Out of Many, One:

The fragmented self in Orlando and Steppenwolf

by Christine Hoff Kraemer



Though popularized this century in the context of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis and later by postmodern theorists, the concept of the disunity of the self is hardly new. As early as the eighteenth century, Hume attacked Descartes and others in his Treatise of Human Nature with this scathing commentary:

There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self; that we feel its existence and its continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. . . .

            Unluckily all these positive assertions are contrary to that very experience which is pleaded for them; nor have we any idea of self, after the manner it is here explained. For, from what impression could this idea be derived? . . . It must be some one impression that gives rise to every real idea. But self or person is not any one impression . . .


The self, argues Hume, is at best a loose collection of impressions and experiences, bound together by the uncertain ties of memory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ideological breakdown and general cultural tumult of the period between the First and Second World Wars provided the perfect environment for this notion to take root in the intellectual community. Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando and Hermann Hesse’s 1929 Steppenwolf both present conceptions of the self that are multiple and constructed, suggesting the malleability of identity and the powerful influence of society upon the individual. Though the protagonists of both novels struggle with the necessary incompleteness of the clearly defined and therefore limited self, Steppenwolf and Orlando end as hymns to intellectual and psychological liberation, and illustrate how the individual may rid him- or herself of the bonds of a static self-image.

            The crisis in which Harry Haller finds himself at the opening of Steppenwolf is of a classic Freudian type – the eternal conflict between instinctual, emotional id and conscious, rational ego. In acknowledgment of his dual nature, Harry refers to himself as a Steppenwolf, one who “went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless . . . was in reality a wolf of the Steppes” (47). Harry is intensely conscious of the conflict he feels between his two selves, to the extent that he sees them as continuously at war: one an untameable, savage, but unhypocritical wolf, and the other a refined, intelligent, but dissembling man. As in the Freudian paradigm, each half perpetually struggles with the other for dominance. The wolf drives Harry to reject the pretenses of civilization and to follow his basest, most instinctual urges; the man, on the other hand, acts as an apologist for the bourgeois society that Harry is both repelled by and attracted to, and criticizes the wolf for its bestiality and single-minded sensuality. This dichotomy (Civilization and Intellect vs. Nature and Instinct) puts Harry in a state of unending misery. His daily life is an agony of trying to choose between the honesty of the wolf and the sophistication of the man, to the extent that he finds himself unable to perform even the simplest social interactions without distress.

The learned man held me with his friendly eye and, though I found it all ridiculous, I could not help enjoying those crumbs of warmth and kindliness, and was lapping them up like a starved dog. . . . And while I, Harry Haller, stood there in the street, flattered and surprised and studiously polite and smiling into the good fellow’s kindly, short-sighted face, there stood the other Harry, too, at my elbow and grinned likewise. He stood there and grinned as he thought what a funny, crazy, dishonest fellow I was to show my teeth in rage and curse the whole world one moment, and the next, to be falling all over myself in the eagerness of my response to the first amiable greeting of the first good honest fellow who came my way . . . Thus stood the two Harrys, neither playing a very pretty part, over against the worthy professor, mocking one another, watching one another, and spitting at one another, while as always in such predicaments, the eternal question presented itself whether all this was simple stupidity and human frailty, a common depravity, or whether . . . this slovenliness and two-facedness of feeling was merely a personal idiosyncrasy of Steppenwolves. (86-7)


Harry can give in to neither self without being abused and criticized by the other. To be honest with his friend about his unhappiness is to ignore propriety and etiquette, which would probably result in the loss of the good-natured companionship that he craves; yet in concealing his despair, Harry piles on lie after lie until the exterior he shows to the professor hardly resembles his interior state at all. Harry heads for home in an ecstasy of self-loathing, unable to resolve his internal conflict.

            The “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” gives us our first clues as to the true cause of Harry’s misery. Harry’s Man-Wolf dichotomy is artificial, it states; his sense of having two selves that are necessarily at war is a gross oversimplification of the true nature of Harry’s inner reality.

