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Woolfs Orlando and Marlowes Hero and Leander: Rejecting the Gender

Conventions of their Time



This essay will analyse the way in which Virginia Woolf and
Christopher Marlowe reject the gender conventions of their time through their
works Orlando and Hero and Leander, first published in 1928 and 1598
respectively. I will explore the topic in terms of the metamorphic gender
change of Orlando in Orlando, and the inversion of gender conventions in
Hero and Leander. Orlando is a faux-biography that records the fictional life of
Orlando through a four hundred year time span. Woolfs Orlando rejects the
gender conventions of the 1920s through the ambiguous nature of Orlandos
gender, a change of gender, the impact of dress on gendered identity, and the
employment of gender to mask homosexuality. Marlowes Hero and Leander
is a mock-epic poem that rejects the gender conventions of Marlowes time
through the feminine attributes of Leander, the unconventional style of
courtship between Leander and Hero, the inversion of feminine and masculine
desire, and through the provocation of homoerotic desire.

The opening line of Orlando states that there could be no doubt of his
sex (11), which ironically introduces the theme of gender ambiguity to
Orlandos character. Gender ambiguity is further pronounced through the
description of Orlandos appearance in conventionally feminine terms: The
red of the cheeks was covered with peach down; the down on the lips was
only a little thicker than the down on the cheeks (12). His eyes are described
like drenched violets, so large that the water seemed to have brimmed in
them and widened them (12). This description of feminine beauty
automatically brings his gender under speculation. Robert Kohn explores this
further and argues that the text suggests Orlandos ambiguous gender
through an allusion to Freuds symbolism of the flower as the female genital
(185). As a young male, Orlando states that he feels the need of something
which he could attach his floating heart to (15). The floating heart is a type of
Mediterranean water lily that visually reflects the female genitals. It is also
linked to a language of flowers, which is in Western society, a language of
women (Kohn 185). By emphasising that there is no question about
Orlandos gender, describing him in conventionally feminine terms, and by
alluding to symbols of femininity, Orlando introduces the theme of gender
ambiguity to the character of Orlando.
Crucial to the action of Orlando is a change of gender. As Orlando
woke from a deep sleep, he stood upright in complete nakedness before
us we have no choice left but to confess he was a woman (97). Orlandos
gender is not only ambiguous because of his feminine description, but also
because of the biological gender change. As a male and a female, Orlando
develops his personal identity in the act of writing a poem called The Oak
Tree (14). Burns explains that the significance of The Oak Tree reaches
farther than the poem and the presence of an actual oak tree on the estate,
but it is also significant as a semiotic reference to the loss of male genitals.
The Oak Tree serves as an allusion to John Lockes philosophy of personal
identity in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Locke states
that when a body is physically changed (or like Orlando, biologically changed),
the personal identity remains strong and unchanged. He provides an example
of an oak tree, explaining that an oak, growing from a Plant to a Tree, and
then loppd, is still the same Oak (330). Just as the oak, loppd of a branch,
remains an oak, so too does Orlando still retain his identity when he is no
longer with his male genitals (Burns 350).
Locke extends his philosophy to state that clothes bear no relevance to
personal identity. Woolf rejects this philosophy throughout Orlando, as she
uses clothing as a significant distinction between Orlandos male and female
form. Burns quotes Locke as he states that a person can be no more two
persons than a man be two men, by wearing other Cloaths to Day than he did
Yesterday (Burns 336). Burns states that clothes are of the utmost
importance in determining Orlandos gender, as Orlando begins to experience
life as a woman when she begins dressing as a woman, not at the moment of
her biological gender change. Orlando remains in unisex clothing for some
time after her gender change, but when she first dons a complete outfit of
such clothes as women then wore she realises that before this moment she
had scarcely given her sex a thought (108). This is further explained in the
book through Orlandos experimentation with the contrasting experiences she
has when wearing mens attire and womens attire. For the probity of
breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of petticoats (153), and her
identity varied depending on what she wore. To experience life as a woman
she would dress in a flowered taffeta which best suited a drive to Richmond
and a proposal of marriage (153). To experience life as a man she would don
the attire of a nobleman complete from head to toe (153). Woolf rejects
Lockes philosophy as she demonstrates through Orlando that identity
remains unchanged in spite of biological change, and that clothes significantly
contribute to the change of Orlandos identity.
Marlowe rejects the gender conventions of courtship in Hero and
Leander by depicting Leanders inadequacy and inexperience in his attempt to
court Hero. Claude Summers presents the argument that Leanders
unconventional manner of courtship is evident in Leanders attempt to veil his
inexperience in love behind his experience as a rhetorician. Hero, having
swallowed Cupids golden hook (333), is won over by Leanders rhetoric,
which is made clear when she says who taught thee rhetoric to deceive a
maid? (338). William Walsh supports the argument that Leanders experience
in courtship is limited to his experience in rhetoric rather than through a first
hand experience in love. By examining the text, he draws attention to the line:
like a bold sharp sophister (197). The Norton edition explains that the term
sophist is a reference to someone skilled in arguments (1009), but Walsh
elaborates on this to highlight a more relevant meaning. He states that, in
Marlowes time, a sophister was a second or third year undergraduate student
