Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Some Theories of One's Own: 'Orlando' and the Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Some Theories of One's Own: 'Orlando' and the Novel

Article excerpt

I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse

perhaps to be locked in.(1)

The novel is often celebrated for its multiplicity of voices, for its amoeba-like capaciousness and scope. It has been described as "a baggy monster," and as "the most elastic literary form, a kind of hold all into which poetry, sermons, disputations can be crammed."(2) Bakhtin identifies its idiosyncrasies in "Epic and Novel": "The novel parodies other genres and incorporates others into its own peculiar structure, reformulating and re-accentuating them."(3) But while critics write admiringly of the polyphony of voices within the novel, this very multifariousness seems to engender an anxiety, a desire to come up with a monologic, often male-oriented, plot in the form of a theory of the novel.

In A Room of One's Own and numerous essays, Virginia Woolf creates her own polyphonic theory of the novel, analyzing the relation between women and writing and between women and the novel, and investigating the ways in which criteria of literary merit are structured around masculine values masquerading as universal ones.

A Room of One's Own, published in 1929, was written contemporaneously with Woolf's novel Orlando, published in 1928. It is perhaps not surprising, given the simultaneous composition, that both works have a similar theme: both are explicitly concerned with gender and writing, especially with the relation between gender, the novel, and the masculine literary establishment. Both explore the ways in which novels do not lend themselves to theories of the novel: A Room of One's Own is a theoretical investigation, while Orlando functions as a practical example that parodies the patriarchal literary establishment's attempts at coming up with a precise and definitive theory of the novel.

It is astounding that despite Woolf's articulate feminist oppositions to such masculine bias in 1928 and 1929, theorists like George Lukacs, Ian Watt, Rend Girard and Peter Brooks still choose a predominantly or exclusively male canon for the novel, and still ground their theories in an explicitly male-oriented perspective, assuming the male writer is the norm and man the subject. In Reading For The Plot, Peter Brooks even uses a model of male sexuality as a metaphor for the reader's relation to a novel.(4)

A Room of One's Own tries to unlock the confining and excluding univocal structures created by male critics to theorize the novel; Orlando questions and resists any theory that might lock it in to such a structure. In the process, Orlando offers a key to future novelists and readers whose entrance into the novel might be impeded by critics like the gentlemanly Beadle who denies the female narrator of A Room of One's Own access to the famous Oxbridge library.

Woolf has written about the novel in essays, diaries, lectures, and letters, and her novels could themselves be said to constitute practical workings out of novelistic theories. Mostly, as in the following passage from A Room of One's Own, Woolf argues the complexity of the novel and hence the difficulty of distilling it into a theory:

If one shuts one's eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem

to be a creation owning a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of

course with simplifications and distortions innumerable. At any rate, it is

a structure, leaving a shape on the mind's eye, built now in squares, now

pagoda shaped, now throwing out wings and arcades . . . This shape . . .

starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it. But that emotion

at once blends itself with others, for the "shape" is not made by the relation

of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being. Thus

a novel starts in us all sorts of antagonistic and opposed emotions. Life

conflicts with something that is not life. …

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