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“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” (Beauvoir 295)
The search for self and sex can assume a daunting reality when literary forms are intentionally mixed with non-conventional style and the perceived form of narrative is broken. The transgression from one style to the other, and through the process of breaking the convention Virginia Woolf, in her essay A Room of One’s Own and parodic novel Orlando: An Autobiography, reinstates for her theory of gender, identity, and sexuality. The question of gender identity and the writings of Virginia Woolf have been very closely associated with researchers. She has been instrumental in reassessing modernism in English literature in the early twentieth century. While reviewing Woolf’s works, Blanchard concedes:
Woolf is a major writer. She is a political writer, one whose aesthetic decisions are also political and thus one whole fiction and criticism must be understood about each other. She is a writer who wanted to change not only the shape of modern fiction but also the shape of the modern world. She is a novelist we have had to learn to read are only beginning to learn to read. (Blanchard 95-6)
Woolf may be considered as one of the keenest modernists who fought for a new method of writing fiction as well as a proponent for social change. Woolf was constantly drawn by the issues and inequalities of gender that found an outlet in her literary works and fiction. However, until the end of the twentieth century, the presence of Woolf was not felt in modernism, as it was gendered until then (Miracky 2). Woolf often demonstrated the Victorian ideal of ‘separate spheres’ in her writings and dealt with it to demonstrate the gulf dividing the present from the past. Thus, she experimented with Victorian mores and modernist ideals in her search for the true identity of women.
In many ways, Woolf may be considered as the pioneer of the modernist discourse of gender identity and sexuality (Miracky 4). Therefore, in both A Room and Orlando, Woolf analyzes the relation between women writers and novels and vice versa to demonstrate the masculine ideals and values surrounding literary works. A Room was written in 1929, along with Orlando that was written at the same time and published in 1928. Probably that is the reason for similar themes in both the literary works, especially with their dealings with gender, identity, and the masculine literary institution. Therefore, A Room is a “theoretical investigation” and Orlando is a “practical example” that encompasses the patriarchal literary world’s attempt to provide a “definitive theory of the novel” (Thompson 306). Though both these books have been treated differently, both the books carry Woolf’s philosophy regarding gender identity and sexuality. Therefore, both the books are centered on the continuous struggle of the women of the ages that has been found through the penmanship of Woolf.
A theoretical outlook of female sexuality and constructing the female sexual identity are considered an essential tenant of modernism (Miracky 2). However, Woolf rejected both the concepts of sexual identity and sexual desire, which are represented through bisexual protagonists who break the homosexual/heterosexual divide. Therefore, while reading her works, heterosexual and homosexual identities are merged and become mutually exclusive. Interestingly, Woolf’s literary works handle sexuality and same-sex sexual desire as normal and therefore, rejects the abnormality quotient from it as often found in literary works of the time.
In her work of the twenties, Woolf disentangles bisexual desire from androgyny and from subjectivities construing certain sex acts as defining characteristics of rare types of people. As she does so, she dispenses with the male-promoting concepts of androgyny and androgynous genius and recoups bisexual desire for women. Where sexuality is concerned, she proliferates the imaginative and creative possibilities associated with the gender-nonexclusionary polymorphous mutability of desire that today is primarily associated with bisexuality. (Helt 132)
Therefore, it is believed that Woolf successfully depicted a genre of women who prevailed with their bisexual desires, and refuted the conventional belief in the didactically opposite idea of sexuality.
Woolf believed that the difference between men and women was not innate but discoursed through societal constructs. Hence, Woolf always tried to deconstruct the juxtaposing nature of the gender division in her work. She did not consider the gender division to be binary opposite in nature; rather, gender identity took a metaphysical nature in her writings.
In Orlando and A Room of One’s Own, Woolf presents a satire on the “narratives of gender identity” and presented the sexuality of the concept of asexual androgyny. Therefore, there lays a confusion regarding the creation or non-creation of gender identity that is most of the time considered asexual. Further, the sexuality of the androgynous figure transcends the boundaries of common heterosexuality. Therefore, the question of identity and sexuality assumes great importance in both Orlando and A Room of One’s Own. In both works, Woolf presents a feminist perspective of the quest for gender identity and female sexuality in a world that had been under patriarchal domination. Therefore, there emerged from Woolf’s literary works bisexuality, same-sex desire, and transvestites.
This paper is a study of the presence and treatment of gender identity and sexuality of women through the two famous works of Woolf – A Room of One’s Own and Orlando. This paper will discuss the various aspects of the two literary works and show how Woolf has defined identity and sexuality in both the works. Further, the paper will also look at the importance of gender roles in defining gender identity and sexuality. Finally, the paper will present a summarized argument for the gender identity and sexuality that has been created by Woolf through these works in the sphere of modernism, and how it created a new genre of literary modernism of gender identity and sexuality in English literature.
A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf in her essay A Room of One’s Own writes about her personal views in an impersonal way, wherein she keeps her private life hidden from the readers. She writes the essay in the first person whereas calls herself Mary Beton: “Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please – it is not a matter of any importance).” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 3). Mary Beton deflects the attention of the readers from Virginia Woolf’s persona and concentrates on the openness of the ideas of the narrator.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf presented her ideal for androgyny and materialism, and therefore, makes no distinction between the two opposing genders, thereby endorsing that the question of androgyny and impersonality are interlinked in her penmanship. It can be argued that through the androgynous ideal presented by Woolf in A Room, she wanted to correct the masculinity discourse. Her greater aim was to combine the concept of maleness and femaleness, therefore, diluting the “other”. The most striking part of Woolf’s writing is a humor and full of laughter. She is objective and detached in her analysis of the victimization of women in western society.
