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What's Inside
Orlando by Virginia Woolf is told in the past tense.
j Book Basics ................................................................................................. 1
Orlando is the name of the subject of this fictional biography. It
is an allusion to the Shakespearean character of Orlando from
d In Context ..................................................................................................... 1
a Author Biography ..................................................................................... 2
h Characters .................................................................................................. 3
As You Like It, who also reflects gender fluidity. Orlando is
likewise the name of the hero of Italian writer Ludovico
Ariosto's epic poem, Orlando Furioso, who, like Woolf's
Orlando, is a poet.
k Plot Summary ............................................................................................. 8
c Chapter Summaries .............................................................................. 13
d In Context
g Quotes ........................................................................................................ 22
l Symbols ..................................................................................................... 24
m Themes ....................................................................................................... 25
Friends to Lovers and Back
Again: Virginia and Vita
b Motifs ........................................................................................................... 27
e Suggested Reading .............................................................................. 28
Virginia Woolf's love affair with poet and novelist Vita SackvilleWest is well documented in biographies, screenplays, and
published collections of their letters, but few show the depths
of Woolf's devotion as Orlando, which was inspired by
j Book Basics
Sackville-West and her family history. Woolf and SackvilleWest first met in 1922. Both women were in unconventional
marriages: Woolf's relationship with husband Leonard Woolf
was based more on friendship than passion, and Sackville-
Virginia Woolf
West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, were both gay. By
1925, Woolf and Sackville-West's friendship had turned into a
romance, and in 1927, Woolf decided to turn her lover into her
Orlando's titular character and Sackville-West have more than
a few things in common. Both descended from nobility, both
were poets, and both had long lists of lovers. Just like Orlando,
Orlando is told by a third-person limited narrator who at times
Sackville-West was known to dress in masculine or feminine
veers into omniscience. The narrator is identified as the
clothing, depending on her mood. She also had a deep
biographer of Orlando's life story.
connection to her ancestral home, Knole, which she wrote
Orlando Study Guide
Author Biography 2
about in 1922's Knole and the Sackvilles. Knole served as the
women was more masculine than a woman who loved men.
model for Orlando's country home in Woolf's novel, and it was
She also rebuffed the commonly held belief that men are
every bit as grand as Woolf's lush descriptions. The loss of
innately thinkers and doers, while women are nothing more
Knole was a sore point for Sackville-West, who wasn't allowed
than sensual beings who passively wait for life to happen. In
to inherit the property because she was a woman. Woolf
her mind, the biggest problem with theories of female sexuality
rectifies that in Orlando by rewriting history so that female
is that they were all created by men. In A Room of One's Own,
Orlando has full ownership of the home she loves so dearly.
she asks, "Where shall I find that elaborate study of the
psychology of women by women?"
Woolf and Sackville-West's romance ended after the
publication of Orlando. Literary scholars haven't uncovered any
Lesbianism exited the drawing rooms of the literary elite and
explicit explanations for the breakup, but some believe Woolf
entered the public sphere in 1928 with the publication of three
was more comfortable writing about the fictional Sackville-
novels that explored sapphic, or lesbian, themes: Woolf's
West than expressing her love physically. They remained close
Orlando, Compton Mackenzie's Extraordinary Women, and
friends through 1934. Though their affair didn't last, it had a
Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. The term sapphic
profound impact on the quality and quantity of their respective
derives from the ancient Greek poet Sappho from the island of
work, and the decade in which they were close is considered
Lesbos, who ran a school for unmarried young women. Woolf's
to be the apex of both of their careers.
and Mackenzie's use of humor, satire, and fantasy made
Orlando and Extraordinary Women palatable to a conservative
Sapphic Thought and
Literature in the Early 20th
audience, but Hall's serious presentation of lesbian
relationships resulted in a public outcry. Authorities were
particularly troubled by the earnest tone of the book, which
they said preached "unacceptable sexual doctrine" through a
virtuous main character who was never blamed for her sexual
preferences. The Well of Loneliness was tried and convicted
for obscenity and banned from further publication. When
Woolf was taking a major risk by positioning Orlando's main
pressed for her opinion on Hall's book, Woolf made no mention
character as a lover to both sexes. Lesbianism has always
of its subject but opined that the novel itself had very little
been a part of human society, but it wasn't very long ago that it
artistic merit.
was considered a taboo topic in literature and in everyday life.
It was so frowned upon that it wasn't even mentioned in
England's 1885 Labouchere Amendment, which prohibited
"gross acts of indecency" between men. Attempts were made
in 1921 to add lesbianism to the law, but legislators found the
thought of relations between women so repulsive they couldn't
even talk about it. When Orlando was published in 1928,
lesbianism wasn't strictly against the law, but it wasn't
accepted, either.
Sexuality was a common topic of conversation among the
members of the Bloomsbury Group, the collection of artists,
writers, and philosophers with whom Woolf socialized and
debated in the early 20th century. Many of the group's
members subscribed to the theories of philosopher Otto
Weininger, who thought homosexuality was caused by an
"inversion" of a person's gender, and psychoanalyst Sigmund
Freud, who famously believed sexual "perversion" was rooted
in childhood experiences. Woolf disagreed with both ideas,
particularly the assumption that a woman who loved other
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a Author Biography
Virginia Woolf, christened Adeline Virginia Stephen, was born
January 25, 1882. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a
prominent historian, author, and mountaineer. Her mother, Julia
Prinsep Stephen, was also a published author in her field of
expertise: nursing. Virginia's childhood home was a bustling
place and included her three full-blood siblings and four halfsiblings. While their brothers went to school, Virginia and her
sisters were educated at home. Virginia's writing career had an
early start—at age 9 she began writing Hyde Park Gate News, a
newspaper chronicling family events. Publication of the cheeky
articles stopped upon her mother's death in 1895, which sent
Virginia into her first of many depressions. Her father's death in
1904 triggered a full mental breakdown.
After Woolf recovered she and her three full-blood siblings
Orlando Study Guide
Characters 3
moved into their own house in the Bloomsbury section of
"The Oak Tree," which serves as an evolving record of her
London, where they continued their studies and honed their art
thoughts and experiences. Orlando has close connections to
and writing. The residence became a magnet for radical artists,
the political and literary circles of the 16th through 19th
writers, and thinkers, including the novelist E.M. Forster and
centuries and experiences, but finds love and happiness to be
the economist John Maynard Keyes. The Bloomsbury Group,
fleeting. She has a particularly difficult time during the Victorian
as they dubbed themselves, questioned ideas commonly
era, when marriage seems to be almost required of every man
accepted by society in search of what is good and true. Woolf
and woman. Orlando feels this goes against the rules of nature
herself questioned popular literature of the era with her first
and attempts to become "nature's bride," then reverses her
novel, Melymbrosia, which aimed to explore aspects of life
position the moment she meets Shel. With Shel, who was once
omitted from traditional Victorian novels. It was finally
a woman, Orlando finally feels understood and complete. She
published in 1915 as The Voyage Out.
is able to finish her long-worked poem and unite all of her
disparate experiences into one true self.
Virginia married writer Leonard Woolf in 1912. Between bouts
of manic depression, she continued writing literary reviews,
novels, and essays. Among the most famous are Jacob's Room
(1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), A Room
of One's Own (1929), and The Waves (1931). Woolf's body of
work is known for its exploration of nature and the contrasts
between the feminine and masculine. The satirical biography
Orlando (1928), written in honor of Woolf's lesbian lover, poet
Vita Sackville-West, addresses both themes. The tongue-incheek novel, which Woolf once referred to as "a writer's
holiday," was hailed as a critical success for its genre-defying
content and structure. Hailed by Sackville-West's son as "the
longest and most charming love-letter in literature," Orlando
was also a commercial success, selling more than 8,000
copies in its first six months. Comparatively, Woolf's previous
novel, To the Lighthouse, sold only 3,800 copies during an
entire year.
Orlando meets Russian Princess Marousha Stanilovska
Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch at the king's court during
the Great Frost. The only language they have in common is
French, which no one else seems to speak. Orlando quickly
becomes besotted with the princess, whom he nicknames
Sasha after a pet fox that once bit him. Sasha is not impressed
with Orlando's bouts of melancholy and depression, and she
has very few niceties to say about the English court. Her
dismissive air only fuels Orlando's adoration. Though he is
never quite sure about her feelings for him, he is completely
obsessed with her. Years later, when Orlando turns into a
woman, she can understand Sasha in ways she couldn't as a
Woolf's literary success did little to quash the depression she
had struggled with her entire life. She committed suicide on
March 28, 1941. Today, she is remembered as one of the
leading voices of the modernist literature movement in the
20th century.
Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine is a former soldier and
sailor whose life's ambition is to sail around Cape Horn. He
stumbles upon Orlando in the park, and they immediately
h Characters
recognize kindred spirits in one another and become engaged.
He, like Orlando, started life as the opposite gender, which is
perhaps what makes them such a good match. He doesn't
mind when she disappears into the woods to enjoy one of her
contemplative moods, and she doesn't question his dedication
to life at sea. They make one another feel whole.
Orlando's story spans four centuries and two genders, yet the
character changes very little from his/her early years as part of
Queen Elizabeth I's court. Throughout his/her long life, Orlando
prefers nature to people and holds poetry above all else.
He/she spends nearly her entire life working on one poem,
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Orlando Study Guide
Nick Greene
Orlando invites Nick Greene to his country home to talk about
Orlando's poetry, but the snide and low-class Greene is more
interested in talking about himself and the death of literature.
Nearly 300 years later, Greene has risen through social and
academic circles to become a man of importance and wealth.
He despises the popular literature of the time and helps
Orlando publish "The Oak Tree" because it has no trace of "the
modern spirit."
Archduke Harry
Archduke Harry is from the Roumanian territory. He saw a
portrait of male Orlando years before, immediately fell in love,
and decided to move close to Orlando's country home, where
he disguises himself as the Archduchess Harriet. Orlando is
horrified by the archduchess's attentions and flees to
Constantinople. When he returns as a woman, Harriet reveals
himself as Harry and asks for Orlando's hand in marriage.