. . . [T]o explain so complex a man as Harry by the artless division into wolf and man is a hopelessly childish attempt. Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands. (66)


Harry has attempted to divide his urges, thoughts, and feelings into two types, those that spring from raw forces of nature and those that are refined products of civilization. Yet not every desire fits neatly into one of these two categories, nor need every desire necessarily belong to one to the exclusion of the other.

            In the “Treatise,” Hesse touches upon an idea that became central to postmodern linguistic theory. While language allows us to label our experiences for the purposes of communication, he suggests, language provides only a limited vocabulary in which to express those experiences. Experiences that have greater subtlety than language allows must be pared down, forced into the existing linguistic structure in order to communicate them at all. Harry, however, has limited himself to only two categories of experience and desire, and is therefore misrepresenting his experience even more grossly than his “poor idiotic language” demands.

With the “man” he packs in everything spiritual and sublimated or even cultivated to be found in himself, and with the wolf all that is instinctive, savage, and chaotic. But things are not so simple in life as in our thoughts, nor so rough and ready as in our poor idiotic language . . . He assigns, we fear, whole provinces of his soul to the “man” which are a long way from being human, and parts of his being to the wolf that long ago have left the wolf behind. (70)


            Harry Haller is very much a prisoner of his assumptions, his misery sustained by the artificial division of his personality and his insistence that his two halves cannot live in harmony. Woolf’s gender-shifting Orlando, however, represents an excellent refutation both of Harry's specific problem (the idea that nature and civilization are at war) and of the general idea that opposites must necessarily be in conflict. Orlando is deeply in touch with nature, which Woolf represents as savage, cruel, wild and free; yet Orlando herself is highly cultured and loves poetry, art, and thought. Unlike Harry, she sees no essential conflict between these two parts of herself. Her love of nature in all its cruelty and her appreciation for literature co-exist peacefully, to the extent that they even support and reinforce each other. For Orlando, there is no dichotomy between humanity and nature; humanity is inseparably part of nature, not opposed to it. Thus Harry’s penchant for hyperanalysis and black-and-white categorization never plagues Woolf’s androgynous protagonist; even her dramatic shift from male to female is accomplished with an equanimity bordering on indifference. This comparatively healthy state of mind seems to spring from Orlando's conscious awareness and acceptance of her many, shifting selves.

            Superficially, Orlando is possessed with a strong and undivided sense of who s/he is and what s/he wants. As a young man, we find Orlando unresponsive to society’s disapproval of his affair with the Muscovite princess Sasha and perfectly willing to toss his respectable fiancée aside; after Orlando's transformation into a woman, an event that ruffles her not at all, we find her wearing dresses or breeches as she pleases, striding about like a man and bursting into tears like a woman, driving six horses at a gallop over London Bridge and holding polite tea parties. With the exception of during the Victorian era (an issue which will be addressed later in the essay), Orlando simply does what she likes, yielding to or rejecting society’s expectations as it is convenient or pleasurable to do so.

            It is unsurprising, then, that while neither Orlando’s love of nature nor her love of literature is seen as being precisely acceptable by those around her, she persists in both her loves. Consider these two passages, one describing Orlando as a young nobleman, the second as an Englishwoman among gypsies:

The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading. They took his taper away, and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose. . . . [H]e was a nobleman afflicted with a love of literature. . . . This was bad enough and wrung the hearts of Hall, the falconer, of Giles, the groom, of Mrs. Grimsditch, the housekeeper, of Mr. Dupper, the chaplain. A fine gentleman like that, they said, had no need of books. Let him leave books, they said, to the palsied or the dying. (73-5)


But Rustrum el Sadi . . . had the deepest suspicion that her God was Nature. One day, he found her in tears. Interpreting this to mean that her God had punished her, he told her he was not surprised. He showed her the fingers of his left hand, withered by the frost; he showed her his right foot, crushed where a rock had fallen. This, he said, was what her God did to men. When she said, “But so beautiful,” using the English word, he shook his head; and when she repeated it he was angry. . . . She began to think, was Nature beautiful or cruel . . . which meditations, since she could impart no word of them, made her long, as she had never longed before, for pen and ink. (144-5)


