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Queering the Reader: Narrative Sex and Gender in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Themes of Sex and Gender in Narrative Interaction

… she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each (Woolf 112).

In this essay, I study how sex and gender of the protagonist are manifested in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928), focusing both the style of narration and its interaction with the reader. In my reading, I suggest that both gender and sex in Orlando are represented in a diverse, fluid manner that challenges the gender binary, where at the same time both sex and gender are approached through the binary. I focus particularly on the narrator’s treatment of sex/ gender as a pro trans rights activist narrative, and the manner in which it prompts the reader to engage with these themes and question their ideas related to the subject matter. Furthermore, I suggest that the narrative invites the reader to experience and question their own gender through a kind of narrative merging of positions.  For the purposes of my analysis, I use the Canadian Institutes of Health Research definitions of sex and gender:

Sex refers to a set of biological attributes in humans and animals. It is primarily associated with physical and physiological features … Sex is usually categorized as female or male but there is variation in the biological attributes that comprise sex and how those attributes are expressed.

Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities … It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, how they act and interact, and the distribution of power and resources in society. Gender identity is not confined to a binary … nor is it static; it exists along a continuum and can change over time (CIHR).

It is worth noting that this contemporary understanding of sex and gender differs drastically from that of the early 20th century, which needs to be taken into account when approaching the issue theoretically. Indeed, while the western society in general was dominated by the cis-binary definition of sex and gender, Magnus Hirschfeld, a German scholar, coined the term “transvestite” in his 1910 book (now mostly considered a transphobic slur [PinkNews]), and considered homosexual and transgender people to be “sexual intermediaries” that fell somewhere between “pure male” and “pure female” (Hirschfield in Stryker and Whittle 28). In my analysis, I strive to explore Orlando in a contemporary theoretical frame, and indeed, I argue that in order to not enter a transphobic, pseudo-scientific understanding of sex and gender into the analysis of sex and gender in the novel, contemporary understanding of the terminology is necessary, though where possible, needs to be contrasted with the definitions of the time.


Progression of Sex and/ or Gender in the Novel

The protagonist, Orlando is presented as a man in the first four chapters, whereas in the fifth one, she turns into a woman. This change occurs during Orlando’s sleep followingly:

'THE TRUTH!   at which Orlando woke.  

He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess--he was a woman (Woolf, 96).  

In chapter three, then, Orlando wakes up as a woman. Before this, Chastity, Purity and Modesty (here, interpreted as personifications or metaphors for parts of Orlando’s mind, though other interpretations are certainly possible as well) insist for “the truth”, which serves as her waking point. This, then, can be interpreted as a trans person’s personal coming out; a revelation of one’s true identity. Before this, she has been “asleep”, unconscious of her dormant identity. Now, however, the knowledge of identity surfaces, and thus, Orlando wakes up. Of course, one might also read this as fluidness of gender, as Orlando has been certainly presented as a man before this shift occurs. Whether, however, one chooses to read this as a rather binary revelation or learn towards a genderfluid reading, chapter three marks a focal point in which gender takes the front stage in the book. Even if one is to read the chapter as a fantastical change of sex, is the tension between male and female a point that challenges the cigender (“of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth” [Merriam Webster]) norm of the time. As the Orlado’s “turning” from man to a woman is not further elaborated on, the reader is left to ponder whether the narrative refers to sex, gender, or perhaps, both, and whether they are inseparable in the novel.  

Though Orlando constantly presents gender and sex in relation to man and woman, the narration contains a multitude of elements suggesting non-binary or genderfluid aspects of gender. For example the statement “his form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman's grace” (96), suggests that Orlando contains elements attributed to both man and woman. Though this might be nothing but the narrator’s interpretation and choice of gendering particular attributes, the choice of describing Orlando in relation to both ends of gender binary can be seen as suggestive of his/her essence that transcends a binary boundary between man and woman. Furthermore, Orlando struggles with defining her gender identity, as in: “she pitted one sex against the other, and found each alternately full of the most deplorable infirmities, and was not sure to which she belonged” (112). Here, she studies the sexes through their suggested imperfections, but nevertheless, finds it difficult to attribute herself to one group or another. Indeed, in her criticism of the sexes, she takes a position outside of these two suggested realities, as in “she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither”. This, again, suggests that Orlando’s gender identity falls outside of the binary, and in the latter quotation, approaches a possible agender (“of, relating to, or being a person who has an internal sense of being neither male nor female nor some combination of male and female of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity is genderless or neutral” [Merriam-Webster]), though as the narrative, and indeed, Orlando’s thoughts, are otherwise so focused on the binary, that it is perhaps more accurate to read this distance from gender altogether as a speculation that helps one approach and understand one’s gender from an imagined distance. Nevertheless, it seems that Orlando’s manhood and womanhood are not completely binary or without fluidity. Indeed, even when Orlando starts to identify primarily as a woman, the experience falls somewhere between the binary, as in “something had happened during the night to give her a push towards the female sex, for she was speaking more as a woman speaks than as a man” (Woolf 113). However, when relating the Hirschfeldean notions of “pure male” and “pure female” to the novel, one might argue that the theoretical (mis)understanding of sex and gender of the time are present in the novel as well, as different issues are so tightly tied to notions of man and woman. It is worth noting that, as stated by Mäkikalli and Steinby, during the romantic period, the notion of relating literature a historical way of experiencing/ relating to particular issues was established (37). Indeed, it might be beneficial to also study how sex and gender might be experienced in the novel differently in different eras (the narrative spans roughly 300 years), instead of merely connecting the treatment of the issue to the early 20th century – a suggestion for further study.  


