Gender Reversal in Orlando

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

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.

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