Discuss about the Twentieth Century work Literature and Culture.
The fashion of the 20th-century Victorian society was largely different from what the populace of the older generations was used to (Carroll & Wheeler, 2014). These clothes were less colorful than their predecessors, more restrictive and formal. Unlike the previous ages, the clothing for men and women varied greatly and the main objective behind their design was to bring out the individual's sexuality, to emphasize boldly on the physical differences between the two sexes. Orlando by Virginia Woolf was first published on October 11, 1928. An energetic play inspired by the volatile background of Woolf's close friend and romantic interest for over a decade, Vita Sackville-West who was herself a novelist and poet from an aristocratic family. Orlando is Woolf's one of the most distinguished novels and navigates through English literary history in a satiric nature. The book chronicles the life of a poet, whose sex mysteriously changes frombeing a male to female.Orlando lives for more than three centuries, meeting the pillars of English literature history. The essay focuses on the sexual motif of Orlando’s sudden change in gender and the indifference he personally feels until he encounters society. Orlando was born at the time of Queen Elizabeth the First and from then goes on to live for more than 300 years. Orlando is treated as a major milestone from a feminist perspective and critics have described it as “The longest and most charming love letter in literature”. The first part of the essay describes the plot of the novel followed by the sexual motif of gender fluidity and the meaninglessness of gender that is presented throughout the storyline. The essay further discusses briefly the inspiration for the novel, Vita Sackville-West. She was the basis for the character for Orlando as admitted by Virginia Woolf herself (Johnston, 2016). The last part of the essay explores a couple of reviews from famous critics and their perception towards the book.
Orlando was an English nobleman born in the time of Queen Elizabeth I (Danahay, 2016). He undergoes a sudden transformation in his gender around the age of 30 and lives on for more than three centuries into the modern era without any noticeable effects of aging.
When Orlando was young boy, he performed the duties of a page at the Elizabethan court and soon grew into a "favorite" of the aging monarch. Once the queen passes away, he falls for Princess Sasha, an elusive and wild member of the entourage at the Russian embassy. Woolf used the picturesque Frost Fair organized on the ice-capped Thames River during the Great Frost of 1608 as a background for their intense affair. Sasha’s increasing unfaithfulness towards Orlando and eventually her sudden departure for Russia coincides with the thawing of the ice. The heart-broken Orlando finds a way to distract himself by going back to writinga long poem that he had started and abandoned in his younger days, The Oak Tree. He meets and hospitably entertains an inferior poet likely to bring out resentment in most people, Nicholas Greene. Greene goes on to find faults in Orlando's writing. Subsequently, when Orlando find out that Greene has criticized him in his work he feels betrayed. Orlando goes back to seek the safety of his stately ancestral home after contemplating about his recent experiences.He proceeds to decorate his home lavishly and plays host to the populace.
Orlando desperately tries to flee the country after a sense of dissatisfaction creeps into him. The constant badgering of a determined suitor, the imposing and manly Archduchess Harriet reinforces his decision. King Charles II appoints him the diplomat to Constantinople. Orlando is seen falling into a deep slumber on a night of rebellion and civic disobedience. Upon awakening several days later, he finds that he has transformed into a woman. He was mentally and spiritually the same person, but in a feminine form. The narrator appears amazed by Orlando's change but Orlando personally accepts this change in a very indifferent manner. From this point on, Orlando's sexual preferences alter frequently although biologically she is female (Squier, 2017).
Lady Orlando secretly escapes the city of Constantinople hiding among a group of Gypsies. The friction she experiences between her English values and the Gypsy was of life forces Orlando to head back to England. She realizes the consequences of becoming a woman on the ship back to England, when atiny glimpse of her ankle nearly causes a sailor to fall to his death. After realizing its advantages Orlando says, "Praise God I'm a woman!". On arriving in England, Orlando rejects the marriage proposal of the Archduchess yet again, who then divulge herself originally to be a man by the name of Archduke Harry. She regularly practices cross-dressing and eventually gets absorbed in the social life of that era.
Orlando wins the lawsuit against her cousin over a property dispute and then a sea captain, Marmaduke BonthropShelmerdine wins her hand in marriage. Orlando credits the success of their marriage to the fact that gender held very little importance to them both. She wins a prize in after publishing The Oak Tree finally in 1928. The novel ends as her husband returns from his voyage and she rushes to greet him (Ritcher, 2015).
The essay focuses on the sexuality of the protagonist Orlando, which extends to question our conventional view of male and female genders being completely separate from each other (Yazdani & Cheraghi, 2014). Orlando's sex change plays a pivotal role in the novel as it brings to light the ideas that Woolf wanted to question and challenge. As Orlando wakes up as a woman from her deep slumber, she calmly proceeds to the bath after noticing her change on a mirror. While residing in the gypsy camp that was hidden in between the hills of Turkey, far away from the ideals and norms of human civilization, Orlando's sexuality has no importance in her life at all and she does not act any differently due to the change in her sex. However, she immediately notices the difference when she sails on an English ship to go back to her country.