Orlando finds Harry terribly boring—they have nothing in
common and nothing to talk about. He remains loyal even when
she cheats him out of money. Orlando finally gets rid of him by
dropping a toad down his shirt. When they meet a few days
later, he once more asks her to marry him.
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Characters 4
Orlando Study Guide
Characters 5
Character Map
Prostitute; shows Orlando
the secrets of womanhood
Archduke Harry
Disguises self as
archduchess; wants to win
male Orlando's favor
Russian princess;
questionable loyalty
Aristocratic male-turnedfemale; lives for centuries
Nick Greene
Female Orlando's soul
mate; formerly a woman
Crotchety poet; lives
for centuries
Main Character
Other Major Character
Minor Character
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Orlando Study Guide
Characters 6
Full Character List
Orlando, the story's protagonist,
begins life as a male, becomes female
at age 30, and though she is 36 at the
end of the novel, her lifetime spans
almost 300 years.
Sasha is the nickname Orlando gives
to the Russian princess who is his
first love and his first heartbreak.
Shel, whose full name is Marmaduke
Bonthrop Shelmerdine, is Orlando's
Nick Greene
Nick Greene is a bitter poet who
writes a scathing poem at Orlando's
expense. He is the only other
character, besides Orlando, who lives
for hundreds of years.
Archduke Harry
Archduke Harry disguises himself as
Archduchess Harriet to get close to
Joseph Addison
Joseph Addison, a real poet, essayist,
and dramatist who lived in the 17th
and 18th centuries, founded two
popular periodicals, The Tatler and
The Spectator. He becomes friends
with Orlando.
After Mrs. Grimsditch's death, Mrs.
Bartholomew, known as Widow
Bartholomew, becomes Orlando's
housekeeper, and it is her wedding
ring that helps Orlando identify her
uncontrollable urge to get married.
Basket serves Orlando as a butler
during the reign of Queen Victoria.
James Boswell
James Boswell, Dr. Johnson's friend
and biographer during the 18th
century, is part of the group of
"geniuses" whom Orlando watches.
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Canute, Orlando's beloved elk hound,
recognizes Orlando upon her return
from Turkey, even though she's now a
Nurse Carpenter is Orlando's
childhood nanny who resides in his
country home years after he
becomes an adult.
King Charles
King Charles II, king of England from
1660 to 1685, grants Orlando's
request to become an ambassador to
Chastity is one of the three feminine
graces that visits Orlando as she
transforms into a woman.
Clorinda, one of the three women
who wants to marry Orlando, is
known for falling faint at the sight of
blood and trying to cure Orlando of
his sins.
Mr. Dupper
Mr. Dupper is the chaplain at
Orlando's country home.
John Dryden
John Dryden, a real and very famous
poet, dramatist, and critic during the
17th century, becomes friends with
Orlando during the 18th century.
Euphrosyne, whose real name is Lady
Margaret O'Brien O'Dare O'Reilly
Tyrconnel, is the woman Orlando
nearly marries before falling in love
with Sasha.
Orlando breaks up with Favilla, one of
the women who wants to marry him,
because she is cruel to animals.
Mrs. Field
Mrs. Field is a servant at Orlando's
country home.
Giles is Orlando's groom.
Mrs. Grimsditch
Mrs. Grimsditch is Orlando's longtime
Orlando Study Guide
Characters 7
Nell Gwyn
Nell Gwyn, King Charles II's mistress,
comments on Orlando's "shapely
Halls is Orlando's falconer.
Giles Isham
Giles Isham is Orlando's friend who
introduces Orlando to Nick Greene.
King James I
Dr. Samuel
Prue Kitty
Prue Kitty is one of the prostitutes
Orlando befriends during the 18th
Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I is the queen who
dotes upon young Orlando.
Lady R.
Lady R. is the London socialite who
hosts gatherings of "geniuses" during
the 18th century.
Rustum el Sadi
Rustum el Sadi is the gypsy man who
delivers Orlando from Turkey to the
gypsy tribe.
William Shakespeare, considered to
be one of the greatest poets and
dramatists from the 16th and 17th
centuries, is the fat and shabby poet
young Orlando sees in the servants'
Mrs. Stewkley
Mrs. Stewkley is a servant at
Orlando's country home; in her sitting
room Orlando sees a poet at work, an
image that stays with him for the rest
of his life.
Stubbs works for Orlando as a
gardener during the reign of Queen
Elizabeth I.
Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift, a real writer during
the 17th and 18th centuries whose
most famous work is Gulliver's
Travels, becomes friends with
Orlando during the 18th century.
King James I hosts the festival during
the Great Freeze.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, a real writer
during the 18th century, is part of the
group of "geniuses" whom Orlando
Modesty is one of the three feminine
graces that visits Orlando as she
transforms into a woman.
Nell is the prostitute female Orlando
picks up when dressed like a man,
and becomes close friends with
Captain Nicholas Benedict Bartolus is
the captain of the ship that takes
Orlando from Turkey back to
Rosina Pepita
Rosina Pepita, a gypsy, marries
Orlando during his ambassadorship in
Turkey, and her three sons sue
female Orlando for their share of her
Twitchett is Orlando's mother's maid.
Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope, a real 17th and 18thcentury poet and satirist known for
his wit, whose most famous works
include An Essay on Man, The Rape
of the Lock, and An Essay on
Criticism, becomes friends with
Orlando during the 18th century.
Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria, who ruled England
from 1837 to 1901, becomes pregnant
at the same time as Orlando.
Purity is one of the three feminine
graces that visits Orlando as she
transforms into a woman.
Mrs. Ann
Mrs. Ann Williams, a real 18th-​century
poet who lived in Dr. Johnson's home,
is part of the group of "geniuses"
whom Orlando watches.
Prue is one of the prostitutes Orlando
befriends during the 18th century.
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Orlando Study Guide
k Plot Summary
Orlando is presented as a biography of an English nobleman
named Orlando. His story begins in 16th-century England
when, at age 16, he catches the eye of Queen Elizabeth I. He
goes to live at the palace at 18 and becomes the queen's
favorite companion. Though their relationship is not presented
as being sexual, the queen dies of a broken heart after seeing
Orlando kiss another woman.
Plot Summary 8
before the gypsies have a chance to kill her.
Orlando ponders the differences between men and women on
the voyage back to England, worrying that her life as a female
will be one of conformity and deference to men. Upon her
arrival, she learns that the ownership of her property is in
question due to a secret marriage to a gypsy woman and
Orlando's own change of sex. She returns to her country home
and is soon visited by Archduchess Harriet, who turns out to
be Archduke Harry. He wants to marry Orlando. She finally
manages to shake him off and finds herself in the whirlwind of
Orlando leaves court to experience the seedier parts of
18th-century London society, where she socializes with the
London, returning shortly after King James I takes the throne.
literary geniuses of the age. After a falling out with Alexander
The Thames River freezes and court relocates to the ice for
Pope, Orlando puts on an old suit and picks up a prostitute.
the entire winter. It is there Orlando meets Sasha, a Russian
They become close friends. Orlando spends the next few
princess. Though Orlando is effectively engaged to another
years dressing as both a man and a woman, depending on the
woman, he falls madly in love with Sasha. They talk about
circumstances and her mood.
running away together, but when the moment arrives, Sasha is
nowhere to be found. Heartbroken, Orlando returns to his
palatial country home. He falls asleep for seven days. When he
wakes, he remembers almost nothing about the past six
months, but memories of Sasha surface every now and then as
he wanders through the family crypt and thinks about death.
The 19th century arrives and a dark cloud is cast over England.
Like many other women, including Queen Victoria, Orlando is
pregnant. Her writing is interrupted by a tingling in her left ring
finger and she realizes the "spirit of the age" is compelling her
to take a husband. The idea is foreign to Orlando, who thinks
mating for life is unnatural. She declares herself nature's bride
Orlando eventually recovers from his depression and returns
moments before she meets the man who will become her
to his youthful passion of writing, resuming his work on "The
husband, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. Shel and Orlando
Oak Tree," a poem about his favorite lounging spot. He vows to
have an immediate connection, and they each realize the other
dedicate his life to becoming a famous writer, and invites a
was once the opposite gender. They marry 10 days after they
poet, Nick Greene, to stay. Orlando hopes to get feedback
meet. Shel leaves the same day to continue his adventures
about his work, but Greene is much more interested in talking
sailing around Cape Horn.
about himself and the death of poetry in England. When
Greene returns home, he writes a scathing poem about an
unnamed aristocrat whom everyone knows is Orlando.
Humiliated, Orlando swears off poetry and human
companionship. He focuses instead on filling his enormous
house first with furniture, then guests to enjoy it.
Orlando returns to her writing and finally finishes "The Oak
Tree." She takes it to London and runs into Nick Greene, who
is now a respected academic, literary critic, and member of the
nobility. He rants about the death of English literature, then
offers to help Orlando publish her poem. She agrees without
fully understanding what he means, as she has never seen an
The affections of a new neighbor, Archduchess Harriet, spur
actual book before. She makes it her duty to catch up on
Orlando to ask King Charles II for an ambassadorship to
modern literature. Her baby is born soon after, but the narrator
Constantinople. Riots break out after the celebration of
refuses to document the occasion.
Orlando's dukedom, and hundreds of foreigners are killed.
Orlando lives only because he falls into a deep sleep and looks
like he is already dead. When he wakes a week later, he is a
woman. Orlando leaves Constantinople to live with a band of
gypsies. After living together companionably for a while, the
gypsies start to mistrust Orlando's obsession with nature and
material goods, and Orlando wants to live somewhere that has
pens and paper in good supply. She sets sail for England
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Time speeds up quickly, and suddenly it is 1928. Orlando is
assaulted by memories of her past during a shopping trip. Each
memory is a different version of herself, and Orlando wishes
they would all coalesce into one true self. She gets her wish
and returns to her country manor, of which she is now the legal
owner. Thoughts of the past accompany her on the tour of her
house, but the chiming of the clock keeps dragging her into the
Orlando Study Guide
present. She finds herself in the garden at midnight, baring her
breast to the moon as Shel jumps to the ground from an
overhead airplane. It is October 11, 1928.
