Textual or Sexual?

English: Portrait of Virginia Woolf

English: Portrait of Virginia Woolf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my great interests in reading matter is how desire is handled.  After the huge sales of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, I had begun to wonder if readers needed their sex spelled out more nowadays, if so, does that mean that many readers are missing out on playful texts as titillating as Orlando by Virginia Woolf?  In this written piece, I hope to persuade readers to interact with text such as “Orlando” for a deeper and potentially more sexually satisfying read.

I have taken chapter 3 from Orlando (Great Classic Library, 1994) to demonstrate that often it is not what is said that conjures up fantasy but what is not said.  Also, I use the constant ‘she’ but this refers to both sexes, it is simply to keep the text tidy.

Cover of "Orlando"

Orlando by Virginia Woolf with the talented Tilda Swinton on the cover. She played Orlando in the film.

If we can imagine a courtship between reader and text, then it becomes obvious that the text (Orlando) is using details to entice the reader as love object.  Whilst the reader is consumed with the desire to see and know the text, it encourages fevered requests for knowledge by constant teasing.  It attempts to keep the reader interested by manipulative and provocative tantalisation which never allows the desire for textual knowledge to be fulfilled.  Subsequently the reader continues to endeavour to explore and undress the body of the text.  In other words, the text uses a playful strategy which depicts an innocence by using understated sexuality to allure and provoke the reader into the commitment of interpretation.  The signals are there, the reader merely needs to be seduced.

The text displays constant symptoms of needing the reader to become its love object.  Consequently, in order to overcome this, it must attain to interest its love object; therefore it is only by seducing the reader into the position of desiring to know the text that it can attempt to fulfill the desire for unattainable completion.  To initiate interest, the text suggests that it will become love slave to  the reader’s fantasies but only if the reader will respond by opening her psychic space.


“There was a hole in the manuscript big enough to put your finger through …. but it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise and even to use the imagination.” (page 54)


The language cleverly entices the reader to visualize that which is being suggested.  The beckoning finger attempts to coax the reader into penetrating the written sign and being seduced into allowing her repressed fantasy to filter through.  It invites the reader into its existence with a manipulative proposition which offers a text lacking in language, subtly suggesting that the reader fills in the gap for herself.  Subsequently, the text is pertaining to reach unity with the reader by a language of denial being impregnated by the reader completing the gaps.  However, the fantasy must remain fragmented as the text’s constant denial of knowledge defies fixed interpretation.

As the suggestive finger tempts the reader, so the text uses thresholds to tease and control the reader’s access.  Windows are used to allow a connived amount of voyeurism.


“The windows of the Embassy brilliantly illuminated.  Again details are lacking.” (page 57)


Windows are used to set a scene to draw the reader in.  They are used as a controlled promise of an insight into the text.  The text manipulates a sense of deviant excitement as the reader anticipates the fantasy of voyeur as illicit views through the windows suggest that the reader should not be in attendance, that she will be witness to a scene which is too prurient to be written about.  However, the text denies the details the reader is hoping for; in essence, the text leaves spaces for the reader to mould it into whatever is fantasised about.

As opened windows are used to lure the reader into the ranks of hopeful voyeur, so the closing of doors is a carefully operated device which causes the reader’s mind to engage itself in a frenzied thought process which hungers for knowledge of the text.


“The Ambassador was seen to go to his room, still wearing the insignia of his rank, and shut the door.  Some say he locked it, which was against his custom.” (page 59)


The narrative content of the text draws the reader in by locking her out.  The concept of the text as love slave is being played as the reader is only provided with alleged details.  The text essentially offers the reader the chance to create her own fantasy within the text.  In other words, the text is again using denial of details as a promise of adaption in order to satisfy the reader’s fantasy.

English: Entrance to Freuds consulting room

English: Entrance to Freuds consulting room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a never ending craving to complete the cycle of lack and desire the text successfully employs the device of ellipsis to create more gaps to encourage the reader to allow her repressed fantasies to surface.  The use of ellipsis suggests events which are too shocking to mention.


“Wondrous… utterly beyond description… gold plates…candelabras…negroes in plush breeches…” (page 58) ( please note that I do not agree with racist labels and I am not suggesting that Virginia was racist either; I am merely quoting the text)


The language which is used paints a decadence to indicate indulgence; to add ellipsis creates a subjacent meaning for the reader which arouses the most dormant of fantasies.  Fundamentally, the text works the reader’s mind.  The lack of language in the text encourages the reader to search the decadent language which is present for signs which indicate what the reader is hoping to locate.  As ellipsis in the text intimates a joining of language and absent language, the marriage must result in a lack desire interchange which can never be fulfilled as both are always acting as chameleons in search of each other.

The text uses Orlando as bait for the reader’s desires.  The sexual titillation concerning Orlando’s body is ambivalent.  The denial of details can be interpreted as writing which is vaguely aware of sexuality but unaware of how to work it; similarly it can be interpreted as the love object who attempts to lure the reader by a provocative indication of sexuality.  The interpretation will be open to the reader’s own exploration of the text but it is ultimately a stimulation used to attempt satiation of the reader’s psychic erotic space.


“Going indoors again, withdrew to his bath.  An hour later, properly scented, curled and anointed.” (page 54)


The reader is denied access to the bathroom in order to fantasise about Orlando having his body prepared for the events of the day.  The connotations of the above quotations are erotic by denial of detail.  It is probable that nudity and genital washing is involved, but it is purposely ambiguous as to whether he is vainly paying homage to his body himself or whether another is used to cleanse and cream the crevices of the protagonist’s person.  The innuendo is perverse as the use of the two sentences allows the reader to act as voyeur (which can be regarded as a perverse act in itself) to the most personal erotic bathroom fantasies desired.

