I just finished reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf. I thought this was an appropriate book to follow up yesterday's post about judging a book by it's cover.
One of the aspects of Orlando's story that I enjoyed most was the way that Woolf tackles the perceived notions of right and wrong for the sexes.
For those of you that haven't read Orlando, one of the central events in the story is that midway through the life described by the writer the main character changes gender. Orlando begins life, and this story as a male and becomes female around the time of her thirtieth birthday. The story is a fanciful twist on a traditional biography for this reason as well as many others. For example, during the years we watch Orlando while she ages from childhood to the age of 36, close to 400 years pass.
So not only do we see the differences between the sexes highlighted, but also the differences of the ages. Among all this change and transition, we also see the ways in which many things remain the same. This introduction also goes into the relationship, ie the affair, between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. The character Orlando is based off Vita in temperament, travels, and Orlando's home is even modeled off Vita's. The book is in many ways a love letter to Vita.
We see Orlando win the favor of Queen Elizabeth and develop a love for writing through an early interaction with Shakespeare. We watch as Orlando chases a beautiful Russian princess and has his heart broken when he finds her to be unfaithful. We lose ourselves in his writing of the Oak Tree poem as he does. We feel his frustration with the Archduchess as he does not return her affections. We follow Orlando as he leaves England behind to become the King's Ambassador to Constantinople. We wake up with her when she finds herself suddenly, but not surprisingly a woman. We travel through the hills with her and the gypsies. We join her on her voyage home to England and watch as she begins life in a new era. We watch her run away from love and finally embrace it.
It's interesting to see the way even as her physical gender shifts, her psychology stays the same. The Lady Orlando frequently goes about in men's clothing and finds herself engaging in affairs with women. There's nothing that the Lord Orlando would want to do or experience that the Lady Orlando does not embrace with equal fervor and abandon.
I enjoyed the way the book tackled the behaviors that are expected for men and women and the way our attitudes can be shaped towards another person based solely on their gender. Even though the book was written close to a century ago, many of those notions remain with us, and are things some of us will struggle with even today.
Whether it's being teased for being an effeminate man or rebuked for being too strong willed as a woman, society still tries to put us each in a little box and tries to define us. What's appealing about Orlando's character then is her refusal to be defined and her acceptance only of her own definition of self.