A Room is about the search for finding one’s own identity in a world dominated by the patriarchs. Woolf, in the book, presented a large amount of material regarding the misogynistic material collected by men in the past. One such example is that of Judith Shakespeare whose fictional narration presented in the book problematizes the conventional use of Shakespeare to prove woman’s inferiority in creating literature. Further, in her search for gender identity, Woolf presents a distinction between writing novels and poetry, and why early women writers gained more success as novelists than poets. Further, Woolf exemplifies how female biology has a strong role to play in determines and shapes literary structure. In her essay, Woolf tries to show that even women writers consciously or unconsciously adhere to the patriarchal norms. Woolf delineated this while discussing a successful author, Mary Carmichael who she believes had successfully broken the gender identity and adopted the androgynous phase of mind: “She wrote as a woman so that her page was full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself” (92). As pointed out by Batchelor, “the objective for the woman writer” in A Room “is poetry”, an art the Woolf presumes to be detached from the “immediate pressures of circumstances” (44). Therefore, poetry is presumed to be the absolute creation of a mind that has achieved an androgynous state:
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Fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in the mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 43)
Sex and gender role are predominant in Woolf’s A Room. One of the most impactful statements made by Woolf in the essay is that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 102). In the book, Woolf seems to be obsessed with the idea of gender discourse and how the patriarchal society constrains the movement of women, especially that was observed in Victorian England. She believed that the literary form was male-determined, and therefore, subjugated and deliberately limited the scope and space for women. In one instance, Woolf mentions that female characters in novels, poems, dramas, were always shown to their male counterparts, and the former’s presence was unnecessary when the latter was involved in something else. Females were shown only about the love interest of the male characters, and therefore, Woolf argues did not command a large position.
It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex but only seen about the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that. (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 82)
Therefore, Woolf is distressed at the lack of proper representation of women in early literary works wherein the form of the literature was decided upon by the patriarchy, and the lack of women representation in the work of literary art, as she felt that “a man is hampered and partial in his knowledge of women” (82). Woolf therefore, calls for a change in literary structure, such that there is a better representation of life in novels or dramas, such that female perspective of life is also brought in. Therefore, in her essay, Woolf directly related gender identity to novelistic form such that the need for a woman to transgress social traditions. The question of gender identity as put forth by Woolf is that women, as represented in novels or literature, are dealt with little complexity as they are full of “astonishing extremes” as “a lover would see her as his love rose or sank” (82). Woolf describes the nature of the depiction of women in patriarchal literature:
Indeed, if the woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this woman in fiction.” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 44-5)
Woolf shows that this is the woman that has been described in early English literature by Chaucer or Shakespeare. However, at the time, women, in reality, had very little position in the social sphere: “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 45)
The stress on the need for spatial privacy is another aspect through which Woolf crates the gender construct of the English society. In her, A Room Woolf stresses the importance of spatial privacy. A demand for a study in a patriarchal hierarchy of an English family meant a call for legitimization for the feminine space that was almost absent in England at that time.
Women’s sexual identity is another issue that has been explicitly dealt with in Woolf’s A Room. Woolf describes fictitious scientist Professor von X’s anger towards female folk as: “Had he been laughed at, to adopt the Freudian theory, in his cradle by a pretty girl?”(33). The other patriarchal claim is that women’s intellect is restricted to a great extent due to female biology. Therefore, the intellectual and creative power of women is tremendously limited. The essay counters this patriarchal view of women’s intellect and therefore, presents a strong point of view to refute such ideas to present a stronger identity for women. However, Woolf herself at times writes that women’s writings most of the time supported this view of sexologists. She wrote in A Room that at times the women’s writing has “flaw in the center” (75). The importance of the book in the patriarchal literary world is due to its juxtaposition to the male-dominated literary world.
Woolf argues that female creativity has been grossly thwarted by material conditions and impediments. Woolf paints the picture of a woman in a middle-class patriarchal family wherein the family has perverse demands on the women’s time: “painting is now within women’s reach… if that is to say there is sufficient money after the sons have been educated to permit of paints and studios for the daughters and no family reason requiring their presence at home” (Woolf, The Intellectual Status of Women 45). She also stresses on the evolution of a genius following Darwinian belief: “you will not get a big Newton until you have produced a considerable number of lesser Newtons.” (Woolf, The Intellectual Status of Women 45-6). According to Woolf, the main reason that curtails women’s growth as writers is the psychological restraint of fear of scoff that, according to her, does not thwart men. Therefore, Woolf suggests that the ideal state of attainment for women is to attain the androgynous state. To attain this state, Woolf insists that spatial privacy is a necessity and therefore stresses the importance of having a room of their own.
Further, Woolf is stressed at the state of fiction writing due to the lack of the genre being produced during the time i.e. after World War I, as there was more stress put on non-fiction writing: “the illusion which inspired Tennyson and Christina Rossetti to sing so passionately about the coming of their loves is far rarer now than then” (17). Therefore, women too, Woolf felt, flocked to the idea of writing fiction.
It is a book that has been considered ever so important for feminist theory developed in the twentieth century. The book became popular due to Woolf’s unique style of mixing fiction with theory. Woolf shows that it is her defiance and distrust of the traditional philosophy and theory, which she believes was developed by the patriarchal world, that led to the construct of women. Woolf goes on to describe the literal poverty of women of the age and how male subjugation prevented them to be otherwise:
Moreover, it is equally useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had amassed great wealth and laid it under the foundations of college and library, because, in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned. It is only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs. Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that, it would have been her husband’s property — a thought which, perhaps, may have had its share in keeping Mrs. Seton and her mothers off the Stock Exchange. (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 24)
Therefore, there were legal, philosophical, and societal impediments in the way of women’s venture into the outer world. Her role was restricted, through the natural laws of the time, to be constricted within the domestic chores of being a good daughter, wife, and mother. Therefore, Woolf sarcastically points out that if women went out for money what would have happened to “our” childhood memories. There was the question of women not going into the profession due to her household considerations, and how going to the job would have left the children “running about the street” and believed that the “sight was is not a pleasant one” (24). However, in the whole process of making the decisions for women in what they are supposed to do and who should have control over their money, and what profession to choose or not to choose, never for once it was a decision taken by women themselves:
What, I asked, did Mary think of that? … Was she ready to resign her share of it and her memories … so that Fernham might have been endowed with fifty thousand pounds or so by a stroke of the pen? (23-4)
Therefore, the decision to work or not to work, to study or not to study were not women’s own but rather were dictated by social and family models that were determined by the patriarchal hierarchy. The essay points at the deprived condition of women that Woolf intentionally subjugates through dramatization and fictionalization.
The question of gender identity has been explicitly demonstrated through the example of the fictitious writer Mary Carmichael and her imaginary novel “Life’s Adventure”. In her description, Woolf writes that she scanned the book and found that something was missing, “Something tore, something scratched; a single word here and there flashed its torch in my eyes” (80). Woolf goes on reading the book, commenting at times on Mary Carmichael’s unconventional style as she “broke the sentence” or “broke the sequence” (81). Suddenly, Woolf read a line that struck her fancy “Chloe liked Olivia” (81). This Woolf candidly admits that probably “Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature” (81). Therefore, she cautions her readers not to “start” or “blush” and concedes, “Let us admit in the privacy of our society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women” (81). Though Woolf goes on to show how Chloe and Olivia were friends and shared a laboratory at their workplace, the very sentence “Chloe liked Olivia” opened a different space wherein the duality of heterosexuality is broken. This opens another door, another angle, another story.
