Penn State University Press
  • “Here Was One Room, There Another”The Room, Authorship, and Feminine Desire in A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway

This article examines Virginia Woolf’s literary and theoretical conceptualizations of the room as a space that is indistinguishable from, rather than merely occupied by, woman. As a space that renders indeterminate the difference between fact and fiction, the room is a material space that also functions ideologically and fantastically to signify femininity. Woolf uses this indeterminacy to explore the possibility of representing female desire and subjectivity.

When Virginia Woolf claims that “women have sat indoors all these millions of years so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force,” she reasserts a trope common in the history of English literature: the figure of woman is affiliated with the space of the room (A Room 87). For Woolf, this affiliation offers a possible future for female authorship: women’s creative force has “so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics” (87). Historically the site of middle-class female domestic confinement, the room is now imagined as the site of a dynamic female potential. As Christopher Reed points out, in Bloomsbury Rooms, “Bloomsbury made the conditions of domesticity its standard for modernity, projecting the values of home life outward onto the public realm in both its aesthetic and socio-political initiatives” (5). In rethinking the aesthetics of interior space, Woolf ’s Bloomsbury challenged conventional notions of home, and the room became a template [End Page 112] for ideological transformation. The boundary between private and public, the domestic and the political, was no longer assumed “natural” and thus impenetrable.

This essay argues that Woolf ’s conceptualization of the room—specifically the space of the study—works to reclaim space for feminine creativity by reconfiguring the relationship between the room and the writer in order to imagine an author who does not simply occupy space but is indistinguishable from it. If “occupation” relies upon a fantasy of individual autonomy that Woolf associates with authorial egotism, Woolf positions herself in an ironic relation to the room, speaking as room rather than from within it. The room in both A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway is physically and metaphorically tied to the female form, but by shifting the perspective from a masculinized voice within the room to a feminized voice of the room, and thereby shifting from an emphasis on the hidden depths of interior space to a focus on surfaces, Woolf ’s texts work to undermine the difference between inside and out, fact and fiction, thus suggesting new possibilities for the representation of feminine desire.

“A woman,” Woolf asserts in A Room of One’s Own, “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4). The room as a piece of property women must own in order to be heard has been the object of debate since the essay’s resurrection in the 1970s as a canonical feminist text. Elaine Showalter argues that Woolf “was advocating a strategic retreat, and not a victory; a denial of feeling, and not a mastery of it” (284). For Showalter, Woolf is slinking away from the political domain to hide in a room, thereby undercutting her authority as an effective feminist voice. For Julie Robin Solomon, it is Woolf ’s emphasis on the possession of the room that undermines her feminist politics. Solomon contends that the Woolfian room is caused by and brings with it the capitalistic aspiration for private property and compels Woolf to succumb to “ideological pressures . . . that neutralize her feminist opposition to patriarchal social institutions” (334). In this assessment, Woolf ’s celebration of the room—although executed for the benefit of women—is supported by a system inherently opposed to female authority. So, although the possession of a room might be considered a substantial gain for women, it occurs within and as a result of a patriarchal structure whose presumptions are inadequately interrogated.

A feminist turn in the mid- to late 1980s to deconstructive theories of language and psychoanalytic critiques of subjectivity tried to rescue Woolf from charges of political withdrawal or patriarchal collaboration. Toril Moi attempts to retrieve Woolf ’s text from Showalter’s critique, which she reads as mired in “traditional humanism” and its belief in a “seamlessly unified self—either individual or collective—which is commonly called ‘Man’” (8). [End Page 113] Moi celebrates Woolf ’s discursive evasions and her exposure of the intrinsic instability of language that places in doubt the retrieval of female “experience” as lived by a whole and self-present consciousness. Makiko Minow-Pinkney similarly asserts that “experience never comes into being without representation, as Woolf was well aware in A Room of One’s Own where she appeals to the order of fiction rather than facts, lies rather than truth, in her attempt to construct a female perspective” (12). Skeptical of the possibility of accurately communicating human experience, Moi and Minow-Pinkney maintain that Woolf ’s text undermines criticisms such as Showalter’s and Solomon’s that depend upon a belief in the autonomy of the individual and a denial of textual duplicity and the unconscious.

And yet, as compelling as these deconstructive arguments are politically and theoretically, Woolf nevertheless makes it difficult to be fully convinced by them. A Room of One’s Own insists upon the primacy of the material over the textual, emphasizing the irrefutability of matter: “fiction is like a spider’s web . . . [but] one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in” (42). If we take seriously Woolf ’s claim that the creation of fiction depends upon and arises out of material conditions, then the very solidity of a “room of one’s own” cannot easily be rescued as a mere textual ruse. “Intellectual freedom,” after all, “depends upon material things” (108). Although aware that language can transform the specificity of geography into the referentiality of the symbol, Woolf emphasizes the material as the essential ground for imaginative creation. The possession of space (and money) produces the possibility of fiction.

