Virginia Woolf’s novel, for lack of a better term, Orlando tackles two of the paramount thematic elements that define 20th century literature. Modernist literature evolved as a means of trying to comprehend the insecurity prevalent in a world that seemed to have tipped over the edge of the Cliffs of Insanity following the explosion of horrors known as World War I. The aftermath of this devastation set the stage for a series of novels, plays and poems that placed traditional views of reality under the microscope while also questioning long-held assumptions. At the same time, this literature also illuminates the incapacity of language to express that anxiety. Naturalism and Realism were no longer adequate genres to explain the psychological fragmentation of the new century; a century in which nearly every tradition would eventually be torn down and reconstructed. In a sense, then, the finest literature of the century is by definition deconstructionist. In Orlando, Virgnia Woolf assaults language’s inability to restore that fragmented consciousness.
Virginia Woolf saw the need, like other Modernist authors from Joyce to Eliot, to search for fresh and innovative means to communicate this fragmentation of once dearly held beliefs as well as restructuring that devastated consciousness into a form that could act as metaphor for the new social dimension of postwar mentality. Where Woolf most obviously differs from writers like Joyce, Eliot and most Modernist writers was that she was also forced into the position of examining the problematic arena of gender. Despite the revolution in style to be found in every work of the era from Ulysses to Prufrock, these male authors still worked from a patriarchal center of consciousness, whereas Woolf perhaps more strongly recognized the collapse of conventional notions contained in the realist school of thought that had long dominated the novel.
Orlando clearly meets the criteria for consideration as one of the best novels of the 20th century in that it is a novel that questions traditional perspectives in large part because of Woolf’s informing the novel’s theme through addressing the idea of gender. For a novel to be awarded the title best of the century, it should speak to the past, the present and the future. Orlando succeeds in looking forward by virtue of its seeming anticipationg of the critical assesment that would come to be known as gender theory. Through Orlando’s transformation of gender, the novel asserts that revolutionary, even radical, idea that women need not remain submissive to outdated modes of thoughts about male superiority and female subservience. Orlando’s awakening to this concept arrives through acquiring the opinion that women cannot always be defined through such terms as obedient, nor are they all always enchantingly dressed. Even more telling, especially in light of radical feminist theory that ironically merely upends the ideas of superiory and inferiority of one sex over another, Orlando after the change is appalled to discover that her previously high opinion of men has been lowered substantially.
The fragmentation of the world is ideally tailored in 20th century fiction through the structure of content. While Joyce literally took this idea to the limit and Woolf followed closely behind, in Orlando she makes the conscious choice to abandon the more experimental linguistic devices and write in far more accessible manner. There is much elitist reasoning in the idea that a novel worthy of being deemed one of the greatest of the century should perhaps not be accessible to the public at large, should not the criteria take into consideration the idea that an unread novel is perhaps not worthy? While mainstream popular literature doubtlessly is lacking in profoundity as a rule, it behooves judgment to set a balance between literary accomplishment and accessiblity. Orlando achieves this balance by virtue of being both experimental and accessible. Woolf’s language is clear enough to be easily understood by the majority, whereas the structure of the novel cleverly touches upon many different genres. Orlando looks back toward the typical kind of biographical works of the Victorian age by virtue of its inclusion of such items as photos and preface and index, but, of course, Orlando is not really a biography. In this way, the work also looks forward to meta-narrative devices of postmodernism by undermining those Victorian conventions. What makes Orlando worthy of being named one of the best novel of the 20th century is the paradoxical manner in which it actually does read like a Victorian biography from one perspective, while also foretelling the deconstructionist techniques of parody that defines so much contemporary fiction.
Finally, Orlando meets the criteria of creating an interaction between writer and reader to arrive at a common understanding of thematic elements. The novels of the 19th century and previous eras were defined by a standard understanding that the reader played no primal part in the interpretation. An implicit agreement was in place that placed the onus of intent upon the author. Modernist literature the rise of the critical thought to address it places a greater effort upon the reader to determine what the fragmented quality of this literature is attempting to say and in Orlando, Woolf achieves this by creating a multi-faceted story that makes it incumbent upon the reader to reconstruct meaning. One particularly effective way in which this is done also achieves coherence with Woolf’s decision to cast her novel in biographical form.
The book issues a challenge similar to one that any actual biography issues in regard to calling up the reader to determine the nature of reality. Even the most defiantly objective of biographers cannot help but bring a subconscious intent to the writing of the subject and Orlando excels being a truly remarkable achievement in that it not only brings into question the idea of reality in being a false biography, but it challenges the notion of the expectations of reality in biographical literature. In other words, the reconstruction of the fragmented nature of reality that is Orlando’s story is not built upon the characters or events that take place in the novel, but rather in how the reader chooses to redefine those events according to his own nature. The greatest achievement of 20th century literature may have been the re-introduction of the concept of the ancient Greek chorus, except that it turned the audience itself into that chorus, endowing them with the ability to remark upon and even direct the course of the underlying thematic elements. Orlando certainly achieves this.