This simple line “Chloe liked Olivia” is a laconic and brilliant example of “gender trouble”, a term coined by feminist philosopher Judith Butler. In her book, Gender Trouble, Butler discusses the performative characteristic of gender and the role it plays in developing gender identity. Butler argues that gender is a concept that has been constructed socially and culturally by “the regulatory fiction of heterosexuality” and gender trouble originates through performative aspects such as parody or cross-dressing or through any act that obstructs the “regulatory fiction” (Butler 46). In the case of A Room, “Chloe liked Olivia” disrupted the structure of the traditional text form and model. Butler further stresses that the body is culturally subjective to the construction of heterosexuality. This is done through the cultural production of acceptable sexuality and gender. Therefore, the culturally accepted production of literature entails the production of socially acceptable being within the domain of “uninhabitable” social zone (Butler 51). In terms of a literary text, when the author imbibes the abject “queerness” in the text, unintentionally disrupts the normal flow of the text.
Woolf in her essay also stresses that the continuous ordeal of living in a sex-constructed body trains a mind to act manly or womanly. This implicitly relates that the effect of the psyche is too powerful to escape. Woolf begins her androgynous belief through the famous maxim of Coleridge that “a great mind must be androgynous” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 97). In this case, Woolf begins with an occurrence of a common incidence wherein a man is found to get into the taxi with a woman. But this made her think whether there was “two sexes in the mind corresponding to sexes in the body” (96) that may
also require to be united to get complete satisfaction and happiness … It is when this fiction takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a purely masculine mind cannot create, any more than a purely feminine mind. (97)
This passage clearly shows that Woolf believes that a mind that creates ingenious work is that of an androgynous mind, and this has, therefore, become an axiomatic passage for the feminists and modernists.
However, another, less quoted passage from the essay shows the variation of Woolf’s point of view on the theme:
For certainly when I saw the couple get into the taxicab the mind felt as if, after being divided, it had come together again in a natural fusion. The obvious reason would be that it is natural for the sexes to co-operate. One has a profound, if irrational, instinct in favor of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness. (96)
Therefore, in this, Woolf draws the image of a male-female couple and refers to conjugal unity. Woolf includes male-female unity in her discussion of androgynous supremacy, which relates to the development of the homo-social hypothesis that created a lot of misogynistic speculation during the time in the intelligentsia of England.
Woolf argues that the dearth of women writers in literature is the same as those responsible for the apparent poverty and ignorance of women in England. She points this to the social mores that resulted in the lack of financial independence of women, and the fact that women were not allowed into libraries or universities and the burden of raising children and looking after household led to the depriving condition of women. In other words, the reason behind the lack of women in the literary world or any other profession was the age old subjugation by the patriarchy. Woolf therefore writes:
Coleridge certainly did not mean, when he said that a great mind is androgynous, that it is a mind that has any special sympathy with women; a mind that takes up their cause or devotes itself to their interpretation. Perhaps the androgynous mind is less apt to make these distinctions than the single-sexed mind. (97)
Therefore, though many scholars argue that Woolf propounded the cultivation of an androgynous mind, actually A Room encourages women to write history, philosophy, fiction, science from the perspective of a woman, and not through an androgynous mind. For Woolf feels that to “make these distinctions” is very important. Therefore Woolf urges women to write through a “single-sexed mind” and through what one conceives as oneself: “I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else” (109). In other words, Woolf believed that a woman must identify herself, be one with her own identity, rather than trying to be the other. This is an exceedingly important statement made by Woolf in connection with other contemporary feminist philosophers.
Woolf points out that many of the problems that are brought into the lives of women are caused due to marriage. However, for others, this is a source of exacerbation as Woolf shows in A Room, that she believes that some sort of collaboration is necessary: “Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated” (103). A man after the coupling “celebrate its nuptials in darkness” but a woman must naturally follow the latter process of carrying, birthing, and raising the child that is the “artistic creation” of the coupling. Woolf, therefore, extends to the readers the deconstructed material of the outcome of an androgynous mind. Woolf stresses that the marriage of an androgynous mind and its outcome is socially and biologically different for a man and a woman. Woolf reiterates her belief that the most constraining factor in a woman’s life is the patriarchal society that makes the union of man and woman as equals impossible.
Gender identity in A Room by Woolf is to be found through spatial privacy. The basic requirement for a woman to become independent is through the attainment of a space or a room of her own wherein she can think over and beyond the realities of a patriarchal social sphere. Woolf in her book stresses the gender identity of women such that they realize the basis of their existence. Woolf wants women to realize what they are and then write as a woman and become wholly unconscious of her sex: “she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman so that her pages were full of curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself” (92). Woolf believes that women ought to go beyond social boundaries and identify themselves before they start writing. It is then that the true intellectual in her can find an outlet.
Orlando: A Biography
With her seminal work, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf presented an irrefutable work in feminist literature. In A Room, Woolf sketched the history of women’s position in artistic expression is it as a writer, an actress, or a musician. She tried to present the search for feminine identity and space that she began in A Room in any of her other works (except for probably a few essays on obscure and unknown female writers in essays of her later years such as Annon and The Reader), Woolf did try to fictionalize the history of female writers in her fantasy novel Orlando: A Biography. This book was written at the same time as A Room. The biographical novel spans different ages through the life of the protagonist who lived for 350 years and transformed from a man to a woman in between the novel. Woolf traces the effect gender has on their experiences due to the changing condition of writers through the ages. In a way, Orlando is a fictionalized form of Woolf’s ideas of sexuality and female identity in England.
The sex change of Orlando may be interpreted in different ways. The novel begins with the famous line that depicts the androgynous nature of the protagonist “He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it” (13). Orlando is depicted as a nobleman, a male heir to his ancestral property. By the end of the novel, the country house to which Orlando was an heir becomes open to the public, and Orlando becomes a woman. The novel demonstrates a transition from male to female roles and values as has been depicted in A Room as the distinction between football and shopping (74). At the beginning of the novel, Orlando is seen “slicing the head of a Moor” that “was the color of an old football” (Woolf, Orlando: A Biography 3) and by the end of the novel, the female Orlando is found shopping in departmental stores.