An Activist Narrative

Where the change in Orlando’s sex and / or gender is revealed, the narrator states that “we have no choice left but confess--he was a woman”. The choice of verb implies that there might be some obstacle – shame? unconventionality? – to this announcement but that nevertheless it so important to the narrative that it needs to be uttered. As noted by Bennet and Royle, “a consideration of the relationship between teller and listener or reader leads in turn to questions of power and property” (59). Indeed, here the reader might wonder why the change Orlando has undergone is presented in this particular manner is tied to the narrator’s understanding of sex and gender, and whether their imagined feelings (possible shame, averseness towards unconventionality etc.) might affect how it is presented. However, it also raises questions of the “we” mentioned – does it signify the reader and the narrator, a general consensus, or something else? If the first applies, then the reader is told to accept – though perhaps it is anticipated, rather reluctantly – this change of physical and/ or identity related change. It is not, then, the narrator’s feelings, but rather the reader’s anticipated ones, that are expressed. There is, however, no room for the reader to question the legitimacy of the statement; Orlando is first a man, then a woman. Any possible transphobic objections are thus trumped by the authority of the narrative. However, the choice of words (“we have no choice left but confess”) might be a stylistic choice as well, and indeed, it does serve to highlight the occurred change.  

The narrator also discusses the use of pronouns briefly: “his memory--but in future we must, for convention's sake, say 'her' for 'his,' and 'she' for 'he'--her memory then” (96). The notion of convention raises questions of the pronouns used; is the change from he/him to she/her present merely to indicate the legitimacy of a physical reality? If, indeed, the change of pronouns – employed by the narrator, not Orlando herself – is merely a cultural convention, and the narrator sees it fit to mention it, does it raise a question of whether Orlando her(?)self (in the essay, for clarity’s sake, I do refer to Orlando by the pronouns used by the author in any particular point of the book) would at this point refer to herself using she/her pronouns. Because of the method of narration – a mixture of free indirect speech, first person narration and an outer perspective – the access to knowledge is somewhat limited, and the reader has no access to the preferred pronouns of the protagonist as defined by herself. Nevertheless, the importance of legitimating sex and/or gender through pronouns is highlighted in this chapter. In the light of the ongoing social debate on gender and the rights of transgender people, the narrator’s choice to refer to Orlando’s gender through use of he/him and she/ her pronouns respectively can be seen as an political statement, or at the very least, an affirmative act. Wherein recognising the right of trans people to be referred to by their preferred pronouns is not unfortunately obvious even in 2020, in 1928 the situation was vastly different (as previously discussed). In this way, then, the narrator’s treatment of gender is pro trans rights.

After the change has occurred, the narrator briefly mentions that to many in the fictional world, Orlando’s “change of sex” (Woolf 97) has been unbelievable and problematic:   Many people, taking this into account, and holding that such a change of sex is against nature, have been at great pains to prove (1) that Orlando had always been a woman, (2) that Orlando is at this moment a man. Let biologists and psychologists determine. It is enough for us to state the simple fact; Orlando was a man till the age of thirty; when he became a woman and has remained so ever since (97).   Here, then, one sees the delegitimization of transgender people – an issue still achingly present in the contemporary western society – is portrayed in Woolf’s fictional world, as people are said to have been “at great pains” to disprove Orlando’s gender-related journey. The narrator then asks this issue to be left for the consideration of biologists and psychologists – a possible nudge for (pseudo)scientific practices of delegitimizing the existence of trans people, or on the other hand, a challenge for medical professionals to engage with the topic more. Nevertheless, the narrator then disregards scientific approaches to the issue and refers to the change as a “simple fact”. This one might read as a statement regarding a person’s right to their gender identity, a statement about gender being a personal experience and not an issue to be studied or had an external opinion on. This assertive yet simple statement of Orlando first being a man and then a woman again highlights a person’s right to self-identify without outer interference. The narrator, again, chooses to legitimise rather than take an oppressive stance on Orlando’s gender, stating it as fact.

