Wordplay and the Androgynous Self: Woolf’s Construction of Orlando

Virginia Woolf’s creation of the main character in the novel Orlando relies upon a certain amount of “wordplay” in order to maintain her androgynous nature. But what is androgyny according to Woolf; to what degree does this gender mixing occur? When discussing discrete genders in any form of literature, there are certain specific phrases and indeed certain attributes that are usually reserved for one gender or the other. It is precisely by mixing up these words that Woolf is able to create a genuine air of androgyny – here, wordplay is not a mere stylistic attribute, but a tool as necessary as grammar or sentence structure because it is the only thing that is able to define intersexuality the way Woolf desires. According to Woolf, Orlando is born and raised as a boy, ‘…there could be no doubt about [that].’ However, later in that first segment of the novel he is described in quite the peculiar way; Orlando is described as having ‘eyes like drenched violets… [and] shapely legs.’ This is quite clearly a breach of the code of rigid gender roles! Why, from that sentence, one would think that we were describing a woman, not a man. In western culture, shapely legs and beautiful eyes are specifically within the realm of people who identify themselves as women, and assuming one has spent any amount of time here in the West, it’s readily apparent that the number of people who might use these characteristics to identify themselves while at the same time identifying as male are quite few. This then could be simply seen as a morsel of obvious foreshadowing to the morning where Orlando wakes up as a woman; at the same time it is part of Virginia Woolf’s expression of her homosexual and emotional feelings towards Vita Sackville-West, as this book has been generally recognized as a loose biography of Sackville-West’s life in which Sackville-West is represented by Orlando. ‘Through the power of her pen, Woolf reversed the centuries’ old Kentish law which had prevented Vita from inheriting Knole [her ancestral home]. In the pages of [Woolf’s] Orlando, Vita Sackville-West owned Knole in a way that she never could in reality (DeSalvo, 205).’ This sentence goes to show just how specifically Virginia Woolf integrated Vita’s life and history into Orlando and the character of Orlando. Normal patterns of behavior, such as surprise at waking up as a member of the opposite sex, are eschewed here; there is a stunning lack of emotion that puts Orlando directly at loggerheads with normative patterns of behavior. Again and again she will create these situations where normal behavior is almost combated; for an example, when Nick Greene leaves Orlando and writes a scathing pamphlet about him, which causes Orlando such pain that he ‘delivered the document to him at the end of a pair of tongs; bade him drop it in the filthiest heart of the foulest midden on the estate’ (Woolf), Orlando continues to pay him a quarterly pension. This goes against all good sense, for who would continue to support one who had written such a thing?Virginia Woolf formed many of her strongest sexual and emotional ties to women during her lifetime, and this is apparent in many of her works, including Orlando, which was presented to her long-time lover, Sackville-West. According to Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicholson, the book was ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature (Smith, 60).’ It has also been referred to as a fairy tale a clef; a book which is a roman a clef is a “novel with a key,” or a book which is a representation of real events, but which is hidden behind a layer of metaphor or mislabeling. Fairy tales can often be looked at as magical fiction – a reality which given certain allowances otherwise acts in a realistic way. One can see from these two genres what a fairy tale a clef is – a way to double disguise the truth behind the story. This story, as previously mentioned, is a rough retelling of the life of Vita Sackville-West, who was very close to Woolf – hence the roman a clef element; it is also set in a fantasy world when men can become women and live for unnatural amounts of time – hence the fairy tale aspect. As well, fairy tales usually tell us stories in order that we learn a lesson – classic tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella all have multiple moralistic lessons in them, some not intended for children as we have been conditioned to believe in this era. Likewise Orlando has morals embedded within its rich narrative. The main fairy tale message that Orlando has to impart to us regards individuality. Orlando the character certainly is an individual, not conforming to many of the practices of the times. This fairy tale nature to the story also allows for a great deal of creative wordplay, which pushes forward both the story and the theme of alternative sexuality. Some examples of this wordplay are in the next paragraph.As yet, I have referenced numerous times the term “wordplay”, but I have yet to provide a concrete example. If one were forced to choose a singular example from which to judge all other instances of so-called “wordplay” in Orlando, it would be this:’So Orlando stood gazing while the man turned his pen in his fingers, this way and that way; and gazed and mused; and then, very quickly, wrote half-a-dozen lines and looked up. Whereupon Orlando, overcome with shyness, darted off and reached the banqueting-hall only just in time to sink upon his knees and, hanging his head in confusion, to offer a bowl of rose water to the great Queen herself’ (Woolf). This is an example of Orlando acting as and fulfilling the gender role of a woman. Here are several points worth pointing out: Orlando ‘gazing’ at a man, ‘gazing’ not usually a term applied to one man looking at another; Also Orlando is fulfilling a subservient role, female in nature when he is ‘overcome with shyness’ and ‘sinking upon his knees and, hanging his head in confusion.’ Both of the preceding quotes are not ones that we would associate with the traditional, prototypical male – a male does not usually act in a way that puts himself ‘beneath’ another person. Thus Orlando begins to think of himself as a woman, and Woolf clearly lets us know that through her choice of wording. ‘Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably, to his bath. We may take advantage of this pause in the narrative to make certain statements. Orlando had become a woman-there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity’ (Woolf). Here is another quote, from the middle of chapter three in Orlando, which shows our protagonist’s strong sense of identity and individuality. Obviously, an overnight, uninvited sex change would bother most people, but Orlando shows us such a sense of self through her calmness and the regularity of her actions that we cannot help but be slightly awed, which is partly the point of this story; if we are awed, then we may take into consideration the fact that we can act as Orlando in our own lives, and be better for it. It is necessarily by mixing up words and phrases that Woolf is able to create an indisputable tone of androgyny – here, wordplay is not a plain stylistic feature, but a means as indispensable as the text itself because wordplay is the only thing that is able to define intersexuality the way Woolf desires. And as demonstrated, Woolf has a history which provides her with the preoccupation with gender roles and interactions. Androgyny, according to Woolf, has to do with breaking out of restricting gender roles and social norms.Works CitedSmith, Victoria L. “Ransacking the Language: Finding the Missing Goods in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,” Journal of Modern Literature 29.4, 2006. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_modern_literature/v029/29.4smith.html.Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. 1928.DeSalvo, Louise A. “Lighting the Cave: The Relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf,” Signs, Vol. 8, No. 2. (Winter, 1982), pp. 195-214. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0097-9740%28198224%298%3A2%3C195%3ALTCTRB%3E2.0.CO%3B2-C.