Therefore, the move denoted from the transformation of Orlando from a man to a woman implies a movement from the patriarchal Elizabethan times to the coming of the woman’s era, the beginning of which is symbolically marked by the eighteenth century. Another way of interpreting Orlando’s transformation is the struggle for female identity that could be found in female authors of the time that was imminent in many authors of the time. Therefore, it was a novel that searched for the androgynous being, the man in every woman, and the woman in every man through the feminization of Orlando. Woolf wanted it to be a biography of Vita Sackville-West, as she mentioned in her own words: “a biography beginning in the year 1500 & continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to another.” (Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf (1927-8) 108).
Orlando celebrates the friendship-love relationship between Virginia and Vita. Virginia in her diary entries has mentioned Orlando as “an escapade,” something that she has written, “for a treat,” “too much of a joke perhaps” (Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf (1927-8) 109, 112). However, Woolf is found engrossed in the project of writing the novel when she is found writing to Vita in exciting words on 9 October 1927: “But listen, suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita, and it’s all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind.” In another later, four days after this she writes: “I’m so engulfed in Orlando I can think of nothing else… I make it up in bed at night, as I walk the streets, everywhere. I want to see you in the lamplight, in your emeralds. I have never more wanted to see you than I do now.” (cited in Sproles 156) Therefore, Woolf intended Orlando to be a “love letter” to Vita, and an expression of the feminine other in their lives, an ‘other’ that was beyond the social mores of the age, rather a woman in their own accord. This brings the importance of gender identity and gender role in Orlando. By December of 1927, the significance of the project on her had intensified that is observable in the following:
Should you say, if I rang you up to ask, that you were fond of me?
If I saw you would kiss me? If I were in bed would you – I’m rather excited about Orlando tonight: have been lying by the fire and making up the last chapter. (Vicinus 92)
Woolf and Vita were passionately in love with each other, and these documents are proof of their love, and the nature of their love was sexual and physical. However, even the feminists who have made Woolf their saint shy to acknowledge this relationship. They may call Woolf asexual, bisexual, androgynous, but never a sapphist. Identity crisis and the confusion about one’s sexual identity has been a crucial issue dealt with and depicted by Woolf in Orlando.
Orlando should not be considered as the single vision mirror for present-day feminism. Its significance lies not in its historical significance in examining the tension between personal identity and redefined subjectivity.
In Orlando, Woolf created a poet, who documented his/her life for over four centuries. This manuscript is where the writer has been compelled “to overscore the margins and cross the lines till it looked like a piece of darning consciously carried out.” (Woolf, Orlando: A Biography 226). Woolf consciously deconstructs the biographical work through her play with humor and self-consciousness. Further, both Woolf and Orlando write through marginalized text that destabilizes the fixity of patriarchal institutions, of the male writers, and the gender roles that restricted the growth path of women. Orlando wanders through space and time and writing myriads of text, none of which are related to self.
Identity in Orlando
Woolf’s desire for identification led her to the genre of biographical novel, as is observed in Orlando. Orlando becomes a symbol of a constant personality traveling through centuries, imbibing the traces of external alterations. Orlando as a fiction imbibes the historical and social changes adopted by Orlando, however, his/her self remained unaltered. Therefore, the question that has been comically put forth by Woolf in Orlando is if it is only the social constructs, and surrounding that shape or re-shape a woman and is it only the clothes that “make the (wo)man”. The narrator-biographer of Orlando at times suggests that “in every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness” (Woolf, Orlando: A Biography 181). The narrator has a dominant position in the text of the novel and the above text points at such possibilities. Further, from the above the societal influence in determining gender is observed, where Woolf stresses the effect society – and not biology – has on establishing the distinction between “men” and “women”.
Orlando is a text that is examined through multiple visions. It should not be dealt with singularly as a book that traces the historical truth of the tension between the socially constructed female identity and the subjectivity, a tension that found a place in modernist feminist debates between the essentialists and post-structuralists.
In Orlando, Woolf eaves two forms of writing a biography. The first aims at defining self and the second are to trace the move towards modernity by analyzing the changing path of subjectivity. As has been noted by Burns “One need always remember that Orlando is a parodic biography, and several strands of biographical beliefs prevalent in the Victorian era are being parodied throughout the novel.” (Burns 344) Woolf here used the Freudian notion of including constructed subjectivity in biography. In Woolf’s “Women and Fiction”, she refers to her age as the “psychoanalytic age” wherein the think tanks of the age are increasingly concerned with the “immense effects of environment and suggestion upon the mind” (48). In Orlando Woolf too finds herself in a search for intellectual identity as she is caught between the modernist idea of social discourse and her father’s ideas of essentialism.
Her father’s positivist ideas regarding biographies neither gave the age the credit of creating the individual nor an over-emphasis on its influencing the individual. Rather, his style put the individual first and establishes the individual’s power to influence his and future ages. Woolf used the biographical technique as a potential method of reflecting on the lives of women during the time as well as a genre that held great comic possibilities. Woolf uses the biography as a tool to put forth the question regarding unadulterated self and social constructs. Therefore, in Orlando Woolf spoofs the predominance of “men” in biographies by transforming Orlando from a man to woman, and also emphasizes the social construction and individual influence over Victorian biographical works. Orlando demonstrates the influence on her of not only the “psychoanalytical age” but also of the notion of essentialist identity. Orlando provided her the space to deal with two of these incongruous beliefs.
The play of identity in Orlando is explicit. The three most deterministic elements of Orlando are its historical transgression through four hundred years of English history, the change of Orlando from a man to a woman, and the two contradicting philosophies. Woolf tries to demonstrate through Orlando that one character adopts different mores and values as he/she travels through different ages; however, the continuous spirit is one that goes underground after he/she is born but also leaves something for the future generation after death. Therefore, as the novel progresses the character of Orlando is reduced to a belief that the narrator of the novel tries hard to defend. However, the narrator attempts to defend the protagonist delves into the modernist view of the constructive form of subjectivity. This model cannot be taken in a simplified form where Orlando is perceived to become whatever the society desires him/her to be. Rather, Woolf’s Orlando has the possibility of participating in the process of the social construction of the self. Therefore, the main question that is raised in Orlando is that of subjectivity that is embedded in the notion of historical transform and sexual identity.
