Androgyny in Virginia Woolf's "Orlando"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Gender

3. Androgyny and its use in Orlando

3.1 Orlando as a “man – womanly”

3.2 Orlando as a “woman – manly”

4. Conclusion

5. Works cited

1. Introduction

Virginia Woolf is one of the most discussed writers, because she created stories with a critical eye, always keeping in mind the challenges of being a female in the twentieth century. The fictional biography guides the reader through the protagonist’s daily life, while simultaneously showing that his life is not daily at all. The author provided a balance within Orlando’s nature by creating a character the reader can, on one hand, relate to, but who, on the other hand, is special and therefore appears different. With contacts to the Bloomsbury Group, Woolf had the possibility to write her critical and controversial works in an encouraging environment. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando can be seen

“as a parody of biography, an essay in the exotic, a mock-heroic novel of ideas, an imaginative literary, and social history of England, taking a closer look at the spirit of different ages, and a biography of V. Sackville-West” (Trautmann 99),

on whom the protagonist’s character is based. The novel Orlando starts in 1586 in England, with Orlando, a young and attractive nobleman. To escape his unhappy love life, the protagonist flees to Turkey, where he starts working as an ambassador. Over a protracted sleep, lasting several days, Orlando turns into a woman. Before returning to England, Lady Orlando lives with a gypsy clan for quite some time. Back in her home country, she becomes acquainted with her new outer appearance, culminating in a marriage and the birth of her child. By living an outstandingly long, live the protagonist witnesses centuries: the novel starts in 1586 and ends more than 300 years later, with Orlando only aging around 30 years. Next to looking at an individual’s unique life and the factors influencing it, the author uses this huge span of time to recap British history, too. The concept of gender is the other important component discussed in Woolf’s novel. The protagonist’s transformation from male into female without advance warning or explanation is a unique way to deal with the topic of gender, opening the reader’s eyes to new and different gender categories.

One of Woolf’s most important contributions to the issue of feminism and feminist theory is A Room of One’s Own, which was published in 1929, one year after the publication of Orlando. The extended essay deals with women, both as fictional characters and authors within a world dominated by men. Thus A Room of One’s Own can be seen as a critical approach to the theory of androgyny. It is questionable if achieving the point of true androgyny, with the male and female part coexisting in balance without one ever dominating the other, is even possible. Woolf wanted to portray the androgynous mind in the character of Orlando. In Chapter IV the narrator states that Orlando “enjoyed the love of both sexes equally” (Woolf 153), but it is doubtful whether Orlando really is the perfect portrait of an androgynous mind. The character of Orlando is not the perfect personification of the androgynous mind, because Orlando’s female and male side never fully intermix by both guiding him at the same time, due to the missing harmony and balanced equality, and because one gender always dominates the other.

2. Gender

‘Gender’ refers to characteristics that define if someone is feminine or masculine according to cultural aspects and different behavioural patterns, for instance how someone dresses. Joan Wallach Scott stated that gender is “a social category imposed on a sexed body” and “a primary way of signifying relations of power” (Meade and Wiesner-Hanks 1), but this view is extremely contested today (Meade and Wiesner-Hanks 3). ‘Gender’ should not be seen as a synonym for ‘sex’, which refers to the male and female on a biological level. To put it simple: gender is socially constructed and cultural, while sex is biological and natural (Bradley 15). Gender influences every aspect of one’s life, starting from how society sees one to how one feels about oneself. It has a strong impact on human interaction and, for example, on how one dresses or expresses feelings. Gender, as a human production, needs everyone to ‘do gender’ (Lorber 13).

Gender construction already starts with one’s birth when babies are dressed according to their sex (Lorber 14). As soon as a kid can talk, he or she sees him- or herself as a member of their gender (ibid.), meaning that individuals are born with a sex, but they have to learn to be masculine or feminine. As Simone de Beauvoir put it: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman […]; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine” (De Beauvoir 267).

In society, next to man and woman, there are transvestite or transsexual people, too (Lorber 14), but in Western societies such statuses are not institutionalized as third genders (Bolin, as cited by Lorber 17). Research has shown that there are societies in which gender is based on a person’s relationship to reproduction rather than body parts. In such cases adults are gendered female or male, whereas children and old people are seen as different genders. Therefore one’s gender changes throughout one’s life (Meade and Wiesner-Hanks 3).

There are voices, various postmodern feminists like Judith Butler, arguing that the distinction between gender and sex should be abolished (Bradley 19). Butler claims gender to be performative (Butler 33). Therefore, “gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed” (ibid.). For Butler, gender is a construct based on the repetition of daily actions and “regulatory practices which reaffirm sexual differences and create a sense of coherence.” Butler claims: “there is no gender identity behind the expression of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results” (ibid.). The standard defining a person or his/her gender is proportionate to the relations that determine it (15). Woolf and Butler both have the same opinion concerning the construction of gender and sex. Both women think that gender and sex are constructed socially and culturally. Therefore there should be no need to distinguish between them.

