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Orlando | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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What is the key to becoming a successful writer, as evidenced in Orlando?

Orlando goes from an inexperienced, fledgling poet to a prize-winning author over the course of the novel. Virginia Woolf shows the highs and lows of a life spent writing—the criticism, the praise, and the feeling that one is either "the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world" for committing one's thoughts to paper. Orlando's success as a writer can be attributed to one thing: practice. Orlando's circumstances are constantly changing—he is a man, she is a woman, he is rich, she is bankrupt—but the constant in his/her life is the act of putting one's thoughts on paper. It is not easy. Orlando spends an entire year finishing "The Oak Tree" after working on it for centuries. Though the narrator finds this unworthy of description, it is one of the most important things Orlando has ever done. From Woolf's point of view, successful writers work tirelessly and focus on the present to the exclusion of everything else. It is not glamorous, but it is the only way to be successful.

How do Orlando's thoughts about fame change over time?

When Orlando picks up "The Oak Tree" after Sasha breaks his heart, he decides he is going to be the first poet in his family "and bring immortal lustre upon his name." He isn't going to write poetry for the sheer joy of it anymore—he wants to be famous. Nick Greene's visit and subsequent poem leaves Orlando hardened against men and poetry, and he realizes his ambitions for fame brought him nothing but misery. He decides it would be better to build upon his ancestors' foundation by furnishing his enormous home—generally the duty of Victorian women—rather than outshine them by being a poet. Orlando's perceptions of fame change again when she becomes a woman. Female Orlando understands that her gender prevents her from earning notoriety for her poetry in the 18th century, so she quenches her thirst for fame by befriending Joseph Addison, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope. She soon realizes that just because one is famous for being witty does mean one actually is witty, and she is so disillusioned by fame's duplicitous nature that she disappears into the company of females where even the narrator cannot find her. Orlando finally finds success in publication of "The Oak Tree." She half-heartedly attempts to bury a copy of the poem underneath the oak tree itself as a "tribute" to all nature has given her, then suddenly feels foolish. Poetry should be private, "a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice." Its value remains the same no matter how many people read it. Fame cannot make a bad poem good, and lack of it cannot make a good poem bad.

Why does Orlando end up retaining all ownership of her property in Chapter 5?

It is often assumed women couldn't own property prior to the 20th century, but that is not entirely accurate. Orlando's property was most likely bound by an entail, which meant the property can only exchange hands through inheritance. Entails often stipulated that the inheritor had to be male. This is most likely the case for Orlando, who returns from England to learn the ownership of her English property is in question in part because of her change in gender, which was, in the eyes of the court, as good as being dead. Orlando's lawsuits drag on for more than 100 years and she is finally granted full ownership of her property right before she marries Shel. Virginia Woolf had two reasons for doing this. The first is a function of the novel's main theme of gender and identity. Woolf argues men and women are only different on the outside; therefore, women should be allowed the same rights as men, including the ownership of property. The second reason is more personal. Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's lover and the inspiration behind the character of Orlando, was not able to inherit her beloved ancestral home because of her gender. She was extraordinarily attached to the enormous estate, on which Woolf based Orlando's country home, and even wrote a book about it, Knole and the Sackvilles. Because of inheritance law, Knole had to be passed down to the first living male relative. Sackville-West would never qualify for ownership. Some literary scholars think Woolf's decision to allow Orlando to retain her property was a way of allowing Sackville-West to be the mistress of Knole for all eternity.

What is the narrator's role in Virginia Woolf's Orlando?

Virginia Woolf presents Orlando's third-person omniscient narrator as a male biographer focused strictly on the facts. Woolf uses a self-important, often beleaguered, tone to poke fun at the stodgy historical biographies of the Victorian era that focused more on the actions of a person's life rather than the thoughts behind them. Woolf also uses the narrator to show the difference in how the lives of men are remembered in history versus how women are remembered. Orlando's narrator fawns over male Orlando from the first page, cataloging his good looks, immense wealth, and powerful position in society. Orlando's transformation into a woman doesn't change who Orlando is, but it certainly changes how the narrator perceives her. She is still beautiful, but as her story goes on she becomes less and less interesting to the narrator. The narrator seems pained when speaking of her "womanly" activities, particularly when she gives birth to her son, and completely ignores her while she works on the most important piece of literature she will ever write. Orlando's story just is not as important to the narrator now that she is a woman. The narrator's explicit refusal to record parts of female Orlando's life is symbolic of the gender discrimination inherent to historical literature prior to the 20th century. Women's lives simply weren't considered important or interesting, so they weren't recorded.

What is unusual about the way time flows in Orlando?