Orlando’s love of solitude, nature, and poetry intertwine and support each other. Entranced by nature, she finds herself driven to express its beauty in words; entranced by words, and unable to record her thoughts in any other way because of her solitude, she finds herself turning again and again to nature as the best possible subject matter for poetry. Since she is not encumbered, however, by any sense of obligation to society, Orlando’s solitude is voluntary and therefore endlessly pleasurable. When she desires company, she goes and finds it, whether in the mansions of polite society or in the simple abode of a friendly prostitute. Unlike Harry, who has divided up his urges into those which must be resisted (the wolf) and those that must be submitted to (the man), Orlando views her urges as all her own, not as the product of two or more warring parties.

            This independence is rooted in Orlando's identification with nature, an identification that goes far beyond the merely aesthetic. Nature is beautiful, savage, uncontrollable, and indifferent to the artificial divisions imposed on it by society -- and so Orlando seems to see herself, comfortable as she is in both gender roles, and willing to intermingle the two freely. Only the harshly restrictive Victorian era proves to be a challenge to Orlando's passionate way of life: in rebellion, she runs out onto the moor in an attempt to reassert her freedom and her connection to the untameable natural world.

Then, some strange ecstasy came over her. Some wild notion she had of following the birds to the rim of the world and flinging herself on the spongy turf and there drinking forgetfulness, while the rooks’ hoarse laughter sounded over her. She quickened her pace; she ran; she tripped; the tough heather roots flung her to the ground. Her ankle was broken. She could not rise. But there she lay content. . . . “I have found my mate,” she murmured. “It is the moor. I am nature’s bride . . . I shall dream wild dreams. My hands shall wear no wedding ring . . .” (248)


For Orlando, the ideal mate is nature itself, mirroring her own freespirited and dangerous wildness. Yet, as her occasional presence within the drawing rooms of the aristocracy suggests, this wildness does not fundamentally alienate her from society, nor does her continuing love affair with nature eliminate her need for human companionship. Rather than feeling a need to choose between civilization and nature, as Harry does, Orlando's life is a successful effort to live in both worlds without betraying her commitment to either.

            Though it is tempting to argue that Orlando's solid sense of her self and her desires is what allows her to resist societal pressures, the variety of behaviors and attitudes that Orlando puts on and discards over the course of the novel show this to be an oversimplification. Instead, it may be better to see Orlando’s self as infinitely alterable, changing and adapting to circumstances and to her own desires at will. Orlando, in fact, clearly demonstrates her awareness of the “thousand selves” that Hesse describes, and her ability to shift between them:

For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand. Choosing, then, only those selves we have found room for, Orlando may now have called on the boy who cut the nigger’s head down; the boy who hung it up again; the boy who sat on the hill; the boy who saw the poet; the boy who handed the Queen a bowl of rose water; . . . or she may have wanted the woman to come to her; the Gipsy; the Fine Lady; the Hermit; the girl in love with life . . . all these selves were different and she may have called upon any one of them. (309)


The true self, writes Woolf, is the compact of all these many selves, all of the possible Orlandos that had been or still might be. No one or two of these is sufficient to make up the full range of Orlando’s complexity.

            This lesson, that one’s personality is made up of multiple, changing, and discontinuous selves, takes Harry the entire novel and more to learn. Writing a few decades later, Ralph Ellison wrestles with much the same issue in Invisible Man, another novel of identity. Near the conclusion of the novel, the narrator’s conception of self is shattered by the discovery that one’s identity need not be compromised by its seemingly contradictory, disharmonious parts. “Could he himself be both rind and heart?” asks the invisible man, considering the many identities (gambler, preacher, lover, runner) of the mysterious Rinehart (498). Hesse’s answer, as well as Ellison’s, seems to be yes. Harry too must learn that society’s standards of consistency do not apply to the soul; the artificial boundaries he has attempted to create within himself have only constricted him and ultimately lent him no greater understanding.

