Exploration of identity (Woolf and Okigbo)

Woolf’s novels and Okigbo’s poetry are explorations of identity – in terms of gender, nationality and culture.’ To what extent do you agree? Discuss with reference to both Orlando and at least one poem from the selection of poems by Okigbo.

Analogous to the genre approach to literature, which suggests that works can be categorised on the basis of common features, and subsequently gives rise to categories such as ‘Realism’, ‘Gothic’ and ‘Romance’, identity has also been categorised. People are defined within a cultural context and classified and stereotyped accordingly. We are therefore, for example, ‘black’ or ‘white’, ‘female’ or ‘male’, ‘English’ or ‘African’. Likewise nations are defined in terms of stereotyped images but just as a novel such as Jane Eyre refuses to be neatly labelled, identities are complex and multi faceted. Woolf and Okigbo were both writing during the first half of the twentieth century, an era of great change in respect of women’s identity in a patriarchal society and in respect of the political relationships between nations and sought to explore identities and the extent to which they are innate or socially constructed.

For the purpose of this essay I will consider Orlando to show how Woolf challenges the boundaries of gender identity by exploring the position of an androgynous state, neither masculine nor feminine, but simply human. I will show how the novel endorses Woolf’s view that human beings each have a mix of traditional gender characteristics which are merely exaggerated, according to biological sex, and developed by social learning. In addition I will consider the notions of nationality and cultural identity and show how the novel explores and challenges prevailing images of Englishness which link England with nature and with supremacy and how the novel challenges cultural ‘norms’ which favour a male dominated literary tradition. I will then consider a selection of Okigbo’s poems to show how he explores the identity of the ‘Nigerian nation and the fate of Igbo culture’.1 I will show how Okigbo challenges the idea of English supremacy and illustrates African national identity. I will then discuss how the poems illustrate the merging of European and African cultures but not without having adverse affects, namely the erosion of traditional Igbo values. Finally, though Okigbo’s poetry focuses predominantly on issues of nationality and culture, I also intend to show how it explores gender identity by the representation of female deities and how, unlike Woolf, Okigbo represents femininity as an inert essence that is determined by nature and not by society.

Androgyny, a Greek word ‘from andro (male) and gyn (female)’ means a ‘mixture of traditional masculine and feminine virtues’ and was defined by Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own as ‘a spectrum on which human beings could choose their places regardless of history or tradition.2 Woolf considered androgyny to be the ideal state, and her description of the newly transformed female Orlando as a ‘lovely sight’ as his (sic) ‘form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace’3 signifies how Woolf considers the ideal human state to encompass a combination of traditional gender characteristics. In fact, the narrator is bold in saying that ‘no human being, since the world began, has ever looked more ravishing’.4 This bold statement explores the fluidity of gender and the concept of a blurring of the traditional binaries of male and female, masculine and feminine.

The opening sentence of the novel, ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex’ is a direct assertion that has the effect of creating uncertainty about Orlando’s sex.5 Because a person’s gender is not usually qualified, such an ‘unnecessary’ declaration encourages the reader to pause and reflect on the possibility of indistinctness between the genders. In the film version of the novel, Sally Potter’s casting of Tilda Swinton as Orlando is significant. Swinton has an androgynous physical appearance and furthers Woolf’s aims in presenting the protagonist as a ‘person’ and not as a man or woman. This image is repeated in the casting of Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. A male actor successfully creates a female character and blurs the traditional distinctions between the genders, whilst suggesting that any ‘person’ can learn to be a woman. Similarly, in the novel, when Orlando meets the Russian Princess he is unsure whether she is male or female as her ‘legs, hands, carriage, were a boy’s, but no boy ever has a mouth like that’.6 Orlando is attracted to the person, whether male or female, but society’s constraints, that would not easily accept a same sex union, ensured ‘Orlando was ready to tear his hair with vexation that the person was of his own sex.7

The consideration of ‘opposites’ has a significant presence throughout the novel. In chapter one, we see the contrast of the ice that was ‘permanent as stone’ with the ‘turbulent yellow waters’8 and learn that ‘at one moment the woods and distant hills showed green as on a summer’s day; the next all was winter and blackness again’.9 The use of opposites mirrors Woolf’s theories that human beings possess ‘opposing’ gender characteristics. Just as winter and summer have equal contributions to the whole cycle of nature there are mixes of masculine and feminine within individual people that make up a unified and complete whole. The narrator states that love has ‘two faces; one white, the other black’ and goes on to say that the opposites are so strictly ‘joined together that you cannot separate them’.10 The images of opposites contribute to the overall sense that opposites and differences merge to create the whole.