Woolf seeks to transfigure woman’s relationship to the room by revealing the material history supporting and concealed by the metaphorical bind that associates woman with domestic space. Woolf accordingly divides the universalizing “room” into specific spaces with specific gendered histories. Turning to a memoir by Jane Austen’s nephew, Woolf points her reader’s attention to the kind of room women occupied: “‘How she was able to effect all this [Austen’s novel-writing] . . . is surprising for she had no separate study to repair to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions’” (67). A “general sitting-room” of female occupation and duty is here distinguished from a “separate study.” James Edward Austen-Leigh suggests that domestic space was not also private space for his aunt, whose social and economic duties depended upon her management of the private sphere. The study, on the other hand, is a type of room that would seem to provide uninterrupted time to write but, as Woolf states, was exclusively reserved for male employment: “In the first place, to [End Page 114] have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question. . . . She was debarred from such alleviations as came even to Keats or Tennyson or Carlyle . . . [which] sheltered them from the claims and tyrannies of their families” (52). A private room—quiet and separated from the shared family spaces—the study acted as a shelter from the obligations that clung to the rest of the home. There is a material reason, according to Woolf, behind the apparent inequalities of talent: the unequal division and distribution of space. Literature has largely been written by men in part because men had studies and women did not.

Woolf remembers her father’s study as a tranquil place dedicated to literature and disconnected from the domestic affairs of Hyde Park Gate:

Downstairs there was pure convention: upstairs pure intellect. But there was no connection between them. . . . [In father’s study] I would find him, swinging in his rocking chair, pipe in mouth. Slowly he would realise my presence. Rising, he would go to the shelves, put the book back and very kindly ask me what had I made of it? Perhaps I was reading Johnson. For some time we would talk and then, feeling soothed, stimulated, full of love for this unworldly, very distinguished, lonely man, I would go down to the drawing room again and hear George’s patter. There was no connection.

Woolf marvels at the separation between the banal “pattering” of the downstairs domestic space and the near-religious calm of the paternal study. Her contentious relationship with her father, a man distressed with insecurities and emotionally burdensome to his daughters, is magically reconciled. Detached from the rituals of domesticity, the study as the upstairs “intellect” of the home transcends the petty concerns of daily life.

Victoria Rosner and Mark Wigley have each written about the function of the study in bourgeois domestic architecture and its contribution to the ideological production of masculine subjectivity. According to Rosner, the study is “the most private room in the house, a place where the writer can consider the world without being watched by it. Left alone, the writer seemingly dissolves into a universal subjectivity free from self-consciousness” (122). A privileged site of intellectual transfiguration, the study is a space where the writing subject voyeuristically contemplates the world in protective isolation. According to Wigley’s reading of Leon Battista Alberti’s fifteenth-century text on domestic architecture, the space of the study “marks the internal limit to the woman’s authority in the house” (348). The Renaissance woman, allowed reign over domestic affairs, was prohibited entry into the very center of the house. An internal retreat within the private family home, the study offered a supplementary division between inside and outside in its function of keeping [End Page 115] out female family members and keeping in personal possessions. As “an intellectual space beyond that of sexuality,” the room housed personal financial and genealogical documents and acted as the container that assembled and organized a cohesive imaginary of the distinct family unit. Under the patriarch’s unique supervision, the study and its contents formed the material and bureaucratic confirmation of his rule.

In their analyses of the study, both Rosner and Wigley bring to light the discursivity of space. Space is not purely and innocently material but is always accompanied by ideology. “The issue here is not simply the existence of studies in houses,” as Wigley puts it, “but the ideological construction of the study which is at once the construction of a gendered subjectivity that ‘occupies’ it” (350). According to their readings, the ideology underpinning the space of the study is patriarchal in nature, working to confirm the authority and autonomy of masculine individuality. Wigley’s reading discusses how the rise of the individual is simultaneous with a modern compartmentalization of domestic space according to a patriarchal hierarchy.1 He contends not only that “the role of architecture is explicitly the control of sexuality, or more precisely, women’s sexuality” (336) but also and simultaneously that “it is the control of sexuality by systems of representation that produces place” (350). In other words, space inscribes and enacts an understanding of sexual difference while at the same time producing the very manner in which sexuality is to be understood. The material and the discursive, fact and fiction, are thus understood as intertwined in a mutually productive mise-en-abyme in which each is the cause of the other.

For Rosner, Woolf ’s declaration of the necessity of rooms for women writers is an act that reclaims the masculine study, and along with it the possibility of authorship and autonomy, for female occupation. “The generative fantasy of A Room of One’s Own,” says Rosner, “is that the male space of the Victorian study can become the crucible of an autonomous, potent, and female author figure” (123). According to her reading, the introduction of female bodies into male spaces would reveal gender identity as an unstable assemblage of social conventions whose spaces and signifiers can be inhabited and performed in ways different from their traditional functions. Rosner explains how the jealous privacy defining the study is an indication of the fragility of the masculinity it is meant to signify, but which it works suspiciously hard to protect: “This secret instability in masculinity’s fortress might be described as foundational in the history of the study, rendering the elaborate privacy surrounding the study a careful defense against the exposure of what lies within” (125). Rosner’s reading wants to “trouble” gender, following Judith Butler’s canonical feminist text. The study, and the masculinity to which it refers, is exposed as an unstable signifier that can be wrenched free from the arbitrariness of the male body, its presumed signified. According to this reading, Woolf reveals [End Page 116] the secret of the study, exposing the myth of the purported naturalness that links a male writer to his private space of reflection. As a female author occupying the masculine study, Woolf can be said to be performing masculinity, donning the apparel of authorship and consequently detaching its advantages from exclusively male occupants. In an act of transvestism, Woolf dresses herself in the man’s study and usurps its authority for women writers.2

