As a person looks around themselves and their surroundings they can pick up little details about themselves as well as their society. Society has a lot to do with the things that are bought, taken home, displayed. Society depicts what things are fashionable and what’s not. This alludes to the fact that one acquires the ideals of the society around them. Though conforming seems like the best way to make one’s self seem respectable, does it mean that one must lose themselves in order to gain the respect of society? That is the very struggle that presents itself in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
Orlando is a story about a young man who transcends into adulthood, finding his own path, by becoming a woman who lives through various periods of English history. In the beginning of the novel, which takes place near the end of the sixteenth century, the reader is introduced to this young boy(not quite a young man as yet) playing with the head of a Moor, pretending to actually slay it, much like his father and grandfather had done. As soon as the story opens Orlando is described as a boy at the age of sixteen that would “steal away from his mother and the peacocks in the garden and go to his attic room and there lunge and plunge and slice the air with his blade” (page 13, Woolf). When a boy usually hit the age of sixteen he would have already been called a man for some time, however Orlando seems to be shielded from the average duties of a young man. As he is left behind with his mother, while his father goes off on “massacres”, he struggles with himself to become the dominant, head slashing male, like his father. He tries to conform himself to the ideal male figure that hunts and kills, but instead finds himself taking a liking to writing poetry. He was more involved with love and poetry and not so much concerned with the duties of a man. Orlando [was indeed] masculine and violent in the dashing Elizabethan age (page 131, Blackstone) but also had an inner self that yearned for love and had a burning desire for poetry. It is during this century that Orlando became a courtier for the Queen as well as one of the well dressed noblemen of the time.
At some point in the Queens service, Orlando meets a Russian princess and falls madly in love with her. However his love is short-lived when she does show up to one of their secret meetings and he discovers that the Russian ship she came on was nowhere to be found (page 59-60, Woolf). Having lost his first true love devastated Orlando, and having Mr. Nick Greene put down his beloved poetry (page 94, Woolf), the last issue Orlando could handle in the current society he was in, were the advances of the Archduchess Harriet (page114, Woolf).It is then that Orlando decided to pick himself up and transfer himself into another society. He moved to the land of the Turks in the seventeenth century.
Once Orlando reached the Turk’s he once again conformed himself. At “about seven, he would rise, wrap himself in a Turkish cloak, light a cheroot, and lean his elbows on the parapet” (page 120, Woolf). Orlando learned the Turkish language and adapted himself to exotic customs. While trying to escape the “prison” that he created for himself in England he once again traps himself a second time trying to conform to the ways of others. He would not even receive visitors until he smelled, looked, and covered like the Turks (page 121, Woolf). However as much as Orlando tried to fit in he seemed “to have made no friends. As far as is known, he formed no attachments (page 125, Woolf). This begs the question; was all the effort to conform worth it, when he obviously didn’t fit in despite his effort? It is here where Orlando became pensive, and was graced with a visit from the Ladies: Purity, Chastity, and Modesty. The reader senses Orlando’s inner musings of what his next step would be or where it would lead him. Then Orlando became a woman.
“Orlando had become a woman- there is no denying it. But in every other aspect Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity” (page 138, Woolf). Even though Orlando’s sex changed, because he felt his efforts to fit in were no longer substantial enough from a males perspective, she however did not lose the aspects of Orlando, that would forever be drawn to ideal love and poetry. She then moved on to a different society: the gypsies. She tried her luck with them and to no avail because she could not be herself with them either. She was far too much in love with nature than the gypsies could allow and she found herself escaping from them as well. However it is through the gypsies that Orlando is provided a rebirth of sorts before she returned to England. She was awakened to the differences between the ideals that she formerly had and those of the gypsies, which was one of “what you see, is what you get”. This is one of those ideals that she takes with her and uses later on in her life.
The first taste Orlando got, of actually being a woman was when she boarded the ship and the mere sight of her legs nearly caused a crew members death. It was then that the impact of how a woman had to handle herself, truly hit Orlando. It was around the eighteenth century when Orlando went back to England. She was a woman who understood what it was to be a man, and now had the chance to see the society that she left in the beginning, in a different view. She states “which is the greater ecstasy? The man’s or the woman’s? And are they not perhaps the same? No, she thought, this is the most delicious, to refuse and see him frown” (page 155, Woolf). Now she had the opportunity to experience how a woman had to conform to the demands of society, which she realizes: “as a young man she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appareled. Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires for women are not obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appareled by nature” (page 156-7, Woolf). She told herself that she had to fit into London’s society by following the standards she had set when she was a man in England, in the Queens court.
Upon landing in England charges were brought against her. After all she was supposed to dead when the riot had broken out with the Turks and only she knew that she was alive and lived with the gypsies. Secondly she was a woman and could not hold property. However instead of staying in compliance with the law that women could not hold such possessions, Orlando refused to give her property up. She then tried to fit into London’s society of women by throwing literary tea parties, but the sense that she did not truly fit in, never left her. The Archduchess comes back into her life, only to reveal himself a man who upon seeing Orlando, had fallen for him and disguised himself as a woman to win his affections (page 177-80, Woolf). Here is a complete role reversal, showing how someone other than Orlando also tried to conform to society in order to satisfy their desires.
As the nineteenth century came around, Orlando married Marmaduke Winthrop Shelmerdine. When she was with him it seemed as if she had finally found someone that she belonged with. Marmaduke was the person she did not have to pretend around. He would ask her “are you positive you’re not a woman? And she would echo Can it be possible you’re not a woman'” (page 258, Woolf)? It is with him that Orlando discovers that a “woman can be as tolerant and free spoken as a man, and a man as strange and subtle as a woman” (page 258, Woolf). Orlando sees that she no longer has to change herself to fit those around her, she could finally be herself. She was a person who was both a man and a woman (in the emotional sense). She no longer had to conform to the way society expected her to behave. In the end she chose to reject conformity and chose to be present in her own reality, where she was who she was.
“Through the metamorphoses of a single individual the changing spirit of English history and the English way of life is re-created. The temperament of each age is conveyed in a series of vignettes: the boy Orlando kneeling with an ewer of rose-water before the aged Queen Elizabeth, the Great Frost of James I’s reign [where he wakes up not remembering a thing about it], Pope unforgivably witty at a fashionable tea-party”(page 131, Blackstone). As Orlando went through each faze of her life, she constantly tried to measure up to the ways of each society she entered. Every place she tried to fit in made her feel as if she just did not belong. However, when Orlando became a woman she did not lose the sense of her identity, she retained it and instead of being disappointed that every time she tried to conform she continued to press on until she was finally at a place in her life where she was content to be an independent person, living in her own world. She realized that even though she matured over the years, she remained true to herself despite the conditions, and restrictions society tried to place her in.
Blackstone, Bernard. Virginia Woolf: A Commentary. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. New York: Harcourt, 1956