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A Room of One’s Own Essay

“…I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind the red curtain over there the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not conclead? We are all women you assure me? Then I may tell you that the next words I read were these- ‘Chloe liked Olivia…’ Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Somtimes women do like women.” -Virgina Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

This quote so interests me because it gets at the views on homosexuality not just of Virgina Woolf’s time, but of the views of many centuries before her. Only recently has the issue of homosexuality been publicly discussed and debated, and even now there are still many who are uncomfortable or against the subject. Therefore, with a subject that is still so adamantly argued today, one can only expect that the ideas were even more narrow-minded concerning homosexuality dating back for centuries.

Historically, the subject of homosexuality has been kept very hidden and private from the public. Obviously the idea and practice of homosexuality has existed for centuries, if not since the caveman, but the degree with which one was free to discuss it has changed dramatically. As reference, for example, we know that Sappho was a lesbian based on her letters and poems to women, but she could never come out and express such an idea openly to the public. The paragraph directly following this quote from A Room of One’s Own begins, “it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Olivia.” This demonstrates that in Woolf’s time even the idea of discussing homosexuality in a public forum was revolutionary. As she describes, never before had there been a novel where a girl was in love with a girl or even a man was in love with a man. Additionally, in her preface to the actual discussion of homosexuality in literature, she makes the point of glancing around the metaphorical room of readers in order to ensure that there are no men around. This seems indicative of the ideas of the time, as though some of these ideas were finally able to be discussed in literature, the idea of discussing it with men was still considered taboo.

The idea of homosexuality is not only noticeable in its existence, as Mary Carmichael’s book discusses new territory, but also in the idea of its nonexistence in literature up to that point. While Sappho’s poems are one instance to which this might not completely apply, for the most part, especially in novels and literature before Woolf’s time, there was virtually no mention of homosexuality. As Woolf’s last quote ends, “Cleopatra did not like Olivia.” She then goes on to say “how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered if she had done so!” This thought, that all of literature could be altered if the relationships were about two females instead of a male and a female, is a mind-boggling one. As much of literature concerning the female gender, as Woolf points out, is concerned with their relationship with men, how would this effect the entire dynamic of the great classics?

Thus the issue of homosexuality is a bigger one than at first meets the eye, for not only is it a matter of the times and the historical implications of speaking out concerning homosexuality, but a matter of the creation of relationships developed within the novels. If literature had focused on homosexual instead of heterosexual relationships, would the issue of the relationship between men and women play as elemental a role, either in literature or in life in general?

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