            Harry’s experiences in the Magic Theater serve as a direct challenge to Freud’s strict delineation of id and ego in favor of Jung’s more flexible system of archetypes. In the Magic Theater, Harry is taught a kind of chess game, using fragments of his personality as pieces. Within a few moves, it becomes clear that Harry’s identity emerges from the interaction of these archetypal fragments, all of which are present as potentialities in Harry’s psyche:

With the sure and silent touch of his clever fingers he took hold of my pieces, all the old men and young men and children and women, cheerful and sad, strong and weak, nimble and clumsy, and swiftly arranged them on his board for a game. At once they formed themselves into groups and families, games and battles, friendships and enmities, making a small world. . . . The second game had an affinity with the first, it was the same world built on the same material, but the key was different, the time changed, the motif was differently given out and the situations differently presented.

            And in this fashion the clever architect built up one game after another out of the figures, each of which was a bit of myself, and every game had a distinct resemblance to every other. Each belonged recognizably to the same world and acknowledged a common origin. Yet each was entirely new. (219-20)


Just as a game of chess consists of a complex pattern formed from the interaction fixed pieces with simple rules, Harry’s personality is emergent from the interaction of archetypes. Harry cannot be reduced to any single archetype, or even to several; the emergent theme that makes each game recognizably Harry’s is a product of the interaction of all the pieces. Though Harry has no central, dominant self, like Orlando his true self is the sum total of all he is and may still be, contradictions intact.

            The chess game suggests a vast array of possible roles, attitudes, and behaviors that one might take on over the course of a lifetime, but offers no direct explanation as to why some roles come to dominate over others, or why we change our roles over time. Perhaps the answer lies in the origin of the roles themselves. The dynamics of the game suggest that while the personality is constructed out of the complete set of basic building blocks that are common to all human beings, structures less complex than a full personality may also be created. These middle structures, which one might call personas or roles, carry with them expectations about behavior, appearance, and attitude, but lack the complexity and contradictions inherent in a complete personality. Harry’s early conceptions of the Wolf and the Man serve as good examples of this phenomenon – both manifest complicated behaviors, but are still significantly too simple to encompass the entirety of Harry’s personality.

            Virginia Woolf uses the word ‘self’ to describe these limited constructions, but also speaks of a ‘true self’ that encompasses all other possible selves. These ‘selves’ might be more properly considered to be archetypal roles, personas that Orlando wears to temporarily mask her complexities. Woolf’s choice to capitalize many of the names of these selves as if they were titles, and to use a definite rather than an indefinite article to describe them, suggest their unchanging, archetypal universality: “ . . . the Gipsy; the Fine Lady; the Hermit; the girl in love with life . . .” (309). Orlando is clearly much more self-aware than Harry, and even early in the book we notice her taking on and discarding personas at her convenience.

            Thus, for Orlando the change from male to female is liberating, allowing her to explore and consciously critique the ways in which society has constructed gender roles. Chapter Four of the novel opens as Orlando, sailing on a ship bound for England, realizes with a start the “penalties and privileges of her position” (153). She examines the skirts she is expected to wear, noting both that they improve her appearance and hinder her movements; briefly, she considers how helpless the heavy clothing would make her should she fall (or jump) into the water. “‘Therefore, I should have to trust to the protection of a bluejacket. Do I object to that? Now do I?’” she wonders (154). Clearly, her womanhood brings both advantages and disadvantages. Though she is allowed to lazily lounge on the deck in a fashion that would seem indulgent in a man, she is also hindered from taking risks or having adventures. As a woman, she is rescued, not the rescuer. After some thought, however, Orlando decides she finds the idea of being rescued delightful, so much so that she is tempted to jump into the water immediately:

“For nothing,” she thought, regaining her couch on deck, and continuing the argument, “is more heavenly than to resist and to yield; to yield and to resist. Surely it throws the spirit into such a rapture that nothing else can. So that I’m not sure,” she continued, “that I won’t throw myself overboard, for the mere pleasure of being rescued by a blue-jacket after all.” (155)


