Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”

and the Myth of a “Timeless Existence”




“Heart speaks to heart –

Nothing conquers except truth

and the victory of truth is love”


‘Cor ad cor loquitur –

Victoria veritatis est caritas’


Augustine of Hippo






“Orlando” is, perhaps, much closer to a “science fiction” or a “lesbian utopia” than Virginia Woolf would like to. Similarly to Sappho of Lesbos’ poetry, the novel centers on passion and love, in a pseudo-biography that satirizes the most traditional biographies from the Victorian age, which used to emphasize ‘facts’ and ‘truth’. But “Orlando” brought to discussion important issues involving sexuality and self-knowledge, as a strategy to destabilize all social standards involved in the construction of gender, transcending the conventions strictly built in accordance to a male/female binary pattern.


Therefore, what Virginia Woolf suggested with her “Orlando” was that sexual roles were not simply biological, also reflecting the environment in which individuals are inserted, being, consequently and above all, a concept imposed to those living in a given society. Thus, if we could liberate ourselves from all oppression involving gender, we could be able to freely act as individuals, according to our most intimate nature and real personality.



Evidently, the sexual change that Orlando experienced along this “epic” novel played an important role in the development of the character: so, from a young, wealthy nobleman, he/she became a deep, reflexive woman, after living several circumstances which demanded various adaptations. And as our hero/heroin also aged throughout the centuries, Orlando understood that he/she was composed of hundreds of different selves and experiences. However, being part of nature – and, therefore, not being immortal – Orlando faced the irremediable possibility of death.


One of the most important themes in Orlando is the relationship between ‘reality’ and ‘imagination’. Woolf almost suggests that there is a ‘world of fantasy’ separated from the ‘real world’, being both connected by our memory. Thus, neither history’ nor memory’ could be easily sorted and divided, since the real individual “truth” always emerges, whenever we realize the relativity of everything surrounding us, enshrining the importance of experience over the facts of our existence.


So, in order to be adapted to the rules of those around him/her, Orlando constantly changes, according to each new time and situation, as he/she is aware that adaptation is something essential for one’s survival. However, such conformity becomes oppressive and the character, tired of the constant and frequent adjustments, refused further amendments after reaching the maturity, already in the twentieth century. In her novel, Virginia Woolf emphasized, then, the character’s metamorphosis, centralizing the critique in the effects of circumstances over the individual Orlando, instead of the oppressive forces of the societies that, arbitrarily, tried to shape him/her.


And since a deeper scientific approach of the libido was already available in that beginning of twentieth century, let us also consider, in this analysis, Freudian theories concerning the balance between ‘desires’ and ‘repression’, expected to be reached by the “ego” which, by its turn, has to consider the real possibilities for implementing an action desired by the “id”, directly controlled by the “superego”, representing the internalized rules.


Deepening these concepts, it is implicit that ‘castration’ (through which is made a transition from the dual imaginary involvement with the mother’ to the ternary symbolic Oedipal relationship’), acquires a crucial role in the constitution of the ‘psyche’, as well as in the sexual identity of both men and women, being of utmost importance and significance in the formation of subjectivity, irrespectively of gender.


And, as a result of this sexual irrelevance involving “castration”, there would be no reason to justify the cultural stigmatization of women as a “less” important person, being expected that they were considered as human beings of “equal” value and dignity in relation to men, since the phallus (understood in its imaginary and symbolic dimension) would not be an exclusive privilege of neither the male or female bodies.


         Obviously, this is not what we see in our modern societies, and even Freud, in one of his last writings, aborted a study that tried to relate ‘femininity’ to ‘castration’, presenting both as something that could reveal the mystery of “finiteness” (resulted from the consequent feeling of ‘abandonment’), since “anatomy” definitively seemed to remain as the principal “fate” of all human beings, despite of any individual motivation.


But Freud’s studies were often criticized for being “phallus-centric”, since he always considered the desire for the sexual organ of men as something primordial, being all men afraid of losing their masculinity, while women’s utmost wish would be that of having a ‘penis’, definitely an impossible desire. However, notwithstanding all these theories, an almost “infiniteness” is obtained, in the case of Virginia Woolf’s novel, precisely through Orlando’s phallic abdication, curiously the contrary of all Freudian perspective.


And, in addition, since Eternity is something idealistic, philosophers could only admit its existence under the presupposition of a total lack of changes and successions, exactly the opposite of what happened to Orlando throughout the novel, being his/her death sentence rightly the character’s refusal to continue with the all mutations and adaptations.


Orlando “doubled” not in another distinct body but, instead, on his/her same body, contrarily to various other ‘doubles’ present in the Western Literature, who naively made their best to overcome “finiteness”, betting on the fact that the illusion of duplicity could reveal, after all, a magic procedure to deceive death – the only force that ultimately could make the doubled “I” to coincide again with its original ‘self’, affirming, once more, its unity as something irreducible, finishing, then, the fallacy of being another one, forever.


Finally, it does not really matter how someone will read the book, nor how to understand it: as Nicky Hallett stated in his ‘Orlando: Virginia Woolf’s Feminist Historiology and Women’s Biography’ (in “Women’s History Review, Volume 4, Number 4, 1995”), if we considerthe many genres in which Orlando, could fit (‘bildungsroman’, ‘picaresque’, ‘quest novel’, ‘satire’, ‘fantasy’, ‘fairy story’, ‘conte philosophique’, ‘feminist pamphlet’, ‘literary history’, or even that which it purports to be, a ‘biography’)”, we will realize that “the anti-novel seems the least Procrustean and describes best its origins and functions”, being one of its “functions” the obvious description of the English history, society and literature throughout the ages.


But the exercise of free imagination in the interpretation of this outstanding novel – just like we do whenever reading a great “science fiction” or, even, a sexual (‘lesbian’) utopia – is something that would, certainly, please any ordinary, inattentive reader, who would be able to meet, at least, the most intimate Virginia Woolf’s original ideals concerning the use of the individual freedom.