How do the books compare in the light of disrupting traditional gender roles (Orlando by Virginia Woolf and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter), and what specific quotes and evidence show this?
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928) is a novel about a young nobleman who wakes up one day to find that he has transitioned into a woman. Interestingly, the character of Orlando was based on Woolf’s lover and friend Vita Sackville-West, who had her own interpretation of gender and often referred to herself as having both masculine and feminine traits.
The subject of gender is prominent from the get-go and is alluded to from the very first line:
He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
Woolf highlights how clothing can be a way to define one’s gender and makes use of this analogy throughout the book. For instance, Woolf, acting as the narrator in the book, comments on how clothes wear us rather than the other way around, further suggesting that they “change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
This is apparent when Orlando first encounters Sasha, skating on the ice. At first, Orlando believes her to be a man due to what he thinks is male attire. However, on closer inspection, he notices that she is a woman, which makes him feel more comfortable with his sexual desire and allows him to fall in love.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir famously writes, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Woolf plays on this same idea by implying that gender is a construct developed by society, which assigns certain clothes and behavior to men and women.
At the end of chapter 3, Orlando wakes up after a seven-day coma to find that he has transitioned into a woman. Orlando immediately notices how she is perceived differently with regard to the male gaze, as well as her own (formerly) male gaze. Orlando realizes that her role in society has changed from it what used to be and that now she is expected to be, “obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled”—something that she finds difficult to understand and learn. As a result, Orlando is left feeling overwhelmed, worthless, and not good enough.
The mock biographical format also allows Woolf to play with gender roles and narrative structures. Woolf’s use of parody and satire allows her to give the book an element of fun, cleverly disguised under the gender-bending facade of magical realism. Using a similar approach, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber dissects traditional fairy tales through a feminist lens, which allows Carter to distort conventional narratives in a modern setting.
In the book, Carter exposes classic female fairy tale tropes, such as submissive princesses, evil and unattractive witches, and motherly godmothers. However, instead of just revealing constructed gender roles, Carter also challenges them by creating female characters who change from submissive women to women with much more aggressive and violent personality traits.
For instance, in the short story “In the Company of Wolves,” Carter initially complies with the traditional presentation of the submissive Little Red Riding Hood and the aggressive and domineering wolf. However, as the story continues, the two characters, and their two genders, somewhat blend into one, blurring the lines as a result. In one part of the story, Little Red laughs in the face of the Wolf as he attempts to attack her: “The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.” By laughing in the face of danger, Carter’s Little Red removes herself from the conventional assigned female role and, in turn, allows herself the license of empowerment.
Both Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter use nontraditional genres to emphasize how gender presentation can be artificially constructed. Woolf and Carter take the concept of the gender binary and flip it on its head using modern takes on conventional storytelling. By doing this, both Woolf and Carter disrupt traditional gender roles and the expectations that both men and women must conform to.
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