This weekend, I read my first Virginia Woolf novel, Orlando. Knowing Woolf’s reputation in literary circles, I was prepared for something out of the ordinary. Still I wasn’t prepared to hit this declaration half-way through the novel:
He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpeters pealed TRUTH! TRUTH! TRUTH! we have no choice left but to confess–he was a woman.
I hurried through the next few pages, expecting the mistake to be corrected. Orlando was dreaming. Orlando was having a mental breakdown. Orlando had been a woman all along.
Virginia Woolf just decided to turn her male protagonist into a female protagonist mid-novel. No apologies. No explanation. Naturally, Orlando left me thinking about the significance of gender to the development of other book characters, so I decided to try to re-imagine three famous book characters as the opposite sex.
#1 Holden Caulfield
Bustle sums Holden Caulfield up as “the most perfect encapsulation of teenage angst ever to make it onto the printed page,” so one question to consider is how a gender change might affect his angst.
Holden’s main complaint about the world is that it is full of “phonies.” He tries to have meaningful conversations with people, but he is repeatedly lectured, dismissed, or taken advantage of. He never really feels heard.
Interestingly, Holden does manage to make a small connection with two characters in the book: Jane Gallagher and Phoebe Caulfield.
Is it coincidence that both of these characters are female?
One Vanderbilt study demonstrated that “women’s […] friendships [tend] to be richer and [have] a possible therapeutic value, as compared to those of men.” According to the study, the most enriching friendships were female-female, followed by female-male. Male-male friendships took last place.
Naturally, as a male, Holden is excluded from the possibility of developing a female-female friendship. As a male, he also struggles to develop female-male friendships because he is afraid of running into romantic complications. (In his own words: “That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, you half fall in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are.”)
But if Holden Caulfield had been a female, the story might have been different. He might have had more access to meaningful friendships. He might have found someone to listen to him, empathize with him, and make the world seem a little less hopelessly phony.
#2 Elizabeth Bennett
Elizabeth Bennett is everyone’s favorite Victorian spitfire. Whether she’s jumping over mud puddles or putting overconfident suitors in their place, she seems to pay little regard to gender norms.
So would she change at all if she was a man?
I think so.
It’s important to remember Elizabeth’s position in life, which is precarious precisely because she’s a woman. Her father’s estate is entailed to Mr. Collins, which means that unless she marries well, she will become “quite destitute” when her father passes away. Elizabeth recognizes that there’s nothing she can do about this “most iniquitous affair,” yet she rallies against the idea of marrying for money. On this score, she is tested time and time again, her trials only serving to further entrench her in her ideas. Pride and stubbornness are her defense mechanisms against a precarious position in life.
If Elizabeth Bennett had been born male, her entire life outlook would have been different. She would have had a secure living and a way to support her sisters, if necessary. She would have had no need to fight for everyday liberties like speaking her mind, reading what she wanted, and spending her days outside. And while she probably would have retained her “lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous,” she might not have been quite so defensive.
#3 Sherlock Holmes
While Sherlock Holmes’ sexual orientation has been the subject of much conjecture, his gender identity is male to the point of occasional misogyny. Holmes would probably shudder at the thought of his powers of reason becoming vulnerable to female emotion–yet if he had to be a woman, there’s no doubt who his model would be. Arthur Conan Doyle presents her to us in one of his short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia:”
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. […] And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
In many ways, Irene Adler resembles Holmes himself. We are told that she is “an adventuress,” that “she has a soul of steel […] and the mind of the most resolute of men.” She is a very active woman, trained as a professional dancer, and a master of disguise. Most importantly, she proves her cleverness by outwitting Holmes.
Admittedly, Irene Adler does show one symptom of “feminine weakness.” She loves and is loved by a good man. But even if Holmes was turned into a woman like Irene, the incredible self-discipline of his mind would probably help him avoid making the same mistake.
A parting note: These ideas are meant for entertainment. There are countless elements at play in the development of personal identity; gender is just one of those elements, and for some of us, it’s not even a very important one. I want to acknowledge that both men and women can be angsty like Holden, sassy like Elizabeth, and aromantic like Sherlock.
That said, what are your thoughts about these gender changes? Who would you like to see added to the list?