This reading of transvestism, however, threatens to leave intact the autonomy of individuality and the egotism of authorship that the study supposedly protects and produces. Although questioning the conflation of space with specific sexed bodies, Rosner doesn’t fully challenge the larger ontological claims that necessitate the study as a refuge for omniscient subjectivity. In other words, although women can occupy men’s studies, the masculine fantasy of autonomy inherent in the occupation of the study remains in play.

To return to Wigley, his reading of the study puts the effectiveness of female occupation in doubt but allows for the consideration of an alternative mode of relation between women and rooms. His analysis of the history of space and sexuality extends Rosner’s examination of the interdependence of the material and the discursive construction of space. According to Wigley’s reading of classical and Renaissance texts, the spatio-discursive construction of masculinity depended upon the containment and control of female bodies. Believed to be dangerously fluid, women were described as capable of undermining and contaminating borders meant to distinguish not only the autonomy of the individual but also the useful division of space: “The house then assumes the role of the man’s self-control. The virtuous woman becomes woman-plus-house or, rather, woman-as-housed, such that her virtue cannot be separated from the physical space” (337). According to Wigley’s reading of the ideology of the study, men do not merely occupy rooms, they occupy feminized rooms whose control of female bodies are meant to testify to masculine potency. Shifting between a representation of that which endangers containment and that which is contained, the woman comes to function as an allegory of domestic space. Masculine subjectivity is thus understood as that which occupies space, while feminine subjectivity is less its occupant than its equivalent.

Woolf introduces the study as a specific kind of space in order to reveal a material history that explains the marked inadequacy of female authorship. The room as fact, however, is entangled with a symbolic, fantasy space—described by Wigley—that ties femininity to façades rather than to figures. In A Room, Woolf uses the image of the mirror to illustrate woman’s function: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. . . . Under the spell of that illusion, I thought, looking out of [End Page 117] the window, half the people on the pavement are striding to work” (35–36). Woolf perceives woman to function as apparatus rather than an as individual, working within a system that requires her to be immobile and ennobling. As Woolf ’s short story, “The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection,” emphasizes, woman resides on the surface of a reflection, without personality herself but enabling the possibility of figuration. Here again, Woolf ties the figure of woman with the looking-glass surface, within which the female form disappears, escaping full cognition. Hiding the woman herself from full knowledge, the mirror simultaneously immoblizes the world around it: “in the looking-glass things had ceased to breathe and lay still in the trance of immortality” (The Complete Shorter Fiction 222). As Woolf ’s looking-glass image is meant to suggest, woman provides an inert place that situates man in relation to the world around him, helping to create the fiction of a stable and knowable world.

Instead of rejecting woman’s discursive function as surface, Woolf reasserts this model of femininity when she claims that women are the “creative force” of instead of in the room. Locating feminine subjectivity on the surface of the room—in the wall’s “overcharged” “bricks and mortar”—rather than with the individual occupying the space, Woolf describes this force as an eruptible one: “one has only to go into any room in any street for the whole of that extremely complex force of femininity to fly in one’s face” (A Room 87).3 Femininity (dis) composes space; both a threat to identifiable borders and the object of secure containment, women sit in rooms, they decorate them, and they constitute its symbolic manifestation.

In reaffirming femininity as the surface of the room rather than its occupant, Woolf restructures the woman writer’s relation to the space of writing. Contrary to Rosner’s claim that “the male space of the Victorian study can become the crucible of an autonomous, potent, and female author figure,” Woolf in fact hopes to avoid duplicating the kind of authorship produced by and through the study. In her opinion, the “damned egotistical self ” contemplates itself in the solitary room, shut off from other people and other experiences, as her 1925 critique of James Joyce contends: in reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, she has a “sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free” (Diary Vol. 2 22, Woolf Reader 269). According to this critique, Woolf sees the room not simply as a physical space but as a mode of comprehending the self in the world. As writerly style, the room becomes a sign of social isolation and blinding self-centeredness and prevents the writer from capturing “what we have in common,” so important to fiction writing. To get at truth, or in Woolf ’s vocabulary “life itself,” a writer should break free from the narrowness of rooms, since this prevents a writer from “find[ing] [End Page 118] the right relationship . . . between yourself that you know and the world outside” (271).