Virginia Woolf argued that gender identity is learned through social conditioning and learning. She rejected the view that masculinity and femininity are innate and inevitable consequences of biology, arguing instead that human beings each have a mix of traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics which, according to biological sex, are merely exaggerated and developed by social learning. Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex stated that ’One is not born but rather becomes, a woman,’11 and although Beauvoir was writing after Orlando was published, her famous phrase encapsulates the essence of Woolf’s novel and its comments on gender as a social construct.

Woolf’s narrator comments that Orlando was beginning to change as a woman and states that she was becoming more ‘modest’ and more ‘vain’.12 It is explicitly stated that ‘the change of clothes had, some philosophers will say, much to do with it’.13 I intend to show how the female Orlando learns to be feminine through clothes that ‘change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ and through a set of codes that are learned and performed.14 The narrator informs us that when ‘Captain Bartolus saw Orlando’s skirt, he had an awning stretched for her immediately’,15 illustrating how individuals react to an outward appearance of gender. As expected by society, Orlando duly ‘complied’ and ‘curtseyed’ in a way that she would not have done if the Captain’s ‘breeches (had) been a woman’s skirts’.16 Orlando learns to adapt to skirts that are ‘plaguey things to have about one’s heels’ and realises that due to her restrictive clothing she would have to act differently if she needed to jump overboard. 17 As a woman, restricted by her clothing, she would have to ‘trust to the protection of a blue-jacket’.18 In the film based on the novel, Sally Potter interprets this restriction beautifully in the scene where Orlando is walking indoors, hampered by a large white crinoline dress. Orlando has to learn to negotiate the furniture and even walk sideways in order to pass through the room. However, though Orlando is hampered by her feminine clothing, she also appreciates the ‘flowered paduasoy’ as ‘the loveliest in the world’ and even suggests that it may be pleasurable to throw herself overboard if it means that she can call on the ‘protection of a blue-jacket’.19 Woolf is not suggesting that one sex is better than the other and her narrator’s deliberation ‘which is the greater ecstasy? The man’s or the woman’s?’ contributes to her assertion that the ‘ideal’ human state constitutes a mixture of both genders.20

England, as a nation, invites an image of a ‘green and pleasant land’ and an association and appreciation of nature by her people. The English reference to ‘Mother Nature’ supports the English view of the ‘inherent’ goodness of the natural world. The novel’s recurring imagery of the Oak tree acts as a leitmotif to suggest this English emphasis on nature and indeed, Queen Elizabeth views Orlando as ‘the limb of her infirmity; the oak tree on which she leant her degradation’.21 It seems unlikely within the norms of Western culture that nature could be viewed as evil but Woolf explores the construct of the English love of nature by contrasting Orlando and his Englishness with the nationality of the gypsies.

The gypsies consider nature to be ‘the vilest and cruellest among all the Gods’, which is likely to be an unfamiliar concept to English people.22 Rustum el Sadi held the ‘deepest suspicion that her God was nature’ and he proved to Orlando that nature was cruel by displaying his fingers that had been ‘withered by the frost’ and his foot, which was ‘crushed where a rock had fallen’.23 The two differing ideologies of two different nations is illustrated by these contrasts but it is the narrator’s comment that Orlando now ‘began to think, was Nature beautiful or cruel’ that explores the social construct of belief by differing nations and suggests that English ideology is learned and not necessarily paramount.24 This sharp contrast of beliefs offers a challenge to dominant cultural definitions of nations and illustrates how national identity is a learned concept.

