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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How are Virginia Woolf's feelings about Victorian culture reflected in Chapters 5 and 6 of Orlando?

Though Virginia Woolf was brought up during the Victorian era, she didn't subscribe to the culture's ideals of femininity. Men's and women's lives were quite separate, with women in charge of the household, while men left the home to work. This was a change from previous centuries where men and women worked side-by-side in family businesses. This shift was due in part to the belief that men were stronger and smarter than women, so they could do more strenuous and intellectually stimulating labor. Women were educated at home and expected to marry out of desire for children, not romance. Woolf rejected the notion that men were more intelligent and capable than women and believed there was more to women's lives than taking care of the home and family. She especially disliked books that focused on the domestic sphere of women's lives. This is evident in Orlando. Throughout the course of the novel, the narrator glosses over any interest in household duties, with the singular exception of male Orlando furnishing his country estate. Female Orlando spends her time thinking about subjects traditionally in the male sphere, including literature and fame. The birth of her son is barely mentioned, and the boy never shows up in the text. Orlando's marriage only comes up because Orlando is loathe to succumb to the "spirit of the age," which represents the oppressive nature of the Victorian era's ideals about marriage and gender-based conduct. Once the marriage is out of the way, Shel leaves for an adventure while Orlando is left alone to live her life as she sees fit. Woolf does not treat female Orlando like a typical female character in Victorian literature because she believes women's lives can be far richer when they are not relegated to serving as a support system for someone else.

Why does Orlando declare herself a "real woman" in Chapter 5?

Orlando is in the middle of a conversation with Shel when she realizes she is "a real woman, at last." They aren't talking of much—Shel is reluctantly telling Orlando about his adventures sailing around Cape Horn. The mental image of Shel "sucking peppermints ... while the masts snapped and the stars reeled" brings tears to her eyes "of a finer flavour than any she had cried before." Orlando's tears are bittersweet. She cries out of love for Shel, who gets to experience his wildest dreams at sea, but she also cries out of empathy. She can feel the excitement, fear, and disappointment Shel feels on every expedition. This ability to empathize, or understand and share someone else's feelings, is a new concept for Orlando. She interprets it as a feminine trait, which is why she says she feels like a real woman.

Why is Orlando more receptive to a relationship with Shel than one with Harry?

The most basic answer to this question is that Orlando loves Shel and she didn't love Harry. But Orlando and Shel only speak for a few minutes before she knows for certain that she wants to marry him. Though they do indeed have a certain intangible connection, there are vast differences in the way the two men treat Orlando, and those differences undoubtedly factor in Orlando's assessment of each. Harry views Orlando as an object he can acquire. He saw male Orlando's portrait and decided he must have its subject, even if the subject does not want anything to do with him. Even when Orlando was a man, Harry only saw him as a pretty face. In contrast, Shel sees Orlando as a complete person. Having once been a woman himself, he understands that Orlando is more than the image she chooses to present to the world. Unlike Harry, Shel does not expect Orlando to fit a certain mold or role-play the traditional male/female relationship.

What do Orlando's nicknames for Shel say about their relationship?

Orlando calls Shel by several names. The first, of course, is Shel, a shortening of his last name, Shelmerdine. She calls him "Mar," short for "Marmaduke," when she is "in a dreamy, amorous, acquiescent mood, domestic, languid" mood. When "the desire for death" overcomes her, she calls him "Bonthrop," his middle name. She has a different name for various moods and occasions, and the names alert Shel to how Orlando is feeling. This is significant not only because Shel implicitly understands this shorthand, but that he acknowledges and accepts Orlando's various selves during a time in history when the masculine and feminine spheres of life were so separate. Their connection is deeper than that of just the external image of Victorian stability, husband and wife.

How does the narrator's reaction to the year Orlando spends writing reflect the sexism of the Victorian era?

The narrator becomes irate with Orlando for spending an entire year wrapping up her work on "The Oak Tree." He wants to document action, not a subject "sitting still in a chair and thinking." The narrator then eases his stance and points out Orlando is a woman, and when writing about women's lives "we may ... waive our demand for action, and substitute love instead. Love ... is woman's whole existence." The narrator is right—love was thought to be strictly in the female realm during the Victorian era. He acts as if he is being chivalrous by allowing Orlando leniency because of her sex and automatically assumes that her subject is love. But Orlando is not writing about love—she is writing about an oak tree. The narrator assures the reader Orlando will "give over this pretence of writing" and start to think of a man. That's a good thing, because "as long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking." This is blatant sexism and flies in the face of everything Orlando has personally experienced. When she was a man, she did not write about women—why should the topic of her discourse change with her gender? Orlando's refusal to bend to traditional thoughts about a woman's place in literature so greatly annoys the biographer that he ignores Orlando completely and spends the next page talking about what is going on outside the window. If Orlando will not do her job, he will not do his.

What is significant about the birth of Orlando's son and his subsequent disappearance from Orlando?