Worth noting is also how Orlando combines multiple narrative styles: descriptive, stream of consciousness, Psycho-Narration (Cohn in Mäkikalli and Steinby) free indirect discourse (as categorised by Mäkikalli and Steinby 88-95), with, on the other hand, a semi-omniscient third-person narrator and on the other, direct reports of Orlando’s thoughts. The manner in which the narrative moves from the personal level to a more generalised one furthers the dialogue between the narrator and the reader on multiple levels, and thus both what is gender/ sex to you and what do these entities mean on a societal level get asked again and again, and the issues are intertwined in the narrative.


Inviting the Reader In: Narrative Interplay of Identity

It can be argued, certainly, that Orlando is a queer text that invites the reader to engage in a queer reading. “Queer”, as suggested by Sedwick can signify the “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (quoted in Bennet and Royle 262). Orlando, certainly, both reads as a queer text, and prompts the reader to queer their own experience, as discussed in the following chapter. Indeed, as noted by Mäkikalli and Steinby, in the post-Romantic tradition, the reader is often expected to be as competent in literary discourse as the author (40).

As previously discussed, the narrative combines an outsider’s commentary and an inner point of view. This interlinking of the narrator’s commentary on Orlando’s experience and presenting Orlando’s own thoughts and feelings, I argue, prompts the reader to employ a similar inquisitive take on their own gender identity. Indeed, it has been suggested by literary scholars that identifying with a fictional character can be seen as creating a fictional identity for oneself, and thus to “to start to let one’s identity merge with that of a fiction”, ultimately creating a character of oneself (Bennet and Royle 70). While I would not go quite as far as to suggest the merging of identities, I think it is not presumptive to suggest that a narrative such as this invites the reader to put themself to the position of the protagonist. The relationship between a reader and a book, I think, is poignantly illustrated in Matt Haig’s memoir Reasons to Stay Alive followingly: “every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself” (137).  If one, then, relates to Orlando, one might subject themself to a similar questioning of gender. It has been argued by scholars that “reading characters involves learning to acknowledge that a person can never finally be singular – that there is always multiplicity, ambiguity, otherness and unconsciousness” (Bennet and Royle 69-70). Orlando, then, challenges the reader to look outside the static notion of gender binary and to question both how the world understands gender and additionally, to insert oneself the narrative and debate on their own gender identity, to question its possible multiplicities.


To Conclude

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando offers not merely a fictional history of queering sex and gender, but engages, challenges and questions how the reader might perceive the two, and even invites the reader to consider how these things are (or are not) interconnected. While the physical reality of Orlando remains an anonymity – perhaps another choice to deliberately not engage with the problematic questioning of e.g. what kind of genitalia transgender people might have – it asks the reader to think of questions such as what is a man/ woman, how do I understand gender, how does my identity relate to these, do I experience it as binary, and what is the relationship between my sex and gender, and so on. Indeed, the narrative treatment of the issue prompts the reader to engage on an inquisitive journey on both socio-cultural and personal levels. While one might see the early 20th century notions of gender present in the text, the novel is nevertheless current in on the other hand, its radical legitimization of trans rights, and on the other, its dialogue it provokes. It is worth noting, however, that the novel contains other elements – e.g. Orlando’s gender expression, how it relates to her social behaviour and sexuality and the historical context – should be further studied in order to establish a more conclusive treatment of gender and sex in the novel.


Primary Sources

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, 1928. Penguin Random House UK, 2016.

Secondary Sources

”Agender.” Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agender [Accessed 14 June 2020].

“Cisgender”. Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cisgender [Accessed 13 June 2020].

Haig, Matt. Reasons to Stay Alive. Canongate, 2015.

Mäkikalli, Aino and Steinby, Liisa. Johdatus kirjallisuusanalyysiin. The Finnish Literary Society SKS, 2013.

Nissim, Mayer.  ”Transvestite, Transsexual, Transgender: Here’s what you should actually call trans people.” PinkNews, 2018. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/03/19/transsexual-transgender-transvestite-what-should-you-call-trans-people/ [Accessed 14 June 2020].

Pedersen, Paul B. et al. Counseling Across Cultures. SAGE Publications, 2015. https://books.google.fi/books?id=WjR0BgAAQBAJ&dq=%22male+privilege%22+definition&hl=fi&source=gbs_navlinks_s [Accessed 11 June 2020].

Stryker, Susan and Whittle, Stephen. The Transgender Studies Reader. Routledge, 2006.

“What is gender? What is sex?” CIHR, https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/whatisthedifferencebetweensexandgender/2019-02-21 [Accessed 13 June 2020].

An English major, Campus Correspondent, feminist and aspiring literary scholar.
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