Orlando is a mock-biography about a 350 year old male-female poet. Elucidate the sex change and its context in Chapter 3.
In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the eponymous protagonist undergoes a sex change in chapter 3. The character’s transition from man to woman occurs suddenly and quickly, but much context surrounds this sudden change. Until then, Orlando is an attractive and wealthy English nobleman who appreciates art and adventure.
The beginning of chapter 3 begins with a disclaimer from the narrator who admits that
It is, indeed, highly unfortunate, and much to be regretted that at this stage of Orlando's career, when he played a most important part in the public life of his country, we have least information to go upon...We have done our best to piece out a meagre summary...but often it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise, and even to use the imagination.
Involved in diplomatic negotiations between King Charles and high Turkish officials, Orlando conducts important government business at a luxurious residence in Constantinople. While diligently discharging his diplomatic duties—often wining and dining with the noble Turkish hosts and attending several ceremonies with Turkish officials—he grows more and more tired, finally to the point where he seems depressed, aloof, and prone to ardent prayer. Orlando toils as an ambassador for more than two and a half years before King Charles promotes him to the position of a Duke. An evening of bacchanalia festivities celebrate Orlando’s new position. Women swoon over Orlando and a rumor passes through the throngs that some kind of miracle would occur. At midnight, Orlando kneels and receives the Collar of the Most Noble Order of the Bath. As he rises, Orlando “took the golden circlet of strawberry leaves and placed it, with a gesture which none that saw it ever forgot, upon his brows.” Just then, natives rush in and disrupt the party. By two a.m., the revelers have left and Orlando retires to his room. Then someone witnesses a man, and then a woman, appear on his room’s balcony, embrace passionately, and then go inside.
The next morning, no one can rouse Orlando. His room is in a bit of disarray, with papers of poetry piled onto his desk. As Orlando sleeps on, his secretaries find
a deed of marriage, drawn up, signed, and witnessed between his Lordship, Orlando, Knight of the Garter, etc., etc., etc., and Rosina Pepita, a dancer, father unknown, but reputed a gipsy, mother also unknown but reputed a seller of old iron in the market-place over against the Galata Bridge.
Orlando sleeps or remains in a trance for seven days when the Turks revolt against the Sultan and loot where he is staying. Aside from stealing his coronet and Robes of the Garter, though, they do not disturb him. Then three sisters—the Lady of Purity, the Lady of Chastity, and the Lady of Modesty—enter and dance around him, but are banished by “truth!” To a trumpet flourish, Orlando awakens as a woman.
Although now physically female, she has lost none of her memories from earlier life. To the still-beautiful Orlando,
The change seemed to have been accomplished painlessly and completely and in such a way that Orlando herself showed no surprise at it.
Incredulous people believe that Orlando was always a woman or that Orlando still is man. Nonetheless, the narrator insists that at age thirty, Orlando became a woman. After bathing and dressing, Orlando unabashedly presents herself as a “young lady of rank” and continues about her business with aplomb and no “signs of perturbation.” She rides off, joins the gypsies, lives off the land, and labors in nature.
Most importantly, though, her internal nature changes. Orlando now becomes more sensitive, thoughtful, observant, and empathetic. She realizes the socio-economic differences between people in her position and the gypsies: “then she was seized with a shame that she had never felt before.” Although Orlando’s sex change initially appears to be only physical, her transformation extends to her new way of thinking, feeling, and observing.
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