Similarly, Woolf draws attention to the concept of English nationalism and its supposed supremacy in the scene where Orlando skates with Sasha. He suspects that Sasha is ‘ashamed of the savage ways of her people’ as he had heard that ‘the women in Muscovy wear beards and the men are covered with fur from the waist down’.25 Woolf is clearly writing with an ironic tone and the narrator is mocking the values expressed. The statements are ‘too extravagant to represent sensible opinion’ and we therefore see Orlando as rather foolish, ill informed and narrow minded.26 His conclusion that Sasha ‘was entirely free from hair on the chin’ goes someway to challenging his stereotypical view of Muscovy people but the reader is not entirely convinced that Orlando has learned from his experience.27 However, we are left in no doubt that Woolf herself seeks to challenge the view of English national identity as being dominant. This is endorsed by Sasha’s Russian dominance over the English Orlando. He is passive in waiting for her in the rain and she is active in deserting him.

As Woolf’s novel progresses through four hundred years it provides a ‘romp through history’ that encompasses varied notions of cultural identity.28 Culture refers to the lifestyle and customs of a particular society and I intend to concentrate on the exploration of cultural identity as it relates to literature. Orlando is a mock biography of the life of a writer. Throughout the novel, Orlando works on his/her poem ‘The Oak Tree’. Woolf was very aware of the limitations placed on women in respect of opportunities to write and the cultural acceptance of female writing.

Some women were successful novelists but novel writing was considered to be an inferior form of writing and often a shameful occupation. Even Jane Austen ‘hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting paper’.29 In Orlando, as a man, Orlando is not completely free to write as writing was ‘for a noble man an inexpiable disgrace’.30 However, Orlando’s portfolio contradicts this assertion as he does manage to write some ‘forty-seven plays, histories, romances, poems’31 and does so with the ‘air of one doing what they do every day’.32 Writing is portrayed as a normal activity for the male Orlando who was ‘fluent’ and soon ‘covered ten pages and more’.33 Conversely, the female Orlando, very soon after her transformation, finds that she ‘had no ink; and but little paper’ and her despair at being in this position is evident in her plea; ’Oh! If only I could write!’.34 Woolf is exploring the male dominated culture that is accepting of male but not female writing.

Back at her home, Orlando is now ready to start afresh on her poem and now has ‘ink and paper in plenty’ though, despite having the instruments of writing she still finds herself confined by cultural disapproval as she ‘hastily hid her manuscript’ when ‘a shadow darkened the page’.35 Ultimately however, the female Orlando does complete her poem and is given the status of ‘poet’ which has traditionally been viewed as the domain of males. But, Orlando’s final abandonment of the poem may suggest a rejection of artificially imposed cultural values per se whether favouring the male or the female or indicate that the task of challenging cultural assumptions and female integration into a male dominated cultural tradition remains incomplete. Interestingly, Woolf argued in A Room of One’s Own, that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’36 and in Orlando, Woolf ensures that her protagonist is very wealthy and has three hundred and sixty five rooms of her own. Woolf is equipping her protagonist with the essentials required to challenge the identity of traditional literary culture.

I will now consider the exploration of identity in a selection of Okigbo’s poetry. Okigbo was ‘an Igbo by birth’ and was educated in Nigeria when it was a British colony and, as a ‘product of the British colonial education system’, he was influenced by both European and African culture and aimed to unite the two in his work.37

As a consequence of the power inequalities of colonialism, many readers ‘seem to demand that … ‘minority’ writers account for their existence’.38 Like Achebe, Okigbo offers a challenge to the notion that one nation is superior to another. Achebe, in the opening paragraph of Things Fall Apart refers, conversationally, to Okonkwo’s ‘throwing Amalinze the Cat’, creating a ‘norm’ that differs from Western values but is not ‘other’.39 Similarly, Okigbo, in his use of terms such as ‘oilbean’, ‘sunbird’ and ‘speargrass’ successfully subverts Western expectations and forces the reader to accept a differing, but equal, viewpoint and vocabulary. Okigbo does not ‘account’ for Igbo existence but presents it to a Western reader without avoiding or offering explanations of unfamiliar terms. The poem is, of course, written in English and this may be seen as suggesting that Okigbo is ‘betraying an ancient culture’,40 however, I prefer to see it as a way of bringing African culture to the attention of the English speaking world.