at Cambridge University. Leanders only experience of courtship through
rhetoric is further supported by his long-winded speech to Hero. Leander
knows only how to speak of love and not how to act on love (Walsh 48).
Hero and Leander presents unconventional notions of feminine and
masculine desire through the inversion of gender roles. John Leonard
explains that Heros desire for Leander is stronger than Leanders desire for
Hero, which was unconventional in Marlowes society. When Hero resists
Leanders advances, he is motivated to pursue her: Leander stooped to have
embraced her, But from his spreading arms away she cast her (341-342), but
when Hero yields to his advances, Leander withdraws. After Leander has
attained Heros heart and body, he took leave, and kissed (576), as she
wrung him by the hand and wept,/ Saying Let your vows and promises be
kept./ Then, standing at the door, she turned about,/ As loath to see Leander
going out (580-583). This could be attributed to Leanders inexperience in
love, but Leonard suggests that it is because Heros willingness causes
Leander to be impotent. Hero initiates intimacy: Therefore unto him hastily
she goes/ And, like light Salmacis, her body throws/ Upon his bosom where,
with yielding eyes,/ She offers up herself a sacrifice (529-533). The intimacy,
once sought out by Leander, is now rejected. This becomes clear through the
lines proceeding Heros initiation: Supposing nothing else was to be done,
Now he her favor and good will had won (338-339).
To add weight to this argument, Leonard highlights the allusion to
Salmacis, whose name is synonymous with a loss of manhood. According to
the Ovidian myth in Metamorphoses, Salmacis courted an unwilling
Hermaphroditus and was spurned by him: The naid continually begged him to
kiss her, at least like a sister,/ and started to put her hands on his ivory-
coloured neck,/ when he shouted Stop, or Ill run away and abandon you
here!(334-336). She prayed for them to never be parted, and the Gods
delivered her with through a metamorphosis whereby the bodies of boy and
girl/ were merged and melded into one (373-374). Hermaphroditus then
prayed for the spring of Salmacis to emasculate any man entering its waters:
whoever enters this pool as man, let him weaken as soon/ as he touches the
water and always emerge with his manhood diminished! (385-386). Leonard
explains that Marlowes simile implies the unmanning of Leander; through
Leanders inaction towards Heros advances, he has become emasculated
and experienced a loss of manhood (63).
In Hero and Leander, Marlowe rejects his societys conventions of
hegemonic eroticism by provoking homoerotic desire through Leander.
Leander is described in terms of his feminie beauty; Amorous Leander,
beautiful and young (51), with dangling tresses that were never shorn (55).
He is also mistaken for a woman: Some swore he was a maid in mans attire,/
For in his looks were all that men desire (83-84). These lines reflect the way
in which Leander provokes sexual desire in men rather than women (Levine
93). Homoerotic desire is most strongly reinforced in Hero and Leander
through Leanders episode with Neptune. As Leander is seeking Hero,
Neptune is sensually courting Leander:
He watched his arms, and as they opened wide,
At every stroke betwixed them he would slide
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance
And, as he turned, cast many a lustful glance
And throw him gaudy toys to please his eye,
And dive into the water and there pry
Upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb,
And up again and close behind him swim,
And talk of love. (667-675)
At this point in the poem, Leander is caught between Neptune and Hero;
between homoerotic desire and conventional heterosexual desire. Hero and
Leander rejects the conventions of gender and sexuality in Marlowes time in
the way that it provokes tension between heterosexual impulses and the
fulfilment of homosexual desire (Turner 399-400). Summers suggests that
although Marlowe wrote of homosexual eroticism more frequently than other
writers in his day, it was accepted because his work was a reflection of
classical work in which homoerotic writing was celebrated (134).
Orlando employs a change of gender as a method of masking the
homosexual relationships within the book. Woolf wrote Orlando as a writers
holiday, drawing inspiration from her relationship with Vita Sackville-West for
the character of Orlando (Dick 62). The gender change of Orlando enables
Woolf to write about Sackville-Wests sapphic nature and lesbian relationships.
The first gender change in Orlando occurs when a young male Orlando is in
love with Sasha. As previously established, the change of gender leaves
identity untouched and the object of Orlandos desire remains a woman. It
was important for Woolf to mask the Sapphic nature of Orlando due to the
recent events surrounding Raclyffe Halls novel, The Well, which was banned
due to its endorsement of lesbian relationships. Woolf had been involved in
the court proceedings, in support of Hall, and was acutely aware of the
caution necessary to avoid the censors (Knopp 27). Parkes explains that
Woolf takes advantage of the theatrical properties of sexual identity to mask
the lesbian relationships in Orlando behind a change of gender. This is not to
place less importance on the lesbian relationships but to avoid the book from
the same fate as Halls The Well (435).
This essay has argued that Woolfs Orlando and Marlowes Hero and
Leander reject the conventions of gendered identity, courtship, notions of
masculinity and femininity, and gendered sexuality, that were held by the
societies of their time. Orlando highlights the ambiguity of gender through
prescribing feminine traits to a male Orlando, and a gender change, which
does not change his identity until a change of clothes has occurred. Hero and
Leander highlights the inversion of gender roles through Leanders
inexperienced style of courtship and the overpowering strength of Heros
desire. Both texts reject the conventions of gendered sexuality of their time by
provoking homoerotic desire and avoiding censors through androgynous
characters, the faux-biographical and mock-epic form of writing, and in
Orlando, the gender change.








Works Cited

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Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. London: Penguin 1993. Print.