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Perhaps there could not be a more suitable author for such a controversial gender-bender than Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, an apparent poke at biographies and a subversive treatise on gender issues, has not ceased to intrigue critics and literature fans alike. Orlando is one of Woolf’s most memorable and best-remembered masterpieces, not just based on her innovative mastery of stylistics, distorted realities and literary genre-bending, but mostly because of her unique treatment of gender in the semi-biography.
Woolf’s own sexuality was not hidden from the public eye, and her own inclinations have found their way into this work of hers as well. This paper will not delve deeper into the relationship between Woolf and Orlando’s sexuality, but rather seek to expose further on how Woolf portrayed sex and gender and its reflections of society at large. The novel/semi-biography opens with Orlando obviously a boy, yet portrayed as strangely androgynous. Orlando is beautiful.
His red cheeks are covered with “peach down,” lips drawn back to reveal teeth “of an exquisite and almond whiteness, an “arrowy nose,” dark hair, and “eyes drenched like violets.
” His handsome body is accentuated by his “well-set shoulders” and “shapely legs. ” Although the narrator states that Orlando is a boy, his description is surprisingly feminine. The narrator implies that his appearance crosses gender boundaries. Similar case with the object of Orlando’s affection; Princess Sasha’s gender is questionable at first glance.
She is of “middle height,” “very slenderly fashioned” in a tunic and trousers that disguise her sex.
Orlando assumes that she must be a boy because she skates with such speed and vigor. The presence of androgynous characters (as later on revealed, Orlando is not the only androgynous character in the novel) foreshadows the gender changes that will occur later in the novel. Such descriptions imply that gender is of little importance to beauty or attraction. This theme reemerges throughout the novel. It is interesting how women in general are portrayed in the first chapter.
The narrator goes through each of Orlando’s women that he was considering for marriage (Clorinda, Favilla, and Euphrosyne), describing each one with the typical characteristics of women in the Elizabethan era that certainly would identify a woman of that period as the perfect wife of a nobleman: sweet–mannered and gentle, graceful and much admired, and having a deeply rooted family tree. Equally amusing is how Orlando “hurled at the faithless woman all the insults that have ever been the lot of her sex” when Sasha betrayed him and left him; he called her “faithless, mutable, fickle… devil, adulteress, deceiver.
” Contrast this outburst with how Orlando’s own incidence of unfaithfulness was earlier dismissed by the Queen, excusing him because of circumstances of the time: “It was Orlando’s fault perhaps; yet after all, are we to blame him? The age was the Elizabethan; their morals were not ours… ” Could this be a double-standard, perhaps? Or is it the author’s way of justifying the protagonists’ actions, perhaps reflective of her own, or of someone else? Orlando seemed to be pretty much affected by the entire “Sasha incident”, which reverberates all through out the rest of the novel.
Shortly after her betrayal, Orlando chose to spend what seems to be several years, decades or centuries (one cannot really be certain of the timeline in this chapter as Woolf off-handedly interchanges figurative and literal writing, most specially here) in solitude and writing under his favorite oak tree. The narrator recounts: “Thus, at the age of thirty, or thereabouts, this young Nobleman had not only had every experience that life has to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all. Love and ambition, women and poets were all equally vain.
” Love, or Lust, however, found its way back into Orlando’s life when he met the Archduchess Harriet Griselda. This is an interesting scene where Orlando is suddenly disgusted when he recognizes his reaction to the Archduchess as mere lust and not love, which is not a typical depiction of a male. Orlando surprisingly chooses to curb in his passions of lust since he recognized it was not love at all; this shows a somewhat going against the archetypal alpha-male where any hot-blooded man would have done otherwise.
This gives the reader an inkling that Orlando is very much in touch with his feminine side. Woolf lends the narrator’s microphone and viewfinder, if you will, to other narrators as well. When Orlando got his patent of nobility as Duke, two other persons present at his ball lent their voices and points of view of what happened that night. According to the diary of John Fenner Brigge, an English naval officer who was watching the party from a tree: “By the Ambassador’s orders, the long windows, which are so imposing a feature of Eastern architecture, for though ignorant in many ways…
were thrown wide; and within, we could see a tableau vivant or theatrical display in which English ladies and gentlemen… represented a masque the work of one… The words were inaudible, but the sight of so many of our countrymen and women, dressed with the highest elegance and distinction… moved me to emotions of which I am certainly not ashamed, though unable… I was intent upon observing the astonishing conduct of Lady—which was of a nature to fasten the eyes of all upon her, and to bring discredit upon her sex and country…”
Zooming out of the close-up focus that was always kept tight on Orlando from the start, the narration takes a turn when an outsider suddenly describes the bigger picture where the protagonist was moving in. Social gatherings of the sort more likely than not centered on the gentlemen surveying the ladies, but within the constraints of etiquette and courtly manners (it was the Elizabethan period, anyway). Another “eyewitness” to that night was Miss Penelope Hartopp: “‘Ravishing,’ she exclaims ten times on one page, ‘wondrous… utterly beyond description…
gold plate… candelabras… negroes in plush breeches… pyramids of ice… fountains of negus… jellies made to represent His Majesty’s ships… swans made to represent water lilies… birds in golden cages… gentlemen in slashed crimson velvet… Ladies’ headdresses AT LEAST six foot high… musical boxes…. Mr. Peregrine said I looked QUITE lovely which I only repeat to you, my dearest, because I know… Oh! how I longed for you all!… surpassing anything we have seen at the Pantiles… oceans to drink… some gentlemen overcome… Lady Betty ravishing….
