Orlando is a “biography” from 1928 written by Virginia Woolf, dedicated to her partner, friend, and lover, Vita Sackville-West. It is, in the words of Sackville’s son, “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.” Orlando starts as a story of an English nobleman, who lives for over 300 years without aging, spending centuries exploring his gender identity and sexuality. Orlando then goes through a significant transformation of gender/sex – which the analysis will discuss later – and meets different historical figures.
The book is a self-proclaimed biography: an account of a person’s life told in third-person narrative structure. And in that sense, the biography label is accurate. The writing style is very descriptive and with a lack of speech, each chapter focused on a part of Orlando’s life. However, in many ways, Woolf not only breaks the traditional genre-structure but parodies and even criticizes it: [Happy] the biographer who records the life of such a one! Never need . . . he invoke the help of novelist or poet’. The first introduction of the biographer himself unpacks Woolf’s highly sarcastic and humourous commentary.
The irony is clear because if a biographer, who is supposed to be a mere scribe, shows he is happy or sad and is emotional about what happens to Orlando throughout the novel, he can never be objective at all – the help of a poet or novelist is therefore always needed. Woolf criticizes here not just biography, but literature in itself: the notion that a person’s life can simply be summed up by facts and records is to her, absurd. She argues that humans are more complex beings than that, and finds poetic truth as more real than actual factual biography. This she proves by saying:“It is, indeed, highly unfortunate, and much to be regretted that at this stage of Orlando’s career…we have least information to go upon.”
Whiachafter the biographer must “speculate, surmise, and even use the imagination”, and ironically manages to fill out 12 descriptive pages of what “seemingly” happened in Constantinople, showing that facts and records have no real effect on the job of the biographer after all. Woolf explains that a good biographer should “admit a thousand disagreeables which it is the aim of every good biographer to ignore’, meaning ignore details not important to the record, which suggests that the poet and novelist are essential to writing a person’s story.
Without it, one cannot capture the real experience of the self. With this in mind, all the components of the usual, strict “biography-genre” become part of a large parody – the index, the pictures of Orlando, become humourous. A person’s internal life is just as important as the external parts, and are complex and layered. A biography is not good if it does not contain elements of “rainbow”, and so the biography, just like Orlando, is a mix of a fluid consciousness and fiction, and external, traditional elements of the genre. This form of genre-bending makes sense in the light of the literary movement Woolf wrote in – namely Modernism, which was characterized not only by its experimental take on literature but the fluid nature of the genre.
Fact or Fiction?
Through such Modernist writing, Woolf intentionally keeps the lines between fantasy and reality blurred. The novel contains both fantastical, or perhaps, magical realistfictional elements – that the character lives for 400 years and magically changes sex, and embellished, real events such as the Great Frost. A woman “turned visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs”. Additionally, when losing his lover, Sasha, Orlando “flings himself off his horse”,“Standing knee-deep in water he hurled at the faithless woman all the insults that have ever been the lot of her sex.
Faithless, mutable, fickle, he called her; devil, adulteress, deceiver.”The descriptions of Orlando’s heartbreak, quite a realistic event, are in every sense dramatized and exaggerated, even fictionalized. In contrast, in Orlando’s sudden, magical transformation from man to woman, she simply looks herself in the mirror and goes to take a bath without any real reaction. Woolf thus shows through a mixture of the two different genre-types that despite all of the magical/fantastical elements, Orlando is, just like us, still human.
However, Orlando is not the only Orlando in literary history, and the name actually stands as an intertextual reference. Shakespeare is named 15 times in the novel and stands as one of Orlando’s literary heroes. His name has roots in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It”, whose character Orlando, has a lover of ambiguous gender. Shakespeare’s Orlando too falls in love, with someone named Rosalind, who of much of the play is disguised as a boy – and in Elizabethean theatre, women-characters were also played by men. Already with the title of the novel and this reference is Woolf creating a person not only passionate about writing, but also someone who’s gender performativity can be put into question.
But who is Orlando really? The very first words of the book introduce a person with a gendered pronoun whose readability is put into question: “He – for there would be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it”. This first line is fundamental to the plot, message and core theme of the novel: gender. The denial of doubt has the exact opposite meaning, it instead carries and introduces it. The foreshadowing already starts here. At the beginning of the novel, Orlando was “sixteen only” and living as a boy from a noble family in the 16th century Elizabethian era.
Orlando’s physical body is described as “red of the cheeks was covered with peach down”, “arrowy nose”, “shapely legs”, “eyes like drenched violets”, – but still has a “handsome body” and “well-set shoulders”. Orlando is s a handsome, young man, but also delicate and has a fragility about him that creates a sense of uncertainty when it comes to his gender identity. Orlando also comes from a lineage of violent, manly men, and yet, he is a writer and a poet: “In a nutshell, he was a nobleman afflicted with a love of literature.”
