I’m about 18 pages from finishing my read of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and I thought I would take a break to share some notes I took yesterday when reading.
As intriguing as the gender switch is, another aspect I find fascinating is the form the novel takes — a fictional biography, unusual in its presentation.
Novels, especially in the 19th century, took the form of a biography, focusing specifically on one character and his or her interactions with society and history, and tended to focus on the character as he or she responded to a particular situation; thus the story followed, a narrative developed.
But Orlando’s shifts through gender and time breaks the narrative. Orlando seems to passively accept this movement. The biography’s narrative seems almost all situation, all part of the “halo of perception” Woolf prescribed for modernist fiction.
“Orlando lives through everything without really living through anything,” Jane Smiley writes in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. “Woolf is after meaning rather than events, showing that events and their meaning do not necessarily coincide, and important actors in events do not necessarily understand them as well as peripheral witnesses do.”
The way Woolf presents the novel, though, demonstrates why novels are such a versatile form. They absorb almost every literary form — biography, autobiography, essay, even drama and poetry — whatever the writer needs to present her perception. I think its a great form for readers, simply because it encompasses such a diverse spectrum.
Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.