Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Literature of the Age

Current book: Orlando
Pages read: 198 - 329 (end)

I found the end disappointing. I was hoping for mad gender revolution and for Orlando to become a member of Parliament or something. No such luck.

Orlando sort of hangs around England for a long time, dipping in and out of society and dancing attention and patronage on Pope and Addison and the like. (You'll take note here that the timeline seems to be out of whack. Orlando was alive when Queen Elizabeth was, and yet is now hanging out with Alexander Pope. Woolf never really explains it, but Orlando is, apparently, immortal, and is just living her way through all the centuries that define Britain as it is today.) She becomes disillusioned with both society and literature, after a while, and withdraws again to her country home. She reaches a Victorian crisis point at which she feels she absolutely must be married (because that's what Victorians do), but can't think of either a good reason or a likely candidate, and, in a fit of despair, runs out along the moors near her home. All crazed, as she is, she falls and breaks her ankle, and, of course, a likely young man comes along to rescue her. They become engaged five minutes later (Literally. No, I'm serious.), and then we spend the next couple of dozen pages hearing about their relationship. His name, amusingly, is Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmardine. The two are made for each other, it seems, and spend lots of time discussing how mutually sympathetic they are and how each seems so like the other's gender that it's uncanny. They get married, (weirdly, in the middle of a storm at midnight kind of thing), and he goes off to sail around Cape Horn, which is, apparently, what he does for fun.

Orlando pops in and out of society some more, now dressing as either a man or a woman whenever the mood suits her to be one or the other. Eventually, she meets the modern incarnation of Nick Greene, the poet she once hosted at her house, and finds him, though actually a different person, completely unchanged. (Woolf is satirizing the idea of literary criticism here by showing that the modern Nick Greene reveres precisely the poets that the ancient Nick Greene denounced as too modern, and the modern Nick Greene denounces the contemporary poets as too modern as well.) Finally, Woolf fast forwards through time again to make it 1928, the year the novel was written, and Orlando an unremarkable minor noblewoman buying supplies for her newly born son. (No, don't ask how she had a child. No idea whatsoever.) There's a long section right at the end in which Orlando considers the fact that she is many people - hundreds of layers put together from all those roles that she's had in the past - and that the real importance of life, then, is not defined by the marks we leave on the world, since they are all made by different people, in effect, but rather b y the appreciation we have for the beauty of both the world and the people that are in it.

Well, I don't know what to think. I enjoyed it a lot, and it had a lot to say, though it didn't go in the direction I expected. I would have like stronger commentary on gender, but now that I think about it, maybe the subtlety of it was a good thing. It was remarkable how little and how much Orlando's life changed when he became a woman; it's impressive that Woolf could successfully combine the nuances of social criticism and the philosophy of identity by making the choices that she did. So, I withdraw my disappointment comment from above.

In addition to the subtlety of the gender stuff (not to mention the foresight and bravery it took to write about gender at all in 1928), I was impressed by how Woolf was able to make the story about philosophy and literature and society as much as about how those things affect gender. I mean, really, it has as much to do with what is valuable in society and the literary world as it did with the implications of being a man or a woman. I like the philosophical conclusion she draws about literature and society, too, which is as follows: Literature is important and valuable in that it creates in us the ability to appreciate the world that's around us. We should not focus, then, on the monuments we might create for ourselves by writing great works, nor should we worship works that we consider great, but rather allow the process of writing and reading to inform our appreciation of nature and increase the richness of life itself.

I'm for it.

There's all kinds of stuff online about how Vita Sackville-West is the real-life Orlando, and you can make events and characters in the story line up with her events and characters in her life. You can look it up and read all about it, if you want, but I didn't really feel like writing a dissertation about it, and prefer to consider the thing on its own merits anyway.

No comments:

Post a Comment


A Clockwork Orange (5) A Good Man Is Hard to Find (4) A Passage to India (6) A Room with a View (3) A Separate Peace (2) Absalom Absalom (6) Achebe (5) Adams (3) All the King's Men (8) An American Tragedy (17) Atlas Shrugged (16) Babbitt (8) back from hiatus (1) baking (11) Baldwin (4) Baum (3) Bonfire of the Vanities (6) borderline (12) Brideshead Revisited (9) Burgess (5) Burroughs (1) canon (1) Capote (6) Cat's Cradle (3) Cather (19) cheesecake (4) Chopin (4) Conrad (5) cooking (25) Death Comes for the Archbishop (6) DeLillo (6) Dreiser (17) du Maurier (2) Edith Wharton (1) emergency (2) Ethan Frome (1) excuses (141) Faulkner (9) Felicia DeSmith (3) Finnegan's Wake (1) Fitzgerald (24) For Whom the Bell Tolls (3) Forster (19) Fowles (7) Franny and Zooey (2) Go Tell It on the Mountain (4) Grahame (2) Guest post (3) Hammett (2) Hemingway (5) hiatus (4) holiday (5) horrible (4) Howards End (6) In Cold Blood (6) In Our Time (1) Irving (6) James (25) Jazz (1) Joyce (1) Keneally (7) Kerouac (5) Kim (7) Kipling (7) Knowles (2) Lady Chatterly's Lover (6) Lawrence (26) Lewis (13) Light in August (3) London (3) Look Homeward Angel (9) Lord Jim (5) Mailer (7) Main Street (5) Midnight's Children (9) Miller (6) Morrison (1) Mrs. Dalloway (3) My Antonia (6) not a novel (4) O Pioneers (7) O'Connor (4) On the Road (5) Orlando (4) other books (7) page updates (1) Rabbit Run (4) Rand (24) Rebecca (2) recap (1) Rhys (6) Rushdie (18) Salinger (2) Schindler's List (7) Sinclair (6) Sons And Lovers (12) Sophie's Choice (10) Star Trek (1) Stein (5) Styron (10) Tender is the Night (10) The Age of Innocence (4) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (5) The Awakening (4) The Beautiful and the Damned (8) The Bostonians (9) The Call of the Wild (3) The Fellowship of the Ring (5) The Fountainhead (8) The French Lieutenant's Woman (7) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2) The Jungle (6) The Lord of the Rings (16) The Maltese Falcon (2) The Naked and the Dead (7) The Naked Lunch (1) The Old Man and the Sea (1) The Portrait of a Lady (10) The Return of the King (6) The Satanic Verses (9) The Two Towers (5) The War of the Worlds (4) The Wind in the Willows (2) The Wings of the Dove (6) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (3) The World According to Garp (6) Things Fall Apart (6) This Side of Paradise (6) Thomas Wolfe (9) To the Lighthouse (3) Tolkien (16) Tom Wolfe (6) Triv (2) Tropic of Cancer (6) unworthy (33) Updike (4) vacation (2) Vonnegut (3) Warren (8) Waugh (9) Wells (4) Wharton (4) Where Angels Fear to Tread (4) White Noise (6) Wide Sargasso Sea (6) Women In Love (8) Woolf (10) worthy (25)