Thus if to write like rooms, as Woolf accuses Joyce of doing, is to limit the scope of literature, then perhaps to write as room offers a perspective potentially invigorating to the history of women and fiction. Rather than the transvestism where the woman dons the masculine study, Woolf takes up an ironic performance of the feminine masquerade. As theorized by Joan Riviere, the masquerade is all about surfaces. Intended as a means to assuage masculine anxiety when faced with female accomplishment,4 the feminine masquerade performs “womanliness,” stereotypical attributes meant to signify femininity (e.g., coyness, flirtatiousness, passivity, childishness). The performance of “womanliness,” that it can be put on and acted out, ends up exposing the essential superficiality of feminine identity. According to Riviere, “genuine womanliness and the ‘masquerade’ . . . they are the same thing” (94). While transvestism also performs sexual identity, its performance aligns itself with a masucline fantasy of identity as positively recognizable and thus capable of occupying space. Masculine identification assumes a cohesive form that depends upon the stabilization of boundaries and, therefore, the inertia of feminine subjectivity as that which differentiates inside from out. The masquerade, on the other hand, aligns itself with feminine identity defined as that which eludes the permanance of the figure; it is mere surface without content. In performing femininity, therefore, the fantasy of stable locations potentially can be disrupted. In line with Derrida’s interpretation of feminine identity as a kind of dance, the masquerade allows a “risky turbulance in the assigning of places” (“Choreographies” 28). Or as Joan Copjec states, the exaggeration of femininity in the masquerade avoids the trap of “believing in a world that is elsewhere, in a place to which one can withdraw in solitude to safeguard the precious core of one’s being” (76). The notion of the room as a refuge, as a space whose interior protects and ennobles a solitary occupant, gets placed in doubt if the masquerade can expose the room—and the woman it is meant to represent—as lacking interiority.

Rather than donning the clothes of masculinity and assuming the role of the egotistic, “studied” author, Woolf flaunts a femininity that refuses to take anything seriously. A Room of One’s Own parodies Victorian conventions of feminine decorum with its a playful tone that resists simple, declarative statements and insists on a kind of ironic indirection. Written in an ironic voice, Woolf ’s text refuses to adopt an authoritative voice of one who presumes to know. As Showalter suggests, “What is most striking about the book texturally and structurally is its strenuous charm, its playfulness, its conversational surface” (282). Highlighting the “surface,” or superficial humor of A Room of One’s Own, Showalter identifies an insincerity in the writing. What for Showalter is [End Page 119] a “strenuous charm” for Woolf is a “shrill feminine tone,” which, as she states in her journal, she hopes will be enough for the “press [to] be kind and talk of its charm and sprightliness.”

Woolf considers femininity, whether shrill or strenuous, as a method of persuasion, a way to sway the audience in her favor. In a key moment of A Room, we see Woolf ’s narrator playing up the role of the modest woman writer in a parody of feminine coyness that ends with the revelation of female friendship:

I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind that red curtain over there the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these – “Chloe liked Olivia . . . ” Do not start. Do not blush.


According to the narrator, “Chloe liked Olivia” stands as new frontier for literature, a representation of a relationship unheard of in a field historically dominated by a masculine perspective. The narrator pretends to whisper the phrase, emphasizing its supposed scandalous nature, acting the part of the virtuous Victorian woman for whom talk of intimate matters would undoubtedly cause “starts” and “blushes.” For Alex Zwerdling, the reticent tone of this passage is comic performance: “It seems to address the women at Cambridge for whom the original lectures were written, but it is acutely conscious of the later audience of men standing behind them” (256). Woolf ’s performance of coy modesty thus “makes what might have been disturbing to men more tolerable” (256). It’s not the femininity itself that acts as the presumed antidote to the shock of female friendship but the very falseness of her performance. So obviously a parody of modesty, so intentionally a comic spectacle, Woolf makes light not only of the superficiality of femininity’s supposed squeamishness but along with it of the larger Victorian convention that would find female friendship scandalous in the first place. Woolf relies on femininity not as a genuine identity but only as parody of one.

If femininity is only the performance of femininity, then it poses a problem for the status of truth. Woolf ’s comic spectacle of Victorian modesty resists any demand for producing the “truth” of femininity. Throughout the text, Woolf suggests a fundamental distrust of any claim that speaks from the position of self-assured knowledge, since this self-assurance depends upon the looking-glass fantasy of female inertia: “They say to themselves as they go into the room, I am the superior of half the people here, and it is thus that they speak with that self-confidence, that self-assurance” (A Room 36). Thus, when Woolf speaks of the necessity of rooms, she is offering a different model of space—and of authorship—than one of occupation. Rather than a space of knowledge in which an autonomous self writes the truth of the world, the [End Page 120] narrator’s invocation of the room as a necessity for writing produces instead a persistent enigma:

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. . . . At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial—and any question about sex is that—one cannot hope to tell the truth. . . . Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact. . . . I need not say that what I am about to describe has no existence; Oxbridge is an invention; so is Fernham; “I” is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being.


The money and the room are not solutions to woman and fiction, which are here posed as problems not in their interrelation—not in how the two might combine—but in their equivalence: both woman and fiction are indeterminate in relation to truth. This parallel indeterminacy shifts, however, as the passage continues. The question of sex—woman—becomes incompatible with truth-telling, whereas fiction becomes the place that is not itself truthful but where truth may be told. Therefore if the narrating “I” is a woman—whose truth “one cannot hope to tell” and, as Woolf states, “has no real being” anyway—then her only access to truth is through fiction.

