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Gender and Sexuality in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando Critical Essay

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Updated: Jul 2nd, 2019

“Orlando” is a sagacious charming escapade written by Virginia Woolf in form of a biography. The biography is not only an epic work of English literature but also a commentary of gender and sexuality identity. An account of the writer’s “theory of sexuality” is presented while highlighting the notion of sexual desire, femininity and masculinity.

In the book, Virginia Woolf provides her thoughts on gender roles, the roles played by clothing in gender identity, and her understanding on sexual orientation1. The result is Woolf’s masterpiece that captures the attention of readers and elicits lots of criticism.

This paper seeks to discuss how Virginia Woolf represents gender and sexuality while relating to ideas of modernism. Using the book, the paper will support the argument that it is inaccurate to bind gender and sexuality.

In “Orlando”, the protagonist is born with masculine features but is transformed into a woman later in her life. This book has given a new realization and has expressed new ideas about sexual orientation in the contemporary world.

According to analysts, Virginia’s ideas were as a result of her own sexual experiences. Her life was characterized by a keen interest in transsexuals, transvestites, homosexuals and the whole idea of sex change presented in Orlando. Her real life, inclinations and reasoning has profoundly found its way into her books2.

Modernism is a trend of reasoning that emphasizes the power of people to form, modify and improve their environment. The development in scientific technology and practical experimentation has helped in development of modernism.

Orlando is deeply linked to modernism with lead characters longing to unleash their power to modify their sexuality. Modernism argues that human beings have the ability to define their identity through their own inner voice. Modernism in “Orlando“is evident when against the norms and expectations of the society, Orlando accepts his changed sex.

In line with modernism, Virginia argues that abilities and sexuality are not based on gender. Additionally, humans are not neatly male or female, gender changes frequently. This means that cultural treatments based on gender do not have any rational stand if gender can change frequently.

Virginia’s interest in sex change is the centre of emphasis in “Orlando.” The protagonist, a youthful man called Orlando is not only interested in sex change but also develops a unique interest in clothes that defines his sexuality.

In “Orlando”, Woolf demonstrates her expertise in stylistics and her exceptional treatment of gender and sexuality. This is depicted by her character development of Orlando, Princess Sasha and Archduke Harry. These characters essentially serve to separate gender from sexuality.

Orlando, Princess Sasha and Archduke Harry are assigned unique sexual characteristics that are arguably against the expectations of Victorian culture. The writer has given their gender a special treatment in that after transformation, Orlando is confident with her new state and even starts to explore her new sexuality.

Although it is expected that the transformation will change her gender, the writer asserts that all the other aspects, referring to her identity, remained the same. Princess Sasha is given unique masculine characteristics primarily with her dressing, her confidence and skating skills.

Archduke Harry is not deterred by his assumed gender in his ardent pursue of happiness and love. He desperately uses deception and disguise to win the attention of Orlando, both as a man and as a woman. His confidence frees him from the Victorian culture and separates his gender from sexuality.

At the beginning of the story, Orlando, the protagonist is a young boy depicted as androgynous by looks and character. The author does not fail to mention his masculinity as in his sunken cheeks, dry hair, well set shoulders and a handsome body. Nevertheless, his description is characterized by his feminine nature dominating over his true gender.

The description fits that of a beautiful woman, a model in contemporary world. Woolf continues to describe his feminine characteristics including his shapely legs, his short lips, red cheeks and a beautiful mouth. His body is described as having “youthful beauty” which is a female description. This not only gives the androgynous nature of the protagonist but also expose Woolf’s love for women and her inclination to changing gender.

Orlando’s description is feminine and implies a person who has crossed gender boundaries. His reasoning is also affected by his view of gender and sexuality. When Orlando sees a figure of Princess Sasha skate past him, he cannot tell which gender she belonged. He first assumed she was a man because of her skating skills and vigor but she turned out to be a woman.

This instance also brings out the androgynous character of Princess Sasha. However, unlike Orlando, her character is highlighted by her way of dressing3. Orlando is specifically attracted to the figure that passes him without regard to sexual orientation.

He disregards the societal or the cultural identity that denotes the right mate. Virginia presents her androgynous characters at initial stages of the story to prepare the readers for the gender changes that takes place later in the book.

Although Virginia shows her dedication to remain impartial about gender and sexuality in “Orlando”, her voice, interpretation and opinion contradicts her efforts. Virginia presents her thoughts in gender and sexuality like a typical modernist writer. As a modernist, she attempts to explore the artistic inclination of androgynous characters.

This is presented by sophisticated description of dressing by Princess Sasha and Archduke Harry. Modernism is characterized by artistic inclination to revise the traditional identities of gender. As witnessed in Orlando, it also offers opportunities for borderless artistic and self definition in gender and sexuality.

The literary culmination of indistinctness of gender and sexuality is featured in chapter three of “Orlando.” After sleeping for seven days in some kind of trancelike sleep, Orlando wakes up to find his body changed into a woman. Before Orlando is transformed, three metaphorical ladies attempt to conceal her body and the truth about his changes.

