Personal Reflection on Orlando

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. 

3 thoughts on “Personal Reflection on Orlando”

  1. I enjoyed reading this blog post as I resonated with some of the experiences you had as a newer English major and how they shaped your current view and interests in the department. I have only read one or two of Virginia Woolf’s works (not including this one), so I was excited to hear from a personal perspective about the impression that the reading had on you as a student and writer. One thing that was particularly insightful was how the first encounter with a text shaped your interest in your current thesis topic.

  2. Jackie, I think it’s really interesting to think about the symbol of the oak tree. Initially, for me, I see a tree as a strong rigid form, with its trunk and roots. However, the more I think about it, and the farther up you go on the tree, the more fluidity is available, since the leaves are constantly changing and branches are often described in a fluid manner, dancing or drifting in the wind. Additionally, the shade trees provide tend to be a recurring symbol of refuge or relief (interesting to think about in terms of gender expression). There’s a lot that can be paired with trees. I’m interested to see where you take this.

  3. Jackie, this post brought me great nostalgia of reading Orlando alongside you in English 220. I had completely forgot about the text, but reading your comments had jogged my memory and the difficulty of this text, as well as my fondness for the novel. Nature and gender have been a trope that is seen throughout the literary world, but in Orlando this is utilized in a way that I have not seen in any other books. I think it would be interesting to how queer theory also impacts the novel and interacts with ecofeminism, as another main focus of the novel is Orlando’s transition in gender.

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