Heavensgate’ begins with the poet persona’s prayer to the African water goddess, Mother Idoto and it is likely that a Christian reader would find this an unfamiliar image. In contrast the phrase ‘out of the depths my cry’ is reminiscent of the Christian Psalm 130 which begins ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’ and we see a juxtaposition of African imagery with wording from the Christian Bible. This combination of the Igbo imagery with the recognisable wording and style of a Christian reading may result in a conflict between the ‘known’ and the ‘unknown’ to provide an uncomfortable interpretation of the poem. The use of the word ‘watery’ to describe the presence of the goddess is also disconcerting to a Christian reader who may expect to see ‘divine’ or ‘holy’ instead, to suggest the worship of an spiritual being. ‘Watery’ seems too physical, too earthly. The term ‘oilbean’ is also unfamiliar to a western reader and the setting of the term in the phrase ‘leaning on an oilbean’ is difficult, phonetically, and adds to the disorientation that may be experienced through the poem. Okigbo explores some aspects of Igbo cultural identity and encourages a reflection on African ways of life by ensuring that the reader is surprised out of the familiar.

Okigbo alerts the non-Igbo reader to this African culture but some of Okigbo’s critics suggest that ‘the whole framework of the poem is Christian and Catholic, with snippets of traditional African ritual thrown in’.41 In ‘Dark Waters’ and ‘Silent Faces’ the references to the ‘boa bent to kill’ and the ‘sunbird’ all illustrate traditional Igbo culture which is reiterated by the representation of African people. ‘Faces of black’ are emphasised by Okigbo’s use of the word ‘black’ four times within eight lines. The effect is to present an image of Igbo people. However, this image is contrasted with the image of the playing of ‘loft pipe organs’ which is suggestive of Christian organ music, the result is a fusion of the two cultures that enrich each other, illustrated by the harmony as the native wind listens to the ‘loveliest fragment’ of organ music. Okigbo, in these two poems is suggesting that two different cultures can exist together as one identity and despite colonialism resulting in ‘crossroads’ which may suggest fragmentation, it can also result in a fusion ‘where all roads meet’. Similar to Woolf’s vision of a blending of male and female characteristics, Okigbo is suggesting the possibility of a successful fusion of African and English culture, even if he does not consider such amalgamation so ‘ideal’ as Woolf does in relation to gender.

As readers of Okigbo’s poetry we are introduced to some aspects of African national identity and unfamiliar rituals and ways of life. The poems already discussed suggest that two cultures can merge and exist as one new postcolonial culture with a new national and cultural identity but Okigbo also considers the disruption caused by colonial intervention and the loss of indigenous cultures as a result and the subsequent erosion of Igbo identity. Indeed, the merging of cultures as described above, could be read more as a displacement of African culture with Igbo identity being infiltrated with Western beliefs.

The poems of ‘II Initiations’ take on a different tone with the use of more violent imagery. The phrases ‘scar of the crucifix’ and ‘red-hot blade’ and the use of the Christian word ‘crucifix’ to suggest torture and death perhaps indicates the death of Igbo culture by Christian influence. The inference of slave branding by ‘owners’ to signify possession is also apparent in ‘inflicted/by red-hot blade,/on right breast witnesseth’ and when juxtaposed with Okigbo’s reference to ‘genesis’ provides a less harmonious tone than previously suggested. Western culture is clearly an unwelcome intrusion and instead of cultures that join together quite affably, we see sharp geometric angles and lines (angle, square, rhombus, quadrangle) suggesting disharmony alongside the description of ‘morons’ and ‘fanatics’ who have destroyed a culture with the actions of their ‘selfish selfseekers’. Okigbo explores the ‘broken’ identity of Igbo culture and his techniques of juxtaposing Christian imagery, associated with peace, with violent imagery serves to draw attention to the conflict and discord within Nigeria during European colonization.