In Orlando, for example, the protagonist does not change her identity right after the transformation of her biological sex. The significant change does not happen until she is exposed to society and its gender norms. This corresponds with Butler’s statement that “sex itself is a gendered category” (11). Because historical gender analysis and women’s history have rapidly developed in the last twenty years, gender, once an unstable construct of differences shaped by culture, became a basic contact point for historical analysis (Meade and Wiesner-Hanks 2).

Over the time the concept of gender underwent various changes. “The biggest single change in gender relations was the completion of civic equality” (Sowerwine and Grimshaw 587). Between 1750 and 1914, the analysis of gender history was faced with the contradictory problems of

“the emergence of modern heterosexual nuclear family, the development of greater parity between women and men, and the construction of biological and psychological models of sexual difference” (Valenze 459).

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the norms of gendered behaviour changed when courteous conviviality became the characteristic of culture (463). In the 1950s, gender reassignment operations became accessible for gender-disphoric people, who were not able to bring up the money. They could finally become transsexuals by adapting their physical sexual identity to their mental gender identity. Thirty years later, over forty clinics in the United States offered gender reassignment operations and people started to refer to themselves as ‘transgendered’ (Meade and Wiesner-Hanks 3). Between 1918 and 2000, sexuality and reproduction were split for heterosexuals, whereas lesbians and gays were more accepted by society as an alternative sexuality and as possible parents to a child (Sowerwine and Grimshaw 586).

3. Androgyny and its use in Orlando

Women with short hair wearing unisex clothes can be referred to as “gender blenders” (Lorber 21). Because they broke out of the female stereotype by refusing to “do femininity”, they were constantly mistaken for men (ibid.). “Gender blenders” link to the topic of androgyny.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online androgyny is the “union of sexes in one individual; hermaphroditism” and being ‘androgynous’ means “[uniting] the physical characters of both sexes, at once male and female; hermaphrodite” (OED Online). This means that ‘androgyny’ is used to describe a person’s physical look and outer appearance. The use of the words ‘hermaphroditism’ or ‘hermaphrodite’ indicates that the union of both sexes is on a biological level, too. It should not be seen as a limitation of the female or the male part, but rather as a contribution with one part helping the other. Androgyny emerges as a mode confirming supressed gender stereotypes rather than undermining them (Hargreaves 70). The Orlando living during the Elizabethan era lives in a time dominated by distinction and delimitation (80).

Virginia Woolf’s time with the Bloomsbury group might have inspired her to such androgynous thinking. The Bloomsbury Group was a group of English artists, writers, scientists and intellectuals, who had a significant influence on England and its cultural modernisation. The feminist author Carolyn G. Heilbrun was one of the first women to claim “the recognition of androgyny” as a positive goal and a step forward for women (Weil 147). Heilbrun stated that the Bloomsbury Group was the first real example for an androgynous way of life in practice (Heilbrun 115). She defined androgyny as “a movement away from sexual polarization and the prison of gender toward a world in which individual roles and the modes of personal behaviour can be freely chosen” (ix). According to Heilbrun, ‘androgyny’ should not be mistaken with ‘hermaphroditism’ (xii). The feminist author admired the hippie generation, because she saw their unisex clothes and long hair “as an homage to androgyny and a sign of the widespread acceptance and valorization of a feminine principle” (Weil 148).

Woolf analyses the idea of thinking and writing androgynously in A Room of One’s Own. The author does not think that androgyny is only about someone’s physical appearance. She discusses the androgynous mind and the androgynous self. For example, Woolf stated that “[it] is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or a woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (Woolf, A Room 120). Furthermore, she claimed that “the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided” (114).

With moving androgyny away “from its pathologised, degenerative and decadent incarnations”, and turning towards a “relationship with feminism, polymorphous sexuality, writing and a creative literary criticism”, Woolf caused a crucial shift in the representation of androgyny in the early twentieth century (Hargreaves 77). By quoting a passage of Harvlock Ellis’ The Psychology of Sex in the introduction to the Penguin Books’ version of Orlando, Sandra M. Gilbert encouraged Woolf’s way of thinking:


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Androgyny in Virginia Woolf's "Orlando"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Modernism in Focus: Virginia Woolf
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
549 KB
Virginia, Woolf, Modernism, Orlando, Androgyny, Gender, A Room of, One's Own, feminism, bloomsbury, English
Quote paper
Mona Baumann (Author), 2017, Androgyny in Virginia Woolf's "Orlando", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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