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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the root of Orlando's obsession with poets?

Orlando's obsession with poets begins in Chapter 1 when he sees a "rather fat, rather shabby man" wearing a dirty ruff seated at the servants' dinner table in Mrs. Stewkley's sitting room. The man holds a pen but does not write, and Orlando is certain this man is a poet. He suddenly wants to know everything there is to know about poetry and life itself, and he is under the impression that the poet's life is filled with "ogres, satyrs, and perhaps the depths of the sea." Orlando thinks poets are different from everyone else, and certainly different from him, which is why they are able to write such glorious verses. He idolizes poets because he wants to be one and because he worries he is not good enough to be successful. That is why he invites Nick Greene to his home, and why female Orlando befriends Alexander Pope. Orlando wants to find out what makes poets tick so that he (and she) can become one too. He would even settle to be this poorly dressed wretch seated in the servants' quarters. (That wouldn't be a bad thing at all, for Orlando's index indicates this man is none other than William Shakespeare.) Orlando doesn't yet understand that poetry is more about the quality of the writing than the person who writes it.

What role does gender play in Orlando's initial attraction to Sasha?

Orlando first sees Sasha as she is ice skating on the frozen Thames River. Her loose tunic and trousers are baggy, hiding her figure, and Orlando is not sure if she is a man or a woman. Nevertheless, he is captivated by the "extraordinary seductiveness which issued from the whole person." He is attracted to the figure even though he does not know its gender. After determining "no woman could skate with such speed and vigour," Orlando becomes upset that he will not be able to have a romantic relationship with the skater. It is not Orlando's own feelings holding him back—he thinks the "boy" to be just as lovely as ever—but the social constructs of the time. Men were not supposed to act on their attraction to other men. That's why the revealing of Sasha's femininity is such a joy to Orlando. Because she is a woman, he can act upon his desires.

Why does Orlando assign his three marriage prospects poetic pseudonyms?

From a young age Orlando idolized poets and writers, particularly the one he sees in the servants' quarters, and he devotes himself to emulating his favorites. This is why he adopts the names Clorinda, Favilla, and Euphrosyne for his romantic prospects. All were all popular names in Elizabethan poetry, and all say something about each girl's character. Euphrosyne is the Greek goddess of mirth and joy, and her name literally means "merriment." This is the girl Orlando liked best of all, if not for her personality, then at least for her sizeable wealth and status. Her name is the most flattering of the three. Clorinda means "fresh" or "vital" in Greek. Her faintness at the sight of blood and charitable nature make her an unsuitable match for Orlando, but he doesn't dislike her. Her name is fairly neutral. Favilla, on the other hand, means "hot cinders or ashes" in Latin. This indicates she is full of fire and perhaps even a little bit dangerous, which is proven true when Orlando sees her whip her dog. Each of the girl's names reflects not only their nature, but how Orlando felt about them.

What is the nature of the relationship between Orlando and Queen Elizabeth I?

Queen Elizabeth I never married and has long been known as "The Virgin Queen." Whether she was actually a virgin or not has been a subject of debate for centuries, but Orlando's narrator assumes she is, for she "knew a man when she saw one, though not ... in the usual way." Her relationship with Orlando, therefore, isn't necessarily one of a sexual nature. She treats him more like a favorite child or a beloved pet, bestowing property, positions, and jewelry upon him to show her favor. As the narrator says, Orlando "was to be the son of her old age, the limb of her infirmity." She relies on him to carry on her legacy and supports him as "the oak tree on which she leant her degradation." Young and hormone-addled Orlando does not understand the depth and importance of his relationship with the queen, and ruins it all by kissing a girl in the queen's line of sight. The queen is heartbroken and dies. She valued Orlando far more than he appreciated her.

How does the transition from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras symbolize Orlando's change from boy to man?

Orlando is only 16 years old when the story begins during the Elizabethan era. Readers meet him as he is swinging a sword "at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters," which is a reference to Orlando's namesake, Orlando Furioso. Swords and other weapons are generally symbols of manliness, but in this instance, Orlando is simply playing at being a man. He is still but a boy, clumsy and, as Queen Elizabeth I notes, full of "[s]trength, grace, romance, folly, poetry, youth." Folly and youth are behind the kiss that seals the queen's death. Orlando was forgiven this transgression because he "was young; he was boyish; he did but as nature bade him." Orlando leaves court for a time to sow his wild oats, and when he returns, King James I is on the throne. Orlando meets Sasha and seemingly becomes a man overnight. "[H]e was changed from a sulky stripling ... to a nobleman, full of grace and manly courtesy," the narrator says. "[H]is manhood woke." Orlando no longer acts like a boy whose mother laughs at his antics, but a man intent on wooing and conquering his lady love. Orlando's transformation parallels England's transition from a matriarchy to a patriarchy. Where once he was coddled by the queen, he is now a man like his new king.