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Plot Summary 9
Orlando Study Guide
Plot Summary 10
Plot Diagram
Falling Action
Rising Action
7. Orlando accepts herself for who she is.
1. Orlando is fascinated by a poet in the servants' quarters.
Falling Action
8. Orlando's memories are pushed away by the present.
Rising Action
2. Orlando abandons his fiancée for Sasha.
3. Sasha disappears and breaks Orlando's heart.
9. Orlando eagerly awaits Shel's return.
4. While in Turkey, Orlando suddenly becomes a woman.
5. Orlando changes gender roles depending on the situation.
6. Orlando struggles against conformity in the Victorian era.
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Orlando Study Guide
Plot Summary 11
Timeline of Events
Age 16, Elizabethan era
Orlando meets Queen Elizabeth I and later becomes her
favorite companion.
Elizabethan era
The queen dies and Orlando hangs out in bars and
brothels for a few years.
Stuart period
Orlando meets Sasha during the Great Frost and
immediately falls in love. She breaks his heart.
Stuart period
Exiled from court, Orlando dedicates himself to poetry.
His work is ridiculed by Nick Greene.
Stuart period
Orlando petitions for an ambassadorship in
Constantinople to escape Archduchess Harriet.
Age 30, Stuart period
Following a riot in Constantinople, Orlando sleeps for
seven days and wakes as a woman.
Stuart period
Orlando lives happily with a tribe of gypsies until they
question her values.
Georgian era
Orlando returns to London. All her property and titles are
seized because of her gender.
Georgian era
Orlando becomes friends with the literary geniuses of
the era and finds them rather uninteresting.
Georgian era
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Orlando Study Guide
Plot Summary 12
Orlando, dressed as a man but revealing herself as a
woman, picks up a prostitute.
Georgian era
Orlando spends a few undocumented years dressing as
both genders depending on mood and circumstance.
Victorian era
Orlando is revealed to be pregnant.
Victorian era
Orlando feels a tingling sensation in her left ring finger.
She feels compelled to marry.
Victorian era
Orlando decides to become "nature's bride," immediately
meeting Shel. They become engaged.
10 days later
Orlando and Shel marry. He leaves to sail around Cape
Victorian era
Orlando finishes writing her life's work, "The Oak Tree."
Nick Greene helps her publish it.
Victorian era
Orlando gives birth to a son.
Age 36, October 11, 1928
Orlando is confronted with her past selves while on a
shopping trip. She accepts her one true self.
October 11, 1928
Shel comes home.
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Orlando Study Guide
c Chapter Summaries
Chapter Summaries 13
language they have in common is French, Orlando becomes
completely enamored with the young woman and forgets all
about Euphrosyne.
Chapter 1
Sasha and Orlando spend their days away from the prying
eyes of court, ice skating over the Thames to the countryside
where they make love on the ice and talk. His long-winded
tales of his personal history are usually met with silence, and
Orlando realizes he knows very little about Sasha. Who is she,
really? Is she even a princess? His fears are more pronounced
Chapter 1 begins near the end of the 16th century. Orlando,
when they visit the ship that brought Sasha to England. She
age 16, is in his family's large home, practicing his sword work
goes below deck with a member of the crew to find something.
on a severed head. The narrator describes the young noble's
When she does not return after an hour, Orlando goes after
good looks and his dedication to writing and poetry in great
her. He sees Sasha sitting on the crew member's knee, as so
detail. His favorite topic, "as all young poets are forever
many women had sat on Orlando's knee in the past. Orlando
describing," is nature. Orlando sits underneath his favorite oak
swoons. When he comes to, Sasha says the crew member was
tree and enjoys the solitude before falling asleep. He awakes
only helping her move a box. Orlando isn't sure whether he can
to hear the arrival of the queen. A shortcut through the
trust his memory or not.
servants' quarters reveals a "rather fat, shabby man" holding a
pen but not writing. Orlando assumes the man is a poet. He is
Though there seems to be "something coarse flavoured,
overcome with admiration but too shy to say anything, and
something peasant born" about Sasha, Orlando is still madly in
instead runs into the banquet hall. He bows before the queen
love with her. They agree to meet at an inn at midnight and run
and offers her a bowl of rosewater, into which she dips her
away together. Orlando arrives early and waits outside. It
fingers. The queen can only see the top of Orlando's head, but
starts to rain for the first time in months. The bells at St. Paul's
she falls in love with him immediately. That night, she gifts the
Cathedral chime midnight, but Sasha doesn't appear. Orlando
king's house to Orlando's father.
waits for two more hours, then runs toward the river. The rain
has broken up the ice, and people are stranded on the huge
Two years later, Orlando is summoned to Whitehall, the
icebergs floating out to sea. He runs even farther, to the place
queen's palace. The elderly queen gives him a good long look
where the visiting ships had been anchored in the ice for so
and sees "[s]trength, grace, romance, folly, poetry, youth." She
long. The Russian ship is gone. Its flagged mast sails into the
gives him a ring from her own hand and names him her
distance as he hurls insults at the woman who stole his heart.
treasurer and steward, and thereafter keeps her with him at all
times like a treasured pet. She gives him land and houses and
plans his future. Her heart breaks when she sees, in the
reflection of a mirror, Orlando kissing a young woman in the
hallway. The queen dies shortly after. Orlando leaves court and
Orlando takes place over the course of 300 years. Virginia
spends time in the downtrodden back alleys of London,
Woolf's use of real events and historical figures sets the scene
bedding girls from all walks of life.
for each era of Orlando's life, while providing a realistic
backdrop for this fictional biography. The story opens in the
He soon grows bored of "the primitive manner of the people"
16th century, during Queen Elizabeth I's reign. Queen
and returns to court. Three young women vie for his hand in
Elizabeth's refusal to marry led to the nickname "the Virgin
marriage. Orlando is in the middle of negotiations to join
Queen," and scholars have long debated whether she actually
Euphrosyne's wealth with his when the Great Frost arrives. The
remained chaste throughout her life. Orlando's narrator
river freezes to at least 20 feet deep for a stretch of almost 15
comments on this, saying the queen did not know men "in the
miles, and King James moves the court outside for a three-
usual way" but loved Orlando all the same. The relationship
month-long festival. That's where Orlando meets a Russian
between Orlando and the queen was not sexual, but in her
princess, Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana
mind, at least, it was romantic, which is why she's so
Romanovitch, whom he calls "Sasha" for short. Though the only
heartbroken to see him in an embrace with another. The
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Orlando Study Guide
Chapter Summaries 14
narrator excuses this by saying things were different in
distance himself from the court and the trappings of nobility.
Elizabethan times. "Girls were roses, and their seasons were
He and Sasha spend their time hiding in the throngs of
short as the flowers," so they must be "plucked" before they
commoners surrounding the roped-off area of the ice. Orlando
are too old to be beautiful. Orlando can't be blamed for
is torn between wanting to conform to the expectations of
breaking the queen's heart because he was "young; he was
nobility and wanting to do what makes him happy. He is
boyish; he did but as nature bade him."
learning that there is very little overlap between the two.
From the very first page, the narrator is insistent about
Though Orlando does not age much during the story, he does
Orlando's gender. Though he is described as physically
experience emotional and mental growth. Emotionally and
beautiful with "eyes like drenched violets" and "shapely legs,"
physically immature during his time as Queen Elizabeth I's
his actions are wholly male, from his repeated bedding of
companion, Orlando turns into an adult man experiencing his
lower-class women to his battle with the shrunken head. His
first great love during King James's reign. His desire to leave
name is borrowed from the titular character of Aristo's epic
everything behind and go to Russia with Sasha indicates that
poem, Orlando Furioso, in which a heroic knight is driven mad
though he looks like a man, he is still ruled by childish
by his love for a pagan princess. Like his namesake, Virginia
impetuousness and idealism. He has not yet been touched by
Woolf's Orlando's masculinity is most thoroughly defined by
the bitterness of loss. It finally arrives with the unexpected rain,
the presence of a woman. This is a reversal of the commonly
which breaks both the drought and his heart. The end of the
accepted idea that a Victorian woman's femininity was most
Great Frost and Sasha's departure signals the end of
thoroughly defined by the presence of a man. After meeting
Orlando's childish follies.
Sasha, Orlando becomes even more manly in the eyes of King
James's court. He is no longer a clumsy boy, but rather "a
nobleman, full of grace and manly courtesy." Sasha's femininity
Chapter 2
and human qualities are overshadowed by Orlando's insistence
on labeling her: she is at various times a jewel, an olive tree,
rushing waters, or a fox. Though Sasha defines Orlando as a
man, Orlando treats Sasha like an object or a dangerous pet.
This is characteristic of male romantic poets, such as Percy
Shelley, who often compared women to forces of nature or
animals as a means of showing women to be distinctly
different from the model human being, who is male. It has not
yet occurred to Orlando that Sasha is a complete person. She
is an object on which he can project his love. The closest he
gets to seeing her as a person is when he blames her for the
failings of her sex and calls her "[f]aithless, mutable, fickle ...
devil, adulteress, deceiver." Woolf is pointing out how gender
labels affect one's identity and personal interactions. When
Orlando changes genders later in the story, she empathizes
In Chapter 2, Orlando has been exiled from court for
humiliating Euphrosyne. He retreats to his home in the country,
where he sleeps for seven days straight. With the exception of
the dark moods that accompany any mention of Russia or
princesses, he seems to remember nothing of the past six
months. He savors his solitude, and ruminates on death and
decay while hanging out in the family crypt. His depression
intensifies, and he walks around the house looking at paintings
and sobbing "for the desire of a woman in Russian trousers,
with slanting eyes." He is a mess, and his devoted servants are
worried about him.
with Sasha and regrets her previous inability to recognize
women as equals to men.
