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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the effect of Virginia Woolf blending realism and fantasy in Orlando?

Literary realism and fantasy are both genres, or different types, of fiction. Virginia Woolf blends the two in Orlando to create a biographical account of a nobleman who becomes a noblewoman and ages just 20 years over the course of three centuries. The fantasy genre uses supernatural elements, such as magic, to tell a story. The plot of Orlando, and its main character, rely heavily on fantasy to show the changing societal expectations of gender in early modern England. The two most fantastical aspects of Orlando are Orlando's sudden transformation from a male into a female, and Woolf's ambivalence toward the constraints of time. Orlando lives through the the reign of 15 different rulers, as well as a brief stint of Parliamentary control, yet reaches just the age of 36 at the end of the book. This, combined with her change of gender (and penchant for cross-dressing), allows Orlando to experience the breadth of English life as both a man and a woman. Woolf uses fantasy to show the reader what parts of English life have changed since the 1500s and what has stayed the same. Realistic fiction shows the world as it is, not as it could be. Regular people are depicted in their everyday lives. Though Orlando herself is not a realistic character, many of the supporting characters, events, and locations described in Orlando are incredibly true to life. Rooting the more fantastical elements of Orlando in reality gives readers a basis for understanding Orlando's experiences, thoughts, and reactions, thereby creating a closer connection between readers and Orlando herself.

How is nature used as a theme in Virginia Woolf's Orlando?

Orlando's enthusiasm for nature is evident throughout the novel, and other than poetry it is her greatest passion. She is outside more than she is in, walking through the park in England and sleeping under the stars in Turkey. She does her best thinking outdoors, and when she is at her lowest she finds refuge among the trees and flowers. She spends years trying to capture the essence of nature in writing but cannot find adequate words. When Orlando speaks of nature, she is not just talking about trees, animals, and landforms. She thinks nature encompasses everything that is not controlled by humans. This includes the human life cycle of birth and death. Orlando does not fear death because it is a natural part of life. On the other hand, if a societal norm, like marriage, is not evident in nature, then Orlando does not think it's right. Her approach to nature is much like some people's approach to religion, a literary element common to the era of Romanticism. She worships nature in lieu of other gods and follows the path nature has laid before her, an idea that becomes literal when Shel and Orlando meet in the woods. In Orlando, nature is a guiding force that supports Orlando when she is low and guides her when she is lost.

How does gender impact identity in Virginia Woolf's Orlando?

One of the main themes of Orlando is gender and identity. When Orlando becomes a woman in Chapter 3, the narrator makes it clear that Orlando doesn't feel any different than when she was a man. She has the same ideals and passions she had as a man, only now they are wrapped in a woman's body. She barely notices her change in gender during her time with the gypsies in Turkey as "the g[y]psy women ... differ very little from the g[y]psy men." Yet Orlando's gender becomes the main topic of thought on her way back to England. She is treated differently by the ship's captain and its crew members than she would have been as a male, enjoying a shady spot on the deck and the best offerings of the food. Orlando is treated differently as a woman not because she is different, but because she looks different. That leads her to dress as a man on some occasions and as a woman on others. The longer Orlando presents herself as a female, the more she finds herself exhibiting characteristics traditionally thought to be feminine. She used to leave "The Oak Tree" on her desk in Turkey, not bothered by any prying eyes, but begins hiding the manuscript in her dress after she becomes a woman. In Chapter 5, she goes into the park she has known for hundreds of years and feels "apprehensive lest there might be poachers or game keepers ... to marvel" that a woman walks alone, and she is convinced there are men or cows hiding in the bushes, waiting to attack. Though her internal self remains unchanged, her feminine appearance alters small aspects of her personality and habits.

How do Orlando's experiences illustrate the theme of the futility of conformity?

Orlando lives through five distinct eras of English history, and each era sees Orlando trying to conform to the societal expectations for his class and his gender. His attempts to be a valued member of court are nullified by his sexual liaisons; while everyone thinks he is being the perfect model of an English ambassador, he takes a gypsy wife. Orlando can't resist the temptation to chase his happiness, even when it goes against what the masses deem proper and important. This is even more clear after Orlando becomes a woman. She is not content to sit back and watch men do all the writing and thinking while she takes care of the home. Conforming to society's ideals of womanhood is deeply problematic for Orlando, and if she hadn't found a kindred spirit in Shel, she may have forsworn the institution of marriage altogether. The most striking example of the futility of conformity theme is Orlando's writing. As a young man, he writes in the style of the Elizabethan greats, and "there was never a word said as he himself would have said it." Nick Greene reads one of Orlando's pieces, "Death of Hercules," and ridicules it in a poem of his own. Orlando is furious and ashamed, and he vows to "write, from this day forward, to please [him]self." Orlando stops trying to imitate the work of his peers and starts to write in his own voice. When Nick Greene reads "The Oak Tree" in the 19th century, he is delighted "[t]here was no trace in it ... of the modern spirit." Orlando's success as a writer can be attributed to her conscious decision to stray from the pack.

Why is Orlando considered a satire on the traditional Victorian biography?

