Many events change Orlando; he ages, travels, takes on adventures, changes sex, and focuses on the search for identity through gender. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator states that it will be difficult to describe and characterize Orlando, when they say “He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters“ (pg.
Throughout the novel, the narrator explores how Orlando’s changing thoughts, actions, and clothing choices affect who he/she is. Woolf examines Orlando as male and female, giving him/her a fluid and dynamic identity. The text makes the claim that someone’s sex does not affect their identity and that society created the imbalance of gender through stereotypes. At the beginning of the novel, Orlando is depicted as a man who comes from a wealthy family.
The narrator describes him as having “long, curled hair, the dark head bent so reverently, so innocently before her, implied a pair of the finest legs that a young nobleman has ever stood upright upon….
” (pg. 18), and through these descriptions, we catch a glimpse of Orlando’s initial identity. Initially, he wants to follow the footsteps of his ancestors and go to war killing foreigners just like them. The narrator explains that “Orlando’s fathers had ridden in fields of asphodel, and stony fields, and fields watered by strange rivers, and they had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders, and brought them back to hang from the rafters.
So too would Orlando, he vowed” (pg. 11).
However, Orlando’s life takes an unexpected turn when he meets Sasha, a Russian Princess. Upon his initial meeting with Sasha, Orlando is unable to distinguish her gender. He falls for Sasha quickly and intended to run away with her; however, when the ice melted, she left. Devastated that she has left him, Orlando cries frequently and becomes a poet. However, he burns all of his work except one piece called “The Oak Tree”, to which he adds throughout the novel.
Soon afterward, Orlando goes to Constantinople and it is there that Orlando undergoes a sex change and becomes a woman. This transformation triggers intriguing events that follow. While Orlando is in his trance, the Lady of Chastity, the Lady of Purity, and the Lady of Modesty visit him. At the end of their visit, they realize that Orlando does not need them but he needs “Truth”, and Orlando wakes up when the trumpeters scream “The Truth” (pg. 102). When Orlando wakes up, he has transformed into a woman. But besides his change in sex, the narrator explains that Orlando is not different in any other way and Orlando’s self remains the same.
The narrator says “in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been” and “the change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatsoever to alter their identity” (pg. 102). This suggests that Orlando was not significantly affected by the sex change and that the physical sex of someone is not important to one’s identity as selfhood is composed of a wide range of characteristics, with sex being only one of them. This idea that the body and sex do not affect our true self is stressed throughout the entire transformation and novel. In addition to the reference to Ladies of Chastity, Purity, Modesty, and Truth, the change is sex can also be compared to the location it occurred in. Woolf picked Constantinople as the site of the transformation is because of its diversity in the 17th century.
Constantinople consisted of various cultural groups and there was not a single fixed, ethic, religion, or identity there. Additionally, Constantinople has undergone many changes in culture and religion, and because of that, it is a metaphor for shifting identities. Soon after Orlando’s transformation, she goes on to live with a group of gypsies. The time she spends with the gypsy tribe further demonstrates the idea that although the physical body may change, the identity remains the same. When she lives with the gypsies, her sex does not play a role in her life at all. One of the emphases that the narrator makes is that Orlando’s love and interest in nature remain the same.
The narrator says “The English disease, a love of Nature, was inborn in her” (pg. 106). The narrator also describes that she “climbed the mountains, roamed the valleys, sat on the banks of the streams”, that her “soul expanded with her eyeballs”, and “she prayed she might share the majesty of the hills (pg. 106). Through Orlando’s interactions with the gypsies, we can see that Orlando’s strong connection with nature does not change. When she was a male, she loved nature, and being a female has not altered her close connection with it. In a broader perspective, we can also see that although Orlando changed sex, her interests and values have remained the same, with nature being one of them.
When Orlando returns to England, she starts to explore what it means to be a male as well as a female. We see the treatment Orlando experiences being a woman when she boards the home-bound ship through her interactions with the captain. We see that people react to her in a different way and make her feel differently. For example, when her skirt flies up a sailor almost falls off, and she now realizes that everyone is looking at her closely. From all of this, Woolf demonstrates the idea that gender roles are societal and not biological.
With all of these encounters, the novel suggests that gender is so wildly constructed and it contributes a small part of one’s identity. When Orlando went out during the night dressed as a man, she found herself behaving more like a traditional male figure. In contrast, Orlando felt a limited role and power of women in society when she wore female clothes. We see Orlando finding pleasure in identifying as both men and women and she decides to express both of the sexes equally. Thus the narrator says “For the probity of breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally” (pg. 161).
The main point is finally made in chapter six, when Orlando reflects on herself, realizing that although people change from time to time, there is a core to everyone. Orlando changes to new Orlando, but the core, of both old Orlando and the new Orlando, remain the same. This core is “The Oak Tree”. “The Oak Tree” is the expression of her subjectivity that gives Orlando her identity, rather than her sex, and it symbolizes her home and place in the world. In conclusion, even though the novel is about shifting identities, the text suggests that people cannot change completely. Identity is composed of various elements and sex is just one of them. We learn that Orlando’s gender identity “combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace” (pg. 102), and a “mixture in her of man and woman” (pg. 139). The text suggests that the two genders can be combined and the only thing that changing genders affects is the change of sexual desires one has. Core beliefs, values, and thoughts, however, remain the same.