Orlando finds solace in his love of literature, which the narrator
teasingly refers to as a disease. Reading naturally leads to
Chapter 1 also brings up questions of class and conformity.
Orlando enjoyed his period of "slumming it" with low-born pubdwellers, but returns to court because, according to the
narrator, "crime and poverty" don't have the same allure in the
Elizabethan era as they do today. Social standing is important
to Orlando—he dismisses a potential marital match because
the woman in question isn't refined, and he worries that Sasha
isn't actually a princess at all. Yet Orlando takes great pains to
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writing, and Orlando vows to become "the first poet of his race
and bring immortal lustre upon his name." Poetry turns out to
be much harder than anything done by Orlando's ancestors,
even the knights. In search of guidance, Orlando reaches out
to a friend who is acquainted with several writers, which results
in a visit from Nick Greene, a pompous and angry poet who
both fascinates and frightens Orlando. Greene has no interest
Orlando Study Guide
Chapter Summaries 15
in hearing about Orlando's work, so Orlando simply listens as
ending of the chapter, Orlando has aged no more than 12
Greene rants about the death of poetry in England. Most
years. This serves a few purposes. For one thing, Orlando has
notably, Greene wants a benefactor to provide a quarterly
to age slower than normal or else he wouldn't live long enough
pension so he can dedicate himself to writing poems for "the
to experience the similarities and differences between cultural
Glories" in the classic Greek tradition. Orlando agrees to be his
eras in Europe. More importantly, Virginia Woolf is showing
patron, though he's mostly relieved when Greene finally
how the passing of time should be judged not by a rigid
departs a few weeks later. That relief turns to anger when
structure of minutes and seconds, but by the activity at hand.
Greene releases a scathing poem about visiting a nobleman in
The narrator says an hour spent thinking seems to last days,
the country, the descriptions of which clearly point to Orlando
while an hour spent doing lasts a mere second. That's why "[i]t
as the subject. Even worse, the poem quotes and ridicules the
would be no exaggeration" that Orlando would leave the house
play Orlando had given him to critique. Orlando reads Greene's
"a man of thirty and come home to dinner a man of fifty-five at
pamphlet, has it destroyed, then sends his footman to Norway
least." If being older makes one wiser, then the "years"
to bring home two elk hounds, "For ... I have done with men."
accumulated by thinking are far more beneficial to one's
intelligence than the mere "seconds" spent engaging in activity.
Now 30 years old, Orlando has had "every experience that life
Orlando spends hours upon hours doing nothing but thinking,
has to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all." He
which makes him wiser than his years.
swears off love and poetry, and burns all his poems except his
"boyish dream," "The Oak Tree." He reacquaints himself with
Orlando understands life to be both of a "prodigious length"
nature and spends years thinking about love, friendship, and
and astoundingly swift, and he is acutely aware there will not
truth under his favorite tree. He decides to only write for
be enough time to accomplish everything he wants. Death is
pleasure, then busies himself by furnishing all 365 bedrooms of
always hovering in the back of his mind, and that constant fear
his nine-acre mansion. The house still doesn't seem complete,
is the impetus for his decision to dedicate his life to poetry.
so he fills the rooms with neighbors and friends. At night, when
He's not doing it for the sake of the art, but rather for the
"his guests [are] at their revels," Orlando sneaks upstairs to
glorification of the family name and as a means of establishing
work on "The Oak Tree." He scratches out as many lines as he
a legacy for himself. His invitation to Nick Greene is meant to
improve his chances of becoming one of "the greats," but
results in Orlando's decision to abandon the project altogether.
His work on the poem is interrupted one afternoon by the
The bitter and unhappy Greene whom scholars think was
presence of a tall, unfamiliar woman wearing riding clothes.
based on literary historian Sir Edmund Gosse or playwright and
She trespasses on the property several times before Orlando
vocal Shakespearean critic Robert Greene, is the exact
introduces himself. She is Archduchess Harriet Griselda of
opposite of who Orlando wants to be. Orlando is creeping
Finster-Aarhorn and Scandop-Boom from the Romanian
toward understanding that personal fulfillment comes not from
territory. Orlando doesn't really want anything to do with her,
notoriety or showy displays of grandeur, but from inner
yet finds himself overcome with passion when she tries to fit a
contentment. This is true even when he's entertaining
suit of armor to his legs. He excuses himself to deal with the
hundreds of guests in his newly furnished home. These month-
"beating of Love's wings," and soon realizes that this love isn't
long affairs, designed to make use of his sumptuously
a graceful bird of paradise, but a black and brutish vulture. His
decorated house and position him as a gracious host, are not
home is no longer his sanctuary, and he asks King Charles to
stimulating enough to prevent Orlando from sneaking away to
make him an ambassador to Constantinople.
the comfort and solace of his only remaining poem. Orlando
wants to be liked and admired, but he also wants to be happy.
He is figuring out that those two things may be mutually
Time doesn't make a lot of sense in Orlando. For example,
Poetry is one of the two things Orlando remembers after
Orlando is kicked out of court sometime during King James I's
waking from his week-long sleep, which serves as a dividing
reign, which was 1603–25. He asks Charles II, who was king
line between versions of Orlando's self. The other thing he
from 1660 to 1685, for the ambassadorship to Constantinople.
remembers is love, or more accurately, the pain of losing it.
Though at least 35 years pass between the beginning and
Though he can't remember any concrete events from the three
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Orlando Study Guide
Chapter Summaries 16
months he spent with Sasha, the loss of her love has made an
of a different gender. She gets dressed in the customary
indelible mark on his heart. Orlando carries this sadness
unisex clothing of the Turks, feeds the dog, grabs "The Oak
forward into his "new" life, and with it comes his hesitation to
Tree" manuscript, and leaves Constantinople on a donkey
engage with members of the opposite sex. Young Orlando was
guided by a gypsy man.
an innately sexual creature, yet 30-year-old Orlando, at least
according to the narrator, is as reserved as a monk. Instead of
They go to Broussa, the main camping ground of the gypsy
experiencing love, he analyzes its worth and meaning and
tribe. The narrator surmises Orlando had been in contact with
concludes the pain of heartbreak isn't something he wants to
the gypsies long before the revolution, and they welcome her
experience again. When the Archduchess's touch rekindles his
as one of their own. She easily adapts to their nomadic, rural
long-dormant "passion," Orlando perceives his lustful feelings
lifestyle and spends her days milking goats and following the
as a dark threat over the happiness he has worked so hard to
herd. This idyllic life soon turns uncomfortable as the gypsies
begin to understand Orlando's devotion to nature. Rustum el
Sadi, the man who brought Orlando to Broussa, is particularly
bothered by Orlando's fascination with nature's beauty. He
Chapter 3
thinks she should believe what he believes, and their difference
of opinion prompts Orlando's return to deep thinking about
love, friendship, and poetry. She wishes for pen and paper to
flesh out her thoughts and ends up writing in the margins of
Chapter 3 begins with an admission that not much is known
The gypsies are unnerved by the way Orlando stares at her
about Orlando's time in Constantinople, as most of the records
surroundings and her companions, and she eventually picks up
were damaged or destroyed. Orlando apparently spends his
on the growing gulf between her and the rest of the group. She
days signing official documents and engaging in social niceties
initially attributes it to the gypsies being "an ignorant people"
with other dignitaries but makes no actual friends. After two-
while she herself "came of an ancient and civilised race," but
and-a-half years of service, he is awarded a dukedom, the
it's actually the opposite. Orlando's family has been around for
highest rank given to nonroyals. A firework-laden celebration
300 years, while gypsy bloodlines "went back at least two or
held in honor of his new position is marked by a sudden uproar
three thousand years." Heritage is not important when
from the crowd, which is quelled by British troops. Orlando
everyone has a long family history. Material possessions, like
goes back to his room after the party's end. What happens
furniture-filled mansions, mean nothing when "the whole earth
next is uncertain. Some say Orlando locked his door and went
is ours." Orlando doesn't want to stay with the gypsies any
to bed, while others say he sneaked a peasant woman into his
longer, but she doesn't want to go back to the life of an
room. The next morning, Orlando's staff is unable to wake him.
ambassador, either. A vision that makes her homesick for
On his desk are papers documenting the marriage of Orlando
England spurs her to leave the very next day. The gipsies are
and Rosina Pepita, a gypsy woman.
glad. They young men of the tribe were plotting to kill her "for
Orlando's slumber lasts for a week. A brutal revolution takes
place and almost all the foreigners in Constantinople are killed.
"The Oak Tree" using ink made from berries and wine.
she did not think as they did," and they "would have been sorry
to cut her throat."
Orlando escapes death because the rioters think his
slumbering corpse has already been killed. The narrator wishes
this is where the story could end, but is pushed on by "Truth,
Candour, and Honesty, the austere Gods who keep watch ... of
The theme of gender and identity is rooted in Orlando's
the biographer." They cry "Truth!" and the doors to Orlando's
transformation from man to woman in Chapter 3. This event is
room open to reveal three ladies: Purity, Chastity, and Modesty.
not only notable for the fact it happens, but for Orlando's and
They try to cover and protect Orlando, but the trumpet of
the narrator's simultaneous reactions. Orlando is aware that
Truth scares them away. Orlando wakes. He is now a woman.
she has become a woman, but she is not bothered by it. "The
Female Orlando remembers everything of the male Orlando's
change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing
life and doesn't seem bothered at all to suddenly be in the body
whatever to alter their identity," the narrator notes, using "they"
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Orlando Study Guide
Chapter Summaries 17
to refer to both the male and female versions of Orlando.
West's husband, Harold Nicolson, served on a diplomatic staff
Orlando's memories, thoughts, and personality are exactly the
in Turkey from 1912 to 1914. When they married in 1913,
same in this new body. She isn't bothered by her new form.
Sackville-West joined him abroad. She soon became pregnant.