As England comes into sight, her feminine side appeals to Orlando and “the tears came to her eyes”, but remembering the fact that she had changed into a woman, “she would let them flow”. She also recalled, “that men cry as frequently and as unreasonably as women” from her own understanding as a man. The oppression of gender during the Victorian period is expressed by Orlando as “a ring of quivering sensibility about the second finger of the left hand” and the “weight of the crinoline that Orlando has submissively adopted”
Woolf suggests that the concept of gender was created by the human society itself. Orlando adopts conventional male mannerisms when she goes out into the night in a man’s clothing. The point is that the author tries to make is that if society accepts the concept of gender neutrality then people will exercise more freedom as individuals according to their personalities and live only by the rules they are supposed to follow (Tkal?ec, 2016).
In the Victorian era men's clothing is seen as decorous and rigid , women's as elaborate and over the top (Halsall, 2015). Clothing covered the entire body and even the glimpse of an ankle was considered to be highly disgraceful. According to numerous critics, corsets were responsible for constricting women's bodies and their lives. Men’s clothing was formal and less colorful than their predecessors, smoking jackets and gowns were often made from exclusive Oriental fabrics. A fast growing textile manufacturing market that adopted mass production techniques caused this phenomenon. Corsets emphasized on showing a woman's sexuality, exaggerating hips and bust by contrast with a tiny waist. The clothing of this era tried to draw a well-defined line between the two genders and women were highly restricted both in terms of clothing and in terms of mannerisms (Sanyal, 2014).
The multiple occurrences of cross-dressing support the central idea of gender neutrality in the novel and is practiced by the likes of Archduke Harry whocross-dresses as a woman for a large period of time but reveals himself to be a man in further down the story and by Orlando. Orlando continues to switch between the clothes of both genders even after he undergoes an actual change of sex (Wood, 2015). This motif in the novel highlights the similarities between men and women in spite of the different attires society wants them to wear. Orlando does not feel any urge to give her life up as a woman but she regrets not having the freedom she used to enjoy as a man. Here, Woolf suggests that society is too hard-handed with regard to the roles it forces men and women to play as they are very similar underneath their physical characteristics. The genders should be allowed more freedom in their actions. The fact that a woman can be perceived as a man under the covering of something as meritless as clothes, questions the very foundations of the Victorian era English society (Shoemaker, 2014). A society in which women were expected to be milder and softer, while the men were expected to be the stronger both physically and emotionally of the two.
The concept of time is incredibly subjective in Orlando (Simpson, 2016). The few ways to tell the passage of time are new inventions and change in the monarchy. Without the clues, it would be dependent on Orlando’s perception of time that is relative to his personal experiences. This reflects the way one actually experience time. As said by Einstein himself, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute” (Williams, 2014).
Woolf upholds a queer view of human gender by merging the conventional lines set by society using Victorian fashion as a medium, something that was made to demarcate and highlight the differences between the two (Stauffer, 2015). The author to merge that very same gap intelligently implemented the very clothes that were meant to create a divide in society.
The inspiration for the novel came from Vita Sackville-West (Hollis, 2017).Both Woolf and Vita Sackville-West was a part of the Bloomsbury Group, an organization that was popular due to its liberalviews on sexuality (Celis, Oyarzun & Anglonorteamericana, 2015). Woolf confirmed this inspiration, who wrote in her diary on 5 October 1927: “And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other”. Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West's son, wrote, “The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”
Orlando is a critical and a commercial success, it is considered as an outstanding piece of literature as well as groundbreaking for its time (Smith, 2016). The New York Times described it as unconventional even by Woolf’s standards. Even though the structure of the novel is hard to grasp as the protagonist lives through three centuries in the span of the novel. They said that Mrs. Woolf has handled the subtle difficulties faced by contemporary writers brilliantly and shows the rest how to introspect profitably in the right direction.
Tilda Swindon from The Telegraph wrote, “I see now that at any point in a life of any length, when our relentless distractions lapse for a moment and there is that sudden flash of inspired clarity in which we see that all that life is about is nature, breathing in and out and keeping your head high until you drop, Orlando is the book to put under your pillow and rest upon.” The novel has not lost its relevance and like its protagonist, it has left time powerless (Bruinsma, 2015).
Therefore, the essay talks briefly about the plot of the novel and story and mainly focuses on the fluidity of gender presented by Woolf. She established the fact that gender was a concept created and implemented by society itself. She used the gender-biased instruments and attires of Victorian England and created a world of sexual queerness and fluidity, where the line between man and woman does not seem to exist anymore. She strives to make society free from the gender bias and stereotypes where every individual can be what they want to be and not be restricted by norms put upon them.
Both critically and financially, Orlando was a contemporary success. It ensured the well-being of Virginia Woolf and even in today’s society, it is considered as a landmark for feminist literature. It was not only regarded as high literature but also had a tinge of gossip about it. It is also recognized as an experiment that opened new doors in English literature. There have been multiple theater adaptations of the novel and it has been made into a movie of the same name. Orlando occupies a special place in terms of women’s literature, it is one of the very few notable pieces of writing by a woman who directly broaches the controversial and difficult topic of gender. This book has stood the test of time and the readers can still connect with the ideas presented by Woolf even in the present current society.
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