            Orlando has discovered one of society’s great secrets: one’s persona need not have anything to do with one’s ‘true nature’ at all. As a woman, Orlando plays with society’s assumption that women are delicate and weak, flirting with the Captain and indulging in grandiose fantasies of being rescued from drowning. Of course, Orlando (except for the skirts) needs neither rescuing nor coddling; she yields to the Captain’s offer of a particularly savory bit of meat, not because she has been convinced by his coaxing, but because she enjoys the playful little exchange. Playing the part of a woman is just taking on another role, hardly different from the roles of lover, nobleman, and ambassador that she took on in the past. But though being female allows opportunities for many new experiences, Orlando is also struck and a little shamed by the “sacred responsibilities of womanhood” (157), many of which she had once helped reinforce:

She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. “Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,” she reflected; “for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature.” . . . And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head. (157)


Orlando’s speculative mood turns to anger as she begins for the first time in her life to resent the dishonest construction of women that robs them of power and encourages men to worship them while treating them as mental and physical inferiors.

“To fall from a mast-head,” she thought, “because you see a woman’s ankles; . . . to deny a woman teaching, lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats, and yet to go about as if you were the Lords of creation. – Heavens!” she thought, “what fools they make of us – what fools we are!” And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each. (158)


            For a moment, Orlando transcends gender roles entirely. Masculinity and femininity, she realizes, are merely constructs, façades over the vast complexities of the human personality. Her maleness had not made her naturally strong, confident, and intelligent, any more than her femaleness would make her automatically delicate and chaste. Despite the expectations and pressures that society puts on Orlando to fulfill her role as a woman, her new awareness gives her the freedom to move freely within the scope of human experience, taking on roles that lay on both sides of the line that divides women and men. For Orlando, the limits of the personality shall not be defined by gender, but by the imagination alone.

            Hermine, the mysterious and intelligent young woman who acts as Harry’s spiritual guide, is also possessed of a certain gender ambiguity. At their second meeting, Harry is struck by the boyishness of Hermine’s face, and from her resemblance to his childhood friend Herman manages to guess her name.

            “If you were a boy,” said I in amazement, “I should say your name was Herman.”

            “Who knows, perhaps I am one and am simply in women’s clothing,” she said, joking. (122)


As the dreamlike narrative develops and strange coincidences mount, it seems less and less likely that Hermine’s flippant statement is actually only a jest. Like Orlando, she revels in the advantages her slender female body provides, flirting with men and dancing the night away at jazz clubs, but never hesitates to let that feminine exterior drop to command Harry with the utmost seriousness. Throughout the novel, Hermine seems possessed of a mysterious knowledge that contrasts sharply with her youth and love of the sensual.

            Despite her androgynous tendencies, Hermine inhabits a female body, a characteristic that Hesse suggests is necessary for Harry to accept her as his mirror and perfect complement: in Jungian terms, Hermine reflects Harry’s anima, the repressed female part of Harry’s psyche. Hesse leaves some doubt over whether Harry’s idealized anima and Hermine actually match up as closely as Harry initially believes they do, however; when Harry wonders how she “made” him guess her name, she replies, “Oh, you did that all yourself,” suggesting that his expectations play a major part in how he perceives her (123). In fact, Hermine seems very much aware of Harry’s projection:

            “There’s nothing you don’t know, Hermine. . . . It’s exactly as you say. And yet you’re so entirely different from me. You have all that I lack.”

            “So you think,” she said shortly, “and it’s well you should.” (123-4)


Nevertheless, Hermine encourages Harry’s perception of her as his opposite, referring to their relationship as that of brother and sister and claiming that “there is something in me that answers and understands you” (123). Though Harry does not see it yet, his conception of Hermine as his “other self” will be necessary to the process of his learning to live. Once he realizes that both the self he is aware of and the complementary self he sees in Hermine are both part of him, Harry begins to understand that the two are not mutually exclusive. With Hermine’s help, Harry discovers that his love of fine art and his intellect do not prevent him from appreciating jazz or enjoying the sensual pleasures of dancing, food and lovemaking.

