Saturday, September 29, 2012

Orlando: The Man, The Woman

Original cover
User: El-luismi
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Orlando is a novel by Virginia Woolf that takes the idea of being a man and woman in one lifetime (or several lifetimes) and puts it to good use. The title character, Orlando, is a nobleman living in England during the Elizabethan period. He is content with his life except for the loneliness, having been engaged, married, or assumed to be engaged to four women in his lifetime. When he meets a Russian princess, he thinks that life has finally rewarded him with his one true love. Unfortunately, the princess does not reciprocate and leaves Orlando. Distraught, Orlando turns to his other passion: writing. He takes writing seriously, writing plays, poems, and stories, all odiously long. Away in his country manor he writes and writes, until he is visited by a famous writer Nicolas Green. Green reads Orlando's work and writes up a poem to satire it, thus making Orlando hate humans and turn even more inward while at his country estate.
Later on, Orlando visits other European countries, encountering gypsies as he does so. One night, he has a strange dream, and as a by-product, becomes a woman. There is no shocking reveal or loathing from Orlando at having turned into a woman, only acceptance. With his/her new worldview, Orlando comes to see how different her life will be as a woman. Her return to London is a lesson in women's rights, because she realizes that she can no longer own her land, manage her finances, or vote. Small things come to Orlando's attention now that she is a woman, like the fact that men cannot cry in front of an audience. A man falls in love with her, and when she refuses him, the man begins to cry, and though Orlando knows from experience that men cry just as women do, that they are not supposed to openly weep, and so she is shocked at the emotion display of her thwarted lover.
"Orlando as a boy"
paiting by Cornelious Nuie
User: El-luismi
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Orlando life spans many generations. He/she goes into deeps slumbers every few years, almost like a bear hibernating, and this (or some other type of magic) prolongs Orlando's life from the 1500's, taking the story all the way to the 1920's.
As a man, Orlando never questioned his privilege or sexuality (believing himself to be inherently heterosexual and powerful). Yet, as a woman, Orlando's eyes open up to see that the world is often one-sided in its treatment of women. Orlando the man fought in wars and dueled men to the death, but he/she is aghast when a gentleman treats her like a dainty flower, as she feels much more capable than she is given credit for, not just as a woman, but as an equal division of humanity.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1956. Print. 

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