Poor Lady Bonham made the unfortunate mistake of sitting down without a chair beneath her… Gentlemen all very gallant… wished a thousand times for you and dearest Betsy… But the sight of all others, the cynosure of all eyes… as all admitted, for none could be so vile as to deny it, was the Ambassador himself. Such a leg! Such a countenance!! Such princely manners!!! To see him come into the room! To see him go out again! And something INTERESTING in the expression, which makes one feel, one scarcely knows why, that he has SUFFERED! They say a lady was the cause of it.
The heartless monster!!! How can one of our REPUTED TENDER SEX have had the effrontery!!! He is unmarried, and half the ladies in the place are wild for love of him… A thousand, thousand kisses to Tom, Gerry, Peter, and dearest Mew’ [presumably her cat]. ” An interesting way of painting a portrait of the typical Elizabethan woman is to use the voice of a woman herself to reveal her own foibles. Miss Hartopp inadvertently depicted the typical woman of her period as one always on the look out for love and lovers, as she narrated herself to be so easily moved by small tokens and actions of affection.
She also openly expressed how half of the women at the ball were madly in love with Orlando. Nothing prepares the reader for what comes next after the disturbance at Orlando’s ball; all of a sudden, Orlando becomes a woman after emerging from a seven-day trance. The three ladies of Chastity, Purity, and Modesty attempt to control Orlando while he is in a trance, but the trumpeters of Truth frighten them away, waking Orlando from his deep sleep. When Orlando awakes, he is now a beautiful woman; with the strength of a man and the grace of a woman.
It is somewhat intriguing why Woolf would use the three ladies mentioned trying to lay claim on Orlando (Lady of Purity, Lady of Chastity, and Lady of Modesty). This passage may at first appear confusing, but the Ladies and the trumpeters are merely the narrator’s means to describe the process of Orlando’s change. Modesty, Purity, and Chastity work to cover Orlando, to prevent his new, true self from being shown to the world. But the strong duty to tell the Truth means that the narrator must reveal to the reader what truly happened to Orlando.
Though it seems neither modest, nor chaste for Orlando to reveal his himself to the world as a woman, he does so nonetheless. This scene is a metaphor for the act of revealing one’s true self to the world, no matter how different it may be from what people may expect. There are those, the narrator writes, who wish to hide the truth in darkness. Orlando as a novel, brings Truth to light, exposing the vague line which separates male from female, suggesting that the qualities of both may even be combined into one being.
We also learn later on that Orlando’s character hardly changes, except for the appearance of his body. Indeed, to Orlando, the change is so slight that she hardly notices it. She looks herself up and down in a long mirror, and walks calmly to her bath. Gender seems to be nearly not so important to Orlando as the other qualities that make up a person. This presents quite of a contradiction, however. With this claim that only Orlando’s body changes, it is evident in the later chapters that certainly a lot more than just Orlando’s body has changed.
She becomes more conscious about which parts of her body are shown to the opposite sex, she learns the power and thrills of being “helpless” and “dependent” on men, and she learns that she has also become “excessively tender–hearted. ” Woolf hereby presents a delightful distinction between sex and gender. The non-physical changes Orlando went through may not be direct expressions of his/her transformation physically (sex), but they certainly characterize a shift in how he/she carries him/herself socially; his/her social behavior is altered.
Yes, Orlando’s interests (nature, literature, etc. ) still remain the same; yet there is an obvious change in how he/she would relate to others, from both sexes, and how Orlando perceived his/her social responsibilities and possibilities were. Could one possibly conclude from this piece of literature that one’s physical sexual attributes determines one’s gender? Orlando goes through the rest of the novel searching for fulfillment, sexual or romantic, interchangeably.
Orlando concludes that he/she prefers to be a woman instead of a man, and decidedly takes on that role. Woolf doesn’t hesitate, however, to bend the boundaries of gender once again by revealing that Orlando still loved a woman: “And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.
For now a thousand hints and mysteries became plain to her that were then dark. Now, the obscurity, which divides the sexes and lets linger innumerable impurities in its gloom, was removed, and if there is anything in what the poet says about truth and beauty, this affection gained in beauty what it lost in falsity. At last, she cried, she knew Sasha as she was…” The female Orlando however still goes through many male lovers… and finally settles down with Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (Shel).
Shel cannot believe that Orlando is a woman because she is “as tolerant and free-spoken as a man” and Orlando cannot believe that Shel is a man because “he is as strange and subtle as a woman. ” They get along quite well together, understanding each other perfectly. Two genders/sexes, finally meet & meld.
Majumdar, Robin and McLaurin, Allen. (ed. ) The Critical Heritage: Virginia Woolf. Routledge, 1997. Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1998.
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