Orlando at the Crossroads of Gender

  1. Alberto García García-Madrid
Supervised by:
  1. Esther Sánchez-Pardo Director

Defence university: Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Fecha de defensa: 29 January 2021

  1. Fátima Arranz Lozano Chair
  2. Asunción López-Varela Azcárate Secretary
  3. Isabel Alonso Breto Committee member
  4. Leonor María Martínez Serrano Committee member
  5. María Pilar Sánchez Calle Committee member
  1. Estudios Ingleses: Lingüística y Literatura

Type: Thesis


Virginia Woolf's Orlando unexpectedly became a literary success. In addition, while writing the fantasy novel, Virginia Woolf, who consciously poured in the narrative her concerns on women¿s inequality and female stereotypes, also began devising her feminist talks, which would ultimately become her long essay A Room of One¿s Own. In this regard, Orlando becomes a necessary feminist reading, in which Virginia Woolf does not exclusively focus on the role of women in literary history, but she also explores the meaning of gender and sexuality through characters that transgress the boundaries of the social conventions of each era. At the same time Woolf reconstructs Vita Sackville-West's family history, and exceeds the limits of genre¿fact and fiction¿and gender¿masculine and feminine. My aim in this study is to situate Orlando within the historical context of feminism and women¿s rights of the late Victorian period and the early twentieth century in Britain, and within Virginia Woolf¿s involvement in the women's cause. Orlando and the feminist essay are enclosed by Woolf's motivations in these directions, and both works become one single project. Only after this analysis and comparative approach between both texts is it possible to read the novel with regard to both the British writer¿s perception of the private sphere as a site for artistic creation, and the (literary) public realm, which had been denied to women during the nineteenth century. Orlando constitutes Virginia Woolf¿s room of her own, a place to explore her creative genius, but it also becomes both her instrument to illustrate what gender means for a woman of her period and her means to transgress such sexist stereotypes. The fantasy narrative explores the limits of gender and sexuality through a protagonist and other characters that represent gender non-conforming traits and exceptional sexualities from the norm. Apart from the traditional reading of the narrative as a lesbian feminist text, I would like to expand Woolf's feminist vision and suggest that Orlando explores questions of sexuality and gender from the point of view of sexual and gender non-conforming individuals. The changes of sex and the androgynous characters also open up the possibility to read Woolf's text in terms of transgenderism. In other words, the novel demonstrates that it is to some extent in consonance with the way LGBTQ+ individuals experience their gender and sexuality today, and also serves to illustrate how these sexual and gender minorities might have experienced their gender and sexuality during Woolf's times. Methodology and results: This research has been motivated by the multidisciplinary approach of literary studies with feminist and queer studies. My aim is to situate Orlando as a feminist text, but in the direction towards a more inclusive feminism that embraces sexual non-conforming and transgender individuals; an understanding of feminism that distances itself from more traditional conventions of femininity. Even though Virginia Woolf still reasserts the sexist notions of compulsory heterosexuality, and of masculinity and femininity of her period; she also calls into question the meaning of gender, and its dynamics within the social atmosphere and the literary scene. In addition, as I suggest with Julia Serano¿s views, Virginia Woolf also questions previously assumed constructivist approaches. Orlando, in which Virginia Woolf pours her concerns about women, and sexual and gender variance, constitutes a feminist and LGTBQ+ reference that serves to account for the social transformation of the early-twenty-century period with regard to sexual and gender norms, and also to illustrate contemporary questions of such matters. However, as feminist and queer studies demonstrate, authors and theorists are far from reaching a general consensus. On the whole, Woolf¿s Orlando remains an essential reading to call into question our assumptions about the meaning of gender.