Gender Reversal in Orlando

Compared with other literature of the Heian Period, the Torikaebaya Monogatari stands out as an unusual story. The reversal of gender roles that is central to the plot is a narrative device not found among the other surviving monogatari from this era. Although viewed as merely entertainment by many readers, Torikaebaya does explore what it meant to be both a woman and a man in the Heian period. Another story that has a similar plot, although far removed from Heian Japan, is the novel Orlando, written by Virginia Woolf. Orlando also uses gender reversal as the cornerstone of the narrative, and like Torikaebaya, this allows the characters to experience and contrast the reality of each gender. If these two stories are compared in terms of the way that genders are depicted, some common themes emerge that relate to literature written by women. However, to proceed from this perspective, the reader must make some assumptions concerning the Torikaebaya.The authorship of Torikaebaya Monogatari is uncertain and will most likely remain so. In the introduction to the English translation, Rosette Willig advances the cases for both male and female authorship. She speculates that Meiji scholars concluded a male authorship merely because “they found it inconceivable that a court lady could have fashioned so distasteful and degenerate a plot.” (Willig, 5) Despite this, there are some legitimate reasons to consider the case for female authorship. Willig mentions that the style of the original Japanese is “written in a peculiarly women’s style” (Willig, 5), which combined with the possibility of elements of autobiography, indicates that the story was written by someone who also experienced the confusions of the characters. I would add that that the focus on the female Chunagon character in Book One, and the preferred attention that the character receives in the remainder of the story argues that the story was written from a female perspective. Therefore, while the authorship cannot be definitively settled, the assumption of a female author is not without basis, and this paper will proceed from that premise.There is another issue that the critical reader must consider before proceeding, and it relates not only to Torikaebaya, but also to Orlando as well. This is the issue of intent, that is, are these stories meant to simply entertain, or do they contain an implied criticism imbedded in the narrative? There is no doubt that both stories have much to recommend them in terms of enjoyable reading. The plot of gender reversal is intriguing enough, and both stories have survived to reach a modern readership (in the case of Torikaebaya much longer!), proof that there is something that endures about the story. However, especially concerning Torikaebaya, the modern audience must be careful not to read into the narrative an intention that may have not been possible. Having said that, both stories do have sections where criticisms for the enforced gender roles are explicit. By extension these criticisms of gender roles are really criticisms of the society that enforced them. So are these stories polemical, that is, do they attack an established code or behavior? In the case of Orlando, Virginia Woolf was able to record her intentions in her correspondence.I wasn’t sure how far the mixture seriousness and nonsense succeeded – I mean I meant some of it to be serious. (Langham, 236)If fantasy was the vehicle that Woolf used to deliver a critique of the patriarchal society she lived in, perhaps it is valid to suppose that the author of Torikaebaya also made use of a fantastical plot device to communicate dissatisfaction with the role of women in the society. Modern readers are not able to know definitively the intention of the author, but only an oblique criticism would be available to women writers in Heian Japan. I believe that the similar portrayal of the gender roles in Torikaebaya and Orlando, as well as the plot device common to both stories, support reading both stories as subtle criticisms.How the gender roles are portrayed in Orlando and Torikaebaya are quite similar. For example, when the female Chunagon is described as having qualities of the male gender….the daughter was already quite mischievous by this time and was outside constantly playing kickball and shooting arrows… she would promptly join the rest of the men and lark about with them quite as she pleased. (Willig, 15)When Orlando is described as having the gender of male, he is similarly described.Yet again they noted, she detested household matters, was up at dawn and out among the fields before the sun had risen. She could drink with the best and liked games of hazard. (Woolf, 109)Both stories equate the male gender with robust pursuits and love of being outside. These qualities contrast with the way that the female gender is presented to the reader. The male Naishi no Kami is presented this way when exhibiting the qualities of female gender.At length his father put him to the study of letters and taught him appropriate subjects, but the boy in his embarrassment, could not fix his attention to any of them… His father, astonished at such proclivities, constantly criticized him, until the wretched and intimidated boy was reduced to tears. (Willig, 14)This is similar to the description of Orlando as a woman.She would burst into tears on slight provocation. She was unversed in geography, found mathematics intolerable, and held some caprices that are more common among women than men, as for instance, that to travel south was to travel down hill. (Woolf, 110)Here women are portrayed as emotionally unstable and intellectually feeble. Compared to the descriptions of the qualities that characterize male gender, the female gender traits are treated as less desirable and inferior. This inferiority is magnified when each character ‘changes’ and assumes the female gender in society where previously they were accepted as male. No longer do they have the power and prestige that was given to them by virtue of exhibiting the accepted male gender traits. In the case of the female Chunagon, she is denied the freedom of movement and participation in the society as an individual; now she must be a dependant.Chunagon had once sat alongside the men at his father’s house, and he now reminisced about what had been said and done then. Saisho, however, amiably interrupted these recollections: ‘Are you fond of that sort of thing?’ The embarrassed Chunagon did not like to hear such words, but he managed to feign indifference. (Willig, 122)Orlando faces a similar situation when society forces an identity on her to correspond to her sex.The chief charges against her were that she was dead, and therefore could not hold any property whatsoever; that she was a woman, which amounted to the same thing… All her estates were put in Chancery and her titles held in abeyance while the suits were under litigation. Thus it was in a highly ambiguous condition, uncertain whether she was alive or dead, man or woman… (Woolf, 98)Like Chunagon, Orlando loses the wealth and with it the freedom. This is the implicit criticism that the portrayal of gender roles contains, that the female identity equals a denial of the freedom enjoyed by the male.In both stories, the female characters are trapped by virtue of biology into assuming the gender roles of the female. Partly this is a product of the society in which they live, which demands that the behavior correspond to the sex identity. However, the females in both stories become aware of the vulnerability that their sex identity exposes. Chunagon is the victim of rape at the hands of Saisho, which deepens her reliance on him because of the pregnancy that ensues. There are numerous examples where Chunagon laments that her sex identity was discovered, and her need to rely on someone as fickle as Saisho.Certainly Saisho is different from others in charm and elegance, but to be fated to entrust myself to such a person and stay indoors leaves much to be desired. (Willig, 99)Very few people were about, and Chunagon, large with child, seemed to be feeling oppressed and pained. He was lying down, lost in thought as he worried sadly about anything and everything. (Willig, 125)These quotes from the narrative show that the female Chunagon regrets the change that has taken place, and the loss of freedom that the female sex identity has predicated. Orlando experiences similar thoughts when she first changes from male to female.”Could I, however, leap overboard and swim in clothes like these? No! Therefore, I should have to trust to the protection of a blue jacket. Do I object to that? Now do I?” she wondered, here encountering the first knot in the smooth skein of her argument. (Woolf, 90)To be truthful, both Chunagon and Orlando come to an acceptance with their sex identity, but the initial reaction is one of apprehension and regret at the loss of freedom in the society as a female. These similarities between the narratives point to common themes in literature written by women, that there is a perception that women are inferior to men and exhibit less desirable qualities as gender, and that the sex identity of the female is inherently weaker and more vulnerable than the male sex identity. Whether this is true or not, the authors obviously felt that these issues had to be written about. This tension between gender and sex identity and the desire for freedom in society is communicated through the portrayal of the gender of the female characters in each story.Both Torikaebaya Monogatari and Orlando contain the narrative device of gender reversal, and this makes it possible for the reader to explore the implications of gender in society through the portrayal of the characters. The portrayal of the character’s gender and the limits on freedom that sex identity incurs are common to both stories, and can be interpreted as criticisms of patriarchal society. This implied criticism contained in a narrative otherwise understood as merely entertainment, seems to be a tool that women writers used to convey their dissatisfaction with their place in the society.

