Challenges to Middle Class Sexuality and Gender Norms by Woolf and Gide
In Orlando, Virginia Woolf is more effective in challenging a variety of social boundaries than André Gide is in The Immoralist because she effectively demonstrates that the value of a human being is separate from one’s sexuality or gender. Through the dream like life of Orlando and his magical metamorphosis into a woman, we see that the protagonist is essentially the same person regardless of the change. Woolf also shows that sexuality, be it gay or straight, or anything in between, is a product of nature. It is only traditional society which has assigned an unnatural tenet to the roles of men and women, sexually or otherwise. Woolf and Gide agree that sexual orientation is as natural as gender. Yet the protagonist in Gide’s immoralist is just that, immoral: he sacrifices all, including the life of his wife, for the satisfaction of his uncontrolled yet natural, homosexual, and pedophiliac appetite. “Michel” proves to be a wretched human being, with little redeeming quality. In contrast, Woolf’s Orlando, despite an undefined and surreal like gender and sexuality, proves herself to be as noble as any English aristocrat has ever been.
Woolf explains Orlando’s “mixture of man and woman”. She never shows concern for a lady’s aristocratic fashion or “neatness” nor displays a man’s strong affection for power. Yet she enjoys excessive drinking, risk-taking and agriculture, which are all social traits associated with men. She also displays a woman’s emotionalism and empathy. In Orlando, Woolf proposes, as Freud had, that men and women possess the traits of both, albeit in varying degrees from individual to individual. Today, we take the various shades of masculinity or femininity for granted. The whole idea of traditional gender roles had been challenged by the Great War as millions of women were forced to give up being homemakers to work in factories as their husbands, fathers and brothers went to the front. In Orlando, Woolf continues this challenge to traditional social construction of gender roles. Orlando is essentially the same person as a woman as she was as a man.
The question of sexuality comes up as Orlando falls in love with the adventurer Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire:
“You’re a woman, Shel!” she cried.
“You’re a man, Orlando!” he cried.
After the greatest ‘scene of protestation and demonstration’ the world has ever seen, the two lovers go on with the business of love, having successfully sorted out their own acquired prejudices. From here through to the end of the novel, we are somewhat unsure of the actual gender of the lovers. Thus, we are also unsure whether their behavior is heterosexual or homosexual. In the midst of this surrealistic tale, Woolf is subtly convincing the reader that it does not matter; these are simply two good people in love.
Woolf puts the challenge to traditional gender roles to the test. What is the nature of being a wife? Orlando discovers that a woman can be married and still write poetry: “To her enormous surprise, there was no explosion.” Thus Woolf seems to advocate creative individuality regardless of gender. But what of the other questions? What if the husband was always gone? What if someone else liked him? What if the wife liked others? Is Woolf exploring the possibility of open marriage and sexual freedom? In any case, she presents a formidable challenge on many fronts to traditional gender roles in Orlando. Woolf is trying to make the point that a woman is more than someone to please a man, and love is more than a woman’s affections for a man. Orlando’s love, with its kindness, fidelity, generosity and poetry, is more than what the male novelists have defined as love (‘love is slipping off one’s petticoats’). Nevertheless, she remains the noble and aristocratic, Lady Orlando.
Michel, Gide’s protagonist in The Immoralist, seemingly has nothing in common with Orlando (except, perhaps, the Lord’s early taste for promiscuity). Michel’s is primarily concerned with containing, and later giving in to the uncontrollable, yet natural homosexual, and pedophiliac passions. In Tunisia and early in the book, his wife Marceline nurses a tuberculosis stricken Michel to health. At the end of the novel, she becomes sick with tuberculosis. At first, he follows medical recommendations and brings his wife to a higher altitude (Switzerland). Yet his latent sexuality compels the couple to return to Tunisia, where she quickly deteriorates and dies, completely freeing Michel to fulfill his desires:
It is impossible to make any mental effort here; pleasure follows so closely on the heals of desire. Amidst all this splendor and death, one encounters happiness, and one inevitably surrenders to it.
Gide makes no rational argument at all in favor of Michel’s behavior. If Gide is trying to challenge middle class sexual mores, he is doing so by trying to get his readers to discover the latent sexuality in themselves. But even if Gide succeeds in getting some of his readers to consider the attractiveness of an olive skinned young boy, many more will be repulsed at the moral and ethical cost of living a life based on desire alone. Perhaps Gide does wants his readers to consider the intersection of desire and morality, reflecting on degrees of suppression and surrender there of, and how different balances might impact an individual or society. In other words, how does a fervent suppression of homosexuality affect society? In the Immoralist, the complete surrender to desire leads to the death of a young wife. She was not protected by her husband’s moral and ethical fiber. In Michel, it was very weak.
Virginia Woolf is more effective than André Gide is in challenging middle class norms because she presents Orlando as a noble English gentleman who miraculously transforms into a noble English lady. She possesses all the qualities that all good Christians hold in high regard: Love, kindness, fidelity and generosity. Orlando possesses these traits, despite the fact that she was a he, and that she loves a man who might be a woman. On the other hand, Gide’s Michel is neither loyal nor faithful to his wife. He does not really know love of any kind, not the romantic or the spiritual. He only feels the burden of the marriage commitment, a commitment he made in front of the priest, a commitment made not only to his wife but also to God. From Gide’s simple and clear prose it is easy to make Michel out to be an anti hero while Woolf’s colorful and surrealistic prose camouflages her real intention to break the social constraints which have restricted women’s capacity for creativity, individualism, and sexuality. Woolf is challenging both sexual and gender norms and her method is subtly convincing. She wades through the waters of the mind with a pocket full of pebbles while Gide curls himself into a big ball and jumps in while everyone is trying relax in the cool water on a hot summer day.
Gide, André, The Immoralist, New York: Penguin, 2000.
Woolf, Virginia, Orlando, New York: Harvest, 2006.