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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Chapter 4 | Summary



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 gender and go instead to "the glory of poetry." As the captain narrates the changes in London since Orlando's departure, she latches onto the names "Addison, Dryden, Pope," three poets of the time.

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 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.

She calms the next day as ladies of high social standing invite her to join the folds of London society. The most coveted invitation is from Lady R., who is known for exclusive get-togethers of the literary geniuses of the time. Alexander Pope, he of "Addison, Dryden, Pope," infuriates Lady R. at one of the parties, and Orlando invites him to come home with her. This leads to her friendship with several "men of genius," and Orlando is sure "future ages" will be jealous of her proximity to cultural giants. Yet she feels uncomfortable around these men because she knows no man ever fully respects a woman. Pope is angered by Orlando's inability to give him the level of adulation he thinks he deserves, and a rift develops between the two.

After their icy parting, Orlando changes into one of her old suits and goes for a walk. The masculine clothing affects her gait, speech, and gestures, and suddenly it's as if she were a man again. She picks up a prostitute, who takes Orlando back to her room. Orlando's own experience of womanhood gives her insight into the deceptive flirtations, and she finally cracks and reveals herself as female. The prostitute, Nell, laughs and drops her facade. She and her friends take Orlando under their collective wing. The narrator admits he has a hard time keeping track of Orlando at this point in her life because her fortune and poetry are linked to the name of a male cousin, not Orlando herself, who bounces back and forth between masculine and feminine clothing (depending on the situation) and takes lovers of both genders.

One hundred years after Orlando first arrived back in England, she still lingers around the coffeehouses to see (but not hear) the geniuses at work. She realizes just how much has changed since the Elizabethan era and reflects on the tranquility of the age. Just then the clocks strike midnight and dark clouds roll into view, cloaking London in darkness. The 19th century begins.


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 held women in her previous life doesn't come naturally—a woman must work hard to be "obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled." It's a lot of work to be a woman, and there is little compensation for the trouble if one isn't interested in marriage and children, which Orlando isn't. Her experiences with the court system and Archduke Harry leave her feeling unsure of her place in the world. She cannot change her body back to that of a man, nor can she deny the increase in femininity that comes with living in a woman's body. Without realizing it, Orlando becomes less self-confident the longer she lives as a woman. She hides her poetry from others, which is evidence that she "was becoming a little more modest, as women are, of her brains." She takes far greater pains with her appearance, and she fears she cannot handle the same activities she could as a man.

It isn't until Orlando meets Nell that she finally finds her footing as a woman and regains her self-confidence. This counters everything she had known as a man, when she assumed women were "incapable of any feeling of affection for their own sex and hold each other in the greatest aversion." Men thought women were incapable of sustaining a conversation that wasn't guided by a man or about one. This is in part because men rarely saw women interact with one another. Women made sure "the doors [were] shut and that not a word of it [got] into print." They kept to themselves as a means of protecting their conversations from male influence and control. Orlando's introduction into an all-female group of companions makes her privy to one of the only things women have that men don't: intimate friendships. She has never had close friends like this before—as a man, she preferred her own company, and everyone she associated with in the early days of her womanhood was male and looking for her admiration. For the first time in her female life, Orlando is free to be herself. She 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.

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.

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