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  • Orlando's Voyage Out
  • Karen R. Lawrence (bio)

The wandering heroes are phallic heroes, in a permanent state of erection; pricking o'er the plain. The word coition presents genital sexuality as walking; but the converse is also true: all walking, or wandering in the labyrinth, is genital: sexual. All movement is phallic, all intercourse sexual. Hermes, the phallus, is the god of roads, of doorways, of all goings-in and comings-out; all goings-on.

—Norman O. Brown, Love's Body 50

Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928) stages the mobility of fantasy and desire; it is a narrative of boundary crossings—of time, space, gender, sex. A novel that remaps the topography of love's body, as described by Norman O. Brown above, Orlando exchanges Hermes, the phallic god of the crossroads, with Hermaphroditus, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. In this satiric biography of a poet who begins life as a man in the late 1500s in England and who metamorphoses into a woman while on a diplomatic mission to Turkey, desire is polymorphous, the heterosexual paradigm of adventure destabilized. The novel's sexual/textual "intercourse" revises the phallic economy Brown posits, not only in plotting polymorphous sexual possibilities for its nonphallic picaro. For love's [End Page 253] textual body as well is altered in Woolf's revisionary narrative labyrinth, with its holes "big enough to put your finger through" (O 119).1

In the beginning, Orlando seems to suggest the adequacy of the phallic narrative of lunging and plunging. Orlando prepares for adventure, practicing to be a man's man, engaged in the martial arts that enable English conquest. We see him "slicing at the head of a Moor" (O 13). "[S]ince he was sixteen only, and too young to ride with them [the patriarchs] in Africa or France, he would steal away from his mother and the peacocks in the garden and go to his attic room and there lunge and plunge and slice the air with his blade" (O 13). This preliminary flight from the maternal is necessary for Orlando to take his place in the line of male tradition.2 Yet it soon becomes apparent that the rather androgynous-looking boy finds the Oedipal plots of adventure inadequate. Although he "listened to sailors' stories of hardship and horror and cruelty on the Spanish main" and "their songs of the Azores" (O 29), he begins to find their plots limited. The narrator-biographer sums up Orlando's weariness with the plots available to male and female: "But when he had heard a score of times how Jakes had lost his nose and Sukey her honour—and they told the stories admirably, it must be admitted—he began to be a little weary of the repetition, for a nose can only be cut off in one way and maidenhood lost in another—or so it seemed to him" (O 31). Castration threats and defloration—these are the plots that elaborate sexual difference, plots that Woolf, along with Orlando, rejects in favor of a more fluid bisexuality.

One could say that Orlando wrenches these phallic paradigms of male adventure in a kind of comic, feminist version of the Freudian narrative of bisexuality adumbrated in "The Ego and the Id" (1923) (and further developed in "On Femininity" [1933]). As Elizabeth Abel demonstrates, although Woolf claimed not to have read Freud thoroughly until 1939, in her novels of the twenties and thirties she engages "the set of terms that generated the debates [unfolding within British psychoanalysis]" (xvi). [End Page 254] The Freudian pre-Oedipal child is bisexual; the little girl, a little man until she "falls" into sexual division, a trajectory comically revised in Orlando's protracted psychosexual development.3 The first hundred pages that explore the development of the male Orlando might be regarded as a prologue to the momentous birth of female subjectivity. Beginning life as a "little man," he suddenly, mysteriously, becomes a woman. In Woolf's version, however, two things happen; first, the polymorphous possibilities of bisexuality continue to circulate. They put into play a new kind of female narcissism/homoeroticism, which is freed from the shadow of Freudian judgment and is represented...


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pp. 253-277
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