Time doesn't make a lot of chronological sense in Orlando. The novel takes place over 300 years, but Orlando herself ages only 20 years. Virginia Woolf purposely set out to write a novel that plays with time as a means of explaining its relationship to the "human spirit." Though units of time are regimented into seconds, minutes, and hours, the actual experience of time varies depending on the activity at hand. Sitting through a boring lecture seems to take hours, while a good meal of the same length is over in a few seconds. Woolf is exploring this on a larger scale in Orlando. To her, time spent thinking is long while time spent doing is short. In Chapter 2, Orlando goes into the woods after breakfast "a man of thirty," and shows up at dinner "a man of fifty-five at least." Orlando isn't literally 55, but his soul has experienced so much enlightening thought in that period of time that he feels he has the wisdom of something that age. Later, Orlando sits down to write and a year passes without her aging at all. Time isn't mechanical in nature but organic, ebbing and flowing with rhythm of each individual's life.

What are the benefits of cross-dressing as evidenced in Orlando?

Upon her return from Turkey, Orlando realizes how confining the life of a woman can be. She is expected to play the female role in all conversations with men, which means she is deferential and encouraging, serving tea and agreeing with the ideas presented to her instead of sharing opinions of her own. Putting on a man's suit uncovers feelings she hasn't experienced in a long time: power and control. Dressing in men's clothing allows Orlando the opportunity to be an equal in nearly every situation. When she is doing business or engaging in outdoor activities, she can wear pants. When she is chatting with female friends or in the mood for flirting, she can wear a dress. She experiences all aspects of life with a quick change of clothing. When she cross-dresses, she is in control of how the world perceives her.

What do light and darkness represent in Virginia Woolf's Orlando?

Virginia Woolf uses light and dark imagery in Orlando as a means of showcasing opposites. The male is associated with light, while the female with dark. By bringing this to the reader's attention, Woolf presents the extremes of opposites, which support the idea that one gender is better than the other. The truth lies in the middle, where extreme opposites meet and meld. In Chapter 4, Orlando shares a carriage with Alexander Pope. It is dark, and the streetlights are far and few between. Ensconced in the darkness, Orlando feels pleasure at being in the company of such a famous and influential man. Her feelings change when the carriage passes under the streetlights. In the light she questions fame and glory, as well as the idea that future generations would care one iota about either her or Pope. The carriage is plunged into darkness and Orlando's "illusion [is] revived." In this instance, light represents the truth. Darkness blurs the edges of the truth, making reality seem better than it really is. Woolf also uses light and dark imagery when talking about love. In Chapter 2, male Orlando acknowledges the beginning of an attraction to Harry as Archduchess Harriet (who is really Archduke Harry in disguise). He quickly realizes what he feels for the archduchess is not the innocent love he initially had for Sasha, but a feeling of lust that is black as a vulture. The narrator comments that love "has two faces; one white, the other black; two bodies; one smooth, the other hairy." Like truth, there are two sides to love. Some love is beautiful and pure, while other affections are based on dark, base desires.

What does the oak tree on Orlando's country property symbolize?

Oak trees are tall, solid structures rooted deep in the earth. The oak tree at Orlando's country manor symbolizes the comfort of home. As a teenager, he settles down at the base of the tree to enjoy the "feel [of] the earth's spine beneath him." The oak tree is not only his home, but his support. He returns to it after being exiled from King James I's court, and again after she finds her "one true self." The idea of an oak tree being a "support" doesn't end with Orlando. The narrator describes Orlando's relationship with Queen Elizabeth I as being that of a beloved son. "He was to be ... the oak tree on which she leant her degradation." Orlando has a literal oak tree from which he gathers strength while simultaneously serving as a metaphorical oak tree for the ailing queen.

What does Orlando's poem, "The Oak Tree," represent?

Orlando began writing "The Oak Tree" when he was just a boy in 1586. He works on it for literally hundreds of years, writing and rewriting at every stage in his (and her) life. The poem itself serves as a diary of Orlando's life, each line undergoing constant revision as Orlando matures as a writer and a person. She decides to finish the poem after marrying Shel and publishes it a year later. "The Oak Tree" represents Orlando's youth, a culmination of the adventures and experiences she enjoyed as a young man and young woman. Now she is "a married woman; with a ring on her finger," which is vastly different from a teenage boy swinging a sword at a shrunken head. Publishing "The Oak Tree" gives her closure on the first part of her life and allows her to be open to whatever comes next.

What is the importance of the chiming of clocks in Orlando?

Orlando's thoughts are often interrupted by the ringing of bells or the chiming of clocks marking the hour of the day. More often than not, that hour is midnight. Orlando first notices sounds of a clock is when he is waiting for Sasha to join him at the inn. The bells at St. Paul's Cathedral strike midnight and he realizes Sasha is not going to run away with him. The striking of the clock serves as a division between his happiness with Sasha and the heartbreak of living without her. Virginia Woolf repeats the clock motif throughout the book: the clock strikes midnight when Orlando is celebrating his dukedom in Turkey, then again at the dawn of the 19th century, and in the very last paragraph of the novel. All of these instances occur at moments of great change in Orlando's life. The clocks serve as a signal to the reader that one era of Orlando's life is ending and another is ready to begin.

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