Okigbo’s poetry is ‘difficult’, not only because of its unfamiliar references but because of its structure.42 A reading of the poems gives a sense of complexity and fragmentation and an impression of being disjointed, not free flowing. ‘I The Passage’ takes on the tone of a Christian prayer, while ‘II Initiations’ employs violent and geometric imagery and ‘IV Lustra’ adopts a pastoral feel. A reader is not lulled into a sense of expectation with these poems but rather is invited to expect the unexpected. The whole feel of the poems is complex and has a structured and deliberate incoherency which alludes to the extent of the difficulty of self-expression and perplexity during a period of enormous cultural change.

Most of Okigbo’s poetry is concerned with ‘traditional religion and its encounter with missionary Christianity’43 and I have already discussed how Okigbo explored this fundamental change to Igbo society to show how it eroded a national and cultural identity. This emphasis confirms an understanding that the poetry focuses mainly on changes in culture. However, I now intend to briefly discuss how Okigbo explores gender identity in his work.

It is difficult to divorce a reading of the poem from its cultural context. However, a strictly feminist interpretation rather than a religious one encourages a focus on the exploration of gender identity. The first word of the poem is ‘before’ and its repetition at the beginning of the third line could suggest a male dominance before a female subject. I assume a male poet persona, not because the poet is male, but because the reference to the devotee as ‘a prodigal’ is reminiscent of the Prodigal Son of the Bible. The first stanza of ‘I The Passage’ refers to Idoto as a ‘mother’. Motherhood is a traditional way of defining women in relation to others in Western society, suggesting that female identity depends on the existence of others. The description of Idoto’s presence as ‘watery’ suggests an alliance with biology, another typical way of representing women as akin to nature, and a way of suggesting that femininity is a biological essence and not a social construct, the antithesis of Woolf’s assertion in Orlando.

Traditional Igbo religion is underpinned by a ‘widespread belief in female spirits’ and in the power of female deities.44 There are similarities here in the Catholic’s reverence of the Virgin Mary, though she is not specifically referred to in the poetry, and a sense that women have an important place in religion as passive idols if not as active officials. Catholicism, today, is exclusively represented by men and Okigbo had considered ’assuming the familial role as priest’ which his grandfather had previously fulfilled, which also suggests a male dominated religious structure.45 This representation of women as idols endorses the ‘female passivity’ and ‘male activity’ dichotomy and establishes females as revered while effectively ‘removing’ them from the male dominated ‘public sphere’.

I have considered two very different genres and have shown how identity, in terms of gender, nationality and culture is explored by both Woolf and Okigbo. Though both texts consider all the identities, the focus and structure of this essay has suggested that although Woolf’s novel was ‘often first read by its contemporary audience as a gossipy portrait of Vita Sackville-West’ interpretations have changed and today we may ‘read Orlando now most often as a feminist work that explores the boundaries of gender’.46 Similarly, the focus of Okigbo’s poetry is predominantly on national and cultural identity, though an exploration of gender identity is also present in his work.

Woolf rejects the notion of gender, nationality and cultural identity as being innate, suggesting instead that it is socially constructed and therefore changeable. Her suggestion of an ideal state of androgyny and a questioning of the traditionally accepted ideology of English supremacy and the status quo of a male dominated literary culture shows how she crosses the boundaries to defy conventions and promote new attitudes, hinting that individuals and society can ‘relearn’ their identities and because they are not innate, can change significantly. Conversely, Okigbo shows how gender differences are linked to nature and biology and are therefore unchangeable. He also shows how nationality and culture, when combined into a ‘new’ identity ultimately results in an element of discord. This perhaps suggests that any culture, other than the one an individual is born into, can never be learned, or socially constructed, as it is too ‘innate’ to be changed successfully.


2 thoughts on “Exploration of identity (Woolf and Okigbo)

  1. We certainly like to categorise things and put them in little compartments in our society. Have you come across the amorphous view of gender in the ‘Two Spirit’ people of the indigenous North American tribes?


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