Tilda Swinton as Orlando in Sally Potter’s 1993 film adaptation.
Towards the Marriage of Nature and Letter in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s eponymous, boundary-defiant hero/heroine, is many things over the course of her four hundred year life (or thirty-six, depending on how one counts), including both a man and a woman (and the two at once), but through it all she remains a quester—not after self (for this is, at best, a lethargic quest in Orlando), but after language. As a young boy and as a grown woman, in Kent as in Constantinople, in Elizabethan England as in Edwardian, Orlando seeks after the mode, the genre, the words which will allow her to arrive at “the thing itself” (17) and bridge the gap between the object and its representation: a gap of which Orlando, the narrator, and Woolf herself are painfully aware from the novel’s opening. As sixteen-year-old Orlando sits by an open window in his father’s three-hundred-and-sixty-five room house writing the tragedy of Aethelbert, he is confronted with the apparent truth that “green in nature is one thing, green in literature another” as he stares at a laurel bush. It seems to him that “nature and letters […] have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces” (17) and so, for the moment, he abandons his verse—but not the problem. The attempt to bring language as close to nature, as close to reality, as close to “the thing itself” as possible drives Orlando through the book and her life, pushing her to experiment with form, genre, style, and image—a quest which is evident in the evolution of her style and the images which she crafts to convey the problem of representation.
Orlando begins the book convinced of the impossibility of bridging the gap between language and object. His rhyme “spoilt” by the true shade of green of the laurel, Orlando throws down his pen and gives up on bridging the gap. His young mind dealing happily in absolutes, the antipathy between nature and letters is left alone until Orlando is confronted by a problem far more pressing than that of the laurel bush: the description of the object of the heart’s affections and the subsequent abolishment of absolutes. It is conceivable that perhaps had Orlando not met Sasha, not struggled to impress and describe her, and not had his heart broken, he might have married Lady Maragaret and remained confined in the body of a man and in the fantastic realm of Euphrosynes and Clorindas forever, content to allow the gap between literature and nature to persist and even to widen. However, he meets Sasha and bridging the gap becomes a necessity as Sasha awakens him to a fluid world, without absolutes (of which she herself, with her gender neutral clothing and boundary-pushing behavior, is a symbol), a world populated by things which transcend labels and demand attempts at verbalization. His initial attempts are amateur: mere lists of similes, like darts thrown blindfold at a target. The reader laughs along with the biographer at his empty comparisons—“snow, cream, marble, cherries, alabaster, golden wire? […] a fox, or an olive tree; like the waves of the sea when you look down upon them from a height; like an emerald” (47)—but we cannot laugh at his problem, for it is a problem faced by the biographer and Woolf too. “Ransack the language as he might, words failed him” (47) the biographer tells us of his attempt to describe Sasha, but this failure is merely the catalyst for the rest of the book: Orlando’s quest will be the continued ransacking of language, not in service of Sasha, but of his own desire to conjure truth with words and achieve his boyhood dream of marrying “nature and letters.”
It is this ransacking that produces the excess which characterizes both Orlando’s and the novel’s style. To ransack is not simply to search, but to search violently, exhaustively, indiscriminately. Implicit in the word is the potential for collateral damage—the books and papers strewn about the study as the thieves search for the document they’re after—and Orlando is replete with collateral damage in the form of discarded images and words. In examining these discarded images, it becomes apparent that Orlando’s quest is not—as she imagines it to be—futile. Rather there is a trajectory in Orlando’s ransacking—both of the character and the novel—towards an overcoming of the limits of language as she images and reimages her understanding of the fundamental gap between word and object. Through her rewriting of these images—and particularly her exploration of images of sky, sea, and ice—Orlando is able to cut herself free from the strictures of an allegiance to truth in its strictest sense, marrying word and object through maturely realized metaphor.