Synthesis

So he waited in the darkness. Suddenly he was struck in the face by a blow, soft, yet heavy, on the side of his cheek. So strung with expectation was he, that he started and put his hand to his sword. The blow was repeated a dozen times on forehead and cheek. The dry frost had lasted so long that it took him a minute to realize that these were raindrops falling; the blows were the blows of the rain. At first, they fell slowly, deliberately, one by one. But soon the six drops became sixty; then six hundred; then ran themselves together in a steady spout of water. It was as if the hard and consolidated sky poured itself forth in one profuse fountain. In the space of five minutes Orlando was soaked to the skin. (59-60) In stark contrast to the widely-accepted significance of her other novels, like Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando has met mostly “critical ambivalence,” to the point where seemingly exhaustive studies of her anthology have been known to ignore it. Readers tend to dismiss it as little more than a love letter in six chapters, an extended series of inside jokes between Woolf and her lover, Vita Sackville-West, and though the point is debatable, Woolf may well have limited her ambition for Orlando to this sort of tacit communication. Still, an author’s intention should not sway her critics from impartial analysis. If self-important writers can create irrelevant novels, then certainly a talented author and thinker like Woolf could unconsciously produce a cerebral volume. Indeed, the prevailing wit in Orlando must not distract us from its fundamentally serious meditation on the faulty perception of reality, nor prevent the book from taking its rightful place within Woolf’s impressive body of work and the broader canon of 20th-century literature.Those who do see something deeper in Orlando tend to focus on its biting satire of the biographical genre and historical writing in general. Certainly, Woolf is clearly poking fun at the tendency to break long stretches of history into eras and epochs, delimited occasionally by events that legitimately influence life, but more often by such arbitrary points as the ends of centuries or the reigns of monarchs. Readers may find it easier to comprehend writing if they receive it in chunks, but the problem arises when those artificial subdivisions of time begin to influence how we perceive our ancestors and ourselves. Within literary circles, for instance, writers are grouped into various isms—Woolf is traditionally considered a modernist, along with Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner and others—but these designations can never be fully accurate simply because no writer has only one style, one worldview that he or she draws on without deviation. We compartmentalize them to facilitate discussion, but we too often let the discussion be influenced by the highly arbitrary way we have done so.Within Orlando, Woolf demonstrates this common urge most clearly through the biographer-narrator, who constantly expresses the desire to package his story neatly, as well as the futility in the attempt to organize a fundamentally chaotic existence like Orlando’s, like anyone’s. In response to Orlando’s long slumber, during which the Turks revolt and his gender switches, the biographer laments: “Obscurity descends, and would indeed that it were deeper! Would, we almost have it in our hearts to exclaim, that it were so deep that we could see nothing whatever through its opacity! Would that we might here take the pen and write Finis to our work!” (133). Throughout the text, and particularly in the first few chapters, before Orlando’s own consciousness begins to take control of the story in preparation for her epiphany in Chapter Six, the biographer seems desperate for impartial support of his narrative; he defers to, to highlight just a few examples, “historians” (33, 149), “biologists and psychologists” (139), even the reader’s own interpretation of what he has described (75). These words, too, represent a system of categorization, in this case focused on designating people as either credible or not.Yet Orlando goes beyond the academic world to examine the way that all of Western civilization perceives the world. Our compartmentalization is not limited to history, but rather encompasses space, identity, gender, and many other areas that we divide and subdivide endlessly. Indeed, as we will see, the very words I am using to express these thoughts—language itself—are discrete units meant to represent something that does not exist outside of the interconnected continuum of existence. Even the word ‘interconnected’ does not quite signify the correct concept, since it requires two distinct entities to be linked. Clearly, the tools at our disposal for comprehending the world are and always have been woefully inadequate. Orlando’s story is that of anyone, everyone, unable to experience reality in its truest form.I. CompartmentalizationDuring his stint as an Ambassador in Turkey, Orlando reveals his acceptance of the conventional organization of space, the arbitrary transformation of continents into nations and nations into discrete units of property. His position itself indicates his location between two entities, striving mostly to strengthen his own government’s domination. The conscious act of connection, however, only intensifies the perceived separation between the two nations, for surely that which requires deliberate linking must lie very far apart. Throughout his time in the East, he remains constantly aware of the differences between that realm and his native England, observing that “nothing…could well be less like the counties of Surrey and Kent or the towns of London and Tunbridge Wells” (121). While this dissimilarity is undisputable, Orlando’s references to the names of specific tracts of English land suggest that he identifies a distinction in the very essences of the two regions, a disparity so fundamental that ‘Kent’ could never bear a resemblance to ‘Constantinople,’ rather than a mere variance in the customs and architecture of otherwise similar populations. Far from the orderly partition of England into individual pieces of land, he sees the undeveloped Turkish countryside as a “wild panorama,” a vast range of undivided space in all directions (122). At this point in the novel, such a lack of organization produces wonder, but no bliss for Orlando.Indeed, when she flees with the gipsies after the revolution (political and sexual), Orlando finds that, despite her initial adoption of their cultural practices, she is not fit for a nomadic life. The gipsies realize this incompatibility as well, specifically with regard to her conception of space:Looked at from the gipsy point of view, a Duke…was nothing but a profiteer or robber who snatched land and money from people who rated these things of little worth, and could think of nothing better to do than to build three hundred and sixty-five bedrooms when one was enough, and none was even better than one. (148)Orlando remains incapable of forging a true bond with the company of gipsies, imprisoned in isolation by her desire to facilitate ownership and privacy, as well as to simplify an incomprehensibly disordered world, by fracturing it into a myriad of disconnected units. Even while her body is situated next to Rustum’s in a physical sense, the place where she stands appears far different to her than to him. In time—centuries, as we will see—-Orlando will come to understand the gipsy’s belief that “the whole earth is ours,” but for now she remains incapable of recognizing the overarching unity of her compartmentalized reality (148).Mankind’s relationship with nature causes further contention between Orlando and the gipsies, and we can understand this conflict also in light of their distinct ways of organizing the world. While Rustum and his band move smoothly through the world, with respect but no reverence for the natural world, Orlando is repeatedly captivated by the awesome vistas: “They began to suspect that she had other beliefs than their own, and the older men and women thought it probable that she had fallen into the clutches of the vilest and cruellest among all the Gods, which is Nature.” Woolf’s term for this captivation, “the English disease,” initially seems to suggest that those accustomed to the developed world become enthralled by a rural setting, “where Nature was so much larger and more powerful” (143). By her own admission, however, this disparity of progress does not cause the ‘disease,’ but rather only intensifies the symptoms of a preexisting condition. The true origin lies in the English system of categorizing the world. Orlando and her countrymen erect a wall between themselves (civilization) and nature that does not exist to the gipsies, which produces a sense of awe that one can only feel for something separate, something other. Indeed, even the language of the gipsies reflects their refusal to separate things into arbitrary classes; rather than ‘beautiful,’ they use something akin to ‘good to eat’—not exactly ‘tasty,’ which would contain a subjective value judgment, but simply ‘edible.’ Thus, while Orlando admires the Turkish landscape, to reside there permanently would be to destabilize her conception of self and other.Orlando’s house also evokes a second type of compartmentalization at work throughout the novel—that of time. As an obvious nod to time’s central place in the novel, Woolf describes the house as having 365 bedrooms and 52 staircases, linking it inextricably with the year. Though this method of dividing the calendar into days and weeks is derived from a natural phenomenon, the Earth’s 365 rotations in each orbit around the sun, the obsession with counting such small intervals belongs to Western civilization. For those who live directly off the earth, like the gipsies, the seasons would suffice. More significantly, however, Orlando recognizes the various ‘ages’ through which she lives as distinct entities, much as the biographer does throughout the novel and most blatantly at the end of Chapter Four: “All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun” (226). As I mentioned earlier, this kind of rigid temporal division serves Woolf’s parody well, calling to mind the ‘true’ biographies she undermines in Orlando—books that reflect the Western worldview Orlando struggles to overcome.Until her ultimate recognition (or re-cognition), Orlando falls prey to the conventional compartmentalization of time, and thereby of her identity: “She reviewed, as if it were an avenue of great edifices, the progress of her own self along her own past” (175). Rather than a continuous flow of personal experience, she remembers her life in pieces, apparently in the same manner as the biographer presents it to us. Later, just before enumerating Orlando’s various components, Woolf writes, “She had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand” (309). The exhaustive list that follows sheds light on Orlando’s conception of who she has been, as well as who she currently is, since this passage comes from the end of the novel and the onset of her revelation. As we will see, she does eventually come to understand that these selves do not exist in her memory as representatives of distinct eras of her life, but rather in her present consciousness, having coexisted within her throughout all of her experiences2E For now, however, this inventory of personalities stands witness to her former long-held perception of a temporally categorized existence.Along similar lines, as Woolf pokes fun at literary critics like she does at biographers and historians, Orlando conceives of her writing career as a series of independent stylistic states.She had been a gloomy boy, in love with death, as boys are; and then she had been amorous and florid; and then she had been sprightly and satirical; and sometimes she had tried prose and sometimes she had tried drama. Yet through all these changes she had remained, she reflected, fundamentally the same. (237)The joke is clear, a condensed history of British literature, and I do not intend to sacrifice this reading in favor of my own. To be sure, Orlando works perfectly well as a parody of England’s last four centuries, but this represents only one superficial aspect of the novel. Hidden within the modern chronicle of literary history lies the modernist concern with the tension between perception and reality, with the fundamental imperfection in the communication of experience. The caricature ostensibly relates only to academic types, who make their living categorizing the world in various ways, but the implication runs far deeper. Woolf subtly suggests that Orlando, an amalgam of both genders and centuries of human existence, shares the same impulse toward misconception, toward the interpretive creation of our own illusive reality.As Orlando thinks about the stages of her literary development, however, she notices a strange fact: throughout it all, the fundamental aspects of her personality have persisted—“the same brooding meditative temper, the same love of animals and nature, the same passion for the country and the seasons” (237). It seems here that she stands on the verge of an awakening, as the essential sameness of things she has deemed separate comes to the forefront, yet she soon succumbs to a faulty explanation of her sensation of stasis. The narrating biographer offers the following clarification:Orlando had inclined herself naturally to the Elizabethan spirit, to the Restoration spirit, to the spirit of the eighteenth century, and had in consequence scarcely been aware of the change from one age to the other. But the spirit of the nineteenth century was antipathetic to her in the extreme, and thus it took her and broke her, and she was aware of her defeat at its hands as she had never been before. (244)Yet we observe no fundamental change in Orlando’s constitution with the onset of the 19th century; the presence of a self unified against the spirit of one age thus implies that she has maintained that capacity, untapped as it has been, throughout her life. Indeed, the novel depicts her struggle to choose among many different identities, none of which are ‘antipathetic’ to her, and reaches its resolution only when she comes to recognize that the pointlessness of that decision. At this point in the novel, though, that denouement remains a chapter in coming, and Orlando ignores her previous awareness of stability across temporal gaps in favor of her biographer’s misinterpretation.The spirit of the 19th century cited in the previous paragraph, the convention of marriage, provides a neat introduction to the third spectrum that Orlando compartmentalizes for much of the novel: gender. Unlike his conceptions of space and time, which become less compartmentalized as the novel progresses, Orlando’s initially unaffected reaction to his sex change demonstrates an acceptance of amalgamated identity that falls away before its ultimate restoration. At first she simply pays no attention to the new body and retains her own behavior patterns. The narrator even hints at the epiphany to come, using the third-person plural pronouns to describe the transformed Orlando before bowing to “convention’s sake” and adopting the singular male version (138). Indeed, the subject of gender does not arise again until her return trip to England, when she spends much of the sea journey comparing her current femininity with her prior state. After a period of confusion—“she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman” (158)—she comes to submit proudly to her new gender: “Praise God that I’m a woman!” (160). Much of her contemplation in this phase centers around the culturally defined role of the female, as she grapples to fit herself into a new compartment, previously viewed only from the outside. Her initial days as a woman in England begin the transformation, and soon after, despite the biographer’s ambiguous descriptions of her gender —the voice of Woolf shouting over her own narrator, perhaps—Orlando comes to take on female qualities: “Her modesty as to her writing, her vanity as to her person, her fears for her safety all seems to hint that what was said a short time ago about there being no change in Orlando the man and Orlando the woman, was ceasing to be altogether true” (187). She has begun to perceive the world in a different way, from a new perspective that she believes to require these sentiments.Despite her ostensible metamorphosis, however, Orlando maintains certain characteristics that indicate a continuing unity of gender at her core, though she continually ignores it in favor of compartmentalization. Not the least of these is her sexual orientation: “Though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man” (161). Orlando thinks even now of Sasha, and when she later falls in love with Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, it is in part because he reminds her so much of a woman. Similarly, he questions where she is “positive you aren’t a man,” reinforcing our position that Orlando has remained fundamentally the same (258). Despite the mounting evidence, however, and despite the masculine features