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Some thoughts on Woolf's "poverty".

S. Yaeger's picture

Since our class on Thursday, I have been thinking about Woolf's definition of poverty as a virtue that is necessary for education.  My intitial reaction to her definition of poverty as having just enough to be independant, and wanting nothing more, was very emotional.  This is, I'm sure, a reaction that was fed by my own lack of independence at this point.  I read Three Guineas while trying to navigate a semester that has started with me being without  working heat or hot water for 3 weeks, and with me worrying constantly about whether I will have enough gas to make it to campus for class.  I missed the first class discussion of the book because someone had to stay home to wait for a plumber to look at our furnace, and no one else in my house could afford to miss work.  I say this, not to garner sympathy, but to say that, though I was frustrated and insulted by Woolf's definition, and by her insistence that such poverty would be a virtue, perhaps she was somewhat right.  

Though I do think that those of us who are not independently able to pay for our own needs can actually be great students, I also think that, at least for me, there is never a point in my academic life where I am fully commited to the task at hand.  I am often distracted by worry over money, or guilt over having to ask my family to feed, clothe and shelter me.  If I am working at home, I am often asked to interupt my own academic work in order to perform a favor or errand for the people who are contributing to my ability to be student.  This tension colors every bit of writing I do for classes, and it makes class issues implicit in readings pop to the forefront for me in such a way that they sometimes obscur other ideas.  With all of that in mind, I can't help but wonder if, were I able to fuly support myself, I would be able to work harder at my education, and I wonder if maybe that sort of devotional ability was not something Woolf was pushing toward in Three Guineas.  I wonder what everyone else thinks here.


FrigginSushi's picture

On the fence...

More of a response to S. Yaeger's first paragraph (not related to education).

S. Yaeger's picture

I didn't really consider the

I didn't really consider the idea of a vow of poverty, such as those taken by monks, when I wrote my initial post, but that's an interesting thing to consider in trying to understand Woolf's stance. When I consider poverty as a vow, then, yes, it definitely looks a lot more like a virtue to me.  It even looks more virtuous when it's a vow of poverty which serves others.  I'm thinking here more of Ghandi than a catholic priest.  Thanks, FrigginSushi, for making me consider this.

sara.gladwin's picture

interruptions and interpretations

Reading this post and thinking about Viriginia Woolf's definition of "poverty" reminded me of one of her other writings, "A Room of One's Own." Woolf believe that in order to write, a woman would need money and a room of her own to shut the door on interruptions, distractions and the requirements that were specific to her gender. She thought about the women writers of her day, such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, who were forced to write in the common rooms of their houses, often interrupted by chores or errends, similar to those that the above post refers to. I have been thinking recently that not all these interruptions are necessarily negative. Sometimes, the interruptions that 'color' writing may actually be part of what helps to create our individual interpretations and insights in reading and writing. Woolf muses in A Room of One's Own about what these writers could have created without interruptions. I think that the writing produced around these distractions is much more important than what could have been created minus interruptions. The novels that reflect the time, reflections of the lives of what these women created, is much more significant that what they did not have. Similarly, how we work through our distractions helps to create what we bring to the table when we come to class. A person's ability to find relevance to their lives in a text like Three Guineas is because of the interruptions and distractions they face throughout the day. Without distractions in those woman's lives, without a need to express themselves, would we have their writings at all?

S. Yaeger's picture

Thinking about Three Guineas

Thinking about Three Guineas in relation to a A Room of Their Own is definitely interesting, especially, as you point out, when one factors in the works of Austen and the Bronte sisters.  I wonder, though, if we can even begin to understand the relation of interuptions to the work of those writers.  I mean, Woolf wrote from her own room, and was able to embed a pretty neat critique of the boredom of the upper class in Mrs. Dalloway (which I honestly like a lot more than her essays).  I'd like to think that my distractions and interactions and little struggles and frustrations add to what I can bring into the conversation, but I am still not totally comfortable with the idea that this is always a positive thing.  I wonder, though, if this isn't just one of those moments where a text just really highlights my own frustrations, but kind of blinds me to the frustrations of others, including Woolf.  Maybe you're right, and Woolf saw her own wealth as some sort of hindrance which she then projected onto others.