On My In-Class Rebellion About Woolf’s ORLANDO

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Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

By day, Leah Rachel von Essen is the editor-in-chief of Chicago Booth Magazine at the University of Chicago. By night, she reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

In the spring of my senior year at college, I was thrilled to be taking a discussion-rooted class about postmodernism and the fantastic. The reading list was great—it included Paradise by Toni Morrison and The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien—but the class itself suffered because the graduate student leading it was trapped in a narrow viewpoint that didn’t allow for us to speculate during discussion, guiding us through a strict outline of topics and notes and not allowing us to veer off the main topic at hand.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf book coverWe had just read Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and my classmates and I launched into the first truly animated conversation I’d seen in the class, about how the moment Orlando becomes a woman could be interpreted within today’s trans and queer world, especially given how consciously Woolf shifts the pronouns in this “magical” scene from ‘he’ to ‘they’ and then to ‘she.’ One student proposed that this could have been a way to talk about transgender or genderfluid people without facing ire, and another was talking about how progressive the discussion around Orlando’s pronouns are. I, of course, brought up Vita Sackville-West and how Woolf would have been aware of queer people pushing at the limits of strict gender norms.

Then, to my dismay, the teacher attempted to shut this train of conversation down. She said that we couldn’t speculate, because it was surrealism and the whole point is not knowing what was real. That discussing what fantastic moments in these postmodern texts could “really mean” was reductive and beside the point.

And—frankly also to my surprise—I interrupted her. I was writing my thesis on what magical realism (drawing on Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges as well as many of his other works) and surrealism (Milord Pavić’s The Dictionary of the Khazars) and how they utilize the relationship between reader and writer, and the reader’s level of belief in what’s happening, to make new meaning. This meaning doesn’t exist on page—it exists in the reader’s mind. For example, when you read Gogol’s The Nose, where he has a bureaucrat’s nose run away and get promoted in the military, you know that this means something other than just its literal meaning, and so the true meaning, supplied by the author’s clues, is generated in your mind.

So I talked about that, and I talked about it passionately. I told her that Orlando is a novel that uses the fantastic to poke at how gender norms are cultivated rather than rooted in biology, and that it’s hardly drifting too far to speculate that Woolf could be also discussing queerness here. And that speculating was the point, and that as long as we don’t attempt to fix a single meaning to the moment, the discussion in no way encroaches on the concept of the fantastic. She tried to stop me more than once, but I had seen the fire in my classmates’ eyes for the very first time, and about this gorgeous queer novel, and I wanted to defend it.

At the end of it, she icily thanked me for my points and then moved on to a new topic, the next one on her checklist. But things had changed, at least for me. Something in me had switched on. In that moment, I knew that I was ready to go out into the world and become a reader in my own right. To fight for books, talk about them, and even guide conversations. And it sparked, too, a need to fight against people who tried to pull tight the restrictions of interpreting literature, who insisted on giving things only one meaning, and to defend queer books.