Woolf’s room does not house a self-confident author. In fact, it doesn’t appear able to house anything at all. Like the narrating “I,” a mere mask hiding an absence, the room is all surface without depth, all problem without solution, all fiction with no fact. An impossibility in the empirical world, a room made up entirely of walls permeated by feminine creativity is a figure with a fictional existence. But the fictionality of the room is not meant to impede its functionality. Woolf ’s model of the room, rather, illustrates the material effectiveness of fiction. Her insistence throughout A Room on exposing the material conditions of women’s space while at the same moment “appealing to the order of fiction rather than facts” reveals the way fiction affects lived experience. The room, in other words, finds its allegory in Woolf ’s masquerade. The revelation of the intrinsic falseness of femininity, that she “has no real being,” is not to say that women don’t exist. Rather, their existence as feminine women is built upon a fantasy. If, as Woolf observes, “half the people on the pavement . . . striding to work” are “under the spell of that illusion,” then that fantasy is a fact of life.

Conceiving the room as a space of surfaces that reveals the history of femininity’s fictionality, Woolf refuses the kind of authorship that depends upon the study as a refuge of egotistic individualism. This traditional model of writing, whose reliance on a division between inside and outside has necessitated the restriction of female access, engenders a perspective that Woolf [End Page 121] finds isolating and detrimental to the creation of good art. Her emphasis on surfaces offers an alternative perspective that brings to light not only a shared history of female confinement—“she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room” (43)—but also a future of newly represented relationships. Her masquerading speaking voice that arrives at the truth through fiction introduces the idea that “Chloe liked Olivia.” A representation of female friendship, written by the fictitious “Mary Carmichael,” as recounted by the unnamed “I,” “Chloe liked Olivia” offers an illustration of female desire without reference to masculine identity. Because of the novelty of the subject matter—of “women . . . alone, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex”—its representation will necessarily produce a different writing style:

The only way for you to do it, I thought, addressing Mary Carmichael as if she were there, would be to talk of something else, looking steadily out of the window, and thus note, not with a pencil in a notebook, but in the shortest of shorthand, in words that are hardly syllabled yet, what happens when Olivia—this organism that has been under the shadow of the rock these millions of years—feels the light fall on it, and sees coming her way a piece of strange food—knowledge, adventure, art.


Woolf ’s vision of a new model of authorship empties the study of identity and almost of language. Housing a vacant “I” holding an imaginary conversation with a fictitious author, the room of writing lacks any identifiable occupant. The absence in the room parallels the style of writing proposed by the narrator: rather than actually describe female friendship, she recommends that the author “talk of something else,” evade depicting the new form of friendship and discuss instead the world around it. Woolf here suggests the near inexpressibility of female desire. Steeped in a literary tradition molded by a male perspective, this new subject of representation requires a new means of expression in a language only just emerging, “barely syllabled.”

The figure of the room, as I have been suggesting, offers an image of feminine existence—as surface—while simultaneously providing the means of female expression, opening up a space for the representation of a new kind of relationship. Yet if the room answers the problem of woman and fiction, it answers only insofar as it “leaves the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved” (4). The symbolics of female friendship, of a relationship outside the scope of masculine desire, is yet to emerge. All Woolf has in the meantime is an empty room—a room deprived even of its emptiness. As Clarissa Dalloway reflects in Mrs. Dalloway, “Here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?” (127)

If A Room of One’s Own proposes the room as the insoluble solution to the question of woman and fiction, Mrs. Dalloway puts into motion how the room [End Page 122] both works to disrupt the fantasy of autonomous individuality and provide space for the expression of a desire outside of masculine demand. A multi-perspective account of one June day in London culminating in an evening party hosted by a wealthy, conservative couple, Mrs. Dalloway presents a prosaic bourgeois image of femininity in Clarissa Dalloway. At the same time, the novel undermines femininity as a stable identity accessible to knowledge, as a subjectivity that could be truly known, much less fully lived. Clarissa, “purely feminine; with that extraordinary gift, that woman’s gift, of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be,” will reveal that the femininity she is meant to exemplify is a masquerade, a performance to placate anxious tempers (76). The room emerges in the novel both as a representation of and compensation for femininity’s superficiality; not as a space of unplumbable depths but as a network of possible connections.

Clarissa Dalloway is associated with urban flânerie as she explores the London streets,5 as well as with an idyllic vision of nature and the English landscape. Nature provides Clarissa with a satisfying and romantic image of self, “she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home . . . being laid out like mist” (9). The room, on the other hand, confronts her as a brute fact not easily dissolved into a symbolic representation of self. Looking out her window, watching an old woman in the neighboring flat, Clarissa realizes that “the supreme mystery which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn’t believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?” (127). Watching the old woman move from room to room, Clarissa confronts not only a double of herself walking through her home, preparing for her party, but also a fundamental unknowability about the lives of others. The room identifies for Clarissa the singular, ineffable element of life that resists the idealized love through which Peter views the world or the religion of Miss Kilman. It is not, however, itself a symbol of individuality; the room doesn’t represent or signify the way the trees and the mist come to act as metaphors for Clarissa’s ideal vision of herself. It instead appears as that which poses the question of identity. As she watches the old woman, Clarissa “tried to follow her as she turned and disappeared, and could still just see her white cap moving at the back of the bedroom” (127). Allowing only glimpses and suggestions, the room acts as the cause of incomplete knowledge, preventing Clarissa’s full apprehension of the woman across the street. The “supreme mystery” not because of any supernatural capabilities, nor through the transformative powers of literary language, the room is mysterious simply because, as private space, it prohibits full public view.

