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Gender Equality Between Man and Women in Virginia Woolf’s Novel

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Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando describes a young man changing himself into a woman through the centuries. Thereby, the writing style evolves constantly with the transformation of its main character. The critique of gender is central in the novel and the role of gender is criticized Society is also very important in this analysis in so far as it is linked with the concept of the Biopolitics of Foucault and Agamben.  

We need to understand this concept to analyze Woolf’s novel. “Biopolitics” is the term Agamben uses to describe the new mechanisms of power which apply to life, distinguishing this mechanism from those that exert their influence on the political sphere of sovereignty.

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So we could ask ourselves to what extent does the notion of biopolitics is illustrates in a non-gender equality society? This analysis will first focus on different identities. Moving on the refusal to conform to the Victorian Society. 

In the book, Orlando undergoes changes that can be either personal or physical. Also, he lives in a society that drastically changed and transformed at the same time as him. At the beginning of the novel, Orlando is introduced as a young boy around the age of 16, and by the end of the novel, Orlando is 36 and a woman. Orlando lives through many changes which can be time and place and also changes in his gender.

At some point, the narrator says « What the future might bring, Heaven only knew. The change was incessant, and change perhaps would never cease ». Despite every Changement in Orlando’s mind and body and in the society, Orlando remains, deep down, the same. There is the same starting point and endpoint, in the sense that Orlando begins the novel as a poet who loves deeply nature and women and in the end, the notion didn’t change. Furthermore, Woolf argues that regardless of the social and personal changes people remain the same. In other words, his identity remains unchanged. Indeed, the main character experiences plenty of transformations in this novel but he remains intact. The fact that Orlando is very steady on those changes proves Woolf’s argument concerning the fact that people’s identity and true self don’t change. Even though Orlando is rejected by his love, Sasha, he still goes back to his writing poetry which is a constant love in his life. But Orlando’s major transformation is when he changes into a woman. The narrator affirms that ‘Orlando remains precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. » To be crystal clear, Orlando is still the same person as a man or as a woman. The thing that is most difficult for Orlando in terms if changing is perhaps the fact of going from loving woman to loving men: « And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now,  though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved ». Orlando’s sexuality is central in the novel and is central to his identity. For Agamben, life is at the center of the concept of Biopolitics. Also, according to him, we should consider life as one of the pillars of politics and in other terms, life is at the core of society. We will see later the question of Biopolitics and society.

In the novel, Woolf also underscores the changes in English society through the years. The transformation of London is almost as drastic as the changes in Orlando herself. The Victorian ear is described as ‘the constitution of England and’ is ‘“stealthily, and imperceptibly” “altered.”Orlando denies every change that occurred. But in the seance half of the novel, the identity of London changed. The gender aspect in society changed from the 18th to the 19th century. Indeed at some point, she yells to her servant to get the carriage. The servant was confused and said that there was still enough time ‘to catch the eleven forty-five’. Orlando is slow to adapt to the new transformations of the English society ( steam engine, electricity, the automobile, the elevator etc.

Despite all the changes that Orlando had, she realizes at the end of the novel that she remains ‘fundamentally the same.” Overall after 400 years of transformation Orlando has « the same brooding meditative temper, the same love of animals and nature, the same passion for the country and the seasons. » Orlando’s identity is to say her sexuality, her respect for nature, and her poetry remains intact. Orlando’s identity remains untouched and uninfluenced by external factors.

The idea of identity is well represented in Agamben’s essay when he says: « the examination of the technologies of the self by which process of subjectivization brings the individual to and himself to his own identity and consciousness. » Moreover, to understand this quotes we need to look at the technologies of the self, which permit people to change by their means or with several numbers of operations their bodies, souls and way of being, to transform themselves to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.