of her behavior—“She could drink with the best and liked games of hazard. She rode well and drove six horses at a gallop over London Bridge” (189)—she refuses to accept her own multifaceted sexuality. Instead, she thinks to herself upon her engagement to Shelmerdine, “I am a woman,…a real woman, at last” (253). Neither the destabilization of gender boundaries nor her romantic bliss can distract her from the need to compartmentalize her universe into neatly defined categories, even when those categories are so clearly collapsing around her.Perhaps the best example of Orlando’s refusal to acknowledge her obvious ambiguity comes after her first interaction with the group of prostitutes. Having entered that world in a man’s clothing, that of her youth, she continues the masquerade even in more formal settings. Yet despite the narrator’s claim that the outfit makes her look, feel, and talk like a man, as she rediscovers the societal norm of masculinity Orlando actually remains entirely conscious of the gender she ‘should’ be. Inside Nell’s room, on the verge of consummating her lesbian urges, she buckles: “Orlando could stand it no longer. In the strangest torment of anger, merriment, and pity she flung off all disguise and admitted herself a woman” (217). With time, however, as she regains her comfort in the masculine garb, she learns to accept her attraction to fellow women, exploring it with the help of her costume: “For the probity of breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally” (221). Regardless, just as she later perceives that her engagement to an effeminate man has reinforced her womanhood, here too Orlando believes that she has only strengthened her compartmentalized identity by secretly placating her other aspects. The reader must be savvy enough to distrust her, to acknowledge the inherent masculine quality that she nourishes but refuses to recognize outwardly.II. FutilityThroughout her centuries of life, the central activity that dominates Orlando’s life is the creation of literature, whether it be poetry, prose, or drama. Woolf repeatedly hints at the transcendent nature of writing, as Orlando seems to use it in an attempt to rise above simplistic compartmentalization and achieve a harmonious interrelation with the world. Upon Orlando’s transformation, for instance, she retains her essence, her distinctive understanding and experience, in part because of her initial act as a woman: “First, she carefully examined the papers on the table; took such as seemed to be written in poetry, and secreted them in her bosom” (139-40). The unity across time discussed earlier depends on the constancy of Orlando’s behavior, and certainly writing represents a significant activity that she enjoys repeatedly throughout the ‘stages’ of her life. Later, one morning soon after her return to England, she begins to write again, thinking of the previous night’s feeling of being “bewildered as usual by the multitude of things which call for explanation and imprint their message without leaving any hint as to their meaning upon the mind” (176). Lost in a labyrinth of ‘things’—in this case, specifically of her dueling perceptions of England and Turkey, discrete units that form a subdivided interpretation of the world—she sets pen to paper in a futile attempt to resolve the clashes between sections of her memory and consciousness.Woolf likens this apparent breakdown of cognitive boundaries to a love affair between Orlando’s self and her reality. At the end of the novel, as she considers abandoning “The Oak Tree” forever, she thinks to herself, “What could have been more secret, more slow, and like the intercourse of lovers, than the stammering answer she had made all these years to the old crooning song of the woods?” (325). In this context, the transformation of the phrase “Life and a lover” (185) to “Life, a lover” (186) takes on a deeper significance, indicating an unconscious recognition that life is her lover, that she seeks not two things but a stronger connection with one—a coalescence of desire that foreshadows her coming epiphany. Orlando’s discovery of her eventual fianc does not, cannot occur until she understands her synergistic relationship with the figurative lover. Indeed, that first encounter with Shelmerdine takes place just a few pages after she declares, “I am nature’s bride” (248). After the marriage, she remains unsure that she can commit to a man over her literary pursuits: “If one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts” (264). With Orlando’s ambiguous gender in mind, even the physical aspect of writing becomes romantic, resembling the sexual consummation of the courtship: “She dipped her pen in the ink and wrote” (185).Similarly, Woolf links poetry with religion, further accentuating its transcendent quality. As Orlando sails back on the Thames into London, for example, she catches sight of a “vast cathedral rising among a fretwork of white spires,” which the biographer tells us “suggested a poet’s forehead” (164). The connection goes beyond this sort of metaphorical resemblance, though, in the minds of Turkish shepherds:They had met an English Lord on the mountain top and heard him praying to his God. This was thought to be Orlando himself, and his prayer was, no doubt, a poem said aloud, for it was known that he still carried about with him, in the bosom of his cloak, a much scored manuscript; and servants, listening at the door, heard the Ambassador chanting something in an odd, singsong voice when he was alone. (124)This replacement of Christian practice with poetry recurs in the novel; the question of what supplants God for Orlando is answered later, when the gipsies fear that she has deified nature. Both interpretations of Orlando’s relationship with the world—whether we call them lovers or God and believer—emphasize her attempts to overcome the boundaries between herself and her surroundings, between compartments of her perceived reality, through writing. Upon her return to England, Orlando acknowledges her own heresy as she scans her old prayer book: “‘I am losing some illusions,’ she said, shutting Queen Mary’s book, ‘perhaps to acquire others'” (174).The second admission, that of her potential new illusions, foreshadows the ultimate failure of writing to synthesize the world. Indeed, language itself is a system of categorizing the world, translating a continuum of experience into discrete units—words, sentences, chapters, and so on. As she explores nature with the gipsies, rather than simply experience the overwhelming sights, she uses metaphor to compare “the hills to ramparts…the flowers to enamel and the turf to Turkey rugs worn thin. Trees were withered hags, and sheep were grey boulders. Everything, in fact, was something else” (143). The traditional understanding of metaphor, of course, would suggest that this sort of linguistic enterprise serves to bring concepts and objects together in our perception, but metaphor relies on a perpetual awareness of the fundamental difference between things. We believe that this is not like that, and so we are intrigued when a writer points out similarities between the two—but still they remain essentially compartmentalized, as they are simply by virtue of their designations as ‘this’ and ‘that.’ The gipsies recognize this: “Here is someone who does not do the thing for the sake of doing; nor looks for looking’s sake; here is someone who believes neither in sheep-skin nor basket; but sees…something else” (146). What she sees, of course, is akin to an entry in a library’s card catalog, something that allows her to file the sheep-skin and the basket in the appropriate compartment within her interpretation of the world. As earlier, when then-he bemoaned the incompatibility between “green in nature” and “green in literature,” here too does Orlando fall prey to the inescapable detachment between words and real-world referents.The biographer also describes the limitations of language to describe the world as it really is: “The commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down” (253). Indeed, if the higher aim of poetry is to craft a true interpretation of reality, then it should be created not by writing but through direct sensory experience. Thus, in the example presented earlier, where Orlando writes in an attempt to resolve internal conflict between divergent perceptions, her endeavor undermines itself; she paradoxically relies on a system of attaching discrete signifiers to real-world referents in order to coalesce the various signifieds within her consciousness. Similarly, when the newly female Orlando’s