Breaking through the Limits of Flesh: Gender Fluidity and (Un)natural Sexuality in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Swikriti Sanyal, Rabindra Bharati University, India


With the politicization of sex around the nineteenth century, the categories of gender and sexuality became primary instruments of disciplining the personal as well as the public body. Sexual decorum, pertaining to one’s gender and in accordance to social prescription, was encouraged and practised at large, alienating and condemning all forms of sexual expressions that did not conform to the economics of marriage and reproduction. Heteronormativity deployed mass homophobia which caused the suppression and erasure of major homosexual documentation in an attempt of silencing the homosexual voices and experiences. The absence of lesbian material in women’s literature is a case in point. The chief responsibility of the lesbian feminist project lies in identifying or deciphering the underlying essence of lesbianism in women’s writing at large. Following a similar objective, I propose to highlight the socio-political and cultural construction of homosexuality in an attempt to identify the undercurrents of lesbian desire and the dissolution of gender binaries in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The idea of this research is to read gender as performance while interpreting the ideological politics as well as the literary poetics of Woolf’s writing.

Homosexual writing in the English literature has always been problematized by the socio-political oppression and cultural taboo on the unregulated expression of same-sex desire. Most of the fiction related to the issue remained either unpublished or available for circulation only in private quarters. It is rather difficult to come across any significant main stream literary work with homosexual content before the augment of the twentieth century, and even then the writers took care to camouflage and mask the uninhibited exhibition of this outlawed desire. Radcliff Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) is one of the first attempts towards lesbian writing and the demonstration of what was then considered to be ‘sexual inversion’. The fact that it was received with public aggression followed by a trial and subsequent prosecution speaks volumes about the homosexual intolerance of the age. Virginia Woolf’s pseudo-biography, Orlando, published in the same year, approached the topic differently. Woolf’s lesbian consciousness (though Woolf never identified herself as a lesbian, she was at various stages of her life described as homo-, hetero-,bi- or asexual) taken together with her feminist approach offered a deployment of gender instability in her dialogue with (un)natural sexualities. Orlando’s paroxysmal shifts between male and female, heterosexuality and homosexuality, reality and fantasy, past and present, life and poetry, biography and autobiography unsettles and disavows the very possibilities of fixed meanings and binaries.

Before getting into an elaborate diagnosis of Woolf’s commitment to the lesbian feminist project and her politics of representation, it is crucial to map the evolution of the homosexual identity, and its relation to the notions of sex and gender, over the centuries, from a condition of social incognizance in the eighteenth century (during this time homosexuality was widely labelled under the generalized act of sodomy) to its discursive explosion in the nineteenth and twentieth century, in order to grasp the author’s four hundred year long narrative of the life of her protagonist. Following Michel Foucault’s (1976) critic of the repressive hypothesis of sexuality in the nineteenth century, it can be acknowledged that with the turning of sex into discourse, other forms of sexualities, which did not did not adhere to the economics of reproduction, were expelled from reality; minor perversions came to be dealt with legal severity and sexual irregularities were medicalized and categorized as mental illness, leading to a production and propagation of a kind of sexuality that was ‘economically useful and politically conservative’ (p. 36-37). While in the preceding century, sexual practises revolved around marital obligation and all sexual offenses (like adultery, rape, incest and homosexuality) were labelled under general unlawfulness, the nineteenth century experienced a shifting of focus from conjugal sexuality to perverseness. Foucault writes, “It was time for all these figures . . . to step forward and speak, to make the difficult confession of what they were. No doubt they were condemned all the same; but they were listened to” (p.39). Thus, the Victorian epoch encountered a multiple implantation of perversion rather than its suppression; perverse identities like homosexuality became both the effect and the instrument of power – it was embedded in bodies, judged through personal conduct and wrapped in an eternal flux of power and pleasure (Foucault, 1976, p. 40-45)…Access Full Text of the Article

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