How is Orlando's relationship with Sasha a strike against conformity?

Orlando's friendship and subsequent love affair with Sasha stands out as an act of defiance against the English court in three ways: Sasha is a Muscovite, or a Russian. Her heritage and quality of "otherness," which make her inherently desirable in Orlando's eyes, are reasons for suspicion in the eyes of the court. Sasha doesn't speak English. Orlando is the only person in court who understands her because they both speak French. That makes both of them appear to be outsiders to everyone who only speaks English. Orlando is engaged to another woman. It is Euphrosyne (also known as Lady Margaret) "who ha[s] all the supreme right to his attentions," not Sasha, to whom he pays more attention "than mere civility demanded." Orlando is distancing himself from his betrothed, which isn't acceptable in the eyes of the court. He is a nobleman and therefore expected to marry a noblewoman. Ditching her for Sasha is an outright act of defiance of who Orlando is supposed to be. The most insulting aspect of Orlando's relationship with Sasha is their absence from the events at the Great Frost festival. They would rather be with the commoners than with the nobles, which "most outraged the Court, and stunt it in its tenderest part, its vanity." Orlando is more interested in pleasing Sasha than playing the role assigned to him by the court. He refuses to conform to their standards of nobility.

What is the impetus for Orlando's recovery from heartbreak in Chapter 2?

Though Orlando's week-long slumber erased some of his memories of Sasha, it did not fix his broken heart. No matter what he does or how hard he tries to think about something else, he wonders why she left him and whether she had been lying to him the whole time. He is unable to write because of the thoughts jumbled up in his head, and he angrily stabs the quill into the ink pot. The spilled ink replaces Sasha's face with that of the poet he saw years ago in the servants' quarters. The memory of the poet's face strikes a deep-seated longing not only to become a good poet, but to become famous for it. Thus, Orlando exchanges his passion for Sasha with his passion for poetry. He becomes so busy with his writing that he does not have time to mourn for his lost love, and uses poetry, instead of a woman, as a means of achieving happiness.

How does Orlando reflect Virginia Woolf's own thoughts about writing?

Much of Orlando is about Orlando's experiences as a poet and the sheer difficulty of producing a single poem. Orlando spends most of his/her life writing and refining "The Oak Tree," and the reader gets the sense that Virginia Woolf has many of the same feelings about the craft as does her main character. As detailed in Chapter 2, the "rigours of composition" are fraught with elation and despair. What seems genius one moment sounds stupid the next; brilliant ideas disappear before they can be jotted down. The writer lives and breathes his or her story to the exclusion of everything else. Writing is hard work, and Orlando's thoughts about writing encompass everything every writer has felt at one time or another. Woolf is no exception. Though her books were critical, and sometimes even commercial, successes, she was always concerned about finding new ways to intrigue her readers while shaking up the traditional literary structures. Her self-doubt reached a particularly low point during World War II. Literature seemed to be of very little importance in the wake of international turmoil and destruction, and she questioned her relevance as a writer so thoroughly that she stopped writing altogether. She committed suicide not long after.

What is the significance of the change in Orlando's writing style in Chapters 1 and 2?

When Orlando began writing "The Oak Tree" in 1586, he used language that sounded nothing like the way he would actually talk. He was trying to fit in with the mood of the Elizabethan era, and the plays and poetry he wrote were abstract, full of "noble sentiments," and altogether impossible to understand. As he matures, so does his style of writing. His sentences become more concise, his descriptions less complex. The most remarkable change in Orlando's writing happens after Nick Greene's visit. Orlando initially swears off poetry after Greene's humiliating poem is published, but eventually recants. This time, he vows not to write for the pleasure of anyone but himself. This is the moment Orlando allows himself the freedom to find his own literary voice. He is no longer bent on finding fame through verse—he simply wants to write for the sake of writing. This is symbolic of Orlando's decision to stop trying to fit other people's vision of what and who he should be.

What effect does Nick Greene's visit in Chapter 2 have on Orlando's self-image?

Nick Greene's visit to Orlando's country home doesn't just make Orlando question his own skill as a writer—it also makes him question his opulent lifestyle and his aristocratic heritage. For the first time, he is "ashamed of the number of servants and of the splendour of his table." This is the first time Orlando has seen himself through the eyes of someone else, and what he sees is not flattering. Orlando is under the impression that all poets should be unkempt and poor like Greene and the poet from Orlando's youth. In an effort to redeem himself to Greene, Orlando forgoes talking about the kings and queens who have slept in his estate's rooms for stories about his great-grandmother who milked cows, something he previously found "distasteful." Greene's very presence shames Orlando into thinking his background makes him less worthy of poetic glory.

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