Virginia Woolf’s sixth novel, Orlando: a Biography, has drawn me since I first read it in my English 220. It is a unique novel that transcends the bounds of time, spanning around 400 years, and undermining the constraints of gender as the male protagonist awakes halfway through the novel under an oak tree, a woman. The significance of the oak tree symbol fascinates me in how the natural world could be connected to gender fluidity and freedom, and the tree also is made out to be a safe space for poetic expression throughout the novel as well, as Orlando hides their poems there. I remember there being so much to unpack and despite how challenging at times it can be to read Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing, I resonated with her language and reflections on society in the novel. It can also be confusing in how she incorporates and manipulates time, but I think it could be interesting to relate that to works of the modernist era when industrialization and urban society was really kicking off. The time period and historical context of her work makes her novels hyper aware of changing landscape and setting, and the shift from rural and small town life to industrialized, bustling cities with new technology.
When I first read Orlando, I was very new to the English major and it was my first final paper in college, so I had a lot to figure out. However it sparked an interest in ecofeminism and how the environment can be tied to gender/the body which inspired several of my other final papers throughout my English classes and major. It also made me interested in how the oak tree became such a source of power that is almost mythological. Looking back now, I think this novel is deeply rich in the nature and gender binaries and I am looking forward to reading it again soon with some more theoretical knowledge and background from my reading list. It also occurs to me now that the ecofeminist implications of Orlando becoming a woman in a natural space could be slightly problematic, as often women and nature are compared in terms of sexuality and even sexual assault. Perhaps Orlando was reinforcing the masculine “society” and feminine “nature” by this gender swap in the ways the character Orlando changes in the two halves of the book, and this is something I would be interested in reading for when I come back to the novel in the coming months.