This symbolic representation was Virginia’s attempt to express her feelings about the oppressive cultural and societal forces that were acting against divergent opinions regarding sexuality and gender. In a surprising way, Orlando is contented with her transformation from being a man to being a woman.

As the narrator observes, he just looked at his new looks and presumably went to her bath. On the contrary, the society around him cannot understand the transformation and requires sometimes adjusting with his new sex.4

The reaction after transformation confirms the androgynous aspect of Orlando that the reader suspects at the beginning of the book. The transformation also confirms Virginia’s assertion of non-fixed nature of sexuality. After transformation, the narrator confirms that indeed Orlando had become a woman.

Nevertheless, the author continues to append male pronouns when referring to him. This was Virginia’s efforts to present her views that although Orlando had transformed into a woman, every other male aspect remained intact. Virginia asserts that it is not accurate to link gender and sexuality. She categorically states that “the change of sex altered the future but did not alter the identity.”

The narrator explicitly clarified that Orlando remained intact in his identity and gender even after his biological sex was altered5. Though he remained emotionally unaffected, the people around him took time to adjust to the fact that he remained fundamentally the same person.

At some instance, the Gipsies treated him as inferior and he felt that he had a lot of differences from them. This fact addresses the contemporary features of modernism. The society still has not separated gender from sex, and gender roles are still determined by sex.

Virginia used this book to highlight the effects of profoundly ingrained society and cultural ideals that the society is compelled to enforce. These ideals are not even close to universal truths and do not have tangible value; they are simply cultural idiosyncrasy.

The conflict of values that were depicted by Orlando’s unchanged gender was a threat to conservative Victorian culture. The Victorian culture emphasized on dual sex system and combined it with the respective genders. On the contrary, Gipsy men and women shared a lot in common.

In many ways Orlando is a proof that Virginia is not troubled by homosexuality6. He uses Orlando to attack the oppressive cultural expectations and classification into two distinct terms. Orlando continues to break the convention of sex and gender and find her place as a woman in Victorian system.

It is at this time when she meets the Archduchess Harriet Griselda. This was a man who had dressed like a woman after falling for Orlando. Eventually, the truth surfaces and it is revealed that he was indeed a man7.

Archduke Harry dressed like a transvestite to disguise himself in order to pursue Orlando when he was a biological man. He abandoned his disguise after realizing that Orlando had changed his sexuality to pursue her again as a man.

This character is apologetic about his previous actions but does not care about the implications of this truth to his perceived gender. Archduke Harry is not concerned with his homosexual actions but is infuriated by the society’s conventions that he views as limitations to his personal satisfactions of love.

Archduke Harry has been used by the author to highlight an aspect of modernism. Like the character, the society is unable to separate gender from sex. To pursue intrinsic sexual orientation, people are forced to employ peculiar antics, just like Archduke Harry.

Orlando lived as a woman for quite sometimes and learned living like one by responding appropriately to other people. By this, Virginia supported her observation that “it is the clothes that wear us,” and by this she meant that clothes influence people’s thinking, acting and talking.8

Virginia’s book is similar to Butler’s work that focuses on the misconception that gender and sex are intrinsically connected with each other. Butler asserts that gender is an individual’s choice and a cultural history must be reviewed to fit personal terms.

Woolf and Butler agree that gender is unique for each individual and is determined by societal norms. People should be able to accept their gender identities, and erode the normative standards common in masses9.

The main theme presented by Virginia is gender determination and the question asked whether men and women are different. This question is answered by Orlando’s transformation; she felt the same as before. Men and women are not different as assumed by Victorian culture.

In addition, gender should be separated from sexuality as suggested by Virginia in Orlando. Virginia proved gender is fluid by changing the sex of the protagonist, and switching her gender several times after she became a woman.

In conclusion, Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is a feminist literal work that is aimed at wiping out the assumed gender and sex binary. After changing into a woman, Virginia used Orlando to present her feminist views from a man’s and a woman’s viewpoint. Orlando proves that the graces possessed by women are not innate, they are achieved through sacrifice.

Virginia uses Orlando to protest against sexism by continuously separating sexuality and gender. Her assertion that it is inaccurate to intrinsically bind gender and sexuality is achieved by unaffected gender of Orlando after her sex is transformed.

Virginia’s message is clear that the standard societal convention of a person’s identity should be separated from sexuality; it should be manifested internally and it should not be linked with biological sexing.


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Lawrence, Karen R. “Orlando’s Voyage Out.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 1992: 38,1:253-277.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992.


1 Lawrence, Karen R. “Orlando’s Voyage Out,” 253.

2 Woolf, Virginia. Orlando (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992), 102.

3 Lawrence, Karen R. “Orlando’s Voyage Out,” 263.

4 Woolf, Virginia. Orlando (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992), 102.

5 Lawrence, Karen R. “Orlando’s Voyage Out,” 255.

6 Lawrence, Karen R. “Orlando’s Voyage Out,” 264.

7 Woolf, Virginia. Orlando (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992), 132.

8 Woolf, Virginia. Orlando (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992), 138.

9 Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 12.

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