Professor Olcay Aky?ld?z
6 January 2018
Reading Orlando From The Orientalist Point of View
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a satirical fantasy which was published in 1928, tells the “queer” adventures of a young poet named Orlando who lives up to more than 300 years after her magical sex change from male to female in ?stanbul. While the novel reinforces the thesis of Simone de Beauvoir’s asserted in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (Beauvoir 295), in the sense of gender’s being a construct and that one’s gender cannot be determined with the gender one’s being assigned at birth., Orlando changes her sex from male to female in the 17th Century of Istanbul or as referred in the novel, Constantinople. Such a miracle’s happening in ?stanbul is not coincidental, on the contrary, as Edward Said discussed in Orientalism, West has a tendency to portray East somewhere everything is possible, by doing so, they make realities about West by “equating the Orient with private fantasy” (Said 176). In this sense, ?stanbul enables this private fantasy for Orlando where she can practice her womanhood and sexuality, however, by doing so, Virginia Woolf engages in Orientalist discourse. In the rest of this paper, to make this statement clear, firstly, the connection between Orientalism, colonialism and imperialism will be given, as related to the Moor part. Secondly, the notions namely, compulsory heterosexuality, fallogocentric economy and heterosexual matrix asserted by Judith Butler will be discussed. Lastly, after coming to Istanbul, Orlando’s description of Istanbul and her relation with gypsies will be given.
The novel starts with a brutal opening:
“He—for there could be doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of a course, dry hair of a coconut ” (Orlando 13).
Celia R: Caputi Daileader, in Othello’s Sister: Racial Hermaphroditism and Appropriation in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, claims that what Virginia Woolf do is criticising the gender norms, imperialism and the relation between them (Daileader 56-57). In Critical Issues, Linden Peach, on the other hand, supports Daileader by stating that Orlando reflects the critical stance toward colonialism and imperialism (Linden 145). Brutality caused by killing the Moor, is connected to gender, since penetrating and colonizing uncivilized countries is a phallogocentric activity. Additionally, Woolf justifies the deed of Orlando by stating that it is “the fashion of the time”, thus, not only is the justification for the brutality given but also it is normalized by basing its roots to Orlando’s ancestors: “”Orlando’s fathers… had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulder” (Woolf 9). Kicking the head of the Moor who came from the “vast Pagan” lands of “barbaric Africa”, like a “football” (9) can be interpreted as Woolf’s mocking the dialectic between gender norms and imperialism, since in the reader’s eye, barbaric behaviours can be observed in English people who practice brutality in the name of fashion. However, it should be noted that the Moor is objectified; his humanity is taken from him, he is subhuman whilst he is being portrayed to the audience. Linden Peach argues that “Orlando’s actions at the opening of the novel remind the reader that a recurring absence in Western representations of the Orient is the violence wrought by Europeans in the East.”(Linden 145) Whether Woolf is being satiric and sarcastic in these sentences, and tries to mock the imperialism, Woolf’s narration cannot escape from the Orientalist discourse; Orlando creates orientalist discourse by marginalizing the ‘Other’ and constantly comparing herself to those she marginalize.
The love affair between Orlando and Sasha is also constructed upon this “English” and “the other” binary, which takes its roots from Orientalism. For Orlando, Sasha is an exotic object, who is disguised, this time not behind the veil but behind a mysterious Oriental aura. Just like the many characters in the novel, besides feminine characteristics, Sasha features masculinity as well. After seeing Sasha’s skating, Orlando describes her “a boy it must be no woman skate with such speed and vigour swept almost tiptoes past him” (Woolf 22). As given in the introduction, Said declares that the West has a tendency to create fantasies about the unknown and often times, equates these fantasies to the reality. By constructing the other, what is represented is different that the reality. This difference formed by what is represented and reality forms the roots of the Orientalist discourse (Said 176). Referring back to the novel, Orlando hears about Russian women grows beards in winter so as to keep them away from the cold (Woolf 28). Such rumours, of course, do not represent the reality; these are just Western fantasy about the unknown, which service for the Orientalist discourse. Unfortunately, the love between Sasha and Orlando does not last long; Sasha leaves Orlando for a sailor. After another heartbreak, Orlando sleeps nonstop for three days. It is remarkable to note that it is the first time for Orlando to sleep nonstop; however, Orlando does not change his sex until he comes to Istanbul. Orlando asks for the king, Charles II, to send him to ?stanbul where Orlando changes her sex male to female so as to escape from the oppressive regime of the Restoration Period.
In Gender Trouble, Butler argues that “the category of women is in fact defined inside the heterosexual matrix” (Gender Trouble 3). In addition to that, “the feminist subject turns out to be discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to facilitate its emancipation” (3). In other words, Butler points out in a system where patriarchy and as a result, compulsory heterosexuality rules, women cannot be real subjects and are not seen as free agents. Going back to the story, after escaping from the oppressive regime of the Restoration Period, Orlando is sent to Istanbul by Charles II as ambassador. Later on, because of the insurrection happened in the Empire, Orlando sleeps for seven days and nights, which is symbolically important because according to the Abrahamic religions, the world was created in seven days. After awakening from “her” nonstop sleep, Orlando is now a woman. Such a miracle’s happening in Istanbul is not coincidental since for the Orient, East is where fantasies and miracles are come in to existence. After escaping from the oppressive and hegemonic regime, as a result from compulsory heterosexuality and fallogocentric economy, Orlando, is finally in a “queer” realm where fantasies become concrete. As given in the introduction, Orlando is not born but rather becomes, a woman (Beauvoir 295). However, unlike the claim of Beauvoir, for Orlando, being man and woman are not two separate categories; her sex change does not surprise Orlando who feels no different than before, in fact, she carries both womanhood and manhood within herself. Many foreigners die in the insurrection, therefore, it is believed that Orlando was one of those who were killed. Later on, Orlando leaves ?stanbul with a gypsy named Rustum on a donkey to live in the mountains of Bursa, which is a crucial part of the novel in terms of analysing Orientalism. However, before doing so, how Virginia Woolf creates the ‘Other’ will be discussed.
Referring back to opening lines of the novel, Linden Peach argues that just like various imperialist projects, tension rises when Orientalist and Occidentalist encounter which is implied that within English culture, anxiety comes about when seeing something different, in other words, the ‘Other’ (Peach 144). Such anxiety about difference can be observed in “his fathers had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders” (Woolf 13). While Woolf states that English’s inferiorising the non-English races cannot be seen as a product but it can be inferred as an integral part of the construction of one strain of Englishness. Peach argues that Woolf contradicts with the modern nation state and adds:
“While it purports to be an autonomous or sovereign form of political rationality rooted in Enlightenment thinking, it is based on the existence of the ‘Other’. To some extent the arguments about Orlando’s forefathers within the text anticipate Edwards Said’s views, on which his book Orientalism (1978) is based, that all systems of Western cultural description are contaminated by its politics, interests and strategies of power. But although Said maintains that different historical periods perceived the Orient differently, as Bart Moore-Gilbert has pointed out, it often seems that the continuities within colonial discourse are much stronger than the discontinuities.” (Peach 144-145)
From here, one can claim that even though Virginia Woolf tries to mock the dichotomy of imperialism and colonialism, Orlando, as a fiction, still represents the West’s idea of imperial domination by holding down what is different to them. Killing the Moor and playing with his head, as a football, exhibits the brutality and the hegemonic stance of the West; in the case of Orlando, fiction functions as a mirror to the history. In addition to that, Woolf, describes the 17th Century Istanbul, as a “strident multi-coloured and barbaric population” (Woolf 116). Linden Peach argues that the Ottoman Empire, during that age, was regarded barbaric because of “the violence of Orientalist to each other” (Peach 146), which are “strange and exotic punishments, hideous tortures and barbaric executions” (146). However, once again, while these claims may represent the reality, there is a possibility of them being a Western fantasy about the Orient.
Referring back to the novel, after leaving Istanbul, with Rustum, Orlando goes to Bursa where “shawled women, innumerable donkeys, men working with horses” exist. Orlando’s journey from civilized to uncivilized is one of the most remarkable points of the story in relation to Orientalism. On the one hand, Orlando does not like English culture and prefers to stay in the mountains with gypsies who she tries to adapt herself to. On the other hand, rather than feeling as if she is one of them, she feels like she belongs to the mountains not these gypsies. In fact, she cannot understand the gypsies’ ideology, as a result, she feels that she is alienated from them. In Occident versus Orient in Virginia Woolf? Orlando, Azita Sadr and Leila Baradaran Jamili explain this alienation with Orlando’s British culture which creates a hybrid situation for her. Since Orlando comes from an aristocratic family and is raised as a noble man, she cannot escape from British culture, not even after coming to Constantinople and transforming her gender around the Oriental culture. She, somehow, tires to adopt herself to this culture but fails to be completely one of them. She is not able to leave her English identity, thus, gypsies around her are observed from her Western point of view, in her thoughts, it is seen that she is seen herself superior to them because of them being the ‘Other’:
“The first moment Orlando was confronted with gypsies’ life she was surprised by their strange and simple lifestyle in the black tents and by their close connection to the wild land. When she met the gypsies she has found out that they are people without any history and tradition but she comes from a “civilised race” (Woolf 87)
From the Orientalist eye, Orlando marginalizes the gypsies. Going back to the notion of imperialism, Peach discusses that othering is an imperialist notion which seen as subhuman and what East denies in themselves, in the case of Orlando, as a reflection to “unEnglishnes” (Peach 149). Orlando who comes from “an ancient and civilized race” finds herself very different from these “ignorant people” (Woolf 87-88). It supports the claim of Said, while Occident sees itself as “rational, virtuous, mature and normal”, once again, according to them, the Orient is “irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, different” (ibid 40). Orlando realizes that she is alienated from these people and sees herself as an outsider. During her time with gypsies, it is Romantic period, thus, she writes poems according with the Romantic period’s vein. On the other hand, the tension between Orient and Occident can be observed from both sides. When asked about where she comes from, her snobbish gaze makes gypsies uncomfortable. Orlando constantly compares herself to these barbaric people and realizes that as Azita Sadr and Leila Baradaran Jamili suggested in their paper: “British people, as a race, more superior than gypsies and paves the way for her to reach a kind of self-understanding. This makes her put gypsies in the margin and she comes to this conclusion that they are a nation with no civilization; thus he/she locates himself/herself in the center and a higher position” (Azita Sadr and Leila Baradaran Jamili 1478). In addition to that, Orlando sees gypsies “excellent thieves”, “bird-snares”, “simple”, “intuitive” (Woolf 85), which are used to describe something uncultivated, barbaric and not modern. It can be observed that Orlando is never adapted to this hybrid culture, her being British makes her feel that she is superior to them, and by felling so, she marginalize and makes them the “Other’. In addition to that, Orlando’s staying among the gypsies can be explained through the Romantic period’s veil. As a poet, this is her exile to spend her time in the nature of this barbaric land, rather than being among the gypsies. Thus, she satisfies her artistic side by being around this people, after spending her time among these people; she comes to the realization process of not belonging to Anatolia. She decides to go back to England.
In conclusion, in this paper, how Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” produces Orientalism is discussed. As Simone de Beauvoir asserted in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (Beauvoir 295), Orlando, magically, changes her sex from male to female and such a miracle can be explained through an Orientalist point of view, since this miracle happens in Istanbul. In addition to that, Orlando’s relation to Sasha and killing the Moor are discussed in related to Orientalism. By making them the ‘Other’, Orlando’s discourse in the novel, opens the door for colonialism and imperialism. Orlando’s escaping from England is explained through ompulsory heterosexuality, fallogocentric economy and heterosexual matrix asserted by Judith Butler. Lastly, after coming to Istanbul, Orlando’s description of Istanbul and her relation with gypsies are given. Among the gypsies, Orlando’s seeing herself as an outsider is given, which later leads her to see herself superior to them. In this paper, Orlando’s gender performance in Istanbul or cross-dressing is not given, because people like Sasha, Harriet performs these gender roles before coming to Istanbul or East.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Ed. H. M Parshley. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Penguin, London, 1998.
Peach, Linden. Virginia Woolf. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2000.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Said, Edward W. orientalism. Vintage Books, New York, 1994.