            Hermine represents a part of Harry’s psyche that he possesses but is not yet aware of, suggesting that Harry’s gender identity is incidental to his physical body. Though he perceives Hermine’s personality traits as feminine, this is just further evidence that he has artificially categorized them as things he is not – not spontaneous, not hedonistic, not modern, and above all, not feminine. In fact, Harry can be all of these things if he chooses to be, just as Hermine can play a masculine role at will. So well does she take on a masculine demeanor at the costume ball which serves as a lead-in to the climax of the novel, in fact, that Harry initially again mistakes her for his childhood friend, Herman.

And without Hermine appearing to give herself the least trouble I was very soon in love with her. . . . It was the spell of a hermaphrodite.

            . . . We took to the floor as rivals and paid court for a while to the same girl, danced with her by turns and both tried to win her heart. And yet it was all only a carnival, only a game between the two of us that caught us more closely together in our own passion. (190-1)


By degrees, Hermine has brought Harry’s unconscious selves to the surface, to the point that when she at last puts on a masculine face, revealing that it was himself that Harry saw in her all the time, he is doubly entranced. Through a kind of mystical communion with another who chooses to personify the hidden parts of his own soul, Harry has come closer to realizing the full potential of his personality – come closer, in a sense, to being a whole person. Hermine, though she consciously directs the process, suggests she has benefited similarly, as when she tells Harry,

“. . . You are surprised that I should be so unhappy when I can dance and am so sure of myself in the superficial things of life. And I, my friend, am surprised that you are disillusioned with life when you are at home with the very things in it that are the deepest and most beautiful, spirit, art, and thought! . . . I am going to teach you to dance and play and smile, and still not be happy. And you are going to teach me to think and to know and yet not be happy. . . .” (144)


Hermine too is reaching toward wholeness through her contact with Harry, seeking to further develop the immature parts of her own soul. Their mutual need pulls them strongly together with an intuitive force that Hesse portrays as magical.

            This communion, which in Steppenwolf results from the mutual projection of anima and animus (the woman’s repressed masculine self), also takes place in Orlando. The Victorian era produces in Orlando an undesirable but pervasive urge to marry, such that her normally free spirit is bowed down and constrained as if by an unaccustomed weight. Fortunately for Orlando, as if by fate, the perfect husband arrives – one who, in mirror image to herself, is possessed of a marked androgyny. Orlando experiences an instantaneous connection to him, and their engagement is sealed within moments of their meeting, but the breakthrough in their intuitive knowledge of each other comes later, after Orlando declares her love outright:

No sooner had the words left her mouth than an awful suspicion rushed into both their minds simultaneously.

            “You’re a woman, Shel!” she cried.

            “You’re a man, Orlando!” he cried. (251-2)


Orlando, it seems, has already explored her personality to such a degree that her ‘perfect match’ and mirror, as it were, must be one who has taken the opposite steps in that exploration, entering the world as a woman then filling in that incomplete world view as a man. Shelmerdine’s experience is a complement to Orlando’s, representing the feminine childhood and adolescence and the masculine adulthood that Orlando, restricted as she was in her respective bodies, could not have had.

            The necessity of such a match suggests that becoming a ‘whole person’ through having explored the full range of the personality is in the strictest sense impossible. Though Orlando has been a man and a woman, she has not been a woman and then a man, nor dealt with the unique discoveries and revelations that that transformation would bring. The exploration of one’s “other self” through its projection onto another can take one much closer to perceiving her possibilities, but the project is unlikely to reach completion in a lifetime, even a lifetime as extended as Orlando’s. Just as Hermine satisfies Harry’s longing for a soulmate, however, so Shel brings Orlando significantly closer to completion, allowing her to respond to the mores of the Victorian era without compromising her independence.

            That Orlando even feels the need for such a ‘soulmate,’ however, is a unique development in the novel. Though her early love for the androgynous Sasha may foreshadow Orlando’s gender shift, the instinctive understanding that Orlando feels with Shel is lacking with Sasha. The desire for a mate that is truly her equal and complement, Woolf suggests, is one produced in Orlando not by some inevitable development of her own personality, but by the spirit of the Victorian age. Woolf writes:

All these things inclined her, step by step, to submit to the new discovery, whether Queen Victoria’s or another’s, that each man and woman has another allotted to it for life, whom it supports, by whom it is supported, till death do them part. It would be a comfort, she felt, to lean; to sit down; yes, to lie down; never, never, never to get up again. (245)


Though this pessimistic view of marriage is swept away in the joy of finding Shelmerdine, the effects of the Victorian era on the usually resilient Orlando are clear. Thus Woolf introduces the notion that the self is also heavily shaped by the spirit of the time period in which one lives.

