Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

In Chapter 6, Orlando goes back to "The Oak Tree" after Shel leaves for Cape Horn. She writes furiously throughout the next year, which the narrator refuses to document because, as he says, nothing interesting happens. There are no adventures or affairs, so he turns his attention to what is happening outside Orlando's window, which is: nothing. At long last, "The Oak Tree" is finished. The manuscript pulses as if it is alive, and Orlando is consumed with the desire to have someone read it. She goes to London and runs into Nick Greene, now Sir Nicholas Greene, who has become a knight, a professor, and a Doctor of Literature since Orlando last saw him in the 17th century. Orlando struggles with her feelings about this well-groomed and moneyed version of the man who publicly shamed her so long ago. Greene dominates the conversation just as he did 200 years before, lamenting how "the great days of literature," mostly the Elizabethan era, are now over. "We must cherish the past; honour those writers ... who take antiquity for their model," he says, and Orlando is positive she has heard all of this before. Orlando grows more and more bored as the conversation continues—Greene no longer gossips about writers, but rather drones on and on about Orlando's "own blood relations." Orlando is so agitated that her manuscript pops out of her bodice. Greene reads it and immediately declares it to be magnificent and assures Orlando he will help her get it published. She has no idea what he means by that, but reluctantly lets him take her life's work.

She tries to shake off the empty feeling caused by the loss of her manuscript by going into a bookstore, the first she has ever seen. She's mesmerized by the stacks of books, and asks for "everything of importance" to be sent to her home in the city. She comes home to find an astonishing number of wrapped parcels and methodically goes through each one. Her reading is interrupted by the birth of her son. The narrator declines to document this momentous event and once again details everything except what's actually happening with Orlando. The narrative picks up years later when King Edward is on the throne (1901–10). Orlando observes the changes in the world from her window—automobiles, electric lights, changes in the female form, the disappearance of facial hair, and realistic artwork. Suddenly, the long "tunnel in which she seemed to have been travelling for hundreds of years widened" and she is thrust into the present, October 11, 1928.

Orlando drives herself to a department store and is overwhelmed by the crowds of people on the streets, the elevators in the building, and the sheer number of items for sale in one place. She has visions of Sasha as an old, fat woman and tastes her life in Turkey. As she drives home, she imagines a cottage in the countryside to calm her nerves and calls out her own name, trying to summon another one of her selves. Dozens of selves present themselves in a frenzy as she is flooded with memories of her storied past. She wishes they would coalesce into one true self. When they finally do, "[t]he whole of her darkened and settled." She goes into the house, changes into more masculine clothing, and visits every room in her centuries-old mansion. She sees the ghostly images of Addison, Dryden, Pope, and Swift, as well as the numerous kings and queens who slept under her roof. The clock strikes four times and her memories disappear into a fine powder. Tense and afraid, Orlando loses herself in deep, dark thoughts, finally surfacing to bury "The Oak Tree" at the base of its namesake as a tribute to "what the land has given" her. That seems conceited and pompous all of a sudden, and she wonders what "praise and fame [have] to do with poetry." A church clock chimes and night has fallen. She calls Shel's name. She hears the "roar of an aeroplane" and bares her breast in the moonlight. Shel jumps to the ground as the clock strikes midnight. It is Thursday, October 11, 1928.

Analysis

Though Orlando hasn't changed much throughout the course of the novel, the narrator has. He who once spoke in glowing terms about young male Orlando can barely conceal his disdain that he has to document the life of a woman in the 19th century. He says "nobody objects" to a woman writing and thinking as long as it is about a man, but Orlando is writing and thinking only about herself. The narrator would be appeased if Orlando took a lover, as "[l]ove ... is woman's whole existence," but because Orlando will "neither love nor kill," the narrator decides that "she is no better than a corpse" and turns his attention to what is happening outside the window. The same thing happens when Orlando goes into labor, an allusion to Gustave Flaubert's equally cursory treatment of the birth of a daughter in 1856's Madame Bovary. The male narrator's complete disgust with anything having to do with the feminine is Virginia Woolf's commentary about how very little women's lives were valued during the Victorian era, particularly by men. When a momentous occasion does occur—the birth of Orlando's son—the narrator deems it indelicate, and ignores the entire thing. That Woolf portrays the narrator as thinking this very natural but feminine act is a source of shame speaks volumes about attitudes regarding women during the Victorian era.

One character who barely changes during the course of Orlando is Orlando's former frenemy Nick Greene. Despite his steady ascent up the social and intellectual ladder, his attitudes and ideals haven't changed a bit since the 17th century. He once thought Elizabethan poets and writers were the death of literature; now he finds them to be the pinnacle of literary perfection. Like many people, particularly the English Romantic poets who draw upon nostalgia to idealize the past, Greene glorifies what was then instead of what is now. He has no problem praising the past he slammed when it was the present. His viewpoint is very different from that of Orlando, who does not look back at the past as "the good old days," but rather as a collection of past selves. The past is simply a memory to Orlando, not something to be championed. Though she says she is set in her ways and unwilling to bend to the spirit of the age, she appears to accept modern inventions and customs, save marriage, with barely any trepidation. Orlando's acceptance of the present is the key to her happiness, just as Greene's obsession with the past is the root of his bitterness.

The intrusion of Orlando's past into her shopping trip marks a change in both the story's narration and Orlando's personal sense of self. The narrative voice goes from that of a slightly biased biographer to a stream-of-conscious rambling that reflects Orlando's innermost thoughts. As she drives home from the department store, it seems as if she's on the verge of a nervous breakdown as each memory, or past "self," battles for supremacy. This is the point of all of Orlando's adventures and brushes with history, and perhaps even why she has lived as long as she has. She has been trying on different "selves" for size, altering her behavior, experiences, and even gender to fit within the social constructs of each era. She is forever wrestling with the desire to be herself and the desire to conform, and it all comes to a head during that manic drive home. She stops trying to summon different versions of herself and decides it would be better to have one true self that is, for better or for worse, the sum of her experiences. The arrival of her "single self" is a somber occasion marked by silence, which emphasizes the importance of Orlando's decision to accept herself exactly as she is.

Orlando's tour of her home signals another change. The enormous house has become more of a museum than an abode. Velvet ropes and small signs keep visitors away from the historical artifacts, and Orlando admits to herself no ambassadors, kings, or queens will ever stay in the house again. The memories of the house and its previous guests are extraordinarily dear to Orlando, but they are relics of the past. New, single-self Orlando lives in the present, as she is constantly reminded by the chiming of clocks. Her present doesn't involve royalty, great wits of the age, or even literary fame. The only things that are truly important are her relationships with Shel and herself. Orlando has finally found what she has been looking for all along: life and a lover.

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