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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | Symbols


The symbols in Virginia Woolf's Orlando represent two things Orlando is always searching for: home and truth.

Oak Tree

Orlando loves nothing more in life than his ancestral country home, and one of the highlights of the property is his favorite tree, a towering oak "so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath." Of all the places on his father's vast property, Orlando feels most at home here, and that is exactly what the tree represents. It is "something which he could attach his floating heart to," where he can think and find peace. He immortalizes the tree in his poem "The Oak Tree," carrying it close to his breast wherever he (and later, she) goes. When he returns from his adventures in town and abroad, he comes back to his safe haven. At the end of the novel, Orlando is right back where she started, underneath the oak tree as she waits for Shel's return.

Light and Dark

Authors often use light and dark imagery to show the difference between good and bad. Woolf puts a spin on that trope by using it to show the difference between truth and imagination, particularly with regard to one's opinion of another purpose. Orlando's carriage ride with Alexander Pope in Chapter 4 is a good example of this. They are traveling at night, and the lampposts are spaced so far apart that "for ten minutes Orlando and Mr. Pope would be in blackness," followed by 30 seconds of light shining in the windows.

In the dark, Orlando feels "the most delicious balm" throughout her body, which is the assurance that Pope is so wise and witty that Orlando will be the most envied woman of the era for being in his company. When the carriage is lit, however, she realizes her folly. "What a foolish wretch I am!" she thinks. "There is no such thing as fame and glory." The carriage grows dark and she admires his rounded forehead, but the next lamp reveals his silhouette to be plumped by a nearby cushion. Orlando literally sees the truth of the situation in the light, then reverts to the glorified version of events in the dark. As the narrator says, "[t]he less we see the more we believe." Light is the truth, but the darkness covers everything we want to forget.

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