Last week, we published a series of formative passages that have prompted readers to confront deep existential questions. This week, more readers look to literature for answers and guidance—and sometimes a challenge. Jenny Bhatt writes:
I first came across a worn-down copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at age 18 in a tiny “raddiwala” (used paper/scrap collector) shack in Bombay, India. Reading it all the way through that evening, I went alternately hot and cold at various passages. Like the Girton College women [to whom Woolf addressed the essay], I was trying to decide what to do next with my life, as the options for someone of my gender, class, and caste in India then were limited and all led to a lifetime of housewifery. I had wanted be a journalist, a writer, and had been told it was not a respectable profession. I had heard the ridicule Woolf had described: “The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?”
At the time, this was a major revelation (she elaborated it beautifully and compellingly over several pages, of course):
Intellectual freedom depends on material things. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.
And this part was as if she was talking directly to me:
By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no mean confining you to fiction. If you would please me—and there are thousands like me—you would write books of history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science. …
Young women, you are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare are not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilization. What is your excuse?