Orlando had inclined herself naturally to the Elizabethan spirit, to the Restoration spirit, to the spirit of the eighteenth century, and had in consequence scarcely been aware of the change from one age to the other. But the spirit of the nineteenth century was antipathetic to her in the extreme, and thus it took her and broke her, and she was aware of her defeat at its hands as she had never been before. For it is probable that the human spirit has its place in time assigned to it; some are born of this age, some of that; and now that Orlando was grown a woman, a year or two past thirty indeed, the lines of her character were fixed, and to bend them the wrong way was intolerable. (244)


Here Woolf seems to be commenting upon the particularly oppressive and claustrophobic nature of the Victorian age which deprived her of freedom in her own adolescence, much as its beats down Orlando’s independent spirit. Orlando feels herself forced to conform to her gender and class roles as she never has before. Woolf’s prose is full of images of weight, weakness, and constraint: Orlando’s cumbersome crinoline (a garment intended to hide the outward signs of pregnancy), her muscles’ lost pliancy, the damp that soaks her skirt and invades her house. Woolf even goes to far as to accuse the Victorian age as being the first to put humanity out of touch with nature. Orlando notices human couples roaming about “stuck together” as never before, and wonders if some new discovery has been made about the human race: “It did not seem to be Nature. . . . There was no indissoluble alliance among the brutes that she could see” (242). The mores of the Victorian era, suggests Woolf, are not only oppressive but also unnatural, defying the wildness of the natural world from which humanity sprang; and Orlando, who is so much in touch with nature, suffers hideously. Only her fortuitous marriage to Shel allows her to make a perfunctory submission to the age, such that she has allowed it to mold her without compromising her ability to embody a variety of selves.

            Harry also struggles with the spirit of his age. Unlike Orlando, however, who with the exception of the Victorian era changes gracefully with the times, the Steppenwolf clings desperately to the structures of the past, fearing the loss of his constructed self. Blindly, Harry seeks not to retain and increase his possibilities, but to limit them. Thus, his knee-jerk reaction to anything he construes as modern is automatically negative. Its art, he decrees, is shallow; its obsession with gadgetry is grotesque; its pleasures are vapid and ephemeral. To put the things it values on a similar level with the art he loves would be to denigrate and insult that art’s great beauty. He reacts to inward horror at Hermine’s suggestion that he buy a gramophone, thinking to himself:

I could not picture the detested instrument in my study among my books, and I was by no means reconciled to the dancing either. It had been in my mind that I might try how it went for a while, though I was convinced that I was too old and stiff and would never learn now. . . As an old and fastidious connoisseur of music, I could feel my gorge rising against the gramophone and jazz and modern dance music. (131-2)


Again, Harry’s mind is full of ‘cannot’s and ‘never’s. He sees himself as too old to dance, and a man whose tastes are far too refined for jazz. Harry, however, is merely limiting his possibilities, as yet unable to understand that one does not attempt to enjoy jazz in the same way that one enjoys Mozart. The modern, sensual aesthetic, teaches Hermine, is no more or no less valuable than the high art that Harry so enjoys, but merely different. Pablo, the beautiful Latin saxophonist, tries to demonstrate the same:

“. . . Mozart, perhaps, will still be played in a hundred years and Valencia in two will be played no more – we can well leave that, I think, in God’s hands. God is good and has the span of all our days in his hands and that of every waltz and foxtrot too. He is sure to do what is right. We musicians, however, we must play our parts according to our duties and our gifts. We have to play what is actually in demand, and we have to play it as well and as beautifully and as expressively as ever we can.” (152-3)


There is a place in creation, implies Pablo, for every type of music under the sun; though some pieces will endure and others will not, all are good and valuable in their way to the people who love them. The parallel to Harry’s own life is clear: there is a place in his being for every type of experience and every type of self, each to be enjoyed for its singular beauties and gifts. By hanging on so desperately to the past, Harry is depriving himself of the pleasures of the present, and adding to his misery by unnecessarily viewing the modern era as a fall from a state of enlightenment.