The question related to identity in Orlando makes it important for the feminist revolution. The questions that are raised through feminist argument are the extent to which Woolf believes that is unchangeable and belongs to an individual. The degree of space that is available to an individual to resist the social demands. Further, the most important question is raised related to the “spirit of the age” and its effect on sexes – are they different? The other question that is raised is how an individual’s adaptation or resistance to the societal norm and its effect on his/her writing. These are the questions that are implicitly posed in Orlando while explicitly dealt with in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
In Orlando and A Room alike, Woolf is pressed with the question of how an individual (a woman) can constitute identity while living in a world full of economic and societal constraints. Woolf is playing with the dual and opposing pressure on female identity, a tension that had created a mesh of promises. In Orlando, Woolf intentionally allows the “male” and “female” strands of the protagonist to intermingle and thereby making Orlando androgynous than demarcating him/her as one of a specific sex. In A Room Woolf presents the readers with the utopian desire to be freed from the locked in a state of women so that they move about free such that they can have a space of their own to indulge what their heart desires. She is also angry about being locked out from institutions by the patriarchy and feels women should get the freedom to gain unhindered access. Therefore the question that is posed by Woolf in the essay is that whether it is better or worse to be locked in or the other way round. Therefore she writes:
A woman writing thinks back through her mothers. Again if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of the civilization, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 96). The quotation depicts Woolf’s awareness of the heterogeneous heritage and her request to the readers that while they read a work of art, they acknowledge the female half of their inheritance instead of suppressing it. This identification of the split-half in human achievement is of importance to modern-day feminism. This is the aspect of identity that is further dealt with in Orlando. Thus, if identity could be formed through a range of models be it male, female, culture, society, etc. it would have eased off Woolf’s problem with essentialism.
Woolf in her Orlando presented a dilemma between the inside and outside, which has been suggested by researchers as has been borrowed from John Locke that has been presented in her discussion about clothes and nature (Burns 348). Burns points out that:
It is coincidence perhaps that Orlando travels to Turkey under the reign of Charles the First (1625-1649), undergoes the sex change, and returns with the commencement of the rule of William and Mary, in 1689, the same year of Locke’s publication of the Essay. (348)
In the works of Locke, he demonstrated a fixed notion of identity in his biographical works that persisted in the Victorian ideal of a biography.
In Orlando, Orlando has been in a tryst to form or alter him/herself in the novel that is demonstrated through the writing, rewriting, and eventual publishing of a long autobiographical poem “The Oak Tree”. The poem’s title along with other allusions devised by Woolf in the novel demonstrates her borrowing of Locke’s ideas. Locke believed that any change in the physical form of the human body will not have any change in the individual’s identity. Locke presents this idea in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding: “The variation of great parcels of Matter alters not the identity; an Oak, growing from a Plant to a Tree, and then lopped, is still the same Oak” (Locke cited in Burns 348). Figuratively, a “lopped” Oaktree is symbolic of a castrated or transformed Orlando from male to female, however, in either case, their interior self remains the same. Another idea of Locke borrowed by Woolf is his disapproval of the idea that clothes can define an individual’s identity (Burns 348). Again Burns quotes Locke to show how closely Orlando’s transformation to womanhood is related to Locke: “the same self as far as the same consciousness can extend to Actions past or to come; and would be by a distance of Time, or change of Substance, no more two Persons than a Man be two Men, by wearing other Cloaths to Day than he did Yesterday, with long or short sleep between” (cited in Burns 349). As can be seen in the novel, Orlando goes into a long trance-like sleep for seven days as if he was dead before he is transformed into a woman. Sleep, Burns notes, leaves Orlando “greatly altered” and therefore, the clothes that he/she has been wearing (349).
The narrator of Orlando defines self as “a perfect rag-bag of odds and ends within us – a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil”, s/he points at the comical collection of fabric that can be “lightly stitched together” by a single thread (Woolf, Orlando: A Biography 75). E The narrator of Orlando believes that memory is the thread that acts capriciously like a “seamstress”. Orlando him/herself was found to be at a loss of thread when s/he tries to write his poem and loses thread when recollecting about his first lover’s betrayal. Woolf metaphorically implies that memory and Sasha are similar as they avoid being captured and are associated with fabrication. In Orlando words like “fabric, fabrication, writing, sexuality, and clothing are all interwoven” (Burns 349). Orlando’s sex change is presented as a comic scene by Woolf wherein space breaks the conflict between outside and inside by the essentialist theory of Locke.
Orlando underwent a seven-day trance while s/he was the ambassador of King Charles to Turkey. The narrator insists that s/he would love to “spare the reader” the chaos this created and “trumpeted” demanded to know the “Truth, Candour, and Honesty”, but went on to play with a parallel plot wherein the three virtues i.e. Chastity, Modesty, and Purity was struggling to hide the truth about the real “sex” of Orlando (129). However, the spoof that Woolf devised mocked the veils of purity, chastity, and modesty, and went ahead to meet the demands of “Truth!” to describe Orlando’s nakedness as a woman as s/he rose from his/her deep slumber: “Orlando stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess – he was a woman” (132).
Woolf uses the sex change episode of Orlando as a philosophical search for the truth of the unclothed, naked, essentials. Due to the text’s parodic nature, it mimics its source i.e. Victorian notion of biography, and wittily decries the whole situation. The text is juxtaposed between the maleness and femaleness of Orlando, as the narrator fails to establish a single identity for the protagonist. Therefore, the text presents a tease wherein it becomes difficult to point out a referent i.e. the naked truth, a fact that could be separated from the fictional creation. Further, the intentional play to locate a singular, historical truth source for the event complicates the situation. The imminent question that arises is if biography or history can determine the source of a single event? This particular event has been reorganized by Woolf under the classical motifs of unveiling and nakedness around the modernist question of sexuality, and it is the truth of Orlando’s sex that is “revealed” and/or “unveiled” points at the instability existing in the “truth”. The revelation of the scene is the reversible nature of sex. This should not be considered as a mere fantasy of Woolf, as it goes forth to illuminate the nature of sexuality and the constructed nature of gender.
The question of a change in identity has been put forth as a puzzle to the reader. As the readers learn that Orlando has undergone a sex change, and his/her naked body shows signs of womanhood, the narrator candidly presents that no change has occurred in his/her identity: “Orlando remained precast change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same. His memory… went back through all the events of her past life.” (133) If sex is considered the most important element in framing one’s identity, the self is a collection of numerous probable sexualities. The above quote uses pronouns like them, his, her comfortably in one “identity”, thereby increasing the possibility of non-identification of the present identity. In other words, there is a presence of plurality in the identification process. Further, Woolf categorically specifies the external change in Orlando that refutes any internal change in his identity.