The elevation of the room as both the cause of a will to know and an impediment to full knowledge becomes part of a social critique that evolves [End Page 123] for Clarissa as she becomes more frustrated—during this short span of a day—with attempts by larger institutions to apprehend and thereby violate personal life:

And she watched out of the window the old lady opposite climbing upstairs. Let her climb upstairs if she wanted to; let her stop; then let her, as Clarissa had often seen her, gain her bedroom, part her curtains, and disappear again into the background. Somehow one respected that. . . . There was something solemn in it—but love and religion would destroy that, whatever it was, the privacy of the soul.


The “old lady’s” room acts as a stage that displays the woman to Clarissa’s voyeuristic attention only to then withdraw her. The woman is known only insofar as she is unknowable, retreating into an insignificant background that eludes the larger discourses—love and religion—that Clarissa finds so violating. As Joseph Allen Boone suggests, Woolf’s description of the old lady offers an elusive model of subjectivity: “For a phrase like ‘the privacy of the soul’ does not so much reify a transcendental conception of the word soul as posit an alternative mode of subjectivity . . . that only exists to the degree that it eludes categorical definition and escapes being pinned to one meaning” (186). The singularity of this old woman in the room exceeds the generalizations offered by ideology; her private life is left unknown, and therefore indescribable, to conventional knowledge and language. “The privacy of the soul,” as well as the “supreme mystery” that the room signifies, each attempt to define and locate that which is essentially indefinable, the truth of subjective life that exists only insofar as it escapes conventional representational discourse. But there is also a warning here: love and religion will pursue that which escapes their grasp. Once the room is penetrated and the old lady exposed, her singularity will be destroyed.

The old woman’s room, which houses what Clarissa protectively identifies as “the privacy of the soul,” remains outside the scope of human knowledge. Shutting the woman within the domestic interior, the room denies any comprehensive understanding of who she is or what she desires. Although this refuge protects the old woman from domineering institutions or discourses, it leaves the question of feminine subjectivity unanswered. The woman remains a mystery. Gaining entry into a female’s room, however, does not seem to provide any more satisfactory answers to the question of what a woman wants or who she is. The narrator enters Clarissa’s bedroom: “So the room was an attic; the bed narrow; and lying there reading . . . she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet” (31). Most immediately, the description of Clarissa’s room—a cramped and narrow space—will remind us of Woolf ’s opinion of James Joyce’s writing: one has a “sense of [End Page 124] being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free.” As discussed above, Woolf associates the “narrow room” with an egotism that she feels dominates Joyce’s texts: though his innovations in narrative technique offer a bright light in modernist fiction writing, Woolf balks before the domination of a single narrative voice. The room becomes an image of masculine authority and of the illusion that a single point of view could convey or even fully apprehend the truth of the world. Clarissa’s room, too, suffers from the oppression of egotism, which thus contracts the space around her:

Clarissa (crossing to the dressing-table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there . . . collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself. How many million times she had seen her face, and always with the same imperceptible contraction!


Clarissa uses the room to rehearse the identity of the woman she is supposed to be: the woman giving a party named “Clarissa Dalloway,” who, she insists, is herself. A space in which an individual is assembled, “contracted,” and identified, Clarissa’s bedroom houses the fantasy of a self-contained, stable identity.

Yet the narrowness of Clarissa’s room, while indicating an egotism of identity, also points to something missing in the room and the woman within it. Just as the old woman across the street remains outside of Clarissa’s full discernment, Clarissa herself is never completely known. While she recognizes herself in her mirror image, there is also an acknowledgment of the shallowness of that identification: “That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together” (37). Clarissa becomes a self with effort in response to a call; assembled from fragmented parts, this self exists only as a social obligation. When Peter comes to visit, “as a woman gathers her things together, her cloak, her gloves, her opera-glasses, and gets up to go out of the theatre into the street, she rose from the sofa and went to Peter” (47). Her femininity is theater garb to be gathered to greet an old lover and friend.

Clarissa’s femininity is thus a performance, a mask she wears to comfort those in need:

She alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman who sat in her drawing-room and made a meeting-point, a radiancy no doubt in some dull lives, a refuge for the lonely to come to, perhaps.

(37) [End Page 125]

She becomes a unified person, “one woman who sat in her drawing room,” in order to function as “a refuge for the lonely.” Her performance of maternal security has Clarissa act like a room, a “refuge,” a reassuring space whose walls promise depth and interiority. Throughout the novel Clarissa is associated with the space of the room: as a woman confined by domesticity, “lying on the sofa, cloistered, exempt” (121); or a woman with the gifts of a perfect hostess, “purely feminine; with that extraordinary gift, that woman’s gift of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be. She came into a room” (76). Forming the aspect of her femininity, the room “composes” her into a cohesive identity, “one centre” testifying to her conformity with the conventions of her time.