first act is to recover “The Oak Tree,” it does serve to perpetuate her old interpretations of the world as I suggested—but that interpretation is fraught with compartmentalization. Indeed, the act of writing tends to separate Orlando from her current reality in a very literal sense, as she escapes the outside world for the confines of her own thought: “When the feasting was at its height and his guests were at their revels, he was apt to take himself off to his private room alone” (112). Temporally, too, writing can never capture the experience of the present moment, but at best (and imperfectly) the instant just past, which has already been subdivided into the appropriate compartments of the poet’s memory. No wonder, then, that upon reflection Orlando decides that “the letter S is the serpent in the poet’s Eden” and that “the present participle is the Devil himself” (173). Both the letter S and the suffix ing turn uncommitted infinitive verbs into their present-tense forms, a linguistic paradox of the highest order.III. EpiphanyAt several points in the novel, Orlando claims to feel disillusioned in some way, as though her eyes have been opened to the imperfection of her perception. Though she normally remains misguided, these moments anticipate her eventual epiphany, as she grows more and more aware of her faulty interpretation of the world. The first occurs when Orlando is still a man, a boy really, after Nick Greene betrays him with a scathing pamphlet. Orlando childishly denounces all of human society:Two things alone remained to him in which he now put any trust: dogs and nature; an elkhound and a rose bush. The world, in all its variety, life in all its complexity, had shrunk to that. Dogs and a bush were the whole of it. So feeling quit of a vast mountain of illusion, and very naked in consequence, he called his hounds to him and strode through the Park. (97)This passage represents the final stone in the wall between civilization and nature that will cause Orlando so much trouble with the gipsies. Yet the ‘illusion’ of human loyalty he perceives originates from the misdeed of just one man, and so the categorization of the natural world as good and society as evil is overly simplistic. Though his previous naivet was a type of illusion as well, Orlando now creates an alternate fantasy, one based on the unsound assumption of a disconnected world. The biographer later offers a self-contradictory justification of this behavior: “Illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things…but as it is notorious that illusions are shattered by conflict with reality, so no real happiness, no real wit, no real profundity are tolerated where the illusion prevails” (199-200). This absurd notion that the ‘most valuable of all things’ prevents one from achieving ‘real happiness’ infects Orlando throughout much of the novel, as she succumbs to a series of misperceptions.A more correct disillusionment takes place in Chapter Four, as the female Orlando walks downs a long London street accompanied by Alexander Pope. Lit by lamps set two hundred yards apart, the lengthy passage alternates between long periods of darkness and quick bursts of illumination. The parallel to the course of history is clear, particularly the history of science—a series of disillusionments at the hands of men like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin. Steven Jay Gould cites another revolutionary, Sigmund Freud, as having remarked, “Great revolutions in the history of science have but one common, and ironic, feature: they knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another of our previous conviction about our own self-importance.” Another way of expressing this thought would be to say that each discovery helped to invalidate mankind’s compartmentalization of itself above and apart from all other species and planets; first we moved away from the center of the universe, then reintegrated ourselves within the animal kingdom, and finally lost our grasp on the “myth of a fully rational mind.” In the darkness, then, Orlando maintains a certain pride at walking with a famous writer—“Future ages will think of us with curiosity and envy me with fury”—but when the light falls on his face she begins to doubt her categorization of him as superior to any other man: “Ages to come will never cast a thought on me or on Mr. Pope either. What’s an ‘age,’ indeed? What are ‘we’?” (205). These semantic questions reveal far more significant doubts regarding the compartmentalization of time and identity, as the seeds of realization begin to germinate.Orlando’s uncertainty spreads to the literary realm in Chapter Six, as she encounters Nick Greene again and realizes that the foremost critic of the Victorian era is less a thinker than a fop, “an elderly gentleman in a grey suit talking about duchesses.” The contradiction between this image and her nave illusion—“She had thought of literature all these years…as something wild as the wind, hot as fire, swift as lightning”—causes her earlier misperception to disintegrate, replaced by the present moment she has eluded for so long (280). The figurative language with which Orlando describes literature, similes instead of metaphors this time, indicates her continuing inability to see things as they really are. She misinterprets the world in large part because she classifies it improperly—that is, at all—placing literature in a cognitive compartment with the wind, fire, and lightning, rather than rejoicing in the wonder of all four entities themselves and in total. Cleverly, Woolf links Orlando’s general misconception with her writing, proceeding causally from her disillusionment to her unintended bestowal of “The Oak Tree” on the world.After this episode, the narrative begins to run together in a stream-of-consciousness style that approaches true experience of the world, though still limited by the discreteness of words. The words rush over the reader as the sensation of reality pours down on the distraught Orlando, preparing her for the epiphany heralded so often throughout the text. Within the department store, a useful image in itself that we will examine shortly, the scent of pink candles brings the memory of Sasha back to Orlando’s present reality, as the compartmentalization of time collapses in a Proustian moment of involuntary memory. Later a similar breakdown occurs within her house:The gallery stretched far away to a point where the light almost failed. It was as a tunnel bored deep into the past. As her eyes peered down it, she could see people laughing and talking; the great men she had known; Dryden, Swift, and Pope; and statesmen in colloquy; and lovers dallying in the windowseats; and people eating and drinking at the long tables; and the wood smoke curling round their heads and making them sneeze and cough. (319)Here the house serves as a representation of Orlando’s consciousness, which no longer focuses on the 365 bedrooms, but rather on the central gallery filled with countless characters from all the years of her life. Rather than rigidly separating the here and now from all other experiences, Orlando has come to accept the ongoing influence of her many years and homes and ‘selves’ on the present moment.Indeed, the department store makes a fitting image for Orlando’s new conception of reality and herself. It has but one name, Marshall & Snelgrove’s, but contains all sorts of merchandise, from bed sheets to candles to napkins. Though her own consciousness contains, like all of ours, as many as two thousand ‘selves,’ in the last pages of the novel she stops trying to choose one self for each moment, instead accepting that they all coexist and shape each other. This introduction of a unified perception allows her to become “what is called, rightly or wrongly, a single self, a real self” (314). Similarly, having already made peace between her own spirit and the so-called ‘spirit of the age’ – “Orlando had so ordered it that she was in an extremely happy position; she need neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself” (266)—she no longer has to erect such a firm boundary between self and other. The codependence of her sensory experience and her social and natural surroundings has become clear; in modern terminology, she has shifted from a strip mall to a department store consciousness.Hail, happiness, then, and after happiness, hail not those dreams which bloat the sharp image as spotted mirrors do the face in a country-inn parlour; dreams which splinter the whole and tear us asunder and wound us and split us apart in the night when we would sleep (294)

