Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

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.

Orlando finds solace in his love of literature, which the narrator teasingly refers to as a disease. Reading naturally leads to 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 in hearing about Orlando's work, so Orlando simply listens as Greene rants about the death of poetry in England. Most notably, Greene wants a benefactor to provide a quarterly pension so he can dedicate himself to writing poems for "the Glories" in the classic Greek tradition. Orlando agrees to be his patron, though he's mostly relieved when Greene finally departs a few weeks later. That relief turns to anger when Greene releases a scathing poem about visiting a nobleman in the country, the descriptions of which clearly point to Orlando as the subject. Even worse, the poem quotes and ridicules the play Orlando had given him to critique. Orlando reads Greene's pamphlet, has it destroyed, then sends his footman to Norway to bring home two elk hounds, "For ... I have done with men."

Now 30 years old, Orlando has had "every experience that life has to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all." He swears off love and poetry, and burns all his poems except his "boyish dream," "The Oak Tree." He reacquaints himself with nature and spends years thinking about love, friendship, and truth under his favorite tree. He decides to only write for pleasure, then busies himself by furnishing all 365 bedrooms of his nine-acre mansion. The house still doesn't seem complete, so he fills the rooms with neighbors and friends. At night, when "his guests [are] at their revels," Orlando sneaks upstairs to work on "The Oak Tree." He scratches out as many lines as he writes.

His work on the poem is interrupted one afternoon by the presence of a tall, unfamiliar woman wearing riding clothes. She trespasses on the property several times before Orlando introduces himself. She is Archduchess Harriet Griselda of Finster-Aarhorn and Scandop-Boom from the Romanian territory. Orlando doesn't really want anything to do with her, yet finds himself overcome with passion when she tries to fit a suit of armor to his legs. He excuses himself to deal with the "beating of Love's wings," and soon realizes that this love isn't a graceful bird of paradise, but a black and brutish vulture. His home is no longer his sanctuary, and he asks King Charles to make him an ambassador to Constantinople.

Analysis

Time doesn't make a lot of sense in Orlando. For example, Orlando is kicked out of court sometime during King James I's reign, which was 1603–25. He asks Charles II, who was king from 1660 to 1685, for the ambassadorship to Constantinople. Though at least 35 years pass between the beginning and ending of the chapter, Orlando has aged no more than 12 years. This serves a few purposes. For one thing, Orlando has to age slower than normal or else he wouldn't live long enough to experience the similarities and differences between cultural eras in Europe. More importantly, Virginia Woolf is showing how the passing of time should be judged not by a rigid structure of minutes and seconds, but by the activity at hand. The narrator says an hour spent thinking seems to last days, while an hour spent doing lasts a mere second. That's why "[i]t would be no exaggeration" that Orlando would leave the house "a man of thirty and come home to dinner a man of fifty-five at least." If being older makes one wiser, then the "years" accumulated by thinking are far more beneficial to one's intelligence than the mere "seconds" spent engaging in activity. Orlando spends hours upon hours doing nothing but thinking, which makes him wiser than his years.

Orlando understands life to be both of a "prodigious length" and astoundingly swift, and he is acutely aware there will not be enough time to accomplish everything he wants. Death is always hovering in the back of his mind, and that constant fear is the impetus for his decision to dedicate his life to poetry. He's not doing it for the sake of the art, but rather for the glorification of the family name and as a means of establishing 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. The bitter and unhappy Greene whom scholars think was based on literary historian Sir Edmund Gosse or playwright and vocal Shakespearean critic Robert Greene, is the exact opposite of who Orlando wants to be. Orlando is creeping toward understanding that personal fulfillment comes not from notoriety or showy displays of grandeur, but from inner contentment. This is true even when he's entertaining hundreds of guests in his newly furnished home. These month-long affairs, designed to make use of his sumptuously decorated house and position him as a gracious host, are not stimulating enough to prevent Orlando from sneaking away to 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 exclusive.

Poetry is one of the two things Orlando remembers after waking from his week-long sleep, which serves as a dividing line between versions of Orlando's self. The other thing he remembers is love, or more accurately, the pain of losing it. Though he can't remember any concrete events from the three months he spent with Sasha, the loss of her love has made an indelible mark on his heart. Orlando carries this sadness forward into his "new" life, and with it comes his hesitation to engage with members of the opposite sex. Young Orlando was an innately sexual creature, yet 30-year-old Orlando, at least according to the narrator, is as reserved as a monk. Instead of experiencing love, he analyzes its worth and meaning and concludes the pain of heartbreak isn't something he wants to experience again. When the Archduchess's touch rekindles his long-dormant "passion," Orlando perceives his lustful feelings as a dark threat over the happiness he has worked so hard to achieve.

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