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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Orlando is presented as a biography of an English nobleman named Orlando. His story begins in 16th-century England when, at age 16, he catches the eye of Queen Elizabeth I. He goes to live at the palace at 18 and becomes the queen's favorite companion. Though their relationship is not presented as being sexual, the queen dies of a broken heart after seeing Orlando kiss another woman.

Orlando leaves court to experience the seedier parts of London, returning shortly after King James I takes the throne. The Thames River freezes and court relocates to the ice for the entire winter. It is there Orlando meets Sasha, a Russian princess. Though Orlando is effectively engaged to another woman, he falls madly in love with Sasha. They talk about running away together, but when the moment arrives, Sasha is nowhere to be found. Heartbroken, Orlando returns to his palatial country home. He falls asleep for seven days. When he wakes, he remembers almost nothing about the past six months, but memories of Sasha surface every now and then as he wanders through the family crypt and thinks about death.

Orlando eventually recovers from his depression and returns to his youthful passion of writing, resuming his work on "The Oak Tree," a poem about his favorite lounging spot. He vows to dedicate his life to becoming a famous writer, and invites a poet, Nick Greene, to stay. Orlando hopes to get feedback about his work, but Greene is much more interested in talking about himself and the death of poetry in England. When Greene returns home, he writes a scathing poem about an unnamed aristocrat whom everyone knows is Orlando. Humiliated, Orlando swears off poetry and human companionship. He focuses instead on filling his enormous house first with furniture, then guests to enjoy it.

The affections of a new neighbor, Archduchess Harriet, spur Orlando to ask King Charles II for an ambassadorship to Constantinople. Riots break out after the celebration of Orlando's dukedom, and hundreds of foreigners are killed. Orlando lives only because he falls into a deep sleep and looks like he is already dead. When he wakes a week later, he is a woman. Orlando leaves Constantinople to live with a band of gypsies. After living together companionably for a while, the gypsies start to mistrust Orlando's obsession with nature and material goods, and Orlando wants to live somewhere that has pens and paper in good supply. She sets sail for England before the gypsies have a chance to kill her.

Orlando ponders the differences between men and women on the voyage back to England, worrying that her life as a female will be one of conformity and deference to men. Upon her arrival, she learns that the ownership of her property is in question due to a secret marriage to a gypsy woman and Orlando's own change of sex. She returns to her country home and is soon visited by Archduchess Harriet, who turns out to be Archduke Harry. He wants to marry Orlando. She finally manages to shake him off and finds herself in the whirlwind of 18th-century London society, where she socializes with the literary geniuses of the age. After a falling out with Alexander Pope, Orlando puts on an old suit and picks up a prostitute. They become close friends. Orlando spends the next few years dressing as both a man and a woman, depending on the circumstances and her mood.

The 19th century arrives and a dark cloud is cast over England. Like many other women, including Queen Victoria, Orlando is pregnant. Her writing is interrupted by a tingling in her left ring finger and she realizes the "spirit of the age" is compelling her to take a husband. The idea is foreign to Orlando, who thinks mating for life is unnatural. She declares herself nature's bride moments before she meets the man who will become her husband, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. Shel and Orlando have an immediate connection, and they each realize the other was once the opposite gender. They marry 10 days after they meet. Shel leaves the same day to continue his adventures sailing around Cape Horn.

Orlando returns to her writing and finally finishes "The Oak Tree." She takes it to London and runs into Nick Greene, who is now a respected academic, literary critic, and member of the nobility. He rants about the death of English literature, then offers to help Orlando publish her poem. She agrees without fully understanding what he means, as she has never seen an actual book before. She makes it her duty to catch up on modern literature. Her baby is born soon after, but the narrator refuses to document the occasion.

Time speeds up quickly, and suddenly it is 1928. Orlando is assaulted by memories of her past during a shopping trip. Each memory is a different version of herself, and Orlando wishes they would all coalesce into one true self. She gets her wish and returns to her country manor, of which she is now the legal owner. Thoughts of the past accompany her on the tour of her house, but the chiming of the clock keeps dragging her into the present. She finds herself in the garden at midnight, baring her breast to the moon as Shel jumps to the ground from an overhead airplane. It is October 11, 1928.

Orlando Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Orlando is fascinated by a poet in the servants' quarters.

Rising Action

2 Orlando abandons his fiancée for Sasha.

3 Sasha disappears and breaks Orlando's heart.

4 While in Turkey, Orlando suddenly becomes a woman.

5 Orlando changes gender roles depending on the situation.

6 Orlando struggles against conformity in the Victorian era.


7 Orlando accepts herself for who she is.

Falling Action

8 Orlando's memories are pushed away by the present.


9 Orlando eagerly awaits Shel's return.

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