Discussing the relationship between gender and genre in “Orlando: A Biography”

Virginia Woolf, born in 1882, is regarded as one of the first and most important modern feminist writers. In Orlando: A Biography, she tackles and bends the concepts of gender roles and gender identity and, on the other hand, deals with the subject of biography and novels. Woolf’s work was innovative at the time, as it defied the Victorian values held by a big part of society. Surrounding herself with family and friends who had a similar mindset that provided an environment in which controversial and experimental texts were encouraged, she was able to openly discuss these troublesome subjects. This essay intends to explain and discuss the similarities between gender and genre showed by Woolf.

First of all, it is compulsory to define what is considered a biography and what is considered a novel, so that it is possible to analyze the elements of one or the other throughout the book. The Cambridge dictionary defines a biography as “the life story of a person written by somebody else”, with this concept, it is perfectly rational to consider Orlando: A Biography a biography. However, biographies often tell a true life story, stating facts through an intensive study of documents about the person the biography is about. Although there are facts and real geographical references in this book, it could also fit into the category of fiction, defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “the type of book or story that is written about imaginary characters and events (…)” (Cambridge dictionary, 2015).

Before carrying out any discussion about the subjects above mentioned, there must be an agreement on the genre the book actually belongs to. Calling it a biography feels like stretching the truth quite a bit, although the fact that it calls itself one justifies this classification. In addition, it actually seems to be a biography until some pretty incredible things happen: magical sex changes, characters that live for centuries, weeklong sleeps that are inexplicable, etc., which belong to a fictional novel. Hermione Lee, president of Wolfson College and writer of one of the many Woolf’s biographies, says that “Virginia Woolf and her contemporaries are poised on the edge of the revolution which has turned biography into the iconoclastic, gossipy art-form it is now, when the only taboo is censorship.” (Lee, 1996) With saying this, Lee seems to imply that all of Woolf’s works, including Orlando, were a fundamental part of the evolution of the term ‘biography’. However, I believe that the most appropriate thing to do is to divide it into the two genres; when Orlando transitions from being a man to being a woman and all the strange events occur, the book transitions as well, from a biography to a novel.

As mentioned before, Woolf and her contemporaries challenged the traditional concept of biography, which ended up changing. In this book, Virginia does the same thing with gender, giving new perspectives to its concept. Orlando, the main character, completely breaks down and transcends the categories of male and female, showing gender norms and conventions to be socially constructed, and disrupting them (Rognstad, 2012). Needless to say, although Orlando’s story might have been based on true facts (mostly geographical), the story is clearly fantastical. As Woolf said, it should be “truthful but fantastical”.

Among these fictional elements, time and gender both stand out. This approach to chronology, on one hand, allowed Virginia to show how time affected the main characters. On top of that, the writer – in a controversial move for that time – plays with the concept of gender, by making Orlando go from male to female almost effortlessly and without giving too much explanation as to why or how this happens. In this process, Purity, Chastity, and Modesty appear personified in order to show qualities women were supposed to present in those times, and even though they utilize their magic around Orlando’s room, she never becomes particularly pure, chaste, or modest once she is a woman. As mentioned before, Orlando’s gender switch might be that effortless for plot purposes; yet, it could be interpreted as the expression of Woolf’s beliefs on gender. This being that it is not set in stone; it is flimsy and unreliable. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf explains: “one must be woman – manly or man – womanly” (A Room of One’s Own, 1929), since nobody can show all characteristics assigned to their gender at the same time.

The same ease is showed in the transition of the book from bibliography to novel; Woolf does not try to explain it and we, as readers, should just accept it as it is. The gender change simply happens when Orlando visits Turkey to get away from his lover. There, he falls asleep for a long period of time and eventually wakes up being a woman. The character does not question what happens; instead, he/she embraces it and lives with a gypsy community before returning to England, where she gets completely accustomed to living as a woman. It might seem, if you have not read the book, like Orlando is some kind of weird creature capable of doing extraordinary things such as sex-swapping, but that is not the case. In many ways, he/she is just like everybody else: struggling with life, the demands of society, love and a career.

When living with the gypsies, Orlando does not fully realize the situation she is in; it is when she returns to England that she understands her new position in society as a woman and starts to struggle with what society demands. She starts being treated differently by people, and starts to think, just by looking at her clothes, that she cannot longer do all the things she did before changing gender, or, if she did, it would not be socially accepted. Here, we can see that the position a certain gender takes in society is nothing more than a social construction. This, of course, was much more radical in the age Orlando lived in. Furthermore, it is easy to see that Orlando only realizes she has to act differently when people start to treat her differently because of her sex. The captain, her servants and basically everybody else treats her like a woman, so she must act like one was supposed to act. Rongstad says that Orlando, as well as A Room of One’s Own, could be considered studies of androgyny, not in the sense of physical androgyny, but androgyny of mind. Orlando, obviously, is the perfect example of this type of mind, given the fact that she shows aspects of both genders equally throughout the whole novel.

Gender change and identity issues can be tackled both in a biography and in a novel. However, the aspect Woolf shows about these subjects is incredibly personal and detailed, which makes the book a novel after the gender transformation. In chapter 3, when the transformation happens, Orlando goes from he to their to she: “Orlando had become a woman—there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.” (Woolf, 1928) What this signalizes is that there is nothing specifically important about Orlando’s sex; she is biologically a woman, indeed, but yet she shows aspects of her past life as a man. The only thing that happens is that Orlando now expresses the feminine side showed by the character in the first half of the book, in the biography. This way, gender roles, the “correct” way in which a certain gender is supposed to think and behave) are unimportant to Orlando, and she continues to be the exact same person she was before.

