Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Re-Dressing Feminist Identities: Tensions between Essential and Constructed Selves in Virginia Woolf's 'Orlando.'

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Re-Dressing Feminist Identities: Tensions between Essential and Constructed Selves in Virginia Woolf's 'Orlando.'

Article excerpt

Discussing the source of the self is never an easy task. Autobiographical desires get displaced into biographical sketches, which are then readily transformed into broad historical portraits. Ultimately, the task of re-narrating all these simultaneous strands slips into the genre of fiction, as in Virginia Woolf's parodic biography, Orlando. If Orlando can be characterized as Woolf's exploration of her own theory of sexuality (Holtby), it is also a fictionalized biography of Woolf's friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, and still again it functions as a broadly sketched history of English literature and politics. One can imagine how to write a biography of one's lover would be to undergo the process of a powerfully mute identification and realization, one that calls up denials and displacements as well.(1)

As desire for identification draws Woolf toward the genre of biographical fiction, the need for differentiation following upon such a mimetic project propels her back into parody.(2) If the text is "true to" Sackville-West's personal history, the novel is still quite unfaithful to the genre of biography. How can one be both faithful to facts and unfaithful and tell more of the truth without exactly telling it the same? While the book's incompetent narrator may issue misleading imperatives to find "the single thread" that ties together personal identity, the effects of Orlando's transformation through the ages - marked especially by his/her changes in clothing - execute a parodic deconstruction of essentialist claims tentatively offered in the text. The tension of these issues centers on the breakdown of inner and outer spaces in Woolf's writing. Woolf plays on a twentieth-century conception of truth, derived from the Greek notion of alethea, unveiling. In her novel truth is destabilized and turns into parody through an emphasis on period fashions, cross-dressing, and undressing of "essential" bodies.

Because of the nature of parody - to implement the very concept that is being distorted and undone - confusion prevails in the current criticism as to Woolf's position on subjectivity and essentialism in Orlando. Critics tend toward one of two extreme positions with regard to Woolf's theory of subjectivity in Orlando, with Fredric Jameson, on the one hand, using Orlando as an example of a novel that portrays an unchanging, constant personality passing through the centuries, bearing the marks of only external re-shapings;(3) Makiko Minow-Pinkney, on the other hand, argues that "social and historical factors are . . . fully admitted as constitutive for the human subject in the novel" (135). This question of whether some innate human essence can surmount historical effects or whether the only "essence" we know as personality is fully shaped by the world around one - this problem is comically re-figured by Woolf as the question of whether the clothes "make the (wo)man." At one point Orlando's narrator suggests that "in every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness" (189). While one must remain persistently wary of the narrator's authority in this text, this claim at least points to the importance of such a possibility.(4) Moreover, advocates of gender studies will recognize an early formulation of contemporary questions about the extent to which society - and not biology - delineates distinction between "men" and "women."(5)

As Bette London has pointed out, Woolf has become the American feminist's favorite cultural icon, the mother to whom we turn in hope of finding a mirror of ourselves.(6) It begins to look, on London's review of often contrary receptions, as if Woolf's figure admits of so many identities that Woolf is merely a mirror to her reader - another bad cliche of the woman who can mutate to become whatever society demands of her. My point here is that Woolf is hardly so obliging, and that contemporary feminist debates do violence to Woolf's texts whenever they try to create her as icon of their cause, as they struggle to fix her identity as one identity alone. …

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