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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Motifs



As a woman in the 18th century, Orlando's role in society is to listen to the "great wits," nod, and act impressed. She is completely passive, which goes against her very nature. She is dissatisfied with her position as a woman and takes charge of the situation by dressing like a man.

As soon as she puts on her old black suit she feels more masculine, more powerful, and more in control of her destiny. It is thrilling. But there are also times when she wants to be demure and seductive, which is when she goes back to women's clothing. Between personas, she wears gender-neutral clothing. Woolf uses Orlando's cross-dressing to show that Orlando is fundamentally the same person she has always been. It is society's reaction to her choice of clothing that dictates her opportunities and capabilities. This is true for everyone. As the narrator says, though people dress to portray a particular image of self, "underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above." Clothing is but a costume that shows society the aspect of our personality we want it to see.

Orlando's Poem

Oak trees are some of the longest-living flora in nature, easily surpassing the traditional human lifespan. This is emblematic of the 300 years Orlando works on his poem "The Oak Tree," which surfaces in every chapter of the novel. This is more than just a poem. It is an ever-evolving record of Orlando's inner self. He began writing it as a teenager in 1586 and she finishes it in her mid-30s during the latter half of the 19th century.

The poem has traveled with her to her country home, her city home, Turkey, and other parts unknown, and it is the only piece of writing that survives Orlando's tantrum following his humiliation at the pen of Nick Greene. "The Oak Tree" is under perpetual revision to reflect Orlando's most recent revelations about life, and at one point it seems as if Orlando is "unwriting" it. This is symbolic of the way Orlando incorporates his and her past experiences into the present day. Orlando's decision to complete the poem foreshadows her desire to find "one true self" that is an amalgamation of all her experiences. She has lived dozens of lives and is finally ready to set them aside and focus on the present.


Time is fluid and subjective in Orlando. It cannot be measured by hours or minutes or years, but rather in thoughts and experiences. The narrator tells the reader, "time when [man] is thinking becomes inordinately long; time when he is doing becomes inordinately short." Orlando spends months, sometimes even years, thinking about the same thing, which could possibly be why he ages so slowly. The poet Nick Greene also ages slowly, and as a writer he is probably afflicted with the same propensity to think rather than do.

Woolf is making the point that time is a construct that has "no ... simple effect upon the mind of man." Time is relative to the person experiencing it, and no two experiences are alike. People, therefore, should not be a slave to time and the expectations of what should be achieved by certain points in their lives, but rather follow their inner clocks to find fulfillment.

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