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The Androgynous Ideal; Androgyny in Virginia Woolf’s Writing

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In the works of Virginia Woolf freedom is an often unattainable ideal. Woolf discusses freedom at great length in her texts, ranging from the broader freedom of the individual to live as they please in her fiction to the creative freedom of the artist in her nonfiction. There are a few instances in her work where freedom becomes a possibility in both the lives of the individual at large and the artist. The titular character of Orlando is able to live a life that defies definition due to their ever-changing gender, while in the book length essay A Room of One’s Own Woolf provides the writer with a more creatively limitless form of writing. Both of these works present different types of freedom, personal and artistic, but the catalyst for these freedoms is the same: androgyny. Androgyny, for Woolf, is a liberating state, one that allows us to distort or escape what she sees as the most constraining discourse in our society: gender. In fact, Woolf presents androgyny as the state in which the individual is the freest. This essay will argue that Woolf’s writing explores a concept of freedom, both personal and artistic, only achievable through a distortion and rejection of gender through androgyny, looking at the subversive life of Orlando and the rejection of gender in A Room of One’s Own.

Sandra Bem defines the androgynous individual as ‘an individual who does not rely on gender as a cognitive organizing principle and whose personality therefore combines both masculine and feminine elements’.[1] By stating that the androgynous individual does not have to ‘rely on gender as a cognitive organizing principle’ Bem defines androgyny as not simply the mix of masculine and feminine. Rather, androgyny is freedom from, and ultimate rejection, of the discourse that is gender, the mix of masculine and feminine is simply the product of said freedom. Furthermore, the idea of gender as ‘as cognitive organizing principle’ means that everything about us as individuals is regulated and sorted through gender: the clothes we wear, the acts we perform, the words we use; everything about us is gendered. By Bem’s reasoning to be androgynous is to be free from gender, to defy gendered definition and exist beyond what Judith Butler calls the realm of cultural intelligibility: an ordered and coherent subjectivity regulated by gender. Butler writes that ‘“Intelligible” genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire.’[2] Androgyny is a freedom that allows the individual to defy and distort Butler’s realm of cultural intelligibility. To be androgynous, therefore, is to confuse and reject the standards normalized in our society, to refuse the default and chose an unintelligible alternative.

The novel Orlando presents a version of androgyny that subtly challenges the notion of cultural intelligibility. Subtitled ‘A Biography’, the novel uses the form of the biography and the narrative voice of the biographer to present the expectation of the culturally intelligible subject, only to contradict that expectation with the fantastical and amorphous life story of Orlando. In her essay ‘The Art of Biography’ Woolf writes that the form of the biography ‘imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact.’[3] The biography as a form, according to Woolf, is rigid and controlling. In biography there can be no room for doubt or inconsistency, and thus the narrative of the biography, the voice of the biographer (which we shall assume is a male voice), is the voice of truth. Orlando opens with a sentence that directly assures the reader that the biographer is the harbinger of truth: ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it’.[4] This sentence is designed to convince the reader that the biographer can see the truth, that despite what may ‘disguise’ reality there is ‘no doubt’ that the biographer is telling the honest facts. The biographer in Orlando is the voice of truth, of expectation and the norm. That Orlando could be a woman disguised as a man by ‘the fashion of the time’ is not a possibility as this goes directly against the norm that the biographer is fated to maintain. Furthermore, at the start of the novel Orlando is undoubtedly male and so the biographer presents the expectations of the male subject:

‘From deed to deed, from glory to glory, from office to office he must go, his scribe following after, till they reach whatever seat it may be that is the height of their desire. Orlando, to look at, was cut out precisely for some such career.’ [Woolf, pp. 11]

The biographer has an expected norm for Orlando and as Orlando, at the novel’s beginning, is, ‘to look at’, the archetypical nobleman there is ‘no doubt’ in the biographer’s mind that this expectation shall be met. Gender, rigid and full of norms, has determined what Orlando’s life as a nobleman is to be, robbing them of the freedom to choose the life they truly want, and the biographer, ‘his scribe’, is there to record and define this life. The biographer in Orlando thus comes to act as the maintainer of a culturally intelligible and coherent subjectivity. It is the job of the biographer to check Orlando still exists in the realm of the intelligible and define Orlando’s life as truthfully and solidly as possible.