            Freed from the Victorian age, Orlando takes to the modern era as if she were born to it. There could hardly be a more perfect role model for Harry – though Orlando is hundreds of years old, she successfully navigates the modern world of publishing, manages to catch up on several centuries of literature that she has missed, sends telegraphs, and becomes an expert driver of motor cars. Most amusingly of all, Orlando even adopts the hurried attitude of the modern woman; Woolf describes her motor car as it “shot, swung, squeezed, and slid” through the streets of London, with Orlando the very stereotype of the demanding driver: “‘Look where you’re going!’ ‘Don’t you know your own mind?’” (306). To participate in the modern world, implies Woolf, is to take part in the increased pace of life, to use the latest technology, and above all to enjoy the new without entirely letting go of the past. Thus, Orlando closes with the heroine awaiting her husband (who will descend from that most modern invention, the aeroplane) on the moor by the house she has retained for hundreds of years, still in touch with the nature that has inspired her poetry, but with her finger very much on the pulse of modern life. Just as a recognizable theme emerges from each of Harry’s games of chess, so Orlando has changed vastly over the years and yet remained recognizably herself, at home in a dynamic and evolving world.

            Steppenwolf and Orlando paint two very different pictures of how individuals deal with rapid cultural change and its effect on self and identity. For the most part Orlando, whose self-image only loosely revolves around nature and literature, changes easily with her times and circumstances, taking on and discarding roles as Harry might change clothes. Harry, however, must be painfully taught that his self is not the clearly defined, fixed dichotomy that he imagined. His dependence on an overly simplistic and inaccurate mental system leaves him miserable, inflexible, and bitter towards a modern world which he neither participates in nor understands. Only when Harry begins to accept the strategy that Orlando practices and Hermine recommends does he cease living as someone already dead. At the close of the novel, Harry has at last begun to cast off his restrictive assumptions and freed himself to explore his own vast potential. “I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket,” Harry writes. “A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh” (248). Like Orlando, whose state of mind keeps her young even after hundreds of years of living, Harry understands that one is never too old to start off in a new direction. Steppenwolf closes on a note of hope and determination, that Harry might also become one of the laughing, self-actualized Immortals who understand the game of life so well.

            Taken together, these two novels offer excellent advice for the individual attempting to cope with the rapid changes of a world at the start of the twenty-first century. Communications technology has exploded, allowing computer users across the world from each other to transmit information in the blink of an eye. The Internet, which once belonged solely to universities, governmental organizations and a few intrepid hackers, is now increasingly the home of businesses, social and political groups, and every adolescent who can click a mouse button.

As psychologist Sherry Turkle argues in Life on the Screen, social life on the Internet is providing real-life applications of postmodern theories that previously seemed entirely abstract. Users are able to maintain multiple personas online and take on social roles other than their own (with gender switching being among the most common experiments). Though exploration of undeveloped parts of the personality is accomplished through the supernatural in Orlando and Steppenwolf, the youth of today are exploring these same realms with readily available communications technology. In this frightening and exciting time of social and technological transition, many fear that the ability to adopt alternative personas on the Internet encourages escapist tendencies and retards real-world social skills. As both Harry and Orlando demonstrate, however, this game of personas and roles can also be a tool for liberation and personal growth. As hysteria concerning the supposed dangers of the Internet continues to circulate through the mainstream media, it is essential that we recognize and study the social and psychological ramifications of a wired society. The flexible, fragmented, liberated identities that Woolf and Hesse could only imagine are already, for those who seek them, a reality.

Works Cited


Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.


Hesse, Hermann. Steppenwolf. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1963.


Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. London: Everyman’s Library, 1977.


Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.


Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1956.




Copyright (c) 2002 by Christine Hoff Kraemer