Orlando & Alchemy: Forging the Philosopher's Stone

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Legend has it that once a great alchemist had achieved the impossible, and created a talisman of immeasurable value. It was called the Philosophers Stone for it could bestow wealth, immortality, intellectual enlightenment and produce the Magnum opus. It may be such a mythical treasure does exist in some form or another. It is certain that Virginia Woolf gave her beloved Orlando this very gift, blessing Orlando, the nobleman, the warrior poet, the immortal.
There are elements present within the text of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando which may astound the reader. Woolf has created a biography of a young nobleman. It is no secret that Virginia Woolf and Victoria Sackville-West were intimate companions and that the novel roughly biographies the life of Victoria. The satirical portrayal of Victoria as a man helps to illustrate the hypocrisy of early 19th century property laws and civil freedoms. Victoria Sackville-West had been the victim of outrageous oppression. The wealth of her family could not be inherited by a woman. Frank Baldanza suggests that Victoria had made arrangements with Woolf to write this book. “The aim of Orlando is to explore the complexities of selfhood, of time, and of sexual differences through material provided by Mrs. Woolf's idea of her friend ‘Vita"(Baldanza, 274). There is no doubt that the Sackville family tree came from royal peerage. Their title, ancestry and land holdings were extensive.
Orlando too, is wealthy and born to a noble family. It is not until he wins the affection of Queen Elizabeth is his fate sealed. She grants land and title and gives the young Orlando position and authority. The Queen spies Orlando in her mirror kissing a serving girl and smashes the mirror with her sword. The Queen is unwell from this moment on and spends the rest of her life cursing the treachery of men. It is here that the narrator interrupts the biography to defend Orlando from the reader’s harsh appraisal of his behavior. “It was Orlando’s fault perhaps; yet, after all, are we to blame Orlando? The age was the Elizabethan; their morals were not ours”(Woolf, 26). The interjection by the narrator is perhaps intended as a satirical view of so called legitimate biographers, those victors of history.
Orlando is beautiful and rich and must now choose for himself a bride. He reluctantly selects an appropriate mate when the Great Frost arrives to freeze the fluid rivers and explode helpless village girls. It is at this point that Woolf introduces the beautiful and tempting Muscovite Princess. At first Orlando cannot tell whether it is a male or female he is looking at. This is the first instance of androgyny within the text, a blurring of sexual gender. The lustful temptation experienced by Orlando dramatically changes the tone of the story
Orlando is infatuated with the Princess and quickly embarrasses his betrothed with his behavior. She breaks off the engagement but Orlando is emotionally unaffected. For Orlando there is only the exotic Muscovite and he willingly pins upon her all his hopes and future love. The Princess Sasha is getting cold in the weather and Orlando accompanies her to ship, frozen in the river. While growing impatient waiting for her to return from bellow deck Orlando bursts in on Sasha in the arms of one of the sailors. Orlando is overcome with grief and begins to suspect his lover is not entirely faithful. These suspicions are confirmed when Orlando’s pact to elope with his lover are dashed to ruin. The winter is ended with a great rain and time seems to slow to a crawl and then stop at the moment of Orlando’s realization. The bell ringing in the hour of midnight rings in a new thought, a new understanding of his abandonment. Then all the clocks in town seem to whisper the secret knowledge of his shame. The passage of time shifts and slows under the direction of Woolf. The author bends the temporal flow of time to clarify the message being delivered. There are advantages to the manipulation of the space in which the mind may unravel a particularly complex issue. By allowing a moment to carry on for an eternity Woolf can display the entire range of emotion an individual can embrace. Time to memory amounts to little more than a faint wisp of a familiar odor. The genius in Woolf is exploiting her characters environment to accommodate the needs of her character. There are critical moments in life that only last a moment and yet may forever alter the destiny of an individual. In order to fully appreciate these events it is necessary to slow down our observations of time and emotionality. This is not the only moment Woolf employs sorcery to accomplish her goals. Shortly after the clock strikes twelve the ice in the river can be seen to rapidly melt and shatter stranding the festivals revelers on shelves of ice. The victims of the supernatural thaw are isolated and call out to Orlando for assistance he is helpless to provide.
The infusion into the text of near mystic weather patterns and time flow collaborate to fashion a tapestry of life. The memories of events are often fragments of imagination and emotion. Woolf sublimely combines these moments of epiphany with magic realism to create a truth in observation not possible using traditional methods of biography. Weschler attempts to expand on the definition of magic realism. “Magic realism does not invent a new order of things; it simply reorders reality to make it seem alien. Magic realism is an art of the implausible, not the impossible; it is imaginative, not imaginary”(Weschler,293). The act of tampering with the universe must be subtle. The use of magic must be indirect and modest. Woolf expertly weaves the incredible with the mundane. Orlando has known only pleasure in life, the occasion upon which he must witness his first tragedy creates a rupture in the sky and tears thaw the frozen landscape of his heart.
There are several advantages to using the atmosphere and world events to echo the emotional status of the young Orlando. Woolf has made several innovations to the fictional biography. The addition of a costumed period helps to establish the antiquity with which Orlando’s family has serviced the Empire and establishes the geopolitical sphere of the characters realm of influence. That the ages seem to slide by in a blur is only offset by the long thought moments that last a life time. The narrator usually espouses and gilds the deeds of young Orlando fending off criticism of his character and generally elaborating on the esteem and accomplishments of the subject. The methods and design of such a complex novel would require careful planning and research. The precision in which Woolf describes the period and the ethereal nature of the time flow becomes a charming fantasy within which the extradoinary and supernatural seem to fit correctly.
While it may be that Woolf was simply attempting to forward the movement of feminism or advance her own personal relationship with Vita; she did so with such flare that the novel transcends any such agenda. It might come as a surprise when Orlando first undergoes the change of gender but within the frame of reference, the metamorphosis fits. The new challenges that surface for Orlando are generally social pressures experienced by an individual with an intimate knowledge of the personal liberties enjoyed by men. The presentation of these radical changes is met by the character with some small surprise. The incongruous and baffling change is merely taken in stride. It may very well be that the flourishing touches of communication with the imaginary laws that govern a fictional world are all in the buildup, an almost subconscious signage along the plot. As previous to Orlando’s sexual change his time spent in Constantinople and among the Turks turns his attention to the finer details with all the pomp and decorum of courtier ship. These acts of ambassadorial success elevate Orlando to the highest peerage. It is at this point that it seems as though Orlando has achieved everything a man could set his heart upon.
There is nothing left for the character to experience in life. Orlando has a thirst for exploration and it should not come as a shock to find the three aspects of female virtue incarnated within his bed chamber. “Truth! Truth! Truth! We have no choice left but confess—he was a woman” (Woolf, 132). Even though Orlando’s gender has changed he notes that he remains precisely what he had been. This allows the reader to understand that the character has not changed, on the contrary it seem more suitable to see Orlando as a strong female. That modesty, truth and chastity sought to cover up Orlando and hide his shameful true shape of womanhood. The appearance of deity’s is simply a tool used to help the reader understand the process by which Orlando undergoes his change, It is possible for mythological deities to manifest and affect the outcome of an epic adventure and so the device is not a new one to literature. The reader is likely nonplussed with the simple nature in which the impossible is blended with the ordinary. The truth shatters the illusion that Orlando was a male and her true form is revealed. Woolf selected a very carefully constructed mythology to fuse her need to alter the destiny of her character. The original false form of maleness had led a rather whimsical life, fortune and fame afforded Orlando the time necessary to develop her more female aspirations. The cultivation of poetry (albeit bad) continues in a much improved form after the metamorphosis. The issues of androgen and societal understanding of genders roll and influence on the matter of legal status were and always have been appalling. The notion that women were legally dead and or lesser creatures is truly a noble quest for a promethean hero.
The change in sex does little to affect the character of Orlando except perhaps his challenges double. The plight of women was desperate for hero’s which could challenge the English notion of chastity as suggested “Orlando seeks a place of national belonging for the polymorphous sexual, masculine-identified white woman”(Hovey, 394). This idea of shocking the public into accepting her values has more traction than the subtle way in which Woolf was able to articulate the appalling state of social reforms. Woolf's choice in using the biography as her nexus for the fantastic events which befall her characters speaks to the irreverence in which Woolf held her contemporary biographers.
The lack of form and introduction of magic into the formulaic biography speak to the innovative nature of Woolf’s work. The tasks in which Woolf set out to accomplish are accomplished with aplomb and dignity. Woolf’s need to chronicle the life of Orlando as a mock biography may go further than simply rejecting the boring manner in which traditional biopic were composed and mocking the role of the biographer as infallible. Phillips suggests that Woolf was creating a new genre of fiction “She wishes to contest the distinction separating biography and the novel, and writes fictional biographies between her more serious novels”(Phillips,421) The fictional biography grants the author more freedom and creativity in form. The balance of real and magic requires a fluidity of penmanship not typically found within the non fiction writer.
There is a luminescence to her writing which captures the emotionality of consciousness. The fundamental biography is enhanced by the meticulous precision with which Woolf spins her web. The parody of gender identifies and masquerade perpetrated by Orlando in her feminine form suggests to the reader that very little distinguishes the real from unreal the female from the male. The temporal flow of the novel does not follow the prescribed reality by which time is judged. The facts are presented and the reader must simply suspend disbelief and proceed with the assumption that the universe adheres to its own set of laws.
It is Woolf’s assertion that the world shrinks as technology expands humanities sphere of influence “It was a little alarming this shrinkage, everything seems to have shrunk” (283). Woolf connects the emotional state with the physical. There is a super reality born, between Woolf’s boiling narrative and inquisitive social commentary. The dreamlike quality of such observations improves the reader’s connection to the fictional world.
The correct mixture of fact and fiction makes a fine line of reality. The presence of clocks shocks Orlando into the next phase of his life. The chime of bells signals a changing of the hour. The reader can closely identify with the changing of time. The ringing of an alarm clock signals the beginning of a new day or that lunch is ready to be eaten. The flow of time is a matter of strict perspective with the good times a blur and the waiting an agony. Virginia Woolf does not break the laws of nature as much as reinterpret their meaning. Orlando’s poetry was completed and her family established as the final clock chimes to the end of the novel. Orlando’s story has been told and rather cleverly. The blending of reality with fantasy forges a believable world. Virginia may have turned the tragic circumstances of her lover’s life into the literary gold of legends. The mixture of social injustice and personal triumph inspire tolerance and compassion.

Works Cited
Baldanza, Frank “Orlando and the Sackvilles” PMLA, Vol. 70, No. 1
(Mar., 1955), pp. 274-279

Hovey Jaime “Kissing a Negress in the Dark: Englishness as a Masquerade in Woolf’s Orlando” PMLA, Vol. 112, No. 3 (May, 1997), pp. 393-404

Weschler Jeffrey “Magic Realism: Defining the Indefinite”
Art Journal, Vol. 45, No. 4, The Visionary Impulse: An American Tendency (Winter, 1985), pp. 293-298

Woolf, Virginia “Orlando” Oxford University Press NY, Editor Rachel Bowlby (2008), pp. 26-132

Phillips, Brian “Reality and Virginia Woolf” The Hudson Review,
Vol. 56, No. 3 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 415-430


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