Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Chapter 5 | Summary



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.

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 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 the next nine days. Shel is there when news arrives that the lawsuits against Orlando have been settled. Her property and titles are restored, though she is "excessively poor" after paying for lawyers for the past 100 years. She doesn't mind. The town celebrates the reinstatement of her position, and she receives invitations from all the important ladies of London, but she eschews all of it for Shel's company. They marry on the tenth day, after which Shel immediately departs for Cape Horn to chase the changing wind.


Virginia Woolf portrays the Victorian age as being more conservative and more restrictive than any other era of Orlando's life. Women are more reliant on men than ever, and even the men need someone to "lean" on. Children are born at an alarming rate, and the feminine focus is narrowed to encompass only family and home. Orlando's struggle to ignore "the spirit of the age" points out everything Woolf finds distasteful about the Victorian era: the emphasis on monogamy, the suppression of female sexuality, and the overall hindrance of female independence. Male/female partnerships come under particular scrutiny because, as Orlando says, "[i]t did not seem to be Nature." Animals don't mate for life, and life-long pairings weren't nearly as emphasized in any other era of Orlando's life as in the Victorian. Because Orlando sees no evidence "that Nature had changed her ways or mended them," she believes humans are 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, 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 as she pleases, one moment pretending she is dead in the woods, the next scrambling back to him "with the crocus and the jay's feather in her breast." She can be delicate and feminine in his arms while telling swashbuckling stories of her previous adventures and foibles. Orlando no longer feels the shame of nonconformity because Shel understands her need to express all the facets of her personality, not just those deemed "proper" by Victorian society.

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 she maintains "the same brooding meditative temper," and a love of animals, the country, and the seasons. Woolf is implying that the fundamental aspects of a person's character cannot be altered by changes in fortune, circumstance, societal expectations, or even gender. We are what we are. While it can be argued that Orlando does change her values by marrying, it is important to remember that she is marrying the reverse image of herself. Shel is, for all intents and purposes, Orlando of the 16th and 17th centuries. He is a sailor and an adventurer, which recalls the more daring escapes the narrator declined to elaborate upon in Chapters 1 and 2. Orlando is not marrying just any random man—she is marrying the man through whom she can access her masculine side, which allows her to feel like a complete person. Her marriage is not a change in personality or values, but rather the answer to a problem that has followed her throughout all her lives.

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