Humor And Tragedy In Virginia Woolf's Orlando

652 words - 3 pages

Virginia Woolfe's "Orlando" uses both humor and tragedy to observe humanity's often absurd and eccentric superficial constructions, both of class and gender. Woolfe creates the distinctions between male and female but continuously shatters them to reveal the illusions we create about gender.

As George Meredith suggests, comedy is created when "The comic poet dares to show us men and women coming to this mutual likeness" (15). Woolfe, however, goes beyond simply bringing men and women together as equals; she blends them together as one androgynous individual, the effect of which causes us to laugh at the artificial way in which society attempts to define gender. After Orlando's matter-of-fact reaction to discovering he is a woman, the narrator with tongue-in-cheek explains how reasonable such a transformation is despite people's desire to define it as abnormal: "Many people, taking this into account, and holding that such a change of sex is against nature, have been at great pains to prove (1) that Orlando has always been a woman, (2) that Orlando is at this moment a man. Let biologists and psychologists determine. It is enough for us to state the sample fact; Orlando was a man till the age of thirty; when he became a woman and has remained so ever since" (139). Later, Orlando comes to a "dilemma" when she realizes that although the sexes are different, they "intermix" (189) as well. This mixture raises questions; "how, for example, if Orlando was a woman, did she never take more than ten minutes to dress?" Or, how could she be "bold and active as a man" yet "burst into tears on slight provocation" (190). These questions about gender identity are provocative yet extremeley humorous. As readers, we laugh at the ways in which society tries to identify gender behavior.

The novel paraodies artificial constructions of class as well gender. In her essay, "The Value of Laughter," Woolfe suggests that "to laugh at a person you...

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