A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf is an extended essay, based broadly on two lectures given by Woolf at Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge, in 1928. It has one very clear, central message, namely that, 'a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction', and the body of the text presents the arguments underlying this claim, expressed in the 'voice' of an imaginary 'narrator'.
Making use of fictional and semi-fictional characters and settings, the narrator uses her encyclopaedic knowledge of English, European, and Classical literature to illustrate the way in which patriarchal and phallocentric societies have, over the centuries, inhibited and confined women's literary potential. Speaking in a voice which is sometimes indignant, sometimes serious, sometimes amused, she also draws particular attention to those enterprising and courageous women who overcame the obstacles in their path and did succeed, from the late seventeenth century onward, in writing English literature.
At the same time, the narrator suggests that the quality of that literature is impaired by women's awareness of their own inferior status in the eyes of society, and the feelings of outrage or helplessness which that awareness arouses in them. What comes across very strongly is the narrator's belief that awareness of gender (on the part of men or women) is an impediment to writing. She argues that only when an individual moves beyond the sense of themselves as, for example, an 'inferior' woman, or a 'superior' man, that he/she can become simply 'themselves' and use creatively a mind that is free or – to use the narrator's own word – incandescent.
The imaginary work of a fictional contemporary, female novelist is discussed, and the narrator comes to the conclusion that although 'she' has made progress in relation to earlier female novelists, there is some way for her to go before she reaches that stage of incandescence which would allow her to be entirely 'herself'.
As the essay draws to a close, Woolf chooses to 'speak' again in her own voice, and tentatively suggests that women writers have not made full use of the increasing freedom afforded to them through recent social and legislative changes. She concludes by urging women to believe in their own potential as writers, and to believe in the intrinsic value of the literary enterprise.