The male narrator, on the other hand, is. He would rather
Sackville-West figuratively became a mature, adult woman in
Orlando die than have to pronounce her a woman. The body
Constantinople. Woolf mirrors those events by having
that he had written about in such glowing terms earlier in the
Orlando's literal change into womanhood occur in the same
book, particularly those "shapely calves," is now marked
place. The city also features heavily in Sackville-West's first
indecent, as the spirits of 17th-century womanhood, Chastity,
volume of poetry, Constantinople: Eight Poems. Setting the
Modesty, and Purity, try to cover Orlando's form. The double-
book's most important moment in Constantinople is evidence
standard to which women are subjected is evident in the
of Woolf's adoration of her muse.
narrator's sudden distancing from the subject of his writing and
in the three "Gods" of female worth. Later in the text, it
becomes apparent the author thinks women aren't worth
Chapter 4
writing about at all. Simply by changing genitalia, Orlando
becomes less interesting in the opinion of the narrator.
Orlando's change of gender isn't a problem for the gypsies,
who liked her enough as a male to invite her to live with them,
then allow her to stay even after she shows up as a woman. To
them, Orlando is not defined by her gender, but rather her
heritage and beliefs. The gypsies pity Orlando's short family
history and obsession with material goods, and they begin to
despise her for having beliefs different from their own.
Positioning Orlando as wrong and the gypsies as right satirizes
the usual trope of "Westerners good, foreigners bad," and
serves as commentary on the universal human desire to make
others share our point of view. Instead of accepting their ideals
as her own, Orlando dives even deeper into that which they
don't trust. She has no interest in conforming to a society that
fears what she holds most dear: nature.
In Chapter 4, Orlando sails home to England, and she is
startled to realize that her gender dictates how people treat
her. The ship's captain is both solicitous and flirtatious, and a
member of the crew nearly falls off the mast after seeing a
flash of her ankle. Though there are dozens of things she'll
never be able to do again—fight, lie, swear, walk in a
procession, wear medals—she finds herself appreciative of the
power of the feminine form, as well as how very little is
expected of her. Yet as the ship gets closer to land, Orlando
worries about the lifetime of conformity that sprawls in front of
her. Her initial idea of returning to the gypsies is put on hold as
she remembers the poet she saw long ago in the servants'
quarters of her family's home. Her thoughts drift away from her
Constantinople is the perfect setting for Orlando's
gender and go instead to "the glory of poetry." As the captain
transformation and subsequent reconnection with nature.
narrates the changes in London since Orlando's departure, she
Standing at the junction of Europe and Asia, Constantinople
latches onto the names "Addison, Dryden, Pope," three poets
(now Istanbul, Turkey) has been the site of much turmoil and
of the time.
bloodshed for hundreds of years. It was also a place where
Western European women could take a vacation from the
shackles of femininity at home. Traditional Turkish garb was
basically unisex—both men and women wore pants, and the
loose, flowing clothes easily concealed the feminine form.
Female Orlando is treated almost exactly the same as male
Orlando, and as of yet she is unaware of the gender
discrimination facing her at home. Instead, she can focus on
finding inner happiness, which her experiences prove is totally
unrelated to gender. Virginia Woolf also chose Constantinople
as the location of Orlando's metamorphosis because of the
connection between the city and Woolf's lover, Vita SackvilleWest, on whom the character of Orlando is based. SackvilleCopyright © 2018 Course Hero, Inc.
Upon her arrival, Orlando learns of the three lawsuits pending
against her, all regarding her property and her gender. While
her suits are tried, her property is held by the court and her
titles are suspended. She can go to her country home, where
she is immediately recognized by the local deer and her elk
hound. The servants are glad to have her back, as is
Archduchess Harriet. The archduchess turns out to be a man,
Archduke Harry. He saw Orlando's portrait long ago, fell in love,
and moved to town to get closer to the attractive young man.
Now that Orlando is a woman, he wants to marry her. He visits
daily to declare his love, which Orlando finds tedious. She
devises a betting game involving flies and sugar to pass the
Orlando Study Guide
time. The archduke catches her cheating, denounces her, then
immediately forgives her. Orlando purposefully drops a small
toad down his shirt, which has the desired effect. The
archduke leaves in a huff, and his departure triggers a longing
in Orlando for "[l]ife and a lover." She goes to London to find
both, but runs into no other than the archduke. He wears a
small jeweled lapel pin in the form of a toad and again asks her
to marry him. Orlando is livid.
Chapter Summaries 18
Orlando's voyage to England highlights the differences
between manhood and womanhood. On the surface, being a
man seems more desirable, as men hold all of the power,
wealth, property, and titles. Not only do men define what it
means to be a man, but they also decide what it means to be a
woman. Orlando quickly realizes that the standard to which
She calms the next day as ladies of high social standing invite
she held women in her previous life doesn't come naturally—a
her to join the folds of London society. The most coveted
woman must work hard to be "obedient, chaste, scented, and
invitation is from Lady R., who is known for exclusive get-
exquisitely apparelled." It's a lot of work to be a woman, and
togethers of the literary geniuses of the time. Alexander Pope,
there is little compensation for the trouble if one isn't
he of "Addison, Dryden, Pope," infuriates Lady R. at one of the
interested in marriage and children, which Orlando isn't. Her
parties, and Orlando invites him to come home with her. This
experiences with the court system and Archduke Harry leave
leads to her friendship with several "men of genius," and
her feeling unsure of her place in the world. She cannot
Orlando is sure "future ages" will be jealous of her proximity to
change her body back to that of a man, nor can she deny the
cultural giants. Yet she feels uncomfortable around these men
increase in femininity that comes with living in a woman's body.
because she knows no man ever fully respects a woman. Pope
Without realizing it, Orlando becomes less self-confident the
is angered by Orlando's inability to give him the level of
longer she lives as a woman. She hides her poetry from others,
adulation he thinks he deserves, and a rift develops between
which is evidence that she "was becoming a little more modest,
the two.
as women are, of her brains." She takes far greater pains with
her appearance, and she fears she cannot handle the same
After their icy parting, Orlando changes into one of her old
activities she could as a man.
suits and goes for a walk. The masculine clothing affects her
gait, speech, and gestures, and suddenly it's as if she were a
It isn't until Orlando meets Nell that she finally finds her footing
man again. She picks up a prostitute, who takes Orlando back
as a woman and regains her self-confidence. This counters
to her room. Orlando's own experience of womanhood gives
everything she had known as a man, when she assumed
her insight into the deceptive flirtations, and she finally cracks
women were "incapable of any feeling of affection for their
and reveals herself as female. The prostitute, Nell, laughs and
own sex and hold each other in the greatest aversion." Men
drops her facade. She and her friends take Orlando under their
thought women were incapable of sustaining a conversation
collective wing. The narrator admits he has a hard time keeping
that wasn't guided by a man or about one. This is in part
track of Orlando at this point in her life because her fortune
because men rarely saw women interact with one another.
and poetry are linked to the name of a male cousin, not
Women made sure "the doors [were] shut and that not a word
Orlando herself, who bounces back and forth between
of it [got] into print." They kept to themselves as a means of
masculine and feminine clothing (depending on the situation)
protecting their conversations from male influence and control.
and takes lovers of both genders.
Orlando's introduction into an all-female group of companions
makes her privy to one of the only things women have that men
One hundred years after Orlando first arrived back in England,
don't: intimate friendships. She has never had close friends like
she still lingers around the coffeehouses to see (but not hear)
this before—as a man, she preferred her own company, and
the geniuses at work. She realizes just how much has changed
everyone she associated with in the early days of her
since the Elizabethan era and reflects on the tranquility of the
womanhood was male and looking for her admiration. For the
age. Just then the clocks strike midnight and dark clouds roll
first time in her female life, Orlando is free to be herself. She
into view, cloaking London in darkness. The 19th century
does not have to dress, speak, or act in ways that will please
men unless there is pleasure in it for her. This rejection of
cultural norms is a distinct attribute of postmodernism, of
which Virginia Woolf is recognized as an early influence.
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Orlando Study Guide
Orlando regains control of her life via cross-dressing. She
dresses to fit her mood and activities, so some days she is a
man and others she is a woman. Orlando finds great benefit to
this strategy, as "the pleasures of life were increased and its
experiences multiplied." She is no longer bound by restrictions
of gender, even when it comes to her lovers. This parallels the
experiences and thoughts of author Virginia Woolf, who took
both male and female lovers, and frequently wrote about the
expression of the feminine in a male-dominated society. She,
like Orlando, believes gender does not alter a person's values,
intelligence, or sexual identity, but it does determine how one is
treated by society at large. Acceptance and discrimination are
based on the exterior. Orlando finds a way around that by
presenting herself as a different gender whenever she sees fit,
and she is all the happier for it.
Orlando's female experiences also dampen her interest in the
lives of poets and other literary "geniuses." Since she was 16,
she's been obsessed with the image of the fat, shabby poet
sitting in the servants' quarters, and since then she has made
great efforts to improve her own writing by becoming close
with poets. Her relationship with Nick Greene ends
disastrously, but it doesn't prevent her from wanting to rub
elbows with Joseph Addison, John Dryden, and Alexander
Pope, three well-regarded poets of the 18th century. This time,
she immediately realizes that these "men of genius" are just
like everyone else. As a man, she was unable to see Greene's
insatiable need for attention and adulation. As a woman,
Orlando finally understands that the vanity of poets and their
social circle is what makes them popular, not their actual wit,
which is like a lighthouse, sending "one ray and then no more
for a time." These men are no better than she is, and when
Orlando comes across poets in the future, she watches them
without listening, using her imagination to supply them with far
more interesting conversation than is probably taking place.
Orlando's realization that she is equal to the male poets of the
time is Woolf's way of showing how female writers, such as
herself, must look past the patriarchal world of literature to
gain confidence in their own talents.
Chapter Summaries 19
As Chapter 5 opens at the beginning of the 19th century, a
dark cloud drastically changes life in England, beginning with
the climate. A chill fills the air and damp pervades everything.