The most striking of Orlando’s early attempts to wed language to object comes out of his attempt to define love. As he struggles, he realizes that he cannot separate any one concept or object from the thousands of other concepts, objects, memories, and people it connects to so that “the thought of love would be all ambered over with snow and winter; with log fires burning; with Russian women, gold swords, and the bark of stags; with old King James’ slobbering and fireworks and sacks of treasure in the holds of Elizabethan sailing ships” (100-101). “The thing itself” eludes capture by language—he can only figure it by the things adjacent to it. Realizing his plight, he laments that
every single thing, once he tried to dislodge it from its place in his mind, he found thus cumbered with other matter like the lump of glass which, after a year at the bottom of the sea, is grown about with bones and dragonflies, and coins and the tresses of drowned women (102),
producing the first in his series of attempts to describe the gap between language and its object in an image. As he moves from the specific instance of describing love, to the general attempt to capture anything in words, Orlando is already in the process of rewriting, revising the amber to grown-about glass. Though both amber and glass are translucent, amber preserves with a perfect transparency whatever it encases, creating and maintaining a stasis, while the lump of glass is obscured by the objects which have grown about it and act upon and change the glass itself. The images and words with which one approaches the object in order to try and describe it and bridge the gap between nature and language do not, in surrounding the object, preserve it forever and perfectly as amber does, but rather act upon it as well, changing it, and stymying attempts at marrying object and word. Amber is too clear, too perfect. A thing seen through amber is immediately recognizable through its encasement—which simply surrounds it, being entirely secondary to the viewer who looks for the thing preserved inside. The glass, having been at the bottom of the sea a year, is an unrecognizable lump which, unlike a fly trapped in amber, cannot be seen up close—both because it is obscured by coins, bones, tresses, and dragon-flies and because the viewer is kept at a distance by the fact of the glass being on the ocean’s bottom. Amber can be held, approached, examined—old glass which has become a part of the seabed cannot (except under special circumstances, which were certainly not attainable in Elizabethan England). Thus Orlando discards the image in favor of one in which the object is unapproachable, at a distance, and constructed by and wedded to a thousand adjacent ideas and images, so that object and attempted representation are given equal precedence in a struggle to marry the two.
The implications of the lump of glass go further when the four things which Orlando sets to growing about the lump are examined. No transparent amber these, they complicate the image with their fantastical overtones—the dragonflies living (or dead?) at the bottom of the sea, the “tresses” of the drowned women (“tresses” immediately bringing to mind both seaweed (“mermaids’ tresses”) and mermaids themselves), the coins (which hearken back to the “sacks of treasure in the holds of Elizabethan sailing ships”)—and their odor of death. “The thing itself,” the glass, is of another realm: it resides at the bottom of the sea, far beyond reach, obscured by fantasy, wedded to death, welded to bones, and festooned in drowned women’s hair. In trying to separate the thing itself from its surroundings, it itself would be lost—chipped off bones and coins taking with them shards of glass and leaving fissures behind. Language, as it approaches that which it attempts to describe, can, at best, surround the object, grow into and around it, allowing the object to be known by association, but never as it is. Language, and we who rely on it, are thus held at a distance, confined to the sea’s surface, looking down and seeing only a mass of associations.
In this image of sea-abyss separating word and person from object, Orlando (and Woolf) play on an image that has already been developing around the edges of the novel. During the Great Frost, when all of London turns the ice of the Thames into a pleasure park, the biographer includes an extended description of the ice itself, which “though of singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel” and which was
So clear indeed […] that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder. […] Near London Bridge, where the river had frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat was plainly visible, lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples. The old bumboat woman, who was carrying her fruit to market on the Surrey side, sat there in her plaids and farthingales with her lap full of apples, for all the world as if she were about to serve a customer, though a certain blueness about the lips hinted the truth. (34-35)
The bumboat woman sitting at the bottom of the Thames encased in ice becomes a recurring image for Orlando, who remembers her as she returns to London from the East (165) and again while in Marshall & Snellgrove, when she remarks that “nothing is any longer one thing. I take up a handbag and I think of an old bumboat woman frozen in the ice” (305), directly connecting the transparent but unassailable ice to the problem of separating, defining, and describing things themselves. The lump of glass might as well be grown about with the tresses of the old bumboat woman, who has been living in Orlando’s subconscious since she was a young man.