Woolf plays with the pronouns continually in the novel to create humor. When Orlando eventually returns home as a woman, the housekeeper is found at a loss of words as she last saw Orlando as a man: “Milord! Milady! Milady! Milord!” (162). The ambiguity created due to the sex change that resulted in social discomfort has been used explicitly by Woolf to create humor in the novel. It must be noted that the change in Orlando that creates such hilarious text and a lot of ambiguity has not been created due to the change in sex as in the change in genitals, rather has appeared due to the transformation in the gender that occurred with the change in clothes.
Transformed as a woman, Orlando goes into hiding with the gypsies to avoid the Turkish insurrection. It is only after many months that Orlando shed the androgynous Turkish pants and started wearing the traditional clothes of an Englishwoman. This abruptly puts her forth to reality and is faced with the task of adapting to the conditions of her new sex. The narrator points out that “up to this moment she had scarcely giver her sex a thought,” but the process of purchasing and wearing “such clothes as women then wore,” she instantly felt helplessly at the mercy of the chivalrous patriarchy: “It was not until she felt the coil of skirts about her legs and the Captain offered, with the greatest politeness, to have an awning spread for her on the deck that she realized, with a start the penalties and privileges of her position” (147).
It is then that Orlando disdainfully realizes that she no longer can swim freely or walk with ease and experiences the fretful directions of the Captain’s affectionate personality. Though the body of Orlando had altered, the real change in her gender did not occur until she wore women’s clothes – that socially bindings trap – which forced her to accept and practice the socially endorsed gendered behavior. The social constructs work as an outside stimulus that seeps in a woman’s body and makes it act the way it is expected out of it. Clothing acts as a catalyst to accentuate these expectations. In other words, Orlando – as portrayed by Woolf – could have continued to act and be a woman has she not donned women’s clothing and continued wearing men’s attire. Therefore, Orlando herself concedes: “often only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness” (181).
Orlando realizes that it is the clothes that control her as she adapts to womanhood, she also realizes that the choice of clothes depends on her self. Therefore, throughout the novel, Orlando cross-dresses. At times as a woman, she wears breeches and cloak so that she can enjoy riding through the countryside as a man enjoys in their nocturnal wanderings. In these wanderings Orlando first encounters Nell, who mistakes her to be a male lover, arousing an odd sensation in Orlando, but when revealed as a woman, immediately takes her into confidence. Therefore, through cross-dressing alone Orlando realizes, and so do the readers, the in change gender expectations by way of cross-dressing.
Clothes, in Orlando, has been used as a disguise, first for Orlando as a man who used clothes to guise himself as a lower class when he wanted to evade the constraints of the upper class and then as a woman, she wore men’s clothes to evade the constraints of being a woman. However, clothing is used by Woolf as a parallel that helps the narrator bring forth the essence of truth about sexuality to the readers. The narrator uses clothes to reveal the truth about sexuality and the biographer intends to reveal the naked truth about Orlando, but the sex change helps little in revealing the truth. In a later stage, Orlando herself tries to “say what one leans and leaves it” and enters in the struggle of dealing with metaphors of simple statements but fails to reach the truth. Instead of saying “the sky is blue”, Orlando states “The sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair” (98). Therefore, like Sasha, Orlando concludes, even language is “utterly false” (98).
Like language, cross-dressing or clothes also creates ambiguity and confusion in the novel. At times, the “fashion of the time” makes it difficult to understand the sex of a person and gender, and thereby creates confusion. The narrator begins the novel with a description of Orlando: “There could be no doubt of his sex”. However, the narrator admits that the “fashion of the time did something to disguise it” (13). Such ambiguity regarding physical appearance continues to be dealt with in Orlando. When the narrator first describes Sasha, Orlando’s first love, she is described as “a figure, either a boy’s or woman’s, for the loose tunic and trousers of the Russian fashion, served to disguise the sex” (36). Orlando was in a state of confusion when he was ready to “tear his hair with vexation,” as he was almost sure that the figure was that of a young man’s and therefore “all embraces were out of the question” (36). However, the figure turns out to be that of a woman’s and an affair begins.
Therefore, Woolf does not stress sexual determination before the arousal of affection, but before the twentieth century fixing the gender of the partner was necessary before the courtship could ensue. Woolf, therefore, sprinkles the essence of modernity when she implicitly endorses homosexual love in Orlando. Cross-dressing has been used by Woolf to introduce homosexual possibility when Orlando as a man had been wooed by Archduchess Harriet. However, Harriet later divulges his true identity to be Harry and confesses that he was so smitten by Orlando’s beauty that he donned the guise of a woman to court him (172). However, upon learning the true identity of Harriet/Harry, Orlando rejects his proposal, and therefore Woolf eludes any explicit endorsement of sapphist. Bur later in the novel it is learned that Orlando elaborately cross-dresses and thereby enjoys the “love of both sexes equally” (211). Woolf, therefore, does not take a solid stand regarding the issue of homosexual love.
Woolf demonstrates that Orlando undergoes a transformation and alters her way of articulation that suits her present gender as endorsed through her attire, therefore confirming that clothes can sometimes change the behavior of individuals. Woolf herself poses the question that if “it is clothes that wear us and not we them” as she believes it is one of the strongest socially coercive factor of the Victorian era (180).
With the departure of the Victorian era, Orlando faces the third crisis posed by the “Spirit of the Age” that dictated marriage for a woman. Orlando was not interested to get married and therefore her “natural temperament” would cry “Life! A Lover!” and not “Life! A Husband!” (233). The narrator explains Orlando’s situation: “Orlando had inclined herself naturally to the Elizabethan spirit, to the Restoration spirit, to the spirit of the eighteenth century… But the spirit of the nineteenth century was antipathetic to her in the extreme” (233). Woolf here deals with the contemporary question posed by feminism and psychoanalysis. The question that arose was if there was any scope of rebellion against a social model or construction? Woolf points out that the room of resistance is absent in such a situation when the extremities have hypothesized a priory. If the inner self and the external world are at two different poles, then according to Woolf, the individual loses control over him/her self.