With this, in my opinion, Woolf tries to show that just as gender does not determine a person’s identity, the title of a book does necessarily determine what the book actually is. Calling the book a biography is somewhat correct, and calling Orlando a man is also correct to a certain extent. What they truly show, however, is that in a way, the book can be both a novel and a biography, and Orlando can be both a man and a woman without this causing any trouble.

Judith Butler, a feminist philosopher, says that ““the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all” (Butler, 1998). What Butler tries to explain is that the “natural” features we have about what a male or a female is supposed to be like, have been created over time, via social and political norms, and are being reinforced through their everyday application. Furthermore, Woolf allows Orlando to experience characteristics from both genders, trying to tackle the question of why is that certain actions are typically male or female and that it is possible to choose how one wants to act. In accordance to Butler, Woolf confirms that it is indeed acts that define a person’s gender.

To conclude, we must reflect on how Woolf’s post-modernist ideas are reflected in the book. The writer plays with gender and genre, and shows that what can seem certain and truthful cannot be fully believed; this is seen in a phrase found at the beginning of the book: “He – for there could be no doubt of his sex”. Orlando showed a lot of the features that define a man, but still turned into a woman. The title of the novel, as well, showed us that it would be a biography and, until a certain point (around chapter three), any person could believe it was. Notwithstanding, it turned out to be a work of fiction. Lastly, Woolf shows that there are a lot of things – just as gender and genre – that can be questioned and analyzed more than they are. She does this in a playful way and shows their intricate connection while demonstrating how wrong our assumptions about genre and gender can be.

Works Cited

Cambridge dictionary, definition of biography, extracted from http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/biography

Cambridge dictionary, definition of written fiction, extracted from http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/fiction

Butler, Judith (1998). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lee, Hermione (1996). Virginia Woolf. Chatto & Windus.

Rognstad, Marte (2012). The Representation of Gender in Virginia Woolf’s

Orlando and Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex. A Thesis Presented to The Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages University of Oslo.

Woolf, Virginia (1928). Orlando: A Biography. Hogarth Press.

How far do texts challenge the fixity of binary gender?

Gender may be defined as ‘the personal traits and position in society connected with being male or female’.[1] The binary genders then, are the male and female which John Carl contrasts simply: ‘wearing high heels is associated with the female gender, while wearing combat boots is associated with the male gender’. Gender differs from sex in the sense that sex refers to one’s biological makeup and reproductive organs, but as Carl states, ‘that does not necessarily mean that biology creates personality’,[2] and therefore determine the expression of male or female gender. I will address the topic of gender fixity in regard to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, as both present examples of an individual not belonging characteristically to either binary gender, challenging the fixity of binary gender.

The sex of Joss Moody in Trumpet is biologically female; we learn this in the revelation of his concealed breasts[3]. However, as proposed by Carl, this does not link to the personality of the character, the traits, and therefore the gender. Victoria Arana describes Joss’ habits of ‘flatten[ing] his torso […] to conceal his breasts, then stuff[ing] a wad of socks inside his shorts to perfect the costume’[4] (my italics). This provides an instance of binary genders not being fixed, as with these simple alterations to the base of his ‘costume’, Joss’ gender is convincingly changed from male to female, deceiving all who knew him personally. Although the fixity of Joss’ revealed biological sex is undeniable to those around him: ‘my father didn’t have a dick. My father had tits. My father had a pussy’[5], this does not affect his perceived gender as male to the outside world, with even Colman, bitter at his father’s deception, acknowledges that Joss’ is in essence, male: ‘don’t bother with this him/her bullshit. That’s bollocks, man. Just say him’.[6] Here, gender fixity is challenged as although his anatomical sex reveals the opposition of his expressed gender, it does not affect perceptions of him in the slightest, with his peers showing indifference to the concept of Joss’ gender in relation to his sex:

“Were you aware-?” He interrupts her. “Nope. And you should concern yourself with the music. This guy’s a genius.”“Don’t you mean the girl’s a genius?” Sophie says.“Whatever. Christ, do you think I’m bothered? Do you think anybody’s bothered? It’s the fucking music that matters.”[7]

Kay challenges gender fixity by placing her emphasis on the traits of the individual, such as Joss’ musical talent. This is not to say that Joss’ does not have what can be considered as stereotypical female traits, connecting him to the female sex, such as the fact ‘he is quite squeamish’[8]. Nonetheless, the character and gender of Joss still challenges gender fixity to a great degree, mainly due to the perception of the character to be unchanging once the true sex is revealed. In memory, Joss remains within the performed male gender in which he lived the majority of his life.

In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the performance of gender is also present in the titular character. The opposition of Joss’ gender performance, Orlando is biologically be male at the beginning of the novel, as ‘there could be no doubt of his sex’[9]. Even whilst remaining biologically male, there are also elements of gender performativity; from the outset we understand that his manner of dressing ‘did something to disguise [his sex][10]. This performativity also challenges fixed binary genders due to the seamless transition from male to female in biological form: ‘He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, […] we have no choice left to confess – he was a woman’[11]. Similar to the opening line of the text, it is the vague descriptions of ‘undoubtful’ sex that define the gender of Orlando which seemingly does not challenge gender fixity as his anatomy presents the character as either male or female in this instance. However, Woolf later continues to state that ‘Orlando had become a woman there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity’[12], suggesting the fixity of gender to be indifferent to the identity of the self.

Moslehi and Niazi state that ‘by using cross dressing and sex change, Woolf reveals the contrast between Orlando’s appearance and his/her essence’[13], the essence here being Orlando’s true self, regardless of the outside gender perceived by others, and simultaneously being the unchanged ‘identity’ Woolf writes of. Thus, gender binaries are challenged to a great degree in Orlando by affirming the idea that ‘there is inevitably – even accidentally – a continuous, even planned resistance to the norms of gender’[14] but simply disregarding the difference between them. Whether in a biologically male or female body, one’s identity remains the same, disregarding the use for binary genders. Rognstad sums this point up nicely stating that ‘it is hence what we do that creates our gender identity, not the other way around: gender does not exist prior to the acts that establish it’[15], and thus Orlando’s interests in nature and poetry cannot be linked explicitly to either gender independently, as it is the mixture of genders within him that makes him himself.

In both Trumpet and Orlando, the binary genders of male and female are challenged significantly and to such a degree that the physical anatomical sex has little to no influence on the true identity of one’s expressed gender. The gender performativity seen in Joss Moody’s character, although an artificial recreation of the male gender and its characteristics, has very little impact on how his identity is received by the other characters in the novel once the initial shock of deception has been overcome. Similarly, the naturalness of Orlando’s transition from male to female has no marked impact upon his sense of self identity, ruling binary genders to be insignificant in the expression of true gender identity.