Sunday, October 7, 2012

Orlando: Moving Through Space and Time As a Man, As A Woman

The reader of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando plunges  into a world of suspended disbelief as the individual wanders alongside the protagonist, Orlando, who begins the book ensconced in a courtly life of British nobility and then after a “long sleep” transforms into a female version of Orlando, relegated to face the challenges of operating as a female in a male-dominated world. Extending over a  400-year time span, the reader reels through decades, making observations about social customs, gender disparities and the atmospheres for women and men.  

For reference material for Orlando’s homestead, Woolf relied heavily Vita Sackville West’s writing of her personal experience at her childhood estate in the work, Knole and the Sackvilles. In light of this connection some scholars have said, “It has been one of the sentimental commonplaces attached to Orlando criticism that it is the “longest and most charming love letters in literature.” (Woolf, 1928). Sackville West was prohibited from inheriting Knole from her father, and watched with anguish as the property was transferred to her father’s nephew instead. We further find strains of this in Orlando as the female Orlando faces peril over land claims.  

Now, through the pages of Orlando, we see the male, and then female version of Orlando walk the grounds, participate in courtly activities and ponder literature, politics, gender role and the like. From a space and place perspective, we once again see the formulation of a domestic space. Woolf literature contains a multitude of contexts that underscore the separation of the public sphere and the private, domestic sphere. For example, readers observe Mrs. Dalloway in the book with the same title, take command of the domestic sphere with her parties and we see Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse guide the home and all those who meander under the roof.

Scholars refer to this phenomenon as a “veiled sacredness” or an invisible dynamic.  “I refer here to opposites that we take for granted, such as the contrast between public and private space, family and social space, cultural and utilitarian space and the space of pleasure and the space of work – all opposites that are still actuated by veiled sacredness. (Poststructuralism)

By breathing life into one character, first as a man and then as a woman, Woolf creates Orlando and advances the he/she binary to overtly addresses the dichotomy between male and female activities in social, political and economic spheres.  “The binary division is so deeply implicated in the social production of space, in assumptions about the ‘natural’ and built environments and in the set of regulations which influence who should occupy which spaces and who should be excluded,” according to McDowell in Gender, Identity and Place. (McDowell, 1999)

Woolf’s literary transformation of the body of Orlando from male to female offers a vehicle for discussions about the gender roles of men and women. “Work on the body has also altered understandings of space, as it has become clear that spatial divisions – whether in the home or in the workplace, at the level of the city or the nation-state – are also affected by and reflected in embodied practices and lived social relations,” McDowell states. (McDowell, 1999)

French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu stated that “men are presence in space and women are insignificance.” (McDowell, 1999). We see this dichotomy in Orlando as the protagonist moves from a stately, noble man, to a woman who strives to engage in the social scenes of London.

In the poststructural discussion of Foucault, Woolf’s Orlando typifies a breakthrough a heterotopias: “Heterotopias are linked for the most part to bits and pieces of time i.e., they open up through what we might define as pure symmetry of heterochronisms. The heterotopias enters fully into function when men find themselves in a sort of total breach of their traditional time.” (Poststructuralism). With chronological time interrupted by an individual who lives for several hundred hears, the heterotopia of Orlando emerges. Despite the dichotomy of he/she-ness found throughout the book, Woolf also leaves us with markers to indicate the sameness of men and women.

Woolf points to the individual’s memory and the character as devoid of altering a person’s identity. “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, the portraits prove, practically the same. His memory – but in the future we must, for convention’s sake, say “her: for “his” and “she” for “he” – her memory then, went back through all of the events of her past life without encountering any obstacle. (Woolf, 1928)



McDowell, L. (1999). Gender, Identity and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Poststructuralism. (n.d.).

Woolf, V. (1928). Orlando. Orlando, FLA: Harcourt.




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