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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How do Orlando's long stretches of sleep advance the narrative?

Orlando falls into deep, week-long slumbers at two different points in the book. The first is after his exile from King James I's court; the other is immediately after the riot in Turkey. In each case, Orlando wakes a seemingly different person. The change is subtle in Chapter 2, when Orlando seems pretty normal but "graver and more sedate in his ways than before." He also cannot remember what happened up until that point. This "new" Orlando isn't saddled with the baggage of Sasha's memory and his subsequent banishment from court. His fresh start allows him to pivot his life in another direction, namely becoming a famous poet. Virginia Woolf doesn't need to explain Orlando's transition from heartsick noble in disgrace to burgeoning literary giant because she attributes the change in character to a really long nap. The same thing happens after the second long sleep in Chapter 3. Orlando had done pretty much all there was to do in Turkey, and his life experiences weren't getting any more interesting. Woolf breathes new life into the narrative by having Orlando go to sleep as a man and wake up as a woman. This sudden change in gender is another new beginning for Orlando. Woolf doesn't have to tell the reader how it happened, only that it happened when Orlando was asleep. Insights about Orlando's inner self take the place of tedious explanations about how such an event could be possible. These week-long sleeps allow Woolf to focus on what is truly important: the who and the why, not the how.

What does the hasty retreat of Chastity, Purity, and Modesty in Chapter 3 say about Orlando as a woman?

Chastity, Purity, and Modesty make their entrance during Orlando's long sleep in Chapter 3. They are the three "graces" that all women were expected to embody from the Elizabethan to Victorian eras, and their arrival signals Orlando's transformation from man to woman. The device of characters as Virtues and Vices goes all the way back to the late Medieval/early Renaissance Morality plays, and existed in a less explicit form in melodramas popular among the lower classes in the United States and England until 1932. These three particular virtues come to protect female Orlando from the prying eyes of the reader and the rest of the world, covering her "with their draperies" so her naked form will not be seen. They don't want "Truth," represented by the blare of trumpets, to "unveil the shameful," which, in this case, is the female form. Truth forges ahead and the three graces run away, leaving Orlando's femininity completely exposed when she wakes. This gives the reader significant insight to Orlando's future as a woman. She will not be ashamed of her new form. She will not conform to the restrictions in behavior and appearance placed on women prior to the 20th century. She will not act any differently as a man would in the same situation. Though her looks have changed, she, as a person, has not.

How does Orlando's reaction to her transformation in Chapter 3 reflect Virginia Woolf's own view of gender and identity?

Orlando feels no different in a woman's body than she did in a man's. She retains her memories, her love of nature, and her fondness for poetry. Though she had a different body, "in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been." Orlando's lack of reaction to her new situation gives no credence to the early-20th century belief that a person's sex influences his or her personality and capabilities, a theory with which Virginia Woolf herself also disagreed. Woolf was vocal on the subject in debates with the Bloomsbury Group and in her letters and diaries, arguing that gender was no indicator of sexual preference and only tangentially related to a person's identity. She was particularly irritated when writers used their characters' sexuality as a foundational element of their fictional personalities. Those one-dimensional portrayals based on "science" play into rote stereotypes that do nothing to arouse the interest of the reader, just as the "old" stuffy literature of the Enlightenment had its own stereotype of sexuality. According to Woolf, a person's identity is much more than their choice of attire and who they desire, even if that person is fictional.

How does Virginia Woolf satirize racial and religious intolerance in Chapter 3 of Orlando?

Satire is the use of humor to criticize or expose a person or culture's stupidity or ignorance. In Chapter 3 of Orlando, Orlando leaves Constantinople in the midst of political turmoil to live with a tribe of gypsies. The gypsies soon realize that Orlando worships nature, which they believe to be "the vilest and cruelest among all the Gods." This creates a distance between them and Orlando, and they are relieved when she has to go back to England, because they were afraid they were going to have to kill her for having beliefs different from their own. This situation is satirical because of the long history of intolerance directed toward the Roma, a nomadic race that originated in northwestern India, which dates all the way back to the Middle Ages and continues through the 21st century. With their foreign language and "unconventional" culture, the Roma were viewed as being greedy and untrustworthy. Many countries, including England, didn't allow Roma to live within their borders. In Virginia Woolf's hands, however, the stigma against the Roma is turned upside down. She characterizes them not as criminals and vagrants, but as being far superior to the English in terms of their ancestry and intelligence. It is not the Roma who are discriminated against for their beliefs, but rather Orlando. Woolf's decision to reverse the traditional power structure between a representative of Christianity and the Roma shows the foolishness of disliking someone for their beliefs and their heritage.

How does Chapter 3 of Orlando serve as a commentary on the values of Western society?

