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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Chapter 1 | Summary



Chapter 1 begins near the end of the 16th century. Orlando, age 16, is in his family's large home, practicing his sword work on a severed head. The narrator describes the young noble's good looks and his dedication to writing and poetry in great detail. His favorite topic, "as all young poets are forever describing," is nature. Orlando sits underneath his favorite oak tree and enjoys the solitude before falling asleep. He awakes to hear the arrival of the queen. A shortcut through the servants' quarters reveals a "rather fat, shabby man" holding a pen but not writing. Orlando assumes the man is a poet. He is overcome with admiration but too shy to say anything, and instead runs into the banquet hall. He bows before the queen and offers her a bowl of rosewater, into which she dips her fingers. The queen can only see the top of Orlando's head, but she falls in love with him immediately. That night, she gifts the king's house to Orlando's father.

Two years later, Orlando is summoned to Whitehall, the queen's palace. The elderly queen gives him a good long look and sees "[s]trength, grace, romance, folly, poetry, youth." She gives him a ring from her own hand and names him her 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 spends time in the downtrodden back alleys of London, bedding girls from all walks of life.

He soon grows bored of "the primitive manner of the people" and returns to court. Three young women vie for his hand in marriage. Orlando is in the middle of negotiations to join Euphrosyne's wealth with his when the Great Frost arrives. The river freezes to at least 20 feet deep for a stretch of almost 15 miles, and King James moves the court outside for a three-month-long festival. That's where Orlando meets a Russian princess, Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch, whom he calls "Sasha" for short. Though the only language they have in common is French, Orlando becomes completely enamored with the young woman and forgets all about Euphrosyne.

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 when they visit the ship that brought Sasha to England. She goes below deck with a member of the crew to find something. When she does not return after an hour, Orlando goes after her. He sees Sasha sitting on the crew member's knee, as so many women had sat on Orlando's knee in the past. Orlando swoons. When he comes to, Sasha says the crew member was only helping her move a box. Orlando isn't sure whether he can trust his memory or not.

Though there seems to be "something coarse flavoured, something peasant born" about Sasha, Orlando is still madly in love with her. They agree to meet at an inn at midnight and run away together. Orlando arrives early and waits outside. It starts to rain for the first time in months. The bells at St. Paul's Cathedral chime midnight, but Sasha doesn't appear. Orlando waits for two more hours, then runs toward the river. The rain has broken up the ice, and people are stranded on the huge icebergs floating out to sea. He runs even farther, to the place where the visiting ships had been anchored in the ice for so long. The Russian ship is gone. Its flagged mast sails into the distance as he hurls insults at the woman who stole his heart.


Orlando takes place over the course of 300 years. Virginia Woolf's use of real events and historical figures sets the scene for each era of Orlando's life, while providing a realistic backdrop for this fictional biography. The story opens in the 16th century, during Queen Elizabeth I's reign. Queen Elizabeth's refusal to marry led to the nickname "the Virgin Queen," and scholars have long debated whether she actually remained chaste throughout her life. Orlando's narrator comments on this, saying the queen did not know men "in the usual way" but loved Orlando all the same. The relationship between Orlando and the queen was not sexual, but in her mind, at least, it was romantic, which is why she's so heartbroken to see him in an embrace with another. The narrator excuses this by saying things were different in Elizabethan times. "Girls were roses, and their seasons were short as the flowers," so they must be "plucked" before they are too old to be beautiful. Orlando can't be blamed for breaking the queen's heart because he was "young; he was boyish; he did but as nature bade him."

From the very first page, the narrator is insistent about Orlando's gender. Though he is described as physically beautiful with "eyes like drenched violets" and "shapely legs," his actions are wholly male, from his repeated bedding of lower-class women to his battle with the shrunken head. His name is borrowed from the titular character of Aristo's epic poem, Orlando Furioso, in which a heroic knight is driven mad by his love for a pagan princess. Like his namesake, Virginia Woolf's Orlando's masculinity is most thoroughly defined by the presence of a woman. This is a reversal of the commonly accepted idea that a Victorian woman's femininity was most thoroughly defined by the presence of a man. After meeting 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 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 with Sasha and regrets her previous inability to recognize women as equals to men.

Chapter 1 also brings up questions of class and conformity. Orlando enjoyed his period of "slumming it" with low-born pub-dwellers, 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 distance himself from the court and the trappings of nobility. He and Sasha spend their time hiding in the throngs of commoners surrounding the roped-off area of the ice. Orlando is torn between wanting to conform to the expectations of nobility and wanting to do what makes him happy. He is learning that there is very little overlap between the two.

Though Orlando does not age much during the story, he does experience emotional and mental growth. Emotionally and physically immature during his time as Queen Elizabeth I's companion, Orlando turns into an adult man experiencing his first great love during King James's reign. His desire to leave everything behind and go to Russia with Sasha indicates that though he looks like a man, he is still ruled by childish impetuousness and idealism. He has not yet been touched by the bitterness of loss. It finally arrives with the unexpected rain, which breaks both the drought and his heart. The end of the Great Frost and Sasha's departure signals the end of Orlando's childish follies.

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