That leads to a change in clothing, home decor, food, and even
how the sexes interact. Men and women are more separate
than ever, and open conversations between genders are a
thing of the past. It seems as if the only time they come
together at all is for procreation, and the women of the 19th
century are just as fertile as the ivy and evergreen growing
over every available surface. Most women over the age of 19
are perpetually pregnant, including Queen Victoria and
Orlando starts working on "The Oak Tree" again once the early
days of pregnancy pass. She first penned the poem in 1586
and hasn't changed much in the nearly 300 years since. Yet
when she sits down to write this time, it is as if another person
has taken over her hand. The words flowing from her pen turn
into "the most insipid verse she had ever read in her life." Even
the penmanship doesn't look like it belongs to her. At the same
time, the ring finger on her left hand begins to tingle. Orlando
can't figure out why until she notices the gold wedding band
circling Mrs. Bartholomew's own ring finger. Suddenly, it seems
as if "the whole world was ringed with gold," and Orlando feels
enormous pressure to get married. She buys herself a gold
band to calm the tingling of her finger, but it only grows worse.
There is no other choice but for her to take a husband. She is
loath to do it, and as she wracks her brain for a suitable match,
she realizes everyone in her life is already paired up. She goes
into the park adjacent to her property and walks for ages
before tumbling over raised roots. Ignoring her broken ankle,
she remains sprawled in the grass and says, "I have found my
mate ... It is the moor. I am nature's bride." Her ruminations on
the people she's loved and the lives she's lived are interrupted
by a man.
The man is Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, a man of good
name and terrible fortune who spends his time attempting to
Chapter 5
sail around Cape Horn. He and Orlando take one look at each
other and understand everything important about the other,
and they immediately become engaged. After that is settled, "it
remained only to fill in such unimportant details" such as their
names, occupations, and fortunes. As they talk, they both
realize the other used to be of the opposite gender—Shel was
once a woman as Orlando was a man. They are inseparable for
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Orlando Study Guide
Chapter Summaries 20
the next nine days. Shel is there when news arrives that the
as she pleases, one moment pretending she is dead in the
lawsuits against Orlando have been settled. Her property and
woods, the next scrambling back to him "with the crocus and
titles are restored, though she is "excessively poor" after
the jay's feather in her breast." She can be delicate and
paying for lawyers for the past 100 years. She doesn't mind.
feminine in his arms while telling swashbuckling stories of her
The town celebrates the reinstatement of her position, and she
previous adventures and foibles. Orlando no longer feels the
receives invitations from all the important ladies of London, but
shame of nonconformity because Shel understands her need
she eschews all of it for Shel's company. They marry on the
to express all the facets of her personality, not just those
tenth day, after which Shel immediately departs for Cape Horn
deemed "proper" by Victorian society.
to chase the changing wind.
At this point in the novel, Orlando has been alive for nearly 300
years, but by her own account she hasn't changed much since
she was a boy in Queen Elizabeth I's court. Though she has
gone through extraordinary external transformations, internally
Virginia Woolf portrays the Victorian age as being more
she maintains "the same brooding meditative temper," and a
conservative and more restrictive than any other era of
love of animals, the country, and the seasons. Woolf is implying
Orlando's life. Women are more reliant on men than ever, and
that the fundamental aspects of a person's character cannot
even the men need someone to "lean" on. Children are born at
be altered by changes in fortune, circumstance, societal
an alarming rate, and the feminine focus is narrowed to
expectations, or even gender. We are what we are. While it can
encompass only family and home. Orlando's struggle to ignore
be argued that Orlando does change her values by marrying, it
"the spirit of the age" points out everything Woolf finds
is important to remember that she is marrying the reverse
distasteful about the Victorian era: the emphasis on
image of herself. Shel is, for all intents and purposes, Orlando
monogamy, the suppression of female sexuality, and the
of the 16th and 17th centuries. He is a sailor and an adventurer,
overall hindrance of female independence. Male/female
which recalls the more daring escapes the narrator declined to
partnerships come under particular scrutiny because, as
elaborate upon in Chapters 1 and 2. Orlando is not marrying
Orlando says, "[i]t did not seem to be Nature." Animals don't
just any random man—she is marrying the man through whom
mate for life, and life-long pairings weren't nearly as
she can access her masculine side, which allows her to feel
emphasized in any other era of Orlando's life as in the
like a complete person. Her marriage is not a change in
Victorian. Because Orlando sees no evidence "that Nature had
personality or values, but rather the answer to a problem that
changed her ways or mended them," she believes humans are
has followed her throughout all her lives.
responsible for pushing the "unnatural" act of marriage, which
at the time encompassed only male/female partnerships.
Woolf, who was married to a man but had a female lover,
Chapter 6
believed people should be able to love whomever they want
whenever they want. Orlando's psyche is an extension of
Woolf's own beliefs.
Orlando "marries" nature because all her efforts to find
happiness, love, and fame have come up empty. She believes it
would be better to die in the arms of nature than seek
something that doesn't exist. This "marriage" could also be
viewed as a marriage within the self: Orlando's opposing male
and female selves coming together to form a "whole" human
being. Shel's arrival changes everything. He is her soul mate,
her true other half, and Orlando is free to be herself when she
is with him. He is the opposite of the "spirit of the age" that
plagues Orlando throughout the first half of the chapter in that
he does not require her to conform to any standard of
womanhood. She is free to follow her moods and come and go
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In Chapter 6, Orlando goes back to "The Oak Tree" after Shel
leaves for Cape Horn. She writes furiously throughout the next
year, which the narrator refuses to document because, as he
says, nothing interesting happens. There are no adventures or
affairs, so he turns his attention to what is happening outside
Orlando's window, which is: nothing. At long last, "The Oak
Tree" is finished. The manuscript pulses as if it is alive, and
Orlando is consumed with the desire to have someone read it.
She goes to London and runs into Nick Greene, now Sir
Nicholas Greene, who has become a knight, a professor, and a
Doctor of Literature since Orlando last saw him in the 17th
Orlando Study Guide
Chapter Summaries 21
century. Orlando struggles with her feelings about this well-
four times and her memories disappear into a fine powder.
groomed and moneyed version of the man who publicly
Tense and afraid, Orlando loses herself in deep, dark thoughts,
shamed her so long ago. Greene dominates the conversation
finally surfacing to bury "The Oak Tree" at the base of its
just as he did 200 years before, lamenting how "the great days
namesake as a tribute to "what the land has given" her. That
of literature," mostly the Elizabethan era, are now over. "We
seems conceited and pompous all of a sudden, and she
must cherish the past; honour those writers ... who take
wonders what "praise and fame [have] to do with poetry." A
antiquity for their model," he says, and Orlando is positive she
church clock chimes and night has fallen. She calls Shel's
has heard all of this before. Orlando grows more and more
name. She hears the "roar of an aeroplane" and bares her
bored as the conversation continues—Greene no longer
breast in the moonlight. Shel jumps to the ground as the clock
gossips about writers, but rather drones on and on about
strikes midnight. It is Thursday, October 11, 1928.
Orlando's "own blood relations." Orlando is so agitated that her
manuscript pops out of her bodice. Greene reads it and
immediately declares it to be magnificent and assures Orlando
he will help her get it published. She has no idea what he
means by that, but reluctantly lets him take her life's work.
Though Orlando hasn't changed much throughout the course
of the novel, the narrator has. He who once spoke in glowing
She tries to shake off the empty feeling caused by the loss of
terms about young male Orlando can barely conceal his
her manuscript by going into a bookstore, the first she has ever
disdain that he has to document the life of a woman in the 19th
seen. She's mesmerized by the stacks of books, and asks for
century. He says "nobody objects" to a woman writing and
"everything of importance" to be sent to her home in the city.
thinking as long as it is about a man, but Orlando is writing and
She comes home to find an astonishing number of wrapped
thinking only about herself. The narrator would be appeased if
parcels and methodically goes through each one. Her reading
Orlando took a lover, as "[l]ove ... is woman's whole existence,"
is interrupted by the birth of her son. The narrator declines to
but because Orlando will "neither love nor kill," the narrator
document this momentous event and once again details
decides that "she is no better than a corpse" and turns his
everything except what's actually happening with Orlando. The
attention to what is happening outside the window. The same
narrative picks up years later when King Edward is on the
thing happens when Orlando goes into labor, an allusion to
throne (1901–10). Orlando observes the changes in the world
Gustave Flaubert's equally cursory treatment of the birth of a
from her window—automobiles, electric lights, changes in the
daughter in 1856's Madame Bovary. The male narrator's
female form, the disappearance of facial hair, and realistic
complete disgust with anything having to do with the feminine
artwork. Suddenly, the long "tunnel in which she seemed to
is Virginia Woolf's commentary about how very little women's
have been travelling for hundreds of years widened" and she is
lives were valued during the Victorian era, particularly by men.
thrust into the present, October 11, 1928.
When a momentous occasion does occur—the birth of
Orlando drives herself to a department store and is
overwhelmed by the crowds of people on the streets, the
elevators in the building, and the sheer number of items for
sale in one place. She has visions of Sasha as an old, fat
woman and tastes her life in Turkey. As she drives home, she
Orlando's son—the narrator deems it indelicate, and ignores
the entire thing. That Woolf portrays the narrator as thinking
this very natural but feminine act is a source of shame speaks
volumes about attitudes regarding women during the Victorian
imagines a cottage in the countryside to calm her nerves and
One character who barely changes during the course of
calls out her own name, trying to summon another one of her
Orlando is Orlando's former frenemy Nick Greene. Despite his
selves. Dozens of selves present themselves in a frenzy as she
steady ascent up the social and intellectual ladder, his
is flooded with memories of her storied past. She wishes they
attitudes and ideals haven't changed a bit since the 17th
would coalesce into one true self. When they finally do, "[t]he
century. He once thought Elizabethan poets and writers were
whole of her darkened and settled." She goes into the house,
the death of literature; now he finds them to be the pinnacle of
changes into more masculine clothing, and visits every room in
literary perfection. Like many people, particularly the English
her centuries-old mansion. She sees the ghostly images of
Romantic poets who draw upon nostalgia to idealize the past,
Addison, Dryden, Pope, and Swift, as well as the numerous
Greene glorifies what was then instead of what is now. He has
kings and queens who slept under her roof. The clock strikes
no problem praising the past he slammed when it was the
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Orlando Study Guide
present. His viewpoint is very different from that of Orlando,
who does not look back at the past as "the good old days," but
Quotes 22
g Quotes
rather as a collection of past selves. The past is simply a
memory to Orlando, not something to be championed. Though
she says she is set in her ways and unwilling to bend to the
"He had been kissed by a queen
spirit of the age, she appears to accept modern inventions and
without knowing it."
customs, save marriage, with barely any trepidation. Orlando's
acceptance of the present is the key to her happiness, just as
Greene's obsession with the past is the root of his bitterness.
