Monday, March 1, 2010

What you will

Current book: Orlando
Pages read: 96 - 198

So, after becoming a recluse for a while, and burning most of his manuscripts, Orlando is suddenly and aggressively courted by a woman called the Archduchess Harriet, purportedly of Romania, who comes to his estate and won't leave him alone. He responds by asking the king for a diplomatic job, and is subsequently sent off to Constantinople. (Not Istanbul. Yet.) He goes off and spends a lot of time looking off his balcony at the beautiful flowers and smoking cheroots with the Turkish diplomats, until he eventually earns the Order of Bath, which is just another kind of knighthood. On the morning after the party they throw him to bestow that honor, his servants find him in a deep sleep from which he cannot be awakened. He remains asleep for seven days, during which there is a Turkish revolution and all the English are kicked out the country or killed. Orlando, asleep, remains unmolested, though a marriage certificate between him and a gypsy girl is discovered in his chambers. (Are you ready for this next part? You might think you are, but you're not. I'm not sure there was any way to be ready for the next part.)

When Orlando wakes up from his semi-coma, he's a woman. How? Why? When? No idea whatsoever. (Were you ready? Yeah, I didn't think so.) As a result, he (from now on, she) puts on clothes that could belong to either sex and rides off to join the gypsies. She fits in with the gypsies for a while, and doesn't think too much about gender, because men and women are fairly equal in gypsy society, but eventually decides that the gypsies aren't interested enough in philosophy and literature and heads back to England. On the boat back, Orlando thinks a lot about what it means to be a woman instead of man - that now she has to wear skirts, and can't do what she wants, but will be flirted with and pursued and given attention. (It seems, also, that Orlando's attraction to women has not changed with her gender; in other words, she still likes the company of ladies.) There is much musing on which is the better sex, both in nobility and in quality of life, and she eventually draws the conclusion that men treat women rather poorly, but women are foolish to go along with it. Neither sex, she thinks, is really so different, but each chooses to widen the surface differences between the two as a result of the small underlying differences that really do exist.

She gets back to England, where there's a civil suit pending about her estate, which makes sense, really, what with her disappearance and return as a person of a different gender. She goes back home to await a decision in the suit, and in the meantime to write or otherwise occupy herself. Her servants welcome her with open arms and seem unperturbed by her transformation. Eventually, the Archduchess Harriet comes to see her again and reveals the fact that he's actually the Archduke Harry, and only disguised himself as a woman in order to seduce the then-male Orlando. Which would be kind of convenient, actually, if only Orlando liked him, but, unfortunately, she finds him obnoxious. Eventually she succeeds in spurning his advances, but later, when she goes to London, runs into him again and finds that he still wishes to pursue her.

This is a pretty different novel than I was expecting it to be, what with the sudden, sharp gender commentary. I had no idea it was coming, although I suppose I could have considered the reference to Twelfth Night that is the title. (Orlando is the name that Viola, the female protagonist of the play, adopts when she poses as a man.) Since Woolf was writing in 1928, it shows a hell of a lot of forethought for her to espouse the notion that one can change gender and remain the same person - that gender is, in fact, a construct of society that is only very remotely related to the physiology that is its source, and plays a larger part than it has any basis for in determining one's lifestyle and decisions. I'm interested to see where she goes with it.

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