The novels Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence and Orlando by Virginia Woolf make interesting comments on sexuality and the gender roles defined by society and the class system. Through Orlando and the other characters of that story, Woolf depicts androgynous characteristics of men and women, highlighting the similarities between the genders. Lawrence’s characters, too, show an interrelationship between the sexes that belies the societal norms. Classification and structure of the societies in both novels denote a separation that, like that of gender, seems superficial as the main characters are able to transcend class by experiencing aspects of different strata. Many of the problems regarding gender and sexuality, it is found, persist regardless of the class. In both stories, therefore, one finds the depiction of relations in which class and conventions dictate the role of women and men on the societal level, yet on the individual level, the relationships between men and women are often odd and confusing in defiance of these dictates.
Though Orlando starts out sarcastically mocking its own direction with the words “He—for there could be no doubt of his sex […]” (Woolf, 3), the descriptions of the characters and especially of Orlando in the novel demonstrate a fundamental likeness between the two sexes that is often overlooked in a society that stresses the salient yet superficial differences. In fact, Woolf at first draws attention to his being in the middle of slicing a Moor’s head—an action not conventionally considered suited to females, but then she traces his image by defining body parts that are common to both sexes and hold very little gender-differentiating characteristics. She describes his red cheeks “covered with peach down” (4). Though this “down” might be in reference to a (very thin) mustache, the delicacy of the description lends a feminine flavor to the entire portrait. Other characters are described in this way too. The archduchess Harriet is a very tall woman—who turns out to be really a man, and when Orlando first sees Sasha he is unable to determine her sex as she appears to be straddling both.
Sons and Lovers can be seen to portray a similar view of the masculine children of the Morel family. The sons William and Paul are introduced in their youth, which is the time when girls and boys share many characteristics that are differentiated in the future. As they grow up, their co-dependence on their mother further attributes to them an appearance of femininity as they (especially Paul) are unable to make decisions that leave her out. In the sister Annie, too, has an element of the hermaphrodite, as she is described as a tomboy to whom Paul looks up. These facts prepare the readers for the further confusing roles of the sexes and the strange ideas of class and sexuality that come with them.
At the beginning of the novels both protagonists (Paul and Orlando) are pictures of sexual purity. Queen Elizabeth considers Orlando to be a picture of innocence. Soon, however, Orlando encounters Sheba, expresses freedom with his sexuality, and has trouble finding love. It is interesting to note that though Woolf ostensibly portrays the two sexes as only superficially different, Orlando’s sexual freedom becomes tempered once he changes from man to woman, and it is in his female state that he finds love. Paul, on the other hand, exhibits an initial restraint toward sex during his more youthful and effeminate period. It is later in his maturity that he becomes passionate and pursues sexual relations with Miriam. Both Orlando and Paul are met with difficulty in finding what Orlando terms “life and a lover” (Woolf, 90). Orlando is, however, able to reconcile his differences with… the opposite sex. Paul cannot, however, and remains alone.
The roles of the men and women in these two stories are atypical when compared with those defined by the class and society in which they live. It is noteworthy first of all that though the class distinctions existed, they all regarded women as members of the softer sex who were in need of protection and guidance from the opposite sex. In Sons and Lovers, Mr. Morel is a poor provider for his family as he dissipates his earnings on drink and lives in a house provided by his mother. His wife directs the path of his sons, and he plays a very small role in his family. Alongside him, Mrs. Morel appears less like the fireside, knitting woman and more like the man who solicits work for her sons and advises them on relationships.
Miriam’s reaction to Paul is also one in which the woman expresses the desire to perform in a role that is conventionally reserved for men. He thoughts are, “Then he was so ill, and she felt he would be weak. Then she would be stronger than he. Then she could love him. If she could be mistress of him in his weakness, take care of him, if he could depend on her, if she could, as it were, have him in her arms, how she would love him!” (Sons and Lovers, 137) The role of protector is given to man by Western society, and in all classes men are seen as the stronger sex that exist to take care of women. Here Miriam wishes to fill that role, take Paul in her arms, protect and love him. Paul’s character, in turn, appears to be one that would fit well into this portrait, as he is already in a subordinate position with his mother.
In Orlando, something can be said along these lines as well. The title character weaves in and out of the roles of women and men as though they were only superficially differentiated. He admits that at core he is the same, though by society’s standards he performs adequately in each role. Researcher Ruth Gruber writes, “There is almost no perversion in Orlando’s bi-sexuality. As a man, he has a strong predilection towards women, makes violent love to princesses and lies with ‘loose women’” (87). He is accepted by female prostitutes and male archdukes alike, their genders allowing them no knowledge regarding the truth of this woman who once was man.
The fact that the prostitute as well as the arch duke accepts Orlando leads also to the idea that class barriers are as superficial as the ones that separates the sexes—which renders them complicated but superable. Orlando himself declares that he feels attached to the low born, but when he goes to live among the gypsies, he realizes he does share some of the appreciations of the higher classes. This gives the idea that just as human nature transcends gender, so it also transcends class.
This idea is reflected too in Sons and Lovers. Paul is also akin to the common people and tells his mother this when she expresses the desire for him to rise to a higher class. This mother, who had accepted a lower position in marrying Mr. Morel, has found little happiness in the descent. Lawrence writes this in a letter to a friend: “a woman of character and refinement goes into the lower class, and has no satisfaction in her own life” (“Letter,” 28). Still, judging from his mother’s desire and that of Miriam who “hated her position as a swine girl” (Sons and Lovers, 137), it is put forth that the luxuries of the higher class were still (perhaps naturally) desirable to humans.
Remarkably, the authors hit upon similar themes in two vastly different types of novels. Orlando, a fantastic piece written by Virginia Woolf, presents theories about gender, class and sexuality that show them to be complex and therefore not as easily defined as convention would have it. D. H. Lawrence’s more realistic tale is able to touch upon these issues as well. The novels challenge both reality and belief by depicting the characters with plausible emotions in their situations. Even in the case of Orlando, the handling of relationships rings authentic in both his period as a man and as a woman. The class situations and the expressions of sexuality also assist in demonstrating that the complicated nature of the human being transcends barriers of sex and class.
Gruber, Ruth. Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2005.
Lawrence, D. H. “Letter to Edward Garnett, 19 November 1912.” D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers: A Casebook. Eds. John Worthen and Andrew Harrison. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.
Lawrence, D. H. Sons and Lovers. New York: Signet, 1985.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1995.