Sunday, February 6, 2011
Week 5: Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
The first time I had heard of this story was a few years ago when Jamie and I were in Barcelona at the Museum of Contemporary Art. We were walking through the galleries when we noticed a small room looping a short film that caught our attention. We sat down and watched the entire thing. It was German and totally bizarre, and a glance at the label on the way out provided the best surprise: it was called "Freak Orlando"! Freak Orlando!? That's my name! Once we got back to the States, we looked up the art film online and ordered a copy so that we could watch it again. At that time, I was just discovering that this movie (as well as an Academy Award-nominated film widely released in the 1990s) was based on this book by Virginia Woolf. I added it to my perpetual "to-read" list and finally picked it up last week. The story revolves around the life of Orlando, a young nobleman who transforms into a woman and leaps through three centuries. It reads like a fairy tale, thanks to the fantasy elements of the book and Woolf's incredibly beautiful, lyrical prose. The entire work features an undercurrent of whimsy and at times is very humorous. The main thrust of the book, however, is an analysis of gender roles that is moving and relevant even today. Orlando's journey from man to woman brings with it a realization of the expectations and societal responsibilities that each sex brings with it, and subsequently, the relative unimportance of those predetermined roles. It's totally engrossing, its characters are extremely likable, and it's got an important message - it's a terrific book. And I will conclude with this: after Orlando tells her future husband her name, Woolf writes, "He had guessed it. For if you see a ship in full sail coming with the sun on it proudly sweeping across the Mediterranean from the South Seas, one says at once, "Orlando", he explained." Although I am not sure exactly what that means, I can support that.