  To fully understand the following analysis, and the views of Virginia Woolf we need to learn about the Bloomsbury Circle. The Bloomsbury Group was a circle of scholars or intellectuals who could be either painters, writers, etc… The circle was created after the death of Virginia Woolf’s father in 1904. Shortly after the end of the Victorian Period, Virginia Woolf and her siblings decided to create this circle. The ideas of the Bloomsbury circle was based on the refusal of the values and rules of the Victorian era. According to them (members of the circle), this period of the society was very closed-minded, and in order to get rid of these strict codes, they promoted different values and new ideas. Indeed, this group was the only one in favor of the rights of homosexuals. They also supported the integration of women in society and the world of arts. In other words, they were in favor of people who decided to live their sexual lives openly. The fact that they supported the integration of women in the world of arts was crucial for Woolf in the sense that she was a key figure in the feminist movement in England. She believed in women and in the capacity for them to write literature and different other kinds of arts. She strongly believed in equality between man and women. Finally, she promoted women as intellectuals and travelers. 

Consequently, this part will develop the idea of the refusal to conform to society. In Agamben, there is a notion that is close to the refusal in the sense that for him we should put the life of people into consideration in politics. « Liberation of zoē , and that it is constantly trying to transform its own bare life into a way of life and to find, so to speak, the bios of zoē.it wants to put the freedom and happiness of men into play. So for Agamben, we should put people at the core of society and also focus on the freedom and happiness of the population. However, the society in Orlando is quite different and that’s why she refuses to conform. 

In the second half of the novel, the topic of sexual identity appears and is associated with Feminism (when Orlando turns into a woman). For instance, when Orlando leaves to a gypsy camp, she goes on a boat to England. On that boat, she still feels confused about her sexual identity. Indeed she remembers when she was a man and all the things she did as a man. She regrets all of these experiences lived as a man. It reflects the fact that she is not able to do the same things, now, as a woman. It shows the feminist side of Orlando’s sexual identity. And especially when she says: “And I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw my sword and run him through the body, or sit among my peers, or wear a coronet, or walk-in procession, or sentence a man to death, or lead an army, or prance down Whitehall on a charger, or wear seventy-two different medals on my breast. All I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it.” Indeed, Orlando refused the rules of this society imposed on women. She does not believe that women are restricted to certain things and are a sort of decor in the society without any roles to play. Orlando believes in the independence of women, it can be seen when she takes her own decision, demonstrating that she is not conditioned by the patriarchal rules of Victorian society. For instance, when she meets the Romanian Archduchess for a second time, she says that she has fallen for her when she was a man. The freedom in the sexual identity and the sexual duality is here two important features and it is notably thanks to these concepts that the novel was a revolutionary work at the time. Moreover, Orlando does not following the convention so she doesn’t want to marry the Archduke because she doesn’t respect the conventionalism of society. This quote shows this idea: “As the sound of the Archduke’s chariot wheels died away, Orlando felt drawing further from her and further from her an Archduke (she did not mind that), a fortune (she did not mind that), a title (she did not mind that), the safety and circumstance of married life (she did not mind that), but life she heard going from her, and a lover”.

Moreover, the reflection ( the fact that Woolf believes in equality between men and women) of the author is transmitted to Orlando. For example, when Orlando wants to live her ‘real’ sexual life and liberate her true self even though she frequented parties in London or surrounded by the high-class society. For Orlando and in a way for Woolf the only difference between men and women is to say genders were only different by the physical exterior and by the clothing. “Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and a woman’s sex…Different though the sexes are, they intermix…In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above. »

After the transformation of Orlando as a woman, she understands better that society wants her to “be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appareled.” The problem is that according to Orlando, women are not naturally those things. In this way, Woolf uses the transition of Orlando into a woman to show that those expectations are no more than artificial and constructed based on social conventions. Those expectations are for Woolf entirely man-made « A pox on them! »

Being a woman for Orlando “meant conventionality, meant slavery, meant deceit, meant denying her love, fettering her limbs, pursing her lips, and restraining her tongue”. Those expectations are not expected for men. Furthermore, Orlando’s situation, as well as Woolf, are in a position to critique the existence of these rules in English society. She concludes that women are objectified and marginalized only on the account of gender. 

For Orlando, being a woman is completely different from being a man and she compared the two genders but the novel maintains that the sexes mix in a way, for instance, the narrator mentions « In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place « and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what is above.” So, the notions of gender are invented by society and confuse the true identity of someone. 

However, there is no mention of women in Agamben’s essay. This implies that either women are included in the man or that they don’t play a role as important as men. If women were included in « man », Agamben should have used the capital letter to indicate that this is the human being that he is talking about. We can assume that there is no consideration of women in this text, meaning that women have no place in politics.  

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