“ Giving Up the Ghost: National and Literary Haunting in Orlando” by Erica Johnson discusses both the unconscious and conscious forces functioning in Woolf’s Orlando. The article discusses the relationship between national and literary identity through the two contrasting gender identities that Orlando embodies. Using psychoanalytic ideals and merging them with a somewhat new critical approach, Johnson successfully identifies the ‘ghosts’ in Woolf’s work and uses these ‘ghosts’ to highlight her main points of focus.
Johnson begins her argument by slowly introducing her reader to the idea of ghosts and haunting. She does not automatically assume the reader to be familiar with these terms in regards to a literary context. She uses Avery Gordon’s definition of ‘ ghost stories’ to state, “ Orlando can be read as a ghost story according to Gordon’s definition: to write stories concerning exclusions and invisibilities is to write ghost stories” (Johnson 113). Additionally, she explains how national identity and its relation to Orlando as a person emerges thru the half-hidden characters of different social backgrounds lurking in the shadows of the novel. By establishing these building blocks in the introductory portions of the text, Johnson establishes her claim with supporting evidence from many other authors, giving the reader very little room for rebuttal.
Diving into the body of her argument, Johnson argues that the terrain of England is a symbol of national identity. She uses examples of the terrain to show, “Woolf’s underlying critique of national identity as an ideological means of including subjects according specified categories such as class, gender, and sexuality” (Woolf 117). According to Johnson, Woolf sees national identity as suppressive, but as a society in which Orlando can easily function as a male.
Johnson continues with her narration in describing the invisible nature of the Turkish landscape and how it relates to Orlando’s transformation into a woman and thus a ‘nonentity’ (121). As a nonentity, Johnson seems to recognize that Woolf believes women are suppressed by a national identity, but at the same time must learn to function within that same national identity. Essentially, whether as a man and a center subject or as a women and haunting subject, Orlando has to struggle with the idea of Englishness, which is where literary haunting takes place. Through Orlando and Johnson’s interpretation, one can see that literary haunting is important because it gives the absent a literary voice. Johnson states, “Orlando enables Woolf to accomplish the contradictory task of showing literary production to be a national project and inserting an absent voice into this otherwise exclusive model of English literature” (123).
For me, I think this statement summarizes most of the article. I interpreted the article as saying that Woolf includes haunting within Orlando to highlight the ‘absent’ figure and show that the ‘absent’ figure can have a voice through literature, but through that literature, one must include all races, classes, and social statuses functioning within the national identity. Overall, Johnson’s argument was articulately refined and laid out in a systematic way and I am convinced of her broader ideals.
MFS Modern Fiction Studies. Volume 50, number 1, Spring 2004.