham as an intellectual utopia cannot coexist with bland food or constrained talk, and the lack of ornament destroys the narrator’s vision the same way it destroys women’s thought in general. Woolf uses her narrative structure to great effect, taking the position of an unknown woman to make the narration itself an example of material discomfort’s dangerous effects.
The writing becomes less powerful and the narrator’s vision muddier when the food is plain. As the narrator argues that good food is a prerequisite for intelligent thought, her own thought processes are the primary evidence. Woolf then expands the narrator’s thesis from its limited focus on food, drawing from various specific anecdotes to argue that women need material comforts. Woolf’s unique style, drawing on her skills as a novelist by incorporating literary tools most often associated with fiction, allows her to illustrate her argument more clearly and demonstrates that hard facts are not the only powerful rhetorical tool.