To exemplify this, Woolf shows that due to this inner struggle to refute the social norms in the Victorian era, Orlando could no longer write. While trying to write “The Oak Tree”, Orlando suddenly finds that she could no longer write as words seem to have abandoned her. She even admits that it is “impossible” for her to write as she finds her hand and pen being obsessed by the spirit of the age. Therefore, her pen writes the most “insipid verse she had ever read in her life” she creates a parody of Victorian poetry (227). Soon Orlando realizes a tingle in her left ring finger and realizes it to be coercion towards marriage (228-30). At last, she will utter “Whom… can I lean upon?” when the narrator observes: “Her words formed themselves, her hands clasped themselves, involuntarily, just as her pen had written of its own accord. It was not Orlando who spoke, but the spirit of the age.” (235) Burns points out that “Language can thus function independently of the author’s will” that may appear to the reader as “something of a parodic extreme of anxieties about deconstructive and psychoanalytic theories of language.” (353) Therefore, to save her writing, Orlando had to conform to the social norms and give up her status as single, non-committal, and confirm to sexual ambivalence.
It is not her inner soul, her rationality that drags her to marriage, rather, it is the constructiveness of the age that overwhelms her and drags her to conformity:
She stood mournfully at the drawing-room window… dragged down by the weight of the crinoline which she had submissively adopted. It was heavier and drabber than any dress she had yet worn. None had ever so impeded her movements. No longer could she stride through the garden with her dogs, or run lightly to the high mound and fling herself beneath the oak tree. Her skirts collected damp leaves and straw. The plumed hat was tossed on the breeze. The thin shoes were quickly soaked and mud-caked. Her muscles lost their pliancy. She had become nervous lest there should be robbers behind the wainscot and afraid, for the first time in her life, of ghosts in the corridors. All these things inclined her, step by step, to submit to the discovery, whether Queen Victoria’s or another’s, that each man and each woman has another allotted to it for life, whom it supports, by whom it is supported, till death them do apart.” (233-4)
Therefore, Woolf turns the mental pressure on Orlando and turns it into a physical impediment created by the Victorian crinoline that imprisoned Orlando and weakened her desire for unbridled independence. To resist the social transformation of her being, Orlando rushes to the field to play heath, but breaks her ankle and lies on the field. At that very moment, in a parody of Jane Austen novels or that of Jane Eyre, and all novels that closed in marriages, a man rides up to her. The man is none other than Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine who jumps off from his horse and gallantly inquires, “Madam… you’re hurt!” In response to his query, Orlando replies, shedding all her previous inner conflict, “I’m dead, Sir!” the scene presents a parodic extreme where Orlando who priory was at war with the social mores, instantly resigns to it and that too willingly without any external coaxing. After her long resistance towards the institution of commitment, her joyful turnaround comes as a feminist jolt. However, it turns out that Orlando’s resistance was not absolute nor was her conformity.
Ultimately Orlando attains a gender vagueness in the modernist sense. This vagueness, or androgynous state, is identified by her spouse, Shelmerdine, soon after their engagement: “You’re a woman, Shell!” Orlando cries. “You’re a man, Orlando!” he cries. And, after “a scene of protestation and demonstration,” the couples settle back in their assumed gender roles and sexes (240). They got married, however, not in a traditional way. Orlando reflects on their marriage as it gave her immense freedom:
She was married, true; but if one’s husband was sailing around Cape Horn, was it marriage? If one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts (252)
Orlando resists slipping into the traditional roles of a married woman due to her marriage to Shelmerdine, and she confirms to it just enough to remain unnoticed in the Victorian age, while she could maintain her resistance to the constructed gender roles of the time.
Once Orlando is married she is concerned if she could satisfy the demands of the age and was not able to write with her own hands. Then she reflects that “the transaction between a writer and the spirit of an age is one of infinite delicacy,” and is relied on finding that “she needs neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself” (254). Therefore, there is always some space left in-between the constructed traditional norms and the degree of conformity that marks the level of resistance. So, Orlando does confirm the Victorian social tradition by getting into the marriage institution that is forced upon her, however, she resists to challenge it by not confirming too many of the traditional styles.
The transformed Orlando tries to fit into her new role as a Victorian woman. As a woman, she realizes that she has to obtain a wedding ring and adopt her ways to depend on a male another half. Orlando is found kneeling against the window sill and asking herself whom she can lean upon. This, her biographer believes to be an involuntary action as Woolf suggests: “It was not Orlando who spoke, but the spirit of the age. But whichever it was…” (235). Therefore, it demonstrates that Orlando may have been influenced by the norms of the time; however, the assertive rhetoric is crashed with the “whichever” in the second line that emphasizes that it has Orlando herself who might have used it as a feminine demure to demonstrate her passivity. This is a historic example of how Woolf used Orlando and the narrator-biographer to demonstrate how gender is written. This is to imply that the gestures used by Orlando in the book are feminine according to the style of the era. Therefore, the discourse of femininity is done through written words. The spirit of the age or the way of the age is penned down and becomes a construct among women. Through these, Woolf creates Orlando as a stereotype of the age, creating sexual differences, and looking for the female identity. As a gimmick, Orlando adopts the ways of the age and follows it, and then she lets it go. Throughout the novel, Orlando and her biographer engender the age and then leave it aside.
Orlando and A Room of One’s Own
Orlando may be called a fictional parallel of A Room. The theoretical perspective that has been presented in A Room has been presented in a fictional form in Orlando. Therefore, there exist important similarities in terms of the theme in both texts. One important aspect common to both the books and is considered one of the most important themes is the exploration of the androgyny. This aspect is demonstrated with the help of many fictitious characters. In A Room Woolf uses a fusion of theory and fiction while in Orlando the nature of the fiction and the storyline demonstrates Woolf’s intention of “playfulness” by playing with the different genres of fiction. As has been mentioned by Wallraven that “The text itself very clearly indicates for choosing fiction: as will be seen, the concept of “playfulness” distinguishes Orlando from the theory-fiction fusion of Woolf’s essay.” (Wallraven 172)
Virginian Woolf in her essay A Room tries to unlock the male-dominated literary critic circle who deliberately threw patriarchal control to theorize novels. Orlando tries to resist any such patriarchal theory that structures the form of a novel. In the process, Woolf presents a path for future female writers to present a new way, devoid of any fixed structure, to write novels, who otherwise may be obstructed into the writing profession by critics like Beadle who prevented the female narrator of A Room (presumably Woolf) from entering the Oxbridge library (9). Similarly, in Orlando Woolf questions any idea or structure that is conventional and devises a way out of it. Therefore, Orlando provides a path-breaking model for futuristic novels that might be obstructed by patriarchal critics like the gentlemanly Beadle.
