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. https://muse.jhu.edu/lockss?vid=2908, 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://www.jstor.org/stable/3173896.
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.
Cambridge dictionary, definition of biography, extracted from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/biography
Cambridge dictionary, definition of written fiction, extracted from https://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’. 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’, 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. 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’ (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’, 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’. 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.”
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’. 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’. 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]. 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’. 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’, 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’, 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’ 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’, 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.