Sunday, October 10, 2010

We are Orlando

Orlando has been my favorite book by Virginia Woolf so far.  It is filled with insights that make me reconsider how I view, not only historical moments, but also our society as it is today.  Orlando’s various ruminations throughout the centuries forces me to realize that I do not, perhaps, spend enough time just simply thinking about the way things were, are, and the possibilities of what can be in my own lifetime. 

That being said, while reading the novel, I found myself drawing more and more attracted to Orlando’s musings; however, there were moments in which I felt either troubled by them or frustrated with them, meaning that I wanted for Orlando to pursue a thought until its end, rather than fixate in a circular motion (as seen in one particularly memorable scene in which Orlando stumbles through Love, Ambition, Friendship, etc.) (Woolf 73-74).  My frustration (and curiosity) was also piqued by Orlando’s seemingly lack of questioning how he/then she came to live for so very long, and even how he became a she. 

These questions of longevity and gender morphing plagued me throughout my reading of Orlando.  As we discussed in class, the novel is filled to the brim with hyperbole—and yet, how can we reason with Orlando’s sex change when no scalpel/hormone therapy was involved?  Indeed, Orlando slips off into one of his trances, and when the trumpet heralds “Truth!” he awakens into a new life—he has transformed into a woman—and she does not even seem to really note the metamorphosis until she begins to think deeply once more (Woolf 102-103).  Even still, she does not ask, “How/Why did this happen?”  Rather, she muses upon the nature of her new sex primarily in terms of society (Woolf 113-121). 

This summoning of society reigns throughout the novel, and I begin to wonder if this was Woolf’s way of taking a stab at social norms and constraints, for surely, any other person than Orlando would have posed different questions.  Is it because Orlando defies time and gender that she is not prone to such commonplace musings?  This I doubt in a way, mainly due to the number of times she does have thoughts that can be attributed to one who lives by one gender in one lifetime.  Although she exceeds any normal human standard, her fears, worries, and even ecstasies can be matched with our own.  In short, although there were moments which were troubling for me as the reader, I have grown immensely attached to Orlando, and can no longer view either him or her as anything but indelibly human. 

I suppose it is this humanity that gives me the ability to forgive Orlando when she grows lonely near the end of the novel, especially when she thinks, “‘Everyone is mated except myself’” (Woolf 180).  As her ring finger trembles of its own accord, and she begins to wish for someone to share her life with, I grew increasingly angry with her; however, reflecting upon her long life, I also grew to sympathize with her.  For, after Orlando becomes a woman, I feel that the novel takes a sad turn.  Even Orlando’s heartbreak over the Russian Princess does not compare with her later musings and memories over all those she has known who are now long dead.  A passage that occurs near when Orlando begins to recognize her loneliness makes it easier for me to understand her need for a mate:

Such is the indomitable nature of the spirit of the age however, that it batters down anyone who tries to make stand against it far more effectually than those who bend its own way.  Orlando had inclined herself to the Elizabethan spirit, to the Restoration spirit, to the spirit of the eighteenth century, and had in consequence scarcely been aware of the change from one age to the other.  But the spirit of the nineteenth century was antipathetic to her in the extreme, and thus it took her and broke her, and she was aware of her defeat at its hands as she had never been before…The human spirit has its place in time assigned to it.  (Woolf 178).*

It is this passage that abets my attempt to understand Orlando’s succumbing to the Victorian era, especially with her marriage.  Yet I cannot deny that she and Shel make a wonderful pair.  Nor would I wish loneliness on her, nor the absence of love.  She has searched for many things for many, many years, and that, ultimately, is really what makes her human.  For me, not only does Orlando exhibit “the spirit of the age,” but she also embodies the human spirit. 

Woolf, Virginia.  Orlando.  Ed. Maria DiBattista.  Orlando, FL:  Harcourt, Inc., 2006.  Print.

*Block quoting does not work in this particular template.  Here, the quote, rather than being indented, has double the spacing between the paragraphs above and below it.  

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