The intrusion of Orlando's past into her shopping trip marks a
change in both the story's narration and Orlando's personal
sense of self. The narrative voice goes from that of a slightly
biased biographer to a stream-of-conscious rambling that
reflects Orlando's innermost thoughts. As she drives home
from the department store, it seems as if she's on the verge of
a nervous breakdown as each memory, or past "self," battles
— Narrator, Chapter 1
Orlando's good looks, charm, and loyalty earn him Queen
Elizabeth I's favor after just a momentary introduction. She
gives the family royal property and sets Orlando on a path of
extraordinary adventure. Without her help, Orlando most likely
would have never left his family's country home and
experienced the world.
for supremacy. This is the point of all of Orlando's adventures
and brushes with history, and perhaps even why she has lived
as long as she has. She has been trying on different "selves"
for size, altering her behavior, experiences, and even gender to
fit within the social constructs of each era. She is forever
wrestling with the desire to be herself and the desire to
"However open she seemed and
voluptuous, there was something
conform, and it all comes to a head during that manic drive
home. She stops trying to summon different versions of herself
— Narrator, Chapter 1
and decides it would be better to have one true self that is, for
better or for worse, the sum of her experiences. The arrival of
her "single self" is a somber occasion marked by silence, which
emphasizes the importance of Orlando's decision to accept
herself exactly as she is.
Orlando's tour of her home signals another change. The
Male Orlando loves Sasha, but he doesn't fully trust or
understand her. He worries that she may not be royalty after
all, or maybe she doesn't love him as much as he loves her.
When Orlando becomes a woman, she is better able to
understand the mysteries behind Sasha's demeanor.
enormous house has become more of a museum than an
abode. Velvet ropes and small signs keep visitors away from
the historical artifacts, and Orlando admits to herself no
ambassadors, kings, or queens will ever stay in the house
again. The memories of the house and its previous guests are
extraordinarily dear to Orlando, but they are relics of the past.
"It was the fatal nature of this
disease to substitute a phantom
for reality."
New, single-self Orlando lives in the present, as she is
constantly reminded by the chiming of clocks. Her present
— Narrator, Chapter 2
doesn't involve royalty, great wits of the age, or even literary
fame. The only things that are truly important are her
relationships with Shel and herself. Orlando has finally found
After Orlando's exile from court, he turns to literature to ease
what she has been looking for all along: life and a lover.
his troubled soul. "This disease" is the love of reading. By losing
himself in books, Orlando doesn't have to deal with his past
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Orlando Study Guide
"I have done with men."
Quotes 23
"If it meant conventionality ... then
she would ... set sail once more for
— Orlando, Chapter 2
the gipsies."
Orlando is greatly hurt by Nick Greene's humiliating poem and
decides animals and nature are far better company than
— Narrator, Chapter 4
duplicitous humans. Orlando trusts no one except himself.
Orlando's realization that life in England will be different as a
woman makes her want to return to Turkey, where the gypsies
"It looked as if in the process of
writing the poem would be
treated men and women pretty much the same. She has no
interest in being fettered by British social conventions that
silence the opinions and desires of women.
completely unwritten."
— Narrator, Chapter 2
"They change our view of the
world and the world's view of us."
Orlando's constant revisions to "The Oak Tree" represent the
poem's function as a record of Orlando's life. He is always
— Narrator, Chapter 4
altering it because his situation is always changing.
The narrator is speaking about clothing's effect on the wearer.
"But men want us no longer, the
women detest us."
Orlando finds herself becoming more feminine the longer she
wears women's clothing. Though her inner self hasn't changed,
her exterior dictates how others treat her and how she
responds in turn.
— Purity, Chapter 3
"She ... enjoyed the love of both
Purity, Chastity, and Modesty, the three virtues of womanhood,
try to cover Orlando's figure, which has been transformed into
sexes equally."
that of a woman. Purity's lament speaks to the changing values
of the Georgian period.
"The change of sex ... altered their
future, did nothing whatever to
alter their identity."
— Narrator, Chapter 4
Male Orlando was attracted to women, and as his inner self did
not change when he became a woman, female Orlando is
attracted to women, too. Orlando's bisexuality is presented as
a matter of fact, not one of scandal or shame. Orlando's
approach to sexuality mirrors that of Virginia Woolf, who also
had both male and female lovers.
— Narrator, Chapter 3
Female Orlando looks different from male Orlando, but her
thoughts, dreams, and values haven't changed at all. Virginia
Woolf is showing how gender does not affect a person's inner
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"Orlando felt positively ashamed of
the second finger on her left hand
without ... knowing why."
Orlando Study Guide
— Narrator, Chapter 5
Symbols 24
The narrator has inserted himself into the narrative throughout
the novel, but he gets particularly indignant when Orlando is
Orlando's desire to be married is not of her own invention, but
rather the pressure of the Victorian era for men and women to
pair for life. This concept is so foreign to her that she doesn't
realize why she is ashamed until someone explains it to her.
acting altogether too "feminine" for his tastes. He doesn't
discuss her year of writing because it doesn't give him anything
to write about. He is of the belief that women should write and
speak only when the subject is a man, and he finds it difficult to
write a biography about a woman, particularly one who doesn't
engage in affairs or adventures.
""You're a woman, Shel!" she
"What has praise and fame to do
with poetry?"
— Orlando, Chapter 5
— Narrator, Chapter 6
Orlando sees a kindred spirit in Shel, whom readers can
assume used to be a woman as Orlando used to be a man. At
the very least, Orlando understands that she is attracted to
Shel not only because he is a man, but because he has some
of the feminine qualities to which Orlando has been attracted
her entire life.
Orlando has wrestled with the idea of fame for most of her life.
She wants it, she doesn't want it. When she finally does
become famous for "The Oak Tree," she realizes that a poem's
fame has very little to do with the quality or the meaning of the
poem. Poetry is supposed to be a secret conversation between
the author's various selves. It should not matter what others
"There was a clap of thunder, so
think of it.
that no one heard the word Obey
l Symbols
— Narrator, Chapter 5
Oak Tree
Thunder may have drowned out the word "obey" in Orlando
and Shel's marital vows. They also might not have said the
word in the first place. Orlando certainly isn't interested in a
marriage where she is expected to obey, and she wouldn't
have married a man who thinks it is the wife's duty to follow his
lead. The omission of this word indicates the equal partnership
between husband and wife.
Orlando loves nothing more in life than his ancestral country
home, and one of the highlights of the property is his favorite
tree, a towering oak "so high indeed that nineteen English
counties could be seen beneath." Of all the places on his
father's vast property, Orlando feels most at home here, and
that is exactly what the tree represents. It is "something which
"If only subjects ... had more
consideration for their
he could attach his floating heart to," where he can think and
find peace. He immortalizes the tree in his poem "The Oak
Tree," carrying it close to his breast wherever he (and later,
she) goes. When he returns from his adventures in town and
abroad, he comes back to his safe haven. At the end of the
novel, Orlando is right back where she started, underneath the
— Narrator, Chapter 6
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oak tree as she waits for Shel's return.
Orlando Study Guide
Light and Dark
Themes 25
the same person from beginning to end.
Gender doesn't affect one's internal self, but it does affect how
one is perceived by others. This is apparent long before
Authors often use light and dark imagery to show the
difference between good and bad. Woolf puts a spin on that
trope by using it to show the difference between truth and
imagination, particularly with regard to one's opinion of another
purpose. Orlando's carriage ride with Alexander Pope in
Chapter 4 is a good example of this. They are traveling at
night, and the lampposts are spaced so far apart that "for ten
minutes Orlando and Mr. Pope would be in blackness,"
followed by 30 seconds of light shining in the windows.
Orlando puts on her first crinoline or petticoat. At the Great
Frost festival, held when the River Thames freezes (in Chapter
1), male Orlando spies a lithe figure skating across the ice. The
person's clothing disguises his or her gender, and Orlando
assumes it is a man because "no woman could skate with such
speed and vigour." He is frustrated by his attraction to
someone of his own sex as "all embraces were out of the
question," then relieved to see features that are distinctly
feminine. Orlando's bitterness and jealousy when he thinks the
figure is a boy turn into feelings of lust and admiration when it
In the dark, Orlando feels "the most delicious balm" throughout
turns out she is a woman. Sasha has not changed at all during
her body, which is the assurance that Pope is so wise and witty
these few minutes of examination, but Orlando's opinion of her
that Orlando will be the most envied woman of the era for
has, based on the perception of her gender.
being in his company. When the carriage is lit, however, she
realizes her folly. "What a foolish wretch I am!" she thinks.
"There is no such thing as fame and glory." The carriage grows
dark and she admires his rounded forehead, but the next lamp
reveals his silhouette to be plumped by a nearby cushion.