What the masquerade hides is not the “truth” of Clarissa’s real identity, but a disturbing absence. As Clarissa stands at the entrance of her room, looking at its contents, she comes to confront her own inadequacy: “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together” (31). Not in essence a warm person, Clarissa, in her role as a refuge, is covering over a frigidity or inability to feel sexual warmth. Although she is composed into “one centre,” she lacks “something central,” a depth, perhaps, that would break up surfaces. So that as room, she is merely room, a surface without interiority. Entering into her bedroom, the reader witnesses not the dominance of a self-present ego but something missing.

As critics have noted, the absence in Clarissa is tied to a problem adhering to her lesbian desire for Sally Seton.6 After explaining her central lack of warmth, the narrator overhears Clarissa’s thoughts on her past loves: “Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?” (32). The narrator describes the beauty Clarissa saw in Sally (“dark, large-eyed”) and the qualities she most admired (“there was her way with flowers, for instance”). Narrated in a spontaneous voice, these memories of Sally are as if written the moment they enter Clarissa’s mind: “She sat on the floor—that was her first impression of Sally—she sat on the floor with her arms round her knees, smoking a cigarette” (32). However, the moment Clarissa attempts to describe her emotional connection to Sally—and not merely Sally’s appearance or surroundings—Clarissa’s language becomes formal and reverts to Shakespeare: “and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall ‘if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy.’ That was her feeling—Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it” (35). The depiction of lesbian desire is undercut by Clarissa’s dependence on English literary tradition and, as discussed in [End Page 126] A Room of One’s Own, its reliance on a masculine perspective. Clarissa cannot represent her love for a woman outside of heterosexual fantasy: it is always a man who loves a woman. And as Othello teaches us, love between a man and a woman is passionate, violent, and eventually lethal to the woman. “Love” thus fails Clarissa, who is unable to picture her desire for Sally except as something destructive to woman.

The room in Mrs. Dalloway—both the “supreme mystery” and the narrow attic—becomes a contradictory space for Clarissa. She celebrates the room as protecting and illustrating the “privacy of the soul” that keeps the old lady across the street secure in her singularity, safe from the violating discourses of love and religion. But in doing so, the novel threatens to realign femininity with a kind of private space that makes the woman into an enigma, a seductive mystery to be pursued by an overpowering hermeneutic drive to know. A masculine fantasy of woman as the “dark continent,” the great mystery in the age of reason, haunts the woman’s room. Woolf undermines this alliance of seductive woman and private space when the reader is allowed entrance into Clarissa’s attic room and discovers that the femininity that Clarissa appears to embody is a mere performance. Beneath her role as a “refuge for the lonely” is nothing at all, a lack of “something central.” The “narrowness” of both Clarissa and her room suggests more of an absence of identity than any sort of comprehensible individuality. The revelation of emptiness beneath the veneer of femininity stems from Clarissa’s inability to discover adequate means of representing lesbian desire and a consequent failure of this desire. Clarissa’s reliance on a masculine tradition of romantic love effectively thwarts any access to her love for Sally, thus leaving her isolated in an attic room, cut off from human contact.

Yet by the end of the novel Clarissa manages to reimagine the possibilities of human interaction and consequently the expanse and purpose of the space of the room. The line from Othello returns to Clarissa at the end of the novel after she has briefly fled the obligations of her party to the silence of an empty room: “But this young man who had killed himself—had he plunged holding his treasure? ‘If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy,’ she had said to herself once” (184). Instead of failing as a reference of Clarissa’s love for Sally, the quote now seems to have hit the mark. Septimus Warren Smith, a young World War I veteran whom Clarissa has never met, has killed himself in his attempt to escape what he saw as menacing forces of control embodied in the figure of Dr. Bradshaw. By a mere coincidence, Clarissa hears the news of his death during her party and consequently retreats to the room in order to recover from the shock. He had killed himself and she remembers Othello’s words, that to die now would bring happiness. This retreat into the [End Page 127] room, therefore, does not end up isolating her but somehow triggers a kind of poetic communion in which she feels a strong sense of connection to others:

She parted the curtains; she looked. Oh, but how surprising!—in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her! . . . It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. . . . The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with this going on. There! the old lady had put out her light! the whole house was dark now with this going on. . . . She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad he had done it; thrown it away.


This final scene in the room is one of repetition and mirroring. Each character mirrors the other, as the narrator describes the scene in a kind of rhythmic cadence of repeated words and images, all revolving around the theme of death. Clarissa looks out her window to see her mirror image, the old lady, staring straight at her and looking out of her own window. Septimus’s suicide is echoed by the old lady when she “put out her light.” And Clarissa feels connected to Septimus and his decision to “throw it away.”7 Instead of isolating Clarissa as a distinct and knowable identity, the room enables a communication between and confusion of selves that undermines the difference between inside and out. The room has become a kind of tomb, but one that understands death as “defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate” (184).

