Book Review-“Orlando” by Virginia Woolf

a0f73f20fcd2c748c05adf751d18d3c6

Title-                  Orlando

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 PopeRape Of The Lock), Joseph AddisonSpectator) and Jonathan SwiftGulliver’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.

Copyright © deepanairrp

 

Book Review ‘To The Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf.

59716

Author- Virginia Woolf

Genre- Fiction/ Modernism

Theme- Time

My review

Definitely not an easy one to read let alone understand, the novel tracks a tricky unconventional mode better known as the ‘stream of consciousness’ where the readers go through the mental pictures of characters rather than actual speech or actions. There are no specific indications or pointers as to whether they are traversing the past, present or future, each sliding stealthily into the other. Woolf seems to intentionally smudge the lines between them, thereby confusing the reader’s perception of space and time.

It’s confusing at many levels, primarily in getting a sense of location and chronological order. To give an example, Mrs. Ramsay’s soliloquy while knitting, darts from the future prospects of a nuptial union of Mr. Banks and Lily and suddenly turns into empathizing with the maid’s past, whose father had been suffering from cancer, who was forced to separate from him and work in a faraway place. Interestingly the reader’s mind darts in a similar fashion from future to past and from past to present, oftentimes failing to link events in order chronologically.

The novel has an autobiographical element, of Virginia’s childhood spent at the summer-house in St. Ives, Cornwall. That period is showcased in the first part of the novel, taking place before World War One, with all it’s Victorian mores and ethos. The last part centers on the post-Victorian period, same as Virginia’s adulthood when the frame of mind of the characters undergo a drastic change, their attitudes change and situations are weighed up against the past occurrences.

Postwar period ushered in a modernistic era when experimentation in formalism, modernism, structuralism, and realism took root in literature and art beginning from the dawn of the twentieth century. Virginia, who had been home-schooled by her mother, was able to experience the freedom of thought and style in literature through the masterpieces of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and the like.

Notable in the literary style is how Virginia composes the complexity of thought followed by simple actions. She explores the realities and mundanities of everyday life, a stark contrast to the romanticism of the Edwardian era novels. It is refreshing for the reader to experience life as it is rather than dabble in the fantasies of Romanticism. Nevertheless, our thoughts get entwined with the character’s inner working of mind so much so that the reader sometimes wish to escape from the bubble to a world outside. Another feature of the novel is the poetical beauty of her prose, especially while picturing nature. And here, she follows T.S Eliot’s Impersonal Theory of Poetry. The characters engage in a kind of ‘soliloquy in solitude’ disconnected from one another.

Woolf’s strong stance on feminism is said to have evolved from this novel onward. In the novel, the character Charles Tansley’s patriarchal and misogynist statement ‘ women can’t paint, women can’t write’, in a condescending manner, comes back to Lily’s mind every time she tries to start her painting. The status of women as an artist or anything beyond the role of a housekeeper during Victorian times is rigidly being looked down upon and criticized by the character, Charles. Virginia surmounts this by drawing Lily’s character as someone out of the box, individualistic, whose persistence and grit triumphs finally, in bringing forth her artistic vision. According to her own words, the novel had been sort of release from the obsessions of Victorian mores foisted on her and her sisters by their mother. Her attitude to the inevitability of marriage for a woman is criticized through the character, Lily who hates marriage and parries the efforts of Mrs. Ramsay to get her married. Virginia had expressed it inconceivable for herself to have evolved into a writer, had her father been alive. In the novel, she delivers subtle snipes against both her parents’ outlook to women in general.

The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. Taking Lily’s artistic visions as an example, Virginia has used Lily as a medium to convey her ideas of feminism, to expound on life and death, persistence, and finally self-realization. The lighthouse could be symbolic of desires, unattainable/ reachable.There is not just one interpretation to the meaning of the novel, but many since it had been written and each offers different perspectives on a subjective basis.

Copyright © deepanairrp