Reviving the classics: Orlando

If you never heard of Orlando by Virginia Woolf, you might want to skip this entry. If you heard little, you could safely continue as I won’t reveal more than well-known facts.


‘We are, therefore, now left entirely alone in the room with the sleeping Orlando and the trumpeters. The trumpeters, ranging themselves side by side in order, blow one terrific blast


at which Orlando woke.

He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess— he was a woman. The sound of trumpets died away and Orlando stood stark naked. No human being, since the world began, has ever looked more ravishing. His form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace.’

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

In the age when gender identity is so openly discussed, the increased interest in Orlando by Virginia Woolf seems to be only natural. This amazing novel is read as a transgender text, an exploration of Woolf’s idea of androgyny or a love letter to Vita Sackville-West (Woolf’s romantic interest). For me, the most significant point in the plot is not the transformation itself but the moment Orlando realises what it means to be a woman.

Virginia Woolf often criticised Victorian society and the limited possibilities it offered to woman. They could only be wives and mothers or nurses or underpaid and ridiculed teachers/governesses. Their life was defined by men in every aspect, from domestic, through economic to their body and sexuality. They decided what is right and proper; they made the law, developed science, explored the world and fought in battles, while women were expected to be satisfied with family life and a bit of art or craft. They had to be constantly occupied, humble, polite and obedient. In Orlando, Virginia Woolf points out the ridiculousness of the man’s concept of the ideal woman.

It happens on the deck of the ship that takes Orlando back to England. She suddenly understands that she will have to depend on men’s help and good opinion from now on. This brings her to another realisation:

‘She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. “Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,” she reflected; “for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attaint these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.”’

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

The change of sex has given Orlando a unique perspective, an ability to understand both sexes and see their strengths and flaws. Especially at the beginning of her life as a woman, she seems to be out of a gender role, allowing her to look at society from a distance. Even in our modern world of gender studies, we should benefit from taking a step back and objectively looking at roles and feminine and masculine ideals created by our society.

‘And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being, she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared weakness of each. It was a most bewildering and whirligig state of mind to be in.’

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

I simply love this book and rate it ***** 5 out of 5 stars.

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