Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando stands as one of those works of literature that could not be fully appreciated in its time because it appears to be written specifically for a future zeitgeist. Issues explored in the novel on the subject of gender and identity were at the time of publication essentially not up for debate. For the overwhelming mass of the reading public, men were men and women were women and never would the twain meet. Even more to the point: why would anyone want them to?
Flash forward nearly a century and not has the certainty of gender crumbled into pieces, but the issue is one of the hottest trends going in the pop culture chemistry of the time. One of the conventions by which a novel is determined to be a truly great work is that it directly addresses traditions and conventions of the time that appear beyond dispute. Orlando is about a 125 pages (more or less depending on the edition) of interrogation of established certainties about gender. As part of that interrogation, Woolf also address conventional wisdom of the time related to women’s rights, male dominance and the superiority of the strong.
Indeed, one of the highlights of the narrative a seemingly eternal human who over the course of the centuries through which she lives sees her transform from a woman into a man is her surprising realization that once she has become one of them, her previously high opinions of men has also undergone a drastic transformation.
Woolf also foreshadows the 21st century adoptions of irony as the preferred currency of emotional exchange and postmodern fragmentation as the ideal means for delivering her message to her audience in Orlando. To be sure, Orlando is one of the author’s more accessible novels, but the clarity of language is delivered through the prism of various different conventions of literary genres.