Sunday, November 30, 2014
No, not Orlando, Florida: Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which I've been reading for the first time in years. As always, I've taken too many notes. Here are three of them.
The question of the old-school bildungsroman like Jane Eyre is "how can the individual find balance and rule herself?" The question of a more naturalistic novel, like Hardy's Tess or Jude, is "can the individual find agency in a world of chance and Titanic forces?" The question in one type of modern novel, like Orlando, is "is there a self beyond conventions?"
When Orlando gives birth to a son, it comes as something like a non-event in the novel, and we never meet the boy. This is significant: in a novel so concerned with gender, we find that motherhood does not define a woman.
"What is life?" asks Woolf's Orlando, near the end of the novel, when we read that she is finally growing up. It matters that the question comes after the publication of her poem "The Oak Tree." For much of the novel, identity has been a dialectic of social conventions (of an era, a genre, a gender) and solitude or withdrawal, the latter associated with both the poem and the actual, ancient oak tree to which Orlando retreats from society. Now, though, she turns the poem loose into the world, and she feels herself to be a part of that world in a rich and particular way: she is a palimpsest of different eras and experiences, a multitude of accrued identities, the culmination of "the selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter's hand." She no longer worries about being reducible to any one set of conventions, having lived through so many of them. So she no longer feels the same need to withdraw, to retreat from society to solitude. This is Woolf's take on what it means to grow up, to become someone in particular. The vision of growth is less schematic than what we find in Jane Eyre, where we're being taught how to balance passion and reserve, how to become a self-policing bourgeois subject. Orlando is as much a feminist's book as is Jane Eyre, but it is far more of an aesthete's book, out to show us the rich, strange evolution and accretion of individual personalities—personalities treasured not for their self-control, but for their idiosyncrasy.