Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Chapter 3 | Summary



Chapter 3 begins with an admission that not much is known about Orlando's time in Constantinople, as most of the records were damaged or destroyed. Orlando apparently spends his days signing official documents and engaging in social niceties with other dignitaries but makes no actual friends. After two- and-a-half years of service, he is awarded a dukedom, the highest rank given to nonroyals. A firework-laden celebration held in honor of his new position is marked by a sudden uproar from the crowd, which is quelled by British troops. Orlando goes back to his room after the party's end. What happens next is uncertain. Some say Orlando locked his door and went to bed, while others say he sneaked a peasant woman into his room. The next morning, Orlando's staff is unable to wake him. On his desk are papers documenting the marriage of Orlando and Rosina Pepita, a gypsy woman.

Orlando's slumber lasts for a week. A brutal revolution takes place and almost all the foreigners in Constantinople are killed. 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 biographer." They cry "Truth!" and the doors to Orlando's room open to reveal three ladies: Purity, Chastity, and Modesty. They try to cover and protect Orlando, but the trumpet of Truth scares them away. Orlando wakes. He is now a woman. Female Orlando remembers everything of the male Orlando's life and doesn't seem bothered at all to suddenly be in the body of a different gender. She gets dressed in the customary unisex clothing of the Turks, feeds the dog, grabs "The Oak Tree" manuscript, and leaves Constantinople on a donkey guided by a gypsy man.

They go to Broussa, the main camping ground of the gypsy tribe. The narrator surmises Orlando had been in contact with the gypsies long before the revolution, and they welcome her as one of their own. She easily adapts to their nomadic, rural lifestyle and spends her days milking goats and following the 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 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 "The Oak Tree" using ink made from berries and wine.

The gypsies are unnerved by the way Orlando stares at her surroundings and her companions, and she eventually picks up on the growing gulf between her and the rest of the group. She initially attributes it to the gypsies being "an ignorant people" while she herself "came of an ancient and civilised race," but it's actually the opposite. Orlando's family has been around for 300 years, while gypsy bloodlines "went back at least two or three thousand years." Heritage is not important when everyone has a long family history. Material possessions, like furniture-filled mansions, mean nothing when "the whole earth is ours." Orlando doesn't want to stay with the gypsies any longer, but she doesn't want to go back to the life of an ambassador, either. A vision that makes her homesick for England spurs her to leave the very next day. The gipsies are glad. They young men of the tribe were plotting to kill her "for she did not think as they did," and they "would have been sorry to cut her throat."


The theme of gender and identity is rooted in Orlando's transformation from man to woman in Chapter 3. This event is not only notable for the fact it happens, but for Orlando's and the narrator's simultaneous reactions. Orlando is aware that she has become a woman, but she is not bothered by it. "The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity," the narrator notes, using "they" to refer to both the male and female versions of Orlando. Orlando's memories, thoughts, and personality are exactly the same in this new body. She isn't bothered by her new form. The male narrator, on the other hand, is. He would rather Orlando die than have to pronounce her a woman. The body that he had written about in such glowing terms earlier in the book, particularly those "shapely calves," is now marked indecent, as the spirits of 17th-century womanhood, Chastity, Modesty, and Purity, try to cover Orlando's form. The double-standard to which women are subjected is evident in the 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 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.

Constantinople is the perfect setting for Orlando's transformation and subsequent reconnection with nature. Standing at the junction of Europe and Asia, Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) has been the site of much turmoil and 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 Sackville-West, on whom the character of Orlando is based. Sackville-West's husband, Harold Nicolson, served on a diplomatic staff in Turkey from 1912 to 1914. When they married in 1913, Sackville-West joined him abroad. She soon became pregnant. Sackville-West figuratively became a mature, adult woman in Constantinople. Woolf mirrors those events by having Orlando's literal change into womanhood occur in the same place. The city also features heavily in Sackville-West's first volume of poetry, Constantinople: Eight Poems. Setting the book's most important moment in Constantinople is evidence of Woolf's adoration of her muse.

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