What began as a literal abyss of ice, then, is (re)imagined into an impassable abyss of sea and eventually, as we shall see, into an abyss of sky, both literal and figurative. The roots of this trajectory are hinted at early on, as Orlando, in his frantic attempt to pin down Sasha, likens her to “the waves of the sea when you look down upon them from a height” (47), an imaginative view Orlando himself can never have had at this point in his life (nor do we know if she ever actually enjoys a more drastically aerial view than the one offered by the hill upon which her oak stands), but which offers a connection between sea and sky and prefigures the goose which will take over from the lump of glass as the novel draws to a close. In imaging Sasha’s indescribableness as the look of waves seen from a great height, Orlando turns the abyss of air between viewer and waves into an ocean itself, again giving himself subconscious fodder for the image of the lump of glass on the seabed. That the image as one for Sasha is meaningless and trite hardly matters; as one of the many discarded images Orlando leaves in her wake it is notable because it foreshadows the language she will eventually develop in her quest to bridge the gap between language and object. It is the unapproachability of the waves as seen from a height and the seeds of the sea/sky abyss parallel which count as Orlando is forced to maintain his awestruck (and not yet frustrated) distance.
Thus we see that just as Orlando is constantly remaking herself, she is remaking her language, remaking her images, questing for that perfect synthesis of language and object. Often, she does this consciously, as when she abandons verse for prose or, in the moments after figuring the lump of glass image, she dashes it to pieces, asking herself “why not simply say what one means and leave it?”, rejecting metaphor and image entirely in favor of “the grass is green and the sky is blue” (101), which in turn falls just as short of the thing itself as her fantastic images do. However, it is to metaphors that Orlando eventually returns and which finally reconcile word with object.
As Orlando is driving home to the country from London in deep reverie, she exclaims from nowhere “there flies the wild goose. It flies past the window out to sea” (313). Presumably she has seen a real goose, however the reader has no way of knowing for the biographer (significantly) makes no comment. Whether or not the goose begins real, though, it quickly crosses into the realm of the figurative and fantastic, drawing subconsciously on her many previous images for the gap between language and nature:
Always it flies fast out to sea and always I fling after it words like nets […] which shrivel as I’ve seen nets shrivel drawn on deck with only sea-weed in them. And sometimes there’s an inch of silver—six words—in the bottom of the net. But never the great fish who lives in the coral groves. (313)
The goose is Orlando’s most fully realized image of the elusiveness of the thing itself in the face of language. Now it is not merely passive impassable distance which separates language from object, viewer from viewed, but an active flight. Sea and sky are one and the same as the elusive goose is transmogrified into elusive fish among the coral groves. Alive and combined in this shifting image (elusive even in itself) are the lump of glass, the old bumboat woman, the sea-weed-cum-tresses, the transparency of the ice, the sky, the sea, the glass, and the amber—even “grown about” returns in the sound and image of the “coral groves.” But even as the image complicates the relation, it renders more explicit Orlando’s active quest after a bridging of the gap between language and object. She is clearly present in this image as quester, seeker, fisherwoman with her word-nets at the ready. Words which, if she is lucky, will beget better words—the “silver”—but never, she fears, the thing itself: the fish-goose. In the marriage of the fish and the goose, the trajectory of Orlando’s and Woolf’s gradual conflation of sky and sea—vast, but opposite, abysses—is completed. In this, goose and fish, fish and goose become symbols not only for the elusiveness of Orlando’s object, but symbols for word and object themselves, suddenly interchangeable and intertwined.
It is the image of the goose with which the biographer, Woolf, and Orlando leave the reader. As Shelmerdine leaps from his aeroplane (a further cementing of the sea-sky, word-object conflation: the sea-captain becoming a pilot, his ship, a plane), “there sprang up over his head a single wild bird” (329). This bird we know to be real, as far as we know anything in the story to be real, because the biographer has told us it is there. Whether or not it is a goose, we do not know, but Orlando is certain: “It is the goose! […] The wild goose!” (329). In this merging of certain and uncertain, concrete and figurative, Orlando, in her last sentence, achieves her quest and marries word with object. This, her last metaphor, accepts both figure and fact, turning a real bird into metaphoric symbol. In her earlier description of the goose, the groundwork for its symbolism was extensively laid, and its function as symbol made clear by its lack of definite referent and the manner in which it made opposites one and the same. Here, all Orlando need do is name it, placing the real bird in her metaphorical framework, bridging the gap between object and image, signifier and signified, “the thing itself” and the language that approaches it.
Tilda Swinton with Billy Zane as Shelmerdine.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956.