As the novel progresses, however, Orlando defies the expectations of the biographer and freely lives beyond the realm of cultural intelligibility. It is their ‘transformation’ from man to woman that frees Orlando from the strict definitions that the biographer has imposed. Before Orlando’s transformation the narrative of the biographer was rigidly assured in its subject, but upon that transformation inconsistencies arise and the rigidity of that narrative starts to collapse. Upon Orlando’s immediate transformation the biographer says ‘we have no choice left but to confess – he was a woman.’ [Woolf, pp. 83] ‘We have no choice to confess’ shows that the biographer, unlike the omniscient doubtless figure Woolf envisions in ‘The Art of the Biography’, has, in Orlando, met the limits of understanding. Pushed to the edge of cultural intelligibility, Orlando becomes to the biographer a paradox, shown through the oxymoronic ‘he was a woman.’ What was so set and clear to the biographer in the novel up to this point becomes undefinable, his subject so unintelligible that he states it is ‘irritating […] to see one’s subject, on whom one has lavished so much time and trouble, slipping out of one’s grasp altogether’. [Woolf, pp. 155] As Orlando grows into their androgyny they experience greater freedom from the limiting discourse of gender and cultural intelligibility embodied by the biographer. The biographer, meanwhile, becomes unable to hide or disguise Orlando’s unintelligibility, ‘to mitigate, to veil, to cover, to conceal, to shroud’ the now wholly subversive existence of Orlando. [Woolf, pp. 170] Unable to contain or hide Orlando’s unintelligibility, their androgynous freedom, the biographer finds himself struggling to maintain a coherent intelligibility within the novel’s narrative. As Christy L. Burns writes: ‘the notion of an essential self [is] comically reduced to a belief that Woolf’s less than competent narrator struggles to defend’.[5] Orlando’s subjectivity is freed by their androgyny beyond the limitations enforced by the role of the biographer. Freedom from the confines of the biographer is achieved by Orlando through fulfilling an androgynous life.

A pursuit of freedom from convention and expectation is evident in Woolf’s exploration of artistic imagination. While in Orlando androgyny is explored through how the individual can defy definition or containment through an androgynous life, in A Room of One’s Own Woolf argues that an androgynous style of writing frees the author and allows them to pursue a form of literature more creative and fulfilling. In the essay, Woolf shows a keen awareness of the limitations set by gender, noting how the traditionally submissive role of women within society and their historical exclusion from higher education has limited their creative capabilities. Woolf, however, does not ignore how gender as a discourse not only constrains women creatively but also creates a barrier for men. Woolf writes that ‘Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create any more than a mind that is purely feminine’.[6] Gender, for Woolf, is thus a creative blockade that disallows artists of either gender to create art of any more substance than an artist of the opposite gender. Gender puts limits on the imagination, creating a stunted dual subjectivity where there is a clear distinction between male and female: ‘in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates the man.’ [Woolf, pp. 88] It is from this duality of the mind that Woolf offers a solution to the limits created by gender; androgyny. Mary Jacobus writes that Woolf’s androgyny is one where ‘the split [between masculine and feminine] is closed with an essentially utopian vision of undivided consciousness.’[7] Jacobus interprets Woolf’s androgyny as not the individual exhibiting masculine and feminine traits, but rather where the division between masculine and feminine is destroyed. If there are no more distinctions between male and female as Jacobus contests that Woolf envisions and gender as a discourse, as Butler writes, exists because of the relationship between male/man and female/woman, then there is no such thing as gender; gender is surpassed.