Orlando gives birth to a son near the end of the Victorian era after having been pregnant for the better part of the century. Her pregnancy isn't mentioned much, only that it was in the spirit of the age, but the birth of her son spans several pages of the novel. Yet during these pages, the narrator never explicitly says what is going on. The narrator begins by wishing for the appearance of Purity, Chastity, and Modesty to shroud "this undeniable event whatever it may be," then describes different sights and sounds to distract readers from what is happening at that very moment, not returning to the present until the baby is safely delivered. The narrator's refusal to discuss or even acknowledge Orlando's labor represents the low regard, and in some cases, fear, men have with regard to events and activities that are characterized as female. The male narrator determines what is important in Orlando's life, and childbirth doesn't make the cut. Orlando's son is absent from the rest of the book. Readers never learn the boy's name, and he is only mentioned in passing as being in need of new shoes. It is not that the narrator ignores him, but rather that Virginia Woolf purposefully does not make Orlando's son the most important part of her life. She is trying to show that motherhood, like gender, does not change the fundamental characteristics of a person's nature. Mothers still dream and create and think deep thoughts.

What is the purpose of the reintroduction of Nick Greene in Chapter 6 of Orlando?

Nick Greene and Orlando reunite in Chapter 6 in the middle of the 19th century. Orlando is astonished to see him smartly dressed and thriving in academia, which is a far cry from his station in life during their last meeting. She quickly learns, however, that the trappings of wealth and titles haven't changed Greene's beliefs or personality. He still prattles on without letting her get a word in edgewise, and his favorite topic of conversation has barely changed in 250 years. In the 17th century, he told Orlando about the death of poetry and how horrible the Elizabethan writers were. He does he same thing in the 19th century, except this time he praises the Elizabethan writers "who take antiquity for their model and write, not for pay, but for glory." Orlando realizes "Nick Greene had not changed, for all his knighthood." His reintroduction in Chapter 6 shows what little effect time and wealth have on a person's core beliefs and values. Nick Greene is the type of person who will always glorify the past and detest the present, then appreciate the present when it finally becomes the past.

How would the explanation about Orlando's writing prize in Chapter 6 have differed if Orlando were a man?

Orlando is awarded The Burdett Coutts' Memorial Prize for "The Oak Tree," but the reader doesn't learn that until Orlando's various selves are whirling around her like a personal hurricane. The reader does not learn about this from the narrator, but rather through Orlando's own thoughts. Though the narrator is at first annoyed that Orlando announced such a noteworthy item herself and in the middle of what seems to be a nervous breakdown, he admits when one is writing about a woman, "everything is out of place; the accent never falls where it does with a man." Were Orlando a man, the narrator would have made a big fuss about the award, but because she is a woman, he neglects to announce it at all. Virginia Woolf is commenting on the tendency of men to boast about their accomplishments while women downplay what they have achieved, as well as society's inclination to celebrate male success stories while overlooking women's achievements.

How does the change in narration at the end of Chapter 6 affect the mood of Orlando?

Virginia Woolf is known for her stream-of-consciousness style of writing, but almost all of Orlando is written as if it is a biography. The narrator adopts a matter-of-fact tone that borders on adoration through the first 30 years of Orlando's life, which generally results in a pleasant mood, or atmosphere. The overt fawning ends after Orlando becomes a woman, and the mood vacillates between the social gaiety of the 18th century, the darkness of the early Victorian era, and the peace following Orlando's marriage and completion of her poem. The last quarter of Chapter 6, however, is a different story altogether. The narrator's authoritative voice is replaced with Woolf's signature stream of consciousness on October 11, 1928, when Orlando realizes she is in the present moment. Orlando becomes overwhelmed with thoughts and memories while shopping, and Woolf's use of disparate ideas smashed into run-on sentences creates an atmosphere of frenzied despair. The more Orlando remembers, the more manic the mood of the novel becomes. The reader is under the impression that Orlando is going crazy, hurtling through all of her lives like a freight train without brakes. The stream-of-consciousness narration does not end once Orlando locates her true self, but it does slow down. Orlando pauses, "[t]he whole of her darkened and settled," which establishes a tenuous calm that continues through the last page.

Why do some of the characters in Orlando live for centuries while others have relatively normal life spans?

The characters in Orlando don't age according to the Gregorian calendar. Some, including the real-life kings and queens of the British Empire, age at a normal rate, but other characters live long past the average human life span. Virginia Woolf wanted to play with time when writing Orlando, and she did so by examining why time seems to pass so slowly when one is thinking, but so quickly when one is actually doing something. Kings and queens are doers, so their lives follow the natural path of the clock. Orlando, on the other hand, spends more time thinking than doing anything else. She ages extremely slowly because, according to the narrator, she is doing nothing of importance. Nick Greene, the poet, is in the same boat. He is also a thinker. His age is unknown when Orlando first meets him in Chapter 2, but by Chapter 6, at least 250 years later, he is only in his 70s. Following this train of thought, all writers are thinkers, and in the world of Orlando they would age slower than normal. That means their influence spans a longer period of time than the average person, much like Orlando's beloved oak tree. One could argue Woolf used time in Orlando as a means of explaining the lasting effects of influential writers' and thinkers' work.

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