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

By Burns, Christy L. | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

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


Burns, Christy L., Twentieth Century Literature


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.