If the text entices the reader with suggestions of being voyeur to Orlando’s personal moments, then to have Orlando in position of ultimately any fantasy is the pinnacle of invitations for the reader.


“And still Orlando slept.  Morning and evening they watched him.” (page 60)


The text deigns to give details as to Orlando’s long sleep but using sleep is an indication of death which can be an interpretation of orgasm.  According to Sigmund Freud in “The Interpretation of Dreams” sleep also is a signal for repressed fantasies being released in the form of dream.  Therefore the written sign becomes cohesive with the code of sexuality which encourages the reader to embark upon a scenario of being the mistress of Orlando’s body.  In actuality, the text as love slave is seducing the reader into being the love object by stimulating the fantasy of control for Orlando’s sleeping body.

Finally, as Orlando undergoes metamorphosis from man to woman:


“THE SOUND OF TRUMPETS died away and Orlando stood stark naked.  No human being, since the world began has ever looked more ravishing.  His form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace.” (page 62)


The reader is denied details of Orlando’s perfect form except the fact that he/she is ravishing.  This implies that the text is again using Orlando to capture the reader as love object.  In other words, Orlando is there to be moulded and created into the reader’s version of that which would be desirable, a Frankenstein’s monster made in the form of beauty to the eye of the reader.  The denial of details are cleverly used to incorporate whatever the reader desires in the way of physical features.  Therefore, as details of Orlando are lacking, the reader will write the body of Orlando herself to portray her own fantasy of loveliness.  Subsequently, by continual denial of detail to the reader, the text ensures in a controlled and intelligent manner that the reader commits an interest to it by being whatever she desires.

In conclusion, with a text as fluid as Orlando, we can write our own sexual fantasies, in essence, this means that the text can be read as a sexual fantasy or simply as a fine story; fundamentally, it adapts to what its love object – you the reader wants – can this be said about text like “Fifty Shades of Grey?”



Filed under Literary Criticism, Reading

33 responses to “Textual or Sexual?

  1. I love this! You are right on the money, Michelle. I think that the art of subtlety in writing is a difficult thing to master and even more difficult to appreciate. Texting, sexting, and tweeting, have encouraged people to get to the meat without appreciating the appetizer. Sometimes, the main course is better appreciated when the appetizer AND the sides introduce and support.

    Sorry for the food reference. It’s early and I haven’t had coffee.

  2. Ha Ha Ha! You always live up to expectations.

  3. I couldn’t bring myself to read ‘fifty shades…’ but I’m hungering (textually or sexually?!) to read this now! Thanks for making me drool – an amazing critique! xxx

  4. I think you are as provocative and sensual with this as Nigella Lawson is with food …. food again! 🙂

  5. A very through analysis of Orlando. Thank you! An amazing book but I think I prefer The Waves. Have you read that?

  6. Ms Tingle

    Hmm! Yes there are so many pieces today where everything is spelt out in so much detail that it looses the erotic. Much can be said for books and movies that leave some things up to the imagination. I think this is where there is a division between truly erotic pieces and just plain smut, for smut sake!

  7. Great essay, Michelle! I don’t read erotic, but only because I have yet to hear of one that combines great writing and character development that is sympathetic and believable. 50 Shades? I haven’t read it, but I would be tempted to read it as an experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. I did that kind of an experiment on that vampire series, Twilight, which helped me get through the worst parts of the story to understand what makes people want to read this despite how awful it really is. (My apologies if you like Twilight. 🙂 )

    • I haven’t read 50 Shades either but I did try to but I couldn’t get to the juicy parts because the main character bored the pants off me. I haven’t read Twilight and don’t think that I will be doing. After writing this essay, I decided to try reading the Story of O which is supposed to more literary. I thought I was reading a crime novel not erotica. I could not continue reading it because I was so angry about the way those so called men were treating O. It was criminal like a shock/ horror news item. To me any story has to have interesting characterisation and an page turning plot. I’m trying to keep an open mind about this but I haven’t been able to read more than about ten pages so far and that is at the most.

  8. A great psycho-analytical piece here Michelle! And as much as I can be a snob when it comes to Freud, I do agree that those quotations do tempt the imagination.
    I stand wholeheartedly by the axiom that less is more when it comes to sex in fiction writing. I never understood(and will never understand) what people find exciting about graphic porn. I find it more thrilling to watch or to read when 2 strangers give each other ‘the look’. Or maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way 😀
    This is the second reference to Orlando I’m seeing in a week, I need to get my hands on this book! 🙂

    • Thanks Nisha, I know exactly what you mean – some of the stuff out there is downright vile towards women and is often written by women. I have got a bit of a naughty mind but some of this stuff (story of O) is gang rape – need I say more!

      Isn’t it funny when this happens, it was Virginia Woolf’s birthday when I put this post on and so maybe that has something to do with it I’m studying Orlando with Will at the moment and it is so uplifting to have something so rich to talk about.

  9. Well done! You’ve inspired me to reread Orlando.

  10. Brilliant… you almost persuade me to reread Virginia Woolf… almost! I’m afraid I just cannot warm to her the way many of my dearest and closest friends do… I enjoyed reading your post much m0re than reading her!

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