Thus Woolf presents a type of androgyny that presents an absolute freedom from gendered discourse as gendered discourse no longer exists. When she writes that ‘Coleridge certainly did not mean, when he said that a great mind is androgynous, that it is a mind that has any special sympathy for women’ she is saying that the androgynous mind is not one that inhibits both masculine and feminine elements, but rather surpasses them. [Woolf, pp. 89] She argues that ‘the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.’ [Woolf, pp. 89] Therefore the androgynous mind does not exhibit the best qualities of gender norms: the traditional sensitivity of women and the strength of men. To the androgynous mind these qualities are innately parts of the artist. As Marilyn R. Farwell writes, Woolf’s androgyny permits a ‘freedom from the emotional extremes of sexual stereotypes [that] will lead to a complete objectivity.’[8] Woolf argues that it is through abandoning gender entirely, through living freely from that particular discourse, that the artist is given the opportunity to create and imagine without limits and with total objective honesty. Woolf makes the case for a form of androgyny that closely resembles Bem’s: a non-reliance on ‘gender as a cognitive organizing principle’, it just so happens that the abandonment of gender distinctions is so easily interpreted by those subjectivities still existing within the discourse of gender as exhibiting both masculine and feminine traits when really it is just the exhibition of traits without a gendered definition.

Therefore in A Room of One’s Own Woolf does not advocate for the celebration or empowerment of one gender or another, but rather for the repression or disregarding of all gender. Woolf argues that in order for the woman writer to succeed in her pursuits she must not free the femininity in her but rather destroy it in order to free the creative. Gender in this essay, unlike the controlling gender policing of Orlando’s biographer, is divisive. Woolf writes that ‘No age can ever have been so stridently sex-conscious as our own’, noting how ‘The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion’. [Woolf, pp. 89] To focus on gender is for Woolf to not pursue freedom from it but rather reinforce how it divides us. Gender norms are designed to defend themselves when challenged; for a woman writer to declare ‘I am a woman writer and I wish to be taken seriously’ causes a man writer to write solely to ‘celebrate male virtues, enforce male values, and describe the world of men’, writing with an ‘emotion [… that] is to a woman incomprehensible.’ [Woolf, pp. 92] Gender, therefore, is so divisive that it creates miscommunication between the sexes. Woolf writes that ‘it is fatal for anyone who writes to think about their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly’. [Woolf, pp. 94] For the writer to free themselves from the creative limitations imposed by gender they have to abandon their gender entirely. Woolf’s vision of androgyny in A Room of One’s Own is a celebration of creative empowerment and a denouncement of partisan male and female empowerment. As Lisa Rado notes ‘the empowerment [Woolf’s androgyny] is designed to produce is predicated on the repression of her own female identity’.[9] Subjectivity, Woolf argues, should not be divided by the labels of male/man or female/woman. Instead we should disregard these labels and empower a creative genderless subjectivity.

In a sense, in A Room of One’s Own Woolf is directly challenging the authority of the biographer in Orlando. The biographer constantly attempts to rigidly maintain the cultural intelligibility of Orlando: ‘He – for there can be no doubt of his sex’ and ‘he was a woman’ are examples of how the biographer constantly attempts to maintain Orlando as a binary being, ‘he’ or ‘she’. But by the vision of androgyny in A Room of One’s Own the biographer, by maintaining traditional gender roles, is failing to see the true Orlando; his creative purpose, to record the life of his subject honestly, is compromised by his inability to see past gender. His failure to see Orlando as ‘woman-manly or man-womanly’ but rather only seeing him as either man or woman, one or the other, is perhaps the biographer’s biggest failure and thus he is denied the creative freedom to accurately record the life of Orlando. As Makiko Minow-Pinkney writes: ‘Androgyny in Orlando is not a resolution of oppositions, but the throwing of both sexes into a metonymic confusion of genders.’[10] This failure to recognize Orlando for what they truly are is shown in the biographer’s attempt to describe Orlando immediately after their transformation: ‘Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been.’ [Woof, pp. 83] The biographer struggles to resolve the opposition of Orlando’s sexed body, for the sex of Orlando’s body is a subject in which there has been consistently ‘no doubt’ or ‘denying’, with Orlando’s subjectivity. To the biographer Orlando is the same and not the same simultaneously, the biographer unable to make any sense whatsoever of Orlando’s cultural intelligibility. By failing to comprehend Orlando’s androgyny the biographer is denied the creative freedom to succeed in writing a biography of his subject that is ‘based upon fact’.