The repeated line from Othello thus indicates a shift in the novel’s mode of signification. The tradition of romantic love—the kind of romance that Othello’s words want to communicate about Desdemona—fails to understand Clarissa’s love for Sally. Instead of referencing “love,” the line is now meant to signify a kind of death as a response to the pursuit of ideology (“Love and Religion”) and the will to know. In order to escape the discourses that impose a normalizing understanding of the world, the novel proposes suicide as the refusal to participate. This image of death, however, does not mean the end of a life of human contact, but quite its opposite: it is “an attempt to communicate,” a means of connection that occurs outside the standard discourse of love and religion (184).

After her experience in the room, in which she performs a kind of suicide, Clarissa as a first-person perspective disappears from the narration. Her departure from the room and return to the party is made ambiguous: “[Septimus] made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.8 But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room” (186). The free indirect discourse of the first four sentences, in which [End Page 128] the narrator speaks Clarissa’s thoughts, shifts to a third-person omniscient perspective as Clarissa exits the room. The narrator suddenly leaves Clarissa’s side within the room and tells the reader that Clarissa is “coming in” from the room rather than going out of it. With the abrupt change in perspective, the reader is caught in an ambiguous middle ground—somewhere between Clarissa and the narrator, between the inside of the room and the “in” that is outside the room. The difference between inside and outside, following Clarissa’s confrontation with death in the room, is left indeterminate and, consequently, the establishment of a locatable, situated self becomes uncertain.

In the space of death, the space of the room, recognizable identities dissolve, or die, and a kind of ecstatic enjoyment fills the void. Clarissa never emerges from the room as speaking/seeing self; or, more precisely, the room’s interiority gets turned inside out so that the very possibility of emergence is undermined. But while Clarissa as a narrative perspective has vanished from the narration, the possibility of desire appears in her stead. The novel ends with Peter, overcome by emotion: “What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? He thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was” (194). The perspective has again shifted from free indirect discourse to third person omniscience as the reader moves from Peter’s point of view to the narrator’s. Peter sees Clarissa in the present tense of the party, the narrator sees her in the diegetic past. Clarissa is/was there. But her presence, which ends the novel with its abrupt materialization, is experienced more as a haunting than a reunion. Clarissa’s own perspective is missing and is replaced with a “terror” and “ecstasy” that describe Peter’s sexually charged reaction to her appearance. Her inability to experience the warm contact between two people, which characterized the failure of her lesbian desire, is finally resolved in this final moment of the novel.

Peter’s “extraordinary excitement” encountering Clarissa, however, reasserts a heterosexual desire that leaves Clarissa’s love for Sally seemingly forgotten (as well as emphasizing Sally’s own emphatic heteronormative adult life, with her “five enormous boys”). Yet Clarissa’s appearance as apparition rather than as individual, following her virtual suicide in the room, undermines a conventional literary tradition that would have the unrequited lovers reunited in marriage or tragedy, entombed within the neatness of a recognizable conclusion. Instead, in her embodiment of pure enjoyment, Clarissa seems to escape traditional models of discourse, leaving her own perspective and her own desire unspoken and, consequently, free floating. She becomes the “something central which permeated” that she previously lacked. Clarissa, in other words, becomes unroomed and, in doing so, finds a means of experiencing the desire she cannot represent. [End Page 129]

Christina Stevenson
Solano Community College, Fairfield
Christina Stevenson

Christina Stevenson graduated from the Literature Department at UC Santa Cruz in 2011. Her dissertation, “The Politics of the Room: Sexuality and Subjectivity in the Modernist Text,” investigates the figure of the room in the texts of Freud, Proust, and Woolf. She is currently teaching literature and composition at Solano Community College in Fairfield, CA.


1. See also Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity. McKeon expands on the development and ossification of the separation of the public and private spheres, arguing that domestic space transformed from one divided by “distinction” to one divided by “separation” as the socio-economic background moved from a status-based to a class-based system. This ideology of separation becomes apparent in groundplans for domestic residences that, in eighteenth-century England, saw an increased use of corridors to separate individual rooms and a more dramatic division of spaces of production (kitchen, servants quarters) and spaces of consumption (dining room, drawing room).

2. For more on transvestism and modernism, see Sandra M. Gilbert, “Costumes of the Mind.”

3. One is reminded of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) in which the female narrator, made to endure a rest cure in the upstairs nursery, eventually recognizes herself as purely the creeping woman of the wallpaper covering the surface of the room, rather than the woman inhabiting its interior.

4. See Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” According to Riviere, this anxiety is a fear of castration provoked by a woman’s display of intellectual ability. In Riviere’s words, female accomplishment appears to the male audience as “an exhibition of herself in possession of her father’s penis, having castrated him” (93).

5. For an insightful perspective on Woolf and the female flâneur, see Rachel Bowlby, Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf.

6. See Judith Roof, “The Match in the Crocus”; and Teresa de Lauretis, The Practice of Love.

7. Clarissa has already, in a sense, mirrored Septimus’s suicide. When she first hears the news of his death, she imagines what it must have felt like: “Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes” (184).

8. It has recently been pointed out to me that this sentence appears only in the US edition of the novel and did not in the British publication. This perhaps suggests that “beauty” and “fun” in death might be less objectionable to an American audience, more distantly located from the terrors of the Great War, than their British counterparts.

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