After a few months together, Orlando's relationship with the gypsies begins to deteriorate. Instead of realizing she's spooking them with her lingering stares and her fervent idealization of and obsession with nature, she decides the problem is that they're "an ignorant people" compared to her "ancient and civilised race." As she regales them with stories about her enormous mansion and her family history, the gypsies' anger turns to pity. Their family lines can be traced back for thousands of years, while Orlando's stops at around 1200. Even gypsy beggars had a longer lineage than Orlando. This disproves the Western assumption that a person's status should be tied to the status of their ancestors. The gypsies also look down on Orlando for the ostentatiousness of her wealth. To them, the ownership of property is vulgar and selfish. The land belongs to everyone. The things the gypsies value—livestock, crops, bread—are so simple in nature that they make Orlando, and Western society in general, look greedy in comparison. By showing the differences between Orlando and her hosts, Virginia Woolf makes a subtle argument in favor of simplicity over the trappings of Western culture.

How does Orlando's transformation into a woman help her better understand Sasha?

Orlando doesn't think about her new body very much until she is on the boat home to England. It is there she realizes not only how her actions affect men, but how men's actions affect her. The insight into the feelings of both genders allows her to finally sympathize, and perhaps forgive, Sasha, who left male Orlando waiting at the inn to start their lives anew. Male Orlando always assumed Sasha did not show up because she was under the influence of another man's power or love. Female Orlando recognizes the existence of a different explanation: maybe Sasha didn't want to be shackled to a man for the rest of her life. Orlando has these fears herself, understanding that her arrival in England would not only mean comfort, but also "conventionality ... slavery ... deceit ... fettering her limbs ... and restraining her tongue." Orlando suddenly understands the second-class status women endure, which gives her a much greater appreciation for the difficult decision Sasha had to face when the Thames thawed.

How do Orlando's views about poets change after she meets the literary giants of the 18th century?

Orlando is initially thrilled to make the acquaintance of several important writers of the 18th century, including Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, and Joseph Addison. She and Pope grow particularly close, and Orlando eventually realizes those with the biggest intellects are often the worst companions. "[I]ntellect ... has a habit of lodging in the most seedy of carcases" and leaves very little room for other important characteristics like "the Heart, the Senses, Magnanimity, Charity, Tolerance, [and] Kindliness." Poets think highly of themselves and no one else, and they are so focused on their own lives that they have no interest in anyone else's. Having once been a man herself, Orlando knows Pope, like all men of great intelligence and importance, doesn't respect her opinion, nor the opinion of any woman. Where male Orlando once worshiped poets for their wit and skill, female Orlando sees them as insecure and egotistical loudmouths. Though she feels their writing should be respected, she no longer cares what they say verbally. That's why she views the new wits of the age from afar at the end of Chapter 4. The conversations she imagines them to be having are far more interesting and insightful than the words she has heard from the great wits' mouths in the past.

In Chapter 4 of Orlando, what is meant by "society is everything and society is nothing"?

Orlando's entrance into society is a dazzling whirlwind that neither she nor the narrator can accurately describe. Orlando loves the late nights she spends with the wealthy and titled, but when she gets home she can't remember a single interesting thing that was said or done. It is the thrill of being in such esteemed company that keeps her awake for hours after she returns home. After some distance, however, she realizes that nothing of value happens at these gatherings. Virginia Woolf is pointing out that the illusion of high society is for the benefit of those who experience it. Socializing in elite circles feels like the most important thing in the world when it is happening, but there is no tangible benefit to spending all of one's time with people exactly like oneself.

How does Harry's cross-dressing differ from Orlando's?

Archduke Harry presents himself as Archduchess Harriet in Chapter 2 as a means of earning male Orlando's affection. This was during the 17th century, and although homosexual relationships happened, they weren't universally acknowledged or looked upon with favor. The archduke believes he has a better chance of securing a romantic relationship with Orlando if he presents himself as being of the opposite sex. For the archduke, cross-dressing is a means to an end. He dresses as a woman when Orlando is a man. When Orlando returns to England as a woman in Chapter 3, the archduke no longer has to wear women's clothing. His intent is to simply adhere to the societal expectation of a male/female relationship. It doesn't matter to him which party is male and which is female. Unlike Archduke Harry, Orlando's reasons for cross-dressing are not rooted in societal expectations. She chooses whether to present herself as male or female, depending on her mood and the task at hand. When she needs to go to court she dresses as a man, and when she wants to be seductive and flirtatious she wears a dress. Yet there are times when she dresses as a man simply because it is practical and comfortable. Gardening is much easier in breeches, as is exploring London after dark. Orlando's choice of clothing reflects her entire persona, while Archduke Harry's cross-dressing reflects a solitary desire.

Why does Nell's demeanor change when she realizes Orlando is a woman?

Orlando is dressed as a man when she first meets Nell, a prostitute. Orlando realizes that Nell's "timidity and her hesitating answers the very fumbling with the key in the latch" are all purposeful to make Orlando, whom Nell thinks is a man, feel even more masculine. Orlando tires of the ruse and reveals herself as a woman, which makes Nell reveal her true self. She drops her "plaintive, appealing ways" and talks to Orlando matter-of-factly. Now that she is in a woman's company, Nell does not need to pretend to be someone she is not. Nell's change of demeanor is Virginia Woolf's way of showing that women cannot truly be themselves in front of men because of preconceived notions of how men and women should act when they are together. When women are alone together, they do not need to be subservient or agreeable—they can speak plainly and openly. This is Woolf's subtle way of showing the intimate bond between women that she feels cannot be duplicated in relationships with men.

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