Author- Virginia Woolf
Genre- Fictional biography/ historical biography/ fantasy/ satire/ modernism/magical realism
Theme- Relationship b/w Fact and imagination/ gender differences/ conformity/ flow of time/ identity
Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is difficult to be categorized under a specific genre. It could equally qualify for satire, mock biography, fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or modernism. Through the work, she elucidates, questions and examines serious topics like gender bias, the interconnectedness of fact and fantasy, sexual identity, conforming to mores and ethos, a materialistic society sordid with exhibitionism and parade of poseurs, literary progression, and the passage of time and it’s effects on people, through the androgynous protagonist, Orlando using her high flying poetic language. As in each of Woolf’s novels, symbolism and imagery are the predominant vehicles for conveying her thoughts to the reader.
It is a fantastic historical mock biography of ‘Orlando’ through 400 years of his existence whereby he goes through a gender change. The very first sentence of the novel, “He, for there could be no doubt about his sex……” takes in what the reader is about to encounter.
Orlando is claimed to be the product of Woolf’s complex relationship with fellow writer, Vita Sackville West, who was known for her many lesbian affairs and an acknowledged bisexual, so on this account the work is a fiction-biography fusion or autofiction. Woolf dedicates the novel to Vita. The androgynous Orlando exhibits transvestism and is drawn towards male and female characters. ( Reminds me of Shakespeare‘s hero Orlando in ‘As you Like It‘. Orlando’s lover Rosalind disguises as a man to test his love for her. Women cross-dressing as men is a common theme in many Shakespeare plays.)
The novel could be considered the first trans novel in English. But, at about the same time of its publication(1928), another lesbian novel made waves for wrong reasons- “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. The novel was banned in the UK for obscenity and there was a court case against Hall before it became international best-seller years later. Though, Hall’s writing style comes nowhere near Woolf’s. Both the novels were published around the same period, still, interestingly, one was banned and Orlando managed to skirt around the prudish Victorian censors. The reason is laid bare by the way she brings forth the androgynous protagonist, her poetic language, exploration of sexual identity in a subtle way and through that anatomizing gender bias, and the process of literary creativity and literary maturation through Elizabethan, Victorian and Edwardian periods, the effect of time on self, and the progression of time. In short, Orlando is not just a trans novel.
The rigid conventions and restrictions of Victorian biography are flatly mocked. Traditional stereotypes of gender reinforced on Woolf by her parents are questioned and analyzed. Barbs aimed at her father, himself a biographer, stern and detached, is conspicuous. The narrator, who claims to be Orlando’s biographer, is subjective, intentionally, while describing him using overflowing poetic language and steers and leads the reader’s perception of Orlando’s actions by deliberately expounding for the protagonist. In short, Woolf tells us that biographies are never 100% factual truth, they are fictionalized facts. Woolf notes that ‘she must state the facts as they are known and let the reader make of them what he will.‘
Orlando sways between life, love, and literature in the process of completing his poetry, ‘The Oak Tree’, thus finding the meaning of life, love, and literary maturity at the end. Despite the pain and rigors in literary creation, she projects the incisiveness of the know-all critics and how even the greats like Shakespeare, Marlow, Alexander Pope or John Dryden were at the receiving end of their pen. Like Woolf, Orlando frets about criticism.
Orlando’s journey from the 16-th century to the 20-th century is about the need to conform to the spirit of the age. The struggle becomes more with gender change, as a woman, and more so during the Victorian period with its strait-laced mores and moral judgments. Conjugal relation is ineluctable and the role of women is pigeonholed as homemakers and propagators of the human race. For Orlando, identity is not defined by apparel, there is a man inside every woman and vice-versa, there is no specific delineation of identity or sexuality. Yet, she capitulated to the spirit of the age and decides to find a husband, and fails first, thus accepting nature, moor, as her husband. (A subtle snipe at Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘).
Finally, when Orlando finds Shelmerdine, a sailor, for her husband, Woolf parodies Gothic romance literature by describing their meeting and union that happens in seconds, inevitably entangled with nature. ( One could see a whole lot of feathery metaphors. Shel’s stretched-out moniker is ‘wild, dark-plumed with a steel-blue gleam of rook’s wings, hoarse laughter of their caws, snake-like twisting descent of their feathers in a silver pool’ ). True, nothing stops the reader from getting lost inside Woolf’s imagination!
A satirical punch is also delivered to Alexander Pope ( Rape Of The Lock), Joseph Addison( Spectator) and Jonathan Swift( Gulliver’s Travels). Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock‘( not literally) deserves mention here since that itself was a satirical work dedicated to his female friend and her fiancee. Pope parodies the circumstances in 18 th century Britain by satirizing an uneventful occurrence of cutting off of a lock of Belinda’s hair without her permission by his fiancee during a jamboree! ( hence the title). The moment had been overblown to elephantine proportions by comparing it with the irredeemable act of looting her virginity and hence chastity. The interesting feature here is, though, Pope lampoons the zeitgeist of the 18 th century by alluding everything from the clothes, hairstyle, way of talking, even furniture through juxtapositioning them with classical epics, instances of patriarchal condescension to female gender sticks out like a sore thumb throughout. Woolf points out that the passage of time has had nil whatsoever remodeling or transmuting effect on the putting down of the female bird brains. ( The poem is a very interesting one though).
The ambiguity of sexes is a constant theme throughout the novel. Orlando as a young boy is described as possessing some feminine characters like a shapely leg and arched lips. When the young man Orlando meets Sasha, the Muscovite princess, she first appears like a boy to him. (Sasha is said to the fictional form of Violet, Vita’s former lover) Orlando as a woman realizes that Shelmerdine(her husband) is more feminine and he, in turn, recognizes the masculine in her.
In the final chapter, the first-person narration by the biographer slides into a stream of consciousness style typical of Woolf. This chapter is about realizations, seeking and finding the truths, finding love and life and attainment of literary maturity. Orlando realizes that poetry is more a personal achievement of the soul than fame, money, and critical acclaim. It is a ‘voice answering a voice‘. The flow of time and reality is entirely subjective. We are many selves in an individual, sometimes more than a thousand identities in oneself. Identifying as a single self at a given moment is close to impossible. Rather Orlando finally becomes aware of the composite self, a unity of all the past, present and future identities that define her at the present moment.