Satire is the use of humor to point out the ridiculousness or stupidity of an idea or situation. Orlando comprises many satirical elements, but these three use humor to reveal the problems with the staunch, "granite-like solidity" of the traditional biography. Woolf positions Orlando's narrator just as much of a character in the book as Orlando him/herself. The narrator is prone to interrupting the documentation of Orlando's life to interject personal thoughts, particularly where the subject of biography is concerned. The narrator sometimes becomes more important than the subject of the biography. The narrator lacks the authoritative voice usually found in biographical texts. The narrator often comes across as bumbling or inept, particularly when describing the loss of certain records that would give the reader more insight to how Orlando spends his time in Turkey. When he isn't defending his lack of source material, the narrator is fawning over Orlando's noble good looks. At times, it seems as if he may be writing a fan letter rather than a historical document. There are certain parts of Orlando's life the narrator refuses to document at all. These occur after Orlando becomes a woman, and they all happen when Orlando is engaged in a pastime that is considered to be unmanly: socializing with other women, working on her book with no distractions, and giving birth. The narrator, a male, is thoroughly uninterested in the life of a woman, which is reminiscent of the early modern biographers' tendencies to overlook the stories of women's lives.

How are the commonly held ideals of female sexuality throughout the ages subverted in Orlando?

Orlando begins in the 1500s during the Elizabethan era. Sex was a fact of life during the queen's reign, though she herself was said to be a virgin. Women were expected to be chaste until after marriage, though many had relations with their future husbands between their engagement and the actual wedding ceremony. Yet Orlando finds several willing partners after the queen's death, both in lowborn women and Sasha, who said she was royalty. These women are under no illusions that Orlando is going to marry them, and Orlando himself doesn't care whether they are virtuous or not. He just wants to have sex. Orlando's mindset doesn't change much after he becomes a woman. Orlando realizes "the whole edifice of female government is based on" chastity, which is the "jewel" and "centerpiece" of most women during the 18th century, but she lost her virginity as a young man. Chastity, for her, is such a moot point that Orlando sleeps with the first Englishman she sees, Captain Nicholas. Orlando continues to give herself freely to both sexes during the 18th century, but the dawn of the 19th century signals a change in her behavior. The narrator makes no mention of Orlando's relationship with anyone but Shel during the Victorian era, and there are no hints about their sexual relationship. The Victorian era is known for being particularly prim, and the division of the sexes extended to the bedroom. This is the only time in the novel Orlando's sexual experiences are in line with the thoughts of the age.

How could Orlando be interpreted as a feminist text?

In the broadest of terms, feminist literature supports the idea that women should have political, social, economic, and civil rights equal to those of men. One of the major themes of Orlando is that gender has no impact on a person's "real self"—one's values and beliefs stay the same, even if their gender changes. This line of thinking supports the idea that women are as capable as men in all areas of life except childbirth and perhaps the growth of facial hair. Orlando proves this is true in all aspects of her life. She juggles numerous lawsuits against her name, becomes a successful poet, and maintains her independence even after taking a husband. Orlando is Virginia Woolf's argument that external appearance is not indicative of the capabilities within.

Why is Woolf's Orlando considered to be a sapphic novel?

"Sapphism," which stems from the name of the female Greek writer Sappho, is a term used to describe sexual relationships between women. Today, most people use the word "lesbianism" in its stead. Though there are no explicit mentions of lesbian relationships in Orlando, it is often credited as being a major sapphic novel. That's due to the book's inspiration and the sexual proclivities of its main character. The character of Orlando is based on Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf's female lover. The book draws heavily from Sackville-West's family history, and Woolf dedicated the novel to V. Sackville-West. Woolf's inspiration wasn't a secret: Sackville-West's son, Nigel Nicolson, described Orlando as the "longest and most charming love letter in literature." Orlando's change of gender from male to female doesn't shift her objects of desire. Male Orlando was attracted to women, so female Orlando is as well. Female Orlando takes lovers of both genders in the 18th century, but "Orlando professed great enjoyment in the society of her own sex." The narrator's observations about Orlando's female friendships hints at something more than just tea with the girls. It is true that Orlando eventually marries a man, but it must be remembered that Orlando recognizes Shel as being (or having been) a woman. He, like Orlando, has a "whole" personality that combined the masculine and feminine. Orlando isn't necessarily attracted to his exterior, but the fully formed person inside that matches her own fully formed person.

How is the subject of death addressed in Woolf's Orlando?

Orlando thinks about death a lot, particularly for someone who barely ages in 300 years. Later in life, Orlando remembers being "a gloomy boy, in love with death, as boys are," which is also the case when he is a man. He thinks about it in his more depressing moments with Sasha, then again after he is expelled from Court. His deep thoughts about the purpose of life always come to the same conclusion: "All ends in death." That bothers him at first—why bother with life when it will unquestionably come to an end? As Orlando ages, however, his existential angst takes on a different tone. Orlando spends a year finishing "The Oak Tree" and looks out the window, astonished to see the world "going on as usual." She realizes if she were dead, the world would still exist just as it is. That idea is somewhat of a revelation and a relief to Orlando. Though she may someday die, the rest of the world will carry on without her. She likes the idea of that.

Of what importance is family legacy in Woolf's Orlando?

Orlando's ancestors are incredibly important to him, and many of his actions are influenced by his desire to do them proud. The reader only meets one member of Orlando's immediate family—his mother, whose name is not given and who is only seen at a distance—and very little is said about the people he calls family. Yet Orlando is captivated by the thought of his long-deceased ancestors who established the family name and built the country manor he so loves. He visits their bones in the family crypt, thinks of them in battle as he endlessly reworks "The Oak Tree," and brags about them to the unimpressed gypsies, who all have lineages miles longer than Orlando's. The very act of him becoming a poet is in part a means of enhancing the cachet of the family name. He honors the men who came before him and secretly wants to be even better.

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