Orlando literally sees the truth of the situation in the light, then
reverts to the glorified version of events in the dark. As the
narrator says, "[t]he less we see the more we believe." Light is
the truth, but the darkness covers everything we want to
Orlando experiences this phenomenon several times during
her life as a woman. The first is on the ship from Turkey to
England, when a crew member nearly falls off the mast after
catching a glimpse of her ankle. Orlando is the same person
who until very recently lived in a man's body. The crew member
wouldn't have blinked an eye at seeing male Orlando's ankle, or
even his whole leg. But because the crew member perceives
Orlando as female, he subconsciously filters her exposed body
part as being obscene. When Orlando dresses as a man in
Chapter 4 and picks up Nell, a prostitute, Nell looks at Orlando
with a gaze that is "appealing, hoping, trembling fearing." Her
manner is flirtatious as she tries to amuse the masculine-
m Themes
looking Orlando. When Orlando reveals she is actually a
woman, Nell's manner immediately "change[s] and she drop[s]
her plaintive, appealing ways." Orlando's inner identity remains
Gender and Identity
More than anything else, Orlando is a commentary on gender
and how it affects a person's public and private identities.
the same no matter how she looks, but the way she is treated
is entirely dependent on how others perceive her gender.
Through Orlando's various experiences as both male and
female, Woolf and her main character conclude that gender
does not affect the inner self. Though the change of sex
Orlando has had many lovers over the course of her 36 years,
changes Orlando's future, it "did nothing whatever to alter their
but none are loved as much as Orlando loves nature. Nature is
identity." "Identity," in this case, is Orlando's core values and
akin to God in Orlando's mind, something that is all-powerful
passions: poetry, nature, and love. Thirty-six-year-old Orlando,
yet completely unknowable. She worships it under the open
after living through three centuries, is wiser than 16-year-old
sky and in her writing. Whether she is leaning against her
Orlando and has more experiences, but they are fundamentally
favorite tree or walking through the woods while she ponders
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Orlando Study Guide
the spirit of the Victorian age, nature is her solace in times of
personal trouble. She even finds comfort in the thought of
Themes 26
death. It is, after all, the natural end of life. In Orlando's eyes,
even the negative aspects of nature are to be treasured.
It is nature, not humans, from which Orlando takes her social
cues. If it were natural for a person's inner self to be dictated
by their gender, then Orlando would have gladly accepted the
traditional role of the Victorian woman during Queen Victoria's
reign. Yet Orlando knows that she is exactly the same person
as when she was a man, so she strongly resists the spirit of the
age's effort to make her conform to an ideal that isn't evident
outside of the human race. Nature's role in Orlando is to serve
as a reminder of what is truly important in life as Orlando
identifies her own values and desires.
Death plays a pivotal role in much of Virginia Woolf's work, and
Orlando is no exception. Though Orlando doesn't die or grieve
the loss of a loved one during the story, he does spend a lot of
time thinking about what it means to die. For Orlando, death is
not always viewed as a something to fear. True, Orlando often
focuses on death during his more morose moments, but there
are also times when the thought of death brings him great
comfort. He does not believe in immortality or the afterlife, so
to him death is an eternal rest where he will be reunited with
his ancestors in the family crypt. This is particularly soothing
after his ejection from King James I's court.
The narrator also wonders about the nature of death,
Futility of Conformity
particularly at the beginning of Chapter 2 when Orlando falls
asleep for an entire week. He asks, "Are we so made that we
have to take death in small doses" to get through the perils of
daily life? Perhaps there are different types of death.
As a young man, Orlando is constantly torn between what
society expects him to be and what he wants to be. He goes to
court as Queen Elizabeth I's companion but is caught kissing
another woman; he is engaged to be married to increase his
family's wealth and fortune but throws it all away for a Russian
princess who breaks his heart. Orlando knows what is
expected of him and endeavors to fulfill society's expectations,
Orlando's two episodes of lengthy slumber are akin to death in
that they serve as breaks between his former lives. These
small deaths help Orlando start anew after heartbreak and
great stress. Orlando recognizes this, and as she grows older,
she purposefully chooses to enter a state of "death" to
preserve her well-being.
but he is always sidetracked by his own desires. This generally
In Chapter 5, she is besieged by "the spirit of the age" to take a
leads to a punishment of sorts—his banishment from King
husband, a thought so harrowing that she decides to "become
James I's court, Queen Elizabeth I's death—and he starts anew
nature's bride" and "lie at peace here with only the sky above
with the intention of upholding his family's noble legacy.
[her]." Moments later, she meets Shel and tells him she is dead.
Female Orlando's attempts to conform to society's
expectations are even less successful than male Orlando's.
Her gender is an inherent disadvantage to someone who is
used to being the dominant party in all relationships. Though
Orlando's inner self did not change with the change in gender,
society's expectations did. Orlando has very little interest in
becoming a passive, subservient object of feminine admiration,
Her body is not dead, of course, but her spirit is. Play-acting
death allows her to regain her strength and her senses, and
her life changes the moment she "comes to life" again. Woolf
presents death not as something to be feared or the end of
oneself, but rather a pause in the action. When life-ending
death does occur, it is with the honor of one's ancestors and
the pleasure of a life well lived.
and she fails even when she tries. Even when she succumbs to
the "spirit of the age" and secures a husband, her
unconventional marriage violates the traditional marital
structure of the man at the head of the household. Yet Orlando
Legacy and Fame
is happier than she has ever been. Throughout the course of
the book, Orlando learns that following her own desires, not
those of the crowd, will lead her to true happiness.
Family legacy is extremely important to Orlando. It influences
his decisions, his behavior, and his outlook on life. For Orlando,
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Orlando Study Guide
Motifs 27
a legacy is what his forefathers left behind on which he can
women's clothing. Between personas, she wears gender-
establish his own name. The literal legacy they have left behind
neutral clothing. Woolf uses Orlando's cross-dressing to show
is all of Orlando's property, most notably the country manor he
that Orlando is fundamentally the same person she has always
fights for 100 years to keep. The metaphorical legacy is built
been. It is society's reaction to her choice of clothing that
upon "killing and campaigning, that drinking and love-making,
dictates her opportunities and capabilities. This is true for
that spending and hunting and riding and eating," but Orlando
everyone. As the narrator says, though people dress to portray
doesn't see much to show for it. He decides he can do even
a particular image of self, "underneath the sex is the very
better than his ancestors and really give the family name
opposite of what it is above." Clothing is but a costume that
weight in history. To do that, he needs to become famous, and
shows society the aspect of our personality we want it to see.
in Orlando's mind, the direct route to fame is through poetry.
Orlando's early years writing poetry don't go well, and his
humiliation at the pen of Nick Greene spurs him to retire the
idea that he needs to be upstage his forebearers. Orlando
looks at his palatial home and realizes it is "vain and arrogant in
the extreme to try to better that anonymous work of creation."
He decides to work hand-in-hand with them and furnish the
home they so lovingly established. Yet it isn't long before the
siren song of poetry is heard again, and Orlando picks up his
pen once more. This time it is to please himself, not the
masses. "The Oak Tree" is eventually published in the 19th
Orlando's Poem
Oak trees are some of the longest-living flora in nature, easily
surpassing the traditional human lifespan. This is emblematic
of the 300 years Orlando works on his poem "The Oak Tree,"
which surfaces in every chapter of the novel. This is more than
just a poem. It is an ever-evolving record of Orlando's inner
self. He began writing it as a teenager in 1586 and she finishes
it in her mid-30s during the latter half of the 19th century.
century to great acclaim and awards. Orlando is initially proud
The poem has traveled with her to her country home, her city
of her award, but quickly understands fame has nothing to do
home, Turkey, and other parts unknown, and it is the only piece
with poetry, which is meant to be a conversation wholly
of writing that survives Orlando's tantrum following his
contained in the writer's mind. The existence of the poem and
humiliation at the pen of Nick Greene. "The Oak Tree" is under
the meaning it has to the writer is more valuable than the brief
perpetual revision to reflect Orlando's most recent revelations
spotlight of fame. Orlando's legacy will continue even if she is
about life, and at one point it seems as if Orlando is "unwriting"
not famous: in her house, in her son, and in her poetry. She will
it. This is symbolic of the way Orlando incorporates his and her
always exist.
past experiences into the present day. Orlando's decision to
complete the poem foreshadows her desire to find "one true
self" that is an amalgamation of all her experiences. She has
b Motifs
As a woman in the 18th century, Orlando's role in society is to
listen to the "great wits," nod, and act impressed. She is
completely passive, which goes against her very nature. She is
dissatisfied with her position as a woman and takes charge of
the situation by dressing like a man.
lived dozens of lives and is finally ready to set them aside and
focus on the present.
Time is fluid and subjective in Orlando. It cannot be measured
by hours or minutes or years, but rather in thoughts and
experiences. The narrator tells the reader, "time when [man] is
thinking becomes inordinately long; time when he is doing
becomes inordinately short." Orlando spends months,
sometimes even years, thinking about the same thing, which
As soon as she puts on her old black suit she feels more
could possibly be why he ages so slowly. The poet Nick
masculine, more powerful, and more in control of her destiny. It
Greene also ages slowly, and as a writer he is probably
is thrilling. But there are also times when she wants to be
afflicted with the same propensity to think rather than do.
demure and seductive, which is when she goes back to
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Orlando Study Guide
Woolf is making the point that time is a construct that has "no
... simple effect upon the mind of man." Time is relative to the
person experiencing it, and no two experiences are alike.
People, therefore, should not be a slave to time and the
expectations of what should be achieved by certain points in
their lives, but rather follow their inner clocks to find fulfillment.
e Suggested Reading
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf; a Biography. New York: Harcourt,
1972. Print.
Sackville-West, V. Knole and the Sackvilles. London:
Heinemann, 1923. Print.
Winterson, Jeanette. "Shape Shifter: The Joyous
Transgressions of Virginia Woolf's Orlando." New Statesman 18
Feb. 2013. Web.
"Woolf in the World: A Pen and a Press of Her Own." Woolf in
the World: A Pen and a Press of Her Own | Smith College
Libraries. Smith College, 2011. Web.
Woolf, Virginia, and Jeanne Schulkind. Moments of Being:
Unpublished Autobiographical Writings. New York: Harcourt,
1976. Print.
Woolf, Virginia, Maria DiBattista, and Mark Hussey. Orlando: A
Biography. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006. Print.
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