Orlando thus has a personality and even physical traits that are made up of both masculine and feminine, which already is deconstructing the ideas of the binary categories of man and woman and what it means to be feminine. It is here important to note that the distinction between sex and gender and the terminology used in modern-day analysis was not established in 1928, and therefore Woolf mostly uses the word “sex”. However, the words “gender” or “gender identity” or “performativity” are in most cases more appropriate.
Orlando is also fluid in his sexuality and whom he loves, and “despite” his feminine qualities, “he became adored of many women and some men”. His first love, Sasha, and is not bound by the conventions and rules of Orlandos time and setting, but is presented androgynous – thus enforcing the idea that sexuality and gender are different. Sasha wears pants and is “booted like a man”. “Orlando was ready to tear his hair with vexation that the person was of his own sex, and thus all embraces were out of the question…Legs, hands, carriage, were a boy’s, but no boy ever had a mouth like that; no boy had those breasts; no boy had eyes which looked as if they had been fished from the bottom of the sea.
Orlando is attracted to the androgynous nature of Sasha but is afraid she would be of his own sex and prevent them from being together. This emphasizes Woolf’s way of showing what at first seems like a heterosexual relationship – and technically, it is – but makes it all the more fluid due to both characters containing elements of something much more androgynous and hints at a flexible gender identity. Orlando’s attraction to others is described, among others to Archduchess Harriet, this “very tall lady,”, who Orlando is undoubtedly sexually attracted to and lusts after. But in reality, as we find out later, the Archduchess is a man. The unclear, blurred lines of Orlando’s sexual identity thus show even further how the norms of both his own and Woolf’s time are broken down, and is portrayed as non-fixated.
When in Constantinople, Orlando falls into a deep sleep for seven days before going through a magical sex change. But before anything can happen: “Truth, Candour, and Honesty, the austere Gods who keep watch and ward by the inkpot of the biographer, cry No! Putting their silver trumpets to their lips they demand in one blast, Truth!” – The “transformation” is thus supposed to reveal Orlando’s truth: if the Biographer, Orlando, everyone is being candor and honest, Orlando’s truth is to become a woman. However, “Our Lady of Purity”, “Our Lady of Chastity”, and “Our Lady of Modesty” suddenly appear, and all want to hide the truth: “Truth come not out from your horrid den. Hide deeper, fearful Truth.”.
The Ladies are thus, in the literal sense, trying to stop Orlando from becoming free. The Ladies represent the conservative, oppressive values of Orlando’s time, as well as symbols for the established, binary gender categories. Woolf demonstrates that in her traditional society, becoming true to yourself and your identity is not modest or pure, but something to hide and be ashamed of. The reader can hear the sarcastic criticism of the binary forms of gender clearly, additionally when “those” who upkeep those restrictive traditions are described:, ….those who deny; those who reverence without knowing why; those who prefer to see not; desire to know not; love the darkness; those still worship us, and with reason; for we have given them Wealth, Prosperity, Comfort, Ease.”
“Those” who deny, those who deliberately fail to acknowledge to see a more progressive perception of what a person’s identity and gender consist of, because of the “comfort and ease” of tradition. The ladies retire in haste “as if to shut out something that they dare not look upon”. The truth is something society ignores and are too afraid to open its eyes for, the revelations of new perceptions of gender outside the mold created for us are simply too modern, unfamiliar, and scary. The truth, here, is that Orlando poses a threat to the heteronormative society and the gender binary.
We should not, as the Ladies do, throw a rug on it and pretend it does not exist. Woolf suggests, quite literally, that these ancient values be beridden, and tells modesty and purity to be gone. She states we should instead make room for new traditions and modern attitudes towards not just gender identity, but gender roles and sexuality (purity, chastity).
Different Sex, Same Person
Finally, the sex change happens: “Truth! we have no choice left but confess–he was a woman.” Orlando however, is not phased, and simply looks himself up and down without any discomposure, and goes to take a bath. What is striking about Orlando’s own reaction to his sudden change of sex is that Orlando is not affected at all – almost as if one’s biological sex and body is completely unimportant when it comes to one’s gender identity. Orlando is definitely not defined by his sex, as he is much more than just that, and his core and interests and passions and all the essence, that makes up Orlando, remains. As the biographer says: “-in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been”.
“The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatsoever to alter their identity”. Their personality is just the same as when they were a man. It is here Judith Butler’s theory on gender becomes relevant, as it seems Woolf agrees with the opinion that both sex and gender are social and cultural constructs, not something absolute. In fact, they do not really matter. It is only later in the novel when Orlando will experience the impacts of the social norms of her age and construct her own gender identity, but as of right now, as a “blank canvas”, Orlando remains exactly the same. The message here is that Orlando with male genitalia, Orlando with breasts and a female reproductive system – is still just as much Orlando as she was before.