• The Feminist Times

Centuries of Gender Roles Redefined in “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf

If I had to get lost in a book, I'll choose Orlando over and over again until I am actually lost. Orlando is a man who loved, waited, got betrayed and thus lost hope and desire to live; no this wasn't a love story, this was a story of a character, a biography of Orlando-inspired from real life lover of Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West. Orlando is a story of a man who magically, yes magically, transformed into a woman one day and thus lived like one for centuries. Orlando's transformation was fairy-like, inspired from, maybe, Cinderella. She did have fairy godmothers who made her a beauty.


The narration was restyled from 'he' to 'she' very fluently; the features of Orlando remained the same yet she still endured herself as a woman of importance. Orlando was a courtier of Queen Elizabeth's court, a writer, loved writers, had a knack for poetry and poets, clung a poem he wrote about 'Oak Tree' till the last page of this book, loved a woman who was a man, met gypsies and traveled from England, wrote poems again, she wrote and wrote for days and nights and found solace in her words and the words of other people; she loved Alexander Pope, she loved nature, she loved humans, she loved herself and understood how beautiful women are, how worthy they are.


Orlando is the longest love letter written by Virginia Woolf where one enters the mind and life of a man transformed into a woman; it is a story about a transgender or pansexual woman who loved being a woman, who loved writing poems and meeting writers of her time. While researching this book for my paper, I came across many papers who could not limit Orlando into a particular gender, her identity is indefinable. Woolf also claims that one cannot limit a person to one particular gender, it’s something we ourselves become gradually. You are born one gender, you become another- it's a lifelong process. Orlando enjoyed switching her gender from man to woman and vice-versa, as she suited, thus, defying gender roles.


In the book, when Orlando transforms into a woman, she spent hundreds of years to reclaim her own property (which was hers since birth when she was a man) but a woman did not have any property right at that time. Woolf used such similar incidences to show how men and women were impartially treated. Jeanette Winterson said well in her article for The Guardian: “It (Orlando) was far ahead of its time in terms of gender politics and gender progress.” Woolf explored the roles of men and women from 16th century England till early 20th century England, she made her protagonist go through the good and the bad, let Orlando make her own decision; even though it is a biography, as Woolf calls it, the book is a sweet and sour cocktail of fiction and history. Orlando is my favorite work of Woolf and I’d really ask you to read it to see how she has redefined gender roles throughout centuries. I will also suggest to read the article by Jeanette Winterson: “‘Different sex. Same person’: how Woolf’s Orlando became a trans triumph”.

-Aayushi


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