REVIEW: Feminism in Orlando, As Woolf Would Have It
The reviewer feels it is imperative to first mention the curious style of narrative employed in Orlando by Virginia Woolf. She references not only the reader, but also herself, directly a number of times. The novel, with its unusual telling, is a biography of a person of the same name. Despite being a biography though, it is a work of fiction, based on Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West. However, the occurrences in the book are more often than not impossible.
For starters, Orlando begins the book as a man (that’s not to say, dear reader, that he is always a man or that he is not shrouded in androgyny). Also, over the course of the book, more than 300 years pass, with Orlando barely aging. He meets important writers and people of the ages, and somehow comes back to his original home after over a hundred years away. And perhaps the strangest thing of all, his gender changes from male to female. She-for now the reviewer shall refer to Orlando as such- remains a woman for the rest of book.
Woolf used this change in genders to point out a number of feminist issues in the world. Orlando spends a lot of time thinking introspectively about the differences between men and women. It seems like all the things she lists however are societal issues, rather than chemical or physical differences. For example, in the fourth chapter she thinks about how her skirt, which she must wear now, for she is a lady and not a lord, would impede her from swimming. She also thinks about how men “debar [women] even from a knowledge of the alphabet.” When it comes to herself, however, she thinks many times that she is the same person, simply another sex, and decides to wear men’s clothing sometimes and in certain situations and women’s in other times and situations.
Even though Orlando felt she had not become a different person when she changed from man to woman, there are a few changes mentioned in her thoughts that convey this. She laments repeatedly not being to use her rapier as she had as a man. She spends a day hating both genders, and the next rejoicing that she is a woman. At one point, Orlando thinks, “I am growing up…I am losing my illusions, perhaps to acquire new ones.” While the reviewer acknowledges that this could be taken as meaning that as one grows older, one loses one’s misconceptions of childhood, in exchange for adult ones, the reviewer feels that in the context of the book and Orlando’s change in sex, it means something different. While she is thinking of how she’s gotten older, she spends the latter part of the book thinking about how she’s changed, including her change from man to woman. This line emphasizes that she recognizes she has changed though she feels the same inside, picking up new beliefs, possibly based on her gender.
Besides her own thoughts on the differences between the sexes, Orlando runs into other issues because she is a woman. For example, when she arrives back to her estate in England, she is not allowed to have it anymore because she was charged with being dead, and couldn’t very well hold property being such, and becoming a woman, which amounted to much the same thing. To be fair to those who assumed her dead, she hadn’t been home in over a hundred years and when she left, she was a man.
With all this impossibility, how is Orlando based on the life of Sackville-West? The reviewer doesn’t find a concrete answer to this. Perhaps Orlando is personally like Vita Sackville-West, both intellectual and intelligent, passionate and thoughtful. Maybe she personifies the arguments listed above or even other parts of the novel not discussed here, for there is much more to Orlando than the few things that could be listed here. In short, it is both humorous and thought provoking. The reviewer finds that despite having been published in 1928, the novel is most intriguing because the topics are still relevant on Friday, the ninth of October, Two Thousand and Fifteen.