Woolf has written about Orlando in her essays, diaries, letters, and lectures and her novels themselves were models for novelistic writing. Woolf therefore in A Room writes of the novelistic writing and the difficulties in distilling them into novelistic theory in the following passage:
If one shuts one’s eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem to be a creation owning a certain Lookingglass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable. At any rate, it is a structure leaving a shape on the mind’s eye, built now in squares, now pagoda-shaped, throwing out wings and arcades, now solidly compact and domed like the Cathedral of Saint Sofia at Constantinople. This shape, I thought, thinking back over certain famous novels, starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it. But that emotion at once blends itself with others, for the ‘shape’ is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of a human being to a human being. Thus a novel starts in us all sorts of antagonistic and opposed emotions. Life conflicts with something that is not life. Hence the difficulty of coming to any agreement about novels, and the immense sway that our private prejudices have upon us. (71-2)
However, Woolf faced a lot of criticism due to her unconventional style of a novel in Orlando. But it should be noted that as Woolf describes in A Room that the values of the patriarchal society are brought in the text of a novel and into its analysis:
And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. (74)
However, when read with an open mind, devoid of societal constructs, Orlando perceives it to be a creative philosophical literary piece. Though, the philosophy runs haphazardly at the end of the book, with no neat summarization in the end, and leaves the readers to use their imagination to divulge meaning out of it.
Orlando may be considered as the practical exploration of Woolf’s theories of a novel. The novel focuses on the relation between gender and literature, and the effect of gender and age on literary work. This again is dealt with in Woolf’s A Room, where she ascertains the conditions – both psychological and financial – that women writers of the Victorian age went through in England, and the impediments that arose in the process of their writing endeavors. In A Room Woolf described the ideal state of mind from the creation of literature as an androgynous mind i.e. a conjugation of both male and female sides of the brain, and both co-exist in harmony. Other connections between the two books are that both are written with light-hearted humor and deal with the same theme of gender identity. Orlando through its unconventional nature and a dual literary format of a novel and an autobiography, transgresses between the two, resisting to conform to anyone of the literary traditions. The book has a mixture of serious and comic elements, private and the public, and history and fantasy that has always raised the critics’ dilemma.
In A Room Woolf wrote, “biography” is “too much about great men” (107). Therefore, in this novel, Woolf deliberately mocks the patriarchal variety of biography. Both Woolf’s novel and essay discuss the literary forms of writing a novel and biography and mock male writers being too engrossed in their ideas, least being incapable of seeing or thinking like the other sex. She criticizes the traditional biography-writing model and mocks the forward-moving narration style. She also mocks male biographers to eulogize the character’s actions rather than showing the kind of person they are. Therefore in Orlando, she writes “What is more irritating than to see one’s subject … slipping out of one’s grasp altogether … What is more humiliating than to see all this dumb show of emotion and excitement gone through before our eyes when we know that what causes it – thought and imagination – are of no importance whatsoever?” (255). Therefore, Woolf wittily presents the biographer’s dilemma of getting a firm grip of Orlando just as the critics have of categorizing the novel.
The other theme common in both A Room and Orlando is gender identity and the patriarchal influence on female writers. Both the essay and the novel poses the question, what influence patriarchal theories and literary forms have on female writings? Woolf shows in both the writings that material condition has a great effect on a woman’s writing ability: “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things” (106). These “material things” as mentioned by Woolf are distributed through socio-cultural mores as set by the patriarchal hierarchy. For example, how one requires to dress as a factor becomes a serious impediment as seen in Orlando or in the case of the narrator of A Room being denied entry into the Oxbridge library and universities, or the social norm for women to get married and raise children are underlying issues presented in both Orlando and A Room. This creates in women a dilemma as described by Woolf in A Room:
Again if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilization, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical. (96)
The androgynous mind is therefore the “undivided” mind (97), but a woman who can think for herself realizes that there exist too many inequalities in the world she lives in to have an undivided mind.
Woolf describes in her A Room that men use the term “genius” to boost their ego of superiority. However, in her essay she uses the word genius to describe two female authors i.e. Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, as she believed these two authors were able to shut the male dominance in literary text and write from a woman’s perspective: “They wrote as women write, not as men write” (75). Therefore, the main idea that Woolf presents is that androgyny was not a necessary condition of the female writer’s mind, and should not become a necessary condition for women writers in the contemporary era. She feels that women first must try to secure material freedom to pursue a greater pursuit of genius. Women writers should not pursue the dream of androgyny and instead focus on what they can write as women – their experiences, their minds.
The question of sexual identity has been explicitly dealt with in Orlando as well as A Room. In Orlando, Woolf refers to bisexuality in her reference to Orlando’s ability to gain the “love of both sexes equally” (211). However, the more important thing is what Woolf believes this bisexuality does to an artist’s creation.
Woolf believes that it is not the capability to think both like a man and a woman that helps a writer to gain artistic excellence, rather it is his/her ability to accept and acknowledge all desires openly, even those that are socially forbidden. Therefore the art to think through one’s desire, and not through sex or sexuality, is central to Woolf’s idea of an artist. This is the desire that makes Orlando indulge in the “love of both sexes equally” and when the narrator of the novel contemplates how polymorphous desire enables artistic creation.
The subjectivity created by the patriarchy to dominate the intellectual and financial freedom of women is often subjected to the system as a whole. As Judith Butler points out, confirming with Michael Foucault, that it is the institutions in form of a judicial system of power that produces the subjects that eventually represent. Butler, therefore, argues that “Feminist critiques ought … to understand how the category of ‘woman’, the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought” (Butler 2). Therefore, the task according to Butler is to devise strategies to eradicate the gender norms. Woolf, in A Room, too urges young women to free themselves of social norms and write as they feel and think, not the way they are told to think. Similarly in Orlando, Woolf writes in a literary form that eludes the traditional form of a biography or a novel, therefore, rejecting the patriarchal literary model. In the novel, Woolf answers questions regarding women’s sexual identity and subjectivity and how these are predetermined by society.
Control over self and one’s world are the key themes of both A Room and Orlando. In both the books, Woolf categorically insists upon the importance of moving out of the societal norm and identifies oneself. She stresses that the patriarchal world defies women the power to know one by constructing a mesh of predisposed identities that the former unquestionably follow. Therefore, many women writers only pretend to be women and write through the voice of a man. But that just blurs her concept of self and she loses her true identity. Woolf, therefore, provides through her parody and essay a message for women to know themselves devoid of the net created by the patriarchal society and gain superiority in that knowledge.
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