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Orlando | Themes

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Though Orlando is sometimes dismissed as a nothing more than a fanciful love letter to Virginia Woolf's lesbian lover, the text also works to explore the restrictions society places on the self, the power of nature, the thrill of fame, and the comfort of death.

Gender and Identity

More than anything else, Orlando is a commentary on gender and how it affects a person's public and private identities. Through Orlando's various experiences as both male and female, Woolf and her main character conclude that gender does not affect the inner self. Though the change of sex changes Orlando's future, it "did nothing whatever to alter their identity." "Identity," in this case, is Orlando's core values and passions: poetry, nature, and love. Thirty-six-year-old Orlando, after living through three centuries, is wiser than 16-year-old Orlando and has more experiences, but they are fundamentally the same person from beginning to end.

Gender doesn't affect one's internal self, but it does affect how one is perceived by others. This is apparent long before Orlando puts on her first crinoline or petticoat. At the Great Frost festival, held when the River Thames freezes (in Chapter 1), male Orlando spies a lithe figure skating across the ice. The person's clothing disguises his or her gender, and Orlando assumes it is a man because "no woman could skate with such speed and vigour." He is frustrated by his attraction to someone of his own sex as "all embraces were out of the question," then relieved to see features that are distinctly feminine. Orlando's bitterness and jealousy when he thinks the figure is a boy turn into feelings of lust and admiration when it turns out she is a woman. Sasha has not changed at all during these few minutes of examination, but Orlando's opinion of her has, based on the perception of her gender.

Orlando experiences this phenomenon several times during her life as a woman. The first is on the ship from Turkey to England, when a crew member nearly falls off the mast after catching a glimpse of her ankle. Orlando is the same person who until very recently lived in a man's body. The crew member wouldn't have blinked an eye at seeing male Orlando's ankle, or even his whole leg. But because the crew member perceives Orlando as female, he subconsciously filters her exposed body part as being obscene. When Orlando dresses as a man in Chapter 4 and picks up Nell, a prostitute, Nell looks at Orlando with a gaze that is "appealing, hoping, trembling fearing." Her manner is flirtatious as she tries to amuse the masculine-looking Orlando. When Orlando reveals she is actually a woman, Nell's manner immediately "change[s] and she drop[s] her plaintive, appealing ways." Orlando's inner identity remains the same no matter how she looks, but the way she is treated is entirely dependent on how others perceive her gender.

Nature

Orlando has had many lovers over the course of her 36 years, but none are loved as much as Orlando loves nature. Nature is akin to God in Orlando's mind, something that is all-powerful yet completely unknowable. She worships it under the open sky and in her writing. Whether she is leaning against her favorite tree or walking through the woods while she ponders the spirit of the Victorian age, nature is her solace in times of personal trouble. She even finds comfort in the thought of death. It is, after all, the natural end of life. In Orlando's eyes, even the negative aspects of nature are to be treasured.

It is nature, not humans, from which Orlando takes her social cues. If it were natural for a person's inner self to be dictated by their gender, then Orlando would have gladly accepted the traditional role of the Victorian woman during Queen Victoria's reign. Yet Orlando knows that she is exactly the same person as when she was a man, so she strongly resists the spirit of the age's effort to make her conform to an ideal that isn't evident outside of the human race. Nature's role in Orlando is to serve as a reminder of what is truly important in life as Orlando identifies her own values and desires.

Futility of Conformity

As a young man, Orlando is constantly torn between what society expects him to be and what he wants to be. He goes to court as Queen Elizabeth I's companion but is caught kissing another woman; he is engaged to be married to increase his family's wealth and fortune but throws it all away for a Russian princess who breaks his heart. Orlando knows what is expected of him and endeavors to fulfill society's expectations, but he is always sidetracked by his own desires. This generally leads to a punishment of sorts—his banishment from King James I's court, Queen Elizabeth I's death—and he starts anew with the intention of upholding his family's noble legacy.

Female Orlando's attempts to conform to society's expectations are even less successful than male Orlando's. Her gender is an inherent disadvantage to someone who is used to being the dominant party in all relationships. Though Orlando's inner self did not change with the change in gender, society's expectations did. Orlando has very little interest in becoming a passive, subservient object of feminine admiration, and she fails even when she tries. Even when she succumbs to the "spirit of the age" and secures a husband, her unconventional marriage violates the traditional marital structure of the man at the head of the household. Yet Orlando is happier than she has ever been. Throughout the course of the book, Orlando learns that following her own desires, not those of the crowd, will lead her to true happiness.

Death

Death plays a pivotal role in much of Virginia Woolf's work, and Orlando is no exception. Though Orlando doesn't die or grieve the loss of a loved one during the story, he does spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to die. For Orlando, death is not always viewed as a something to fear. True, Orlando often focuses on death during his more morose moments, but there are also times when the thought of death brings him great comfort. He does not believe in immortality or the afterlife, so to him death is an eternal rest where he will be reunited with his ancestors in the family crypt. This is particularly soothing after his ejection from King James I's court.

The narrator also wonders about the nature of death, particularly at the beginning of Chapter 2 when Orlando falls