Sunday, September 12, 2010

Reconstructing the Meaning of Gender: Becky Francis and Virginia Woolf's "Orlando"

After reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, many contemporary social norms can be called into question, especially those that are assumed to be uncomplicated. Becky Francis recalls a distinct observation made by many researchers, such as Kessler and Butler: “Not everyone falls easily into the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’, for a variety of reasons. Yet despite this, sex is usually assumed to be unproblematic, ‘common-sense’ categorization” (Francis 211). Reading this quote easily puts Orlando’s gender transformation in my mind. Though it is effortless to state that Orlando transformed from man to woman, it may be proven more difficult because of Orlando’s sexuality. This can be seen when Orlando finds true love with Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. When each discovers that the other is not the gender that is outwardly portrayed, a conflict ensues that is not described in the text: “Never was there such a scene of protestation and demonstration as then took place since the world began. When it was over and they were seated again she asked him, what was this talk of a South-west gale? Where was he bound for?” (Woolf 184-185). Though there is obviously a conflict that occurs, the speaker decides not to portray it within the novel. This may be because it occurred so briefly and thus deemed irrelevant. It also may be because the characters are obviously so unfazed by the conflict because of their immediate love, even though Orlando is revealed to be a man and “Shel” is revealed to be a woman. Orlando, admitting that though he is now a woman is still attracted to women, proves to defy the concrete meaning of the word “gender.” Though he is now outwardly perceived as female, his love for a woman, who is outwardly perceived as male, entangles the social norms that define gender.

1 comment:

  1. You bring up an interesting point regarding the importance of desire in gendering an identity. While outwardly female at the time of her rendezvous with Shel, Orlando exhibits desire for the feminine in her outwardly male suitor. This, I believe, is the closest Woolf comes to an explicit portrayal of homosexual desire, though it is quite obfuscated by the physical bodies the two characters possess. Woolf definitely plays some tricks with the reader, though I would say that this gender fluidity is meant to bypass those who would fulminate an explicit portrayal of sapphic love.