First of all, Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf is not an easy read, at least it wasn’t for me.
While this novel isn’t my cup of tea I felt I wanted to discuss what this novel is known for, its take on sexuality…in 1928!
The synopsis on Goodreads is as follows:
As his tale begins, Orlando is a passionate young nobleman whose days are spent in rowdy revelry, filled with the colourful delights of Queen Elizabeth’s court. By the close, he will have transformed into a modern, 36-year-old woman and three centuries will have passed. Orlando will not only witness the making of history from its edge, but will find that his unique position as a woman who knows what it is to be a man will give him insight into matters of the heart.
*This discussion will contain some spoilers*
Orlando, as a young, single nobleman had many lovers and was even engaged. Out of all his lovers and even his fiancee he seemed to love Sasha who was a young Russian princess. They both agree to run off together and while Orlando waits to meet up with her he finds out that she’s deserted him. This prompts an existential crisis for Orlando. Flash forward to years later and Orlando has randomly turned into a woman!
Orlando was raised as a man and he still thinks as one but now as a woman, he comes to see the world through a different lens.
As a man, he hated Sasha for abandoning him. As a woman, he realized he loved her more. When Orlando became a woman it was as if he realized he understood Sasha in a way he never could as a man.
What shines in this fictional biography is Orlando’s attempt to reconcile society’s demands of him/her as a woman while some aspects of him still identify as a man. As a man, he is afforded every privilege and respect but as a woman, he finds himself a step lower in society. While as a woman, Orlando is being courted by a man the theme of men’s perspective of women arises.
“A woman knows very well that, though a wit sends her his poems, praises her judgment, solicits her criticism, and drinks her tea, this by no means signifies that he respects her opinions, admires her understanding…”
The male perspective in the novel is shown to be that while men desire, covet and love women, they do not consider them their equals. Men consider them to be like children…”A man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them…”
So how does a person who was originally in a superior position as a man submit to his new, submissive position as a female? That is Orlando’s predicament.
Male or female?
In an effort to tackle the question of sex and gender in her main character and perhaps for the benefit of readers of that time (in whose minds male and female are two opposite and exclusive things, one not related to the other), Woolf addresses the question, is Orlando male or female?
Although Orlando’s body is female later on and has resigned to dress as such, he still feels comfortable in men’s clothes and dons either at will. To this, Woolf goes on to say that in every human being there is a vacillation between sexes (there is a touch of female in men and a bit of male in women?) and it is only the clothes they wear that definitively identify them to the world as one or the other. Might this effectively suppress to the outside world this intermix that normally exists? Is there a touch of the other sex lying dormant? Might Woolf be referring to men who dress as women or vice versa in her own time?
In Orlando, she notes that he/she has characteristics that (in this day and age) are stereotypically male (hatred of household chores, knowledge of crops) AND female (tender heart, lack of man’s love of power). Also, Orlando decides to dress as a man, picks up a prostitute and lusts after her as a man would, all this while being biologically female. So essentially, whether Orlando is definitively male or female cannot be decided for the readers and here exists a fluidity of gender.
“For the probity of breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally.”
In an era where to be deemed anything other than straight and either exclusively male or female is practically unthinkable and in many places illegal, Woolf shows an open mind to the idea of sex and gender. It’s amazing how she tackles these subjects.
An aspect I liked about Orlando was his unwillingness to submit to society’s conventions by not wanting to marry. Unfortunately, Orlando ends up pregnant and because of this decided to submit to the conventions of the current age…and marry.
Has anyone read Orlando? What are your thoughts on the book’s perspective on sex and gender?