Thursday, March 24, 2011

Biographies pt. 2 //// Orlando... Magic? or Just plain Weird?

Let’s continue shall we, with another biography from the “amazing” Virginia Woolf. But before we continue I’d like to take a step back and clarify something. I’ve had several readers who have been confused on whether or not Flush and Orlando are novels or biographies. Let me digress for a moment to clarify;

Virginia Woolf is well known for attempting to reinvent many different aspects of literature, including the biography. So as for the question on whether or not these books are novels or biographies, they are both. (ridiculous sounding right? I know, but this is what literary scholars agree on) Besides being a novel for “obvious reasons” (as has also been said by literary scholars, with little to no evidence of why), it also attempts to show relations to the stylized writing of the biography. Woolf attempts to recreate the “art” of the biography through these novels. To put it another way, these novels are recognized as both novels and biographies, and it is for this reason that we are analyzing the strange, innovative, and even “ridiculousness” that protrudes from the pages of Woolf’s biographies.

Now back to the grind, this week we intend to look at another one of Woolf’s novels/biographies entitled Orlando. For those of you who have never heard of Orlando, its… umm… interesting to say the least; very innovative. So as best as I know how I’m going to give you an oversimplified, overly-sarcastic breakdown of the novel/biography Orlando:

Orlando is a 16 year old boy that has very feministic “girly” qualities and has an overwhelming love for poetry. He also has very feministic qualities in how he looks. He is described to be a very handsome/pretty “girly looking” kind of a guy, with slender features. Orlando goes through life trying to “find himself”. He gains the favor of the old queen and serves in her quarters (she kinda has a thing for him) until he meets a “tasty tart” and scores some lip action and more (as it often is in Woolf’s literature) so the queen boots him out of her kingdom. He then goes out and whores himself out to loose women and eventually settles down with a fiancé. But one day he meets some chick that looks like a dude (and he finds that sexy) and makes love to her. But she runs off leaving him behind in a world of melancholy and depression. One day he is magically turned into a woman. (yes, that’s right, I said a woman) And he doesn’t feel any different. He/she feels like its normal. He/she sleeps around with some men, sleeps around with some women, and even pretends to be a man occasionally. Finally he/she settles down and gets married to a man who has woman like qualities. In his/her end of life he/she finally realizes that to find him/herself he/she has to realize that he/she is made up of numerous selves. (yeah, confusing… I know!)

So with this summary, as readers, we can already see the “innovativeness” of this feminist literature. The concept of having a “biography” about a man who becomes a woman seems preposterous, but so is the way of Woolf sometimes. But the plot alone is not the only “ground breaking” stylization in her writing.
Woolf is greatly known for a specific narrative style that many find intriguing (and others find annoying) called free indirect discourse (FID). FID allows the omniscient narrator to enter the thoughts of any and all characters at any given time; almost allowing us to read the minds of the characters as we read along.

This style of narrative writing in the form of a biography was also seen in Flush, but in a novel/biography like Orlando, this style opens us to whole new worlds of thought. In a book like this, where ambiguity in genders (and many other things) is a HUGE role throughout its entirety, the use of FID allows readers to not only gain a momentary perspective of this deep outlook of sexual ambiguity, but also a character’s mental constructs of thought on such subjects.
Another element of Orlando that redefines biographies is in its concept of time. As if turning a man into a woman wasn’t “magical” enough, Orlando also spans a period of 400 years. The main character, as well as several other characters, survive throughout 4 centuries and encounter the historical changes and differences together.
This obviously “unrealistic” idea is strange to toss into something that’s supposed to be more or less “non-fiction” as often a biography should. But by toying with the concept of time, Woolf allows readers to see how arbitrary such social constructs as gender, time, and even ambiguity, can be, and thus, makes an attempt to redefine and reinvent the biography.


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