Unlike the biographer, Orlando themselves seems to inhabit the rejection of gender that Woolf calls for in A Room of One’s Own. Their life in England is defined by a collage of performative acts that to the biographer signal a constant to-and-froing from male to female, but to Orlando these performative acts are not gendered. Instead they have freed themselves from gender so these acts are genderless, they are simply undefined or unregulated actions. The biographer writes that:

‘The curious of her own sex would argue, for example, if Orlando was a woman, how did she never take more than ten minutes to dress? And were not her clothes chosen rather at random, and sometimes worn rather shabby? And then they would say, still, she has none of the formality of a man, or a man’s love of power. She is excessively tender-hearted.’ [Woolf, pp. 111]

The biographer notes how Orlando performs acts that by his limiting view of gender are deemed male or female which are in direct conflict with her sex. She cannot be a woman as she takes no care in how she dresses, yet neither can she be a man as she has none of the sternness or formality necessary. She is something in between man or woman, but the biographer is unable to recognise or name what that thing is. Orlando, by performing acts that distorts the biographer’s understanding of them, refuses to pass as either man or woman. The writer Sandy Stone writes of passing that it ‘means to live successfully in the gender of choice, to be accepted as a “natural” member of that gender. Passing means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is effacement of the prior gender role’.[11] To pass in Orlando’s case would be to accept and live up to the expectations of their now female sexed body; to take longer than ten minutes to dress and refuse to look shabby. Orlando, by refusing to pass as either male or female, is accepting that before they were gendered as male and now they are gendered as female. By refusing to pass Orlando lives freely from what was expected of them before their transformation and what is expected of them now. By living a life that is androgynous by the standards set out by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own Orlando lives free from the expectations set out for them by society, they free themselves from the limitations of gender.

The freedom to live as one wishes or to write as best as one can is, according to Woolf, dependant on the surpassing of gender. To surpass gender is to live androgynously, to live beyond the limitations that gender creates. Woolf often explores the concept of freedom as something which is hard to attain. It is perhaps only due to the fantastical nature of Orlando’s life, one that spans many centuries and treats gender so casually, that freedom is achieved. Likewise, perhaps the idea that gender should be abandoned entirely in A Room of One’s Own is far too utopian or idealistic to ever have any chance of becoming the default for the artistic mind. Androgyny, as equally hard to achieve as it is to describe, is perhaps too unrealistic a state to be the goal of either the individual or the artist. Freedom, therefore, is often a fantasy or merely a theory. But nevertheless, Woolf presents a form of androgyny that offers the possibility of freedom from gender, just one of many discourses that often deny us, individual or artist, the freedom we desire.

Works Cited

[1] Sandra Bem, ‘Androgyny and Gender Schema Theory; a Conceptual and Empirical Integration’, in Psychology and Gender, ed. by Theo B. Sonderegger, (Nebraska; University of Nebraska Press, 1984), pp. 189 – 190

[2]Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 23

[3] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Biography’, in Virginia Woolf Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 120

[4] Virginia Woolf, Orlando, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 11

[5] Christy L. Burns, ‘Re-dressing Feminist Identities: Tensions Between Essential and Constructed Selves in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, Twentieth-Century Literature 40.3 (1994), pp. 346

[6] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, (London; Penguin, 1993), pp. 89

[7] Mary Jacobus, ‘The Difference of View’, in Women Writing and Writing About Women, ed. by Mary Jacobus, (New York; Routledge, 2012), pp. 20

[8] Marilyn R. Farwell, ‘Virginia Woolf and Androgyny’, Contemporary Literature, 16.4 (1975), pp. 447

[9] Lisa Rado, ‘Would the Real Virginia Woolf Please Stand Up? Feminist Criticism, the Androgyny Debate, and Orlando’, Women’s Studies, 26.2 (1997), pp. 151

[10] Makiko Minow-Pinkney, Virginia Woolf & the Problem of the Subject, (Brighton; Harvester Press, 1987), pp. 122

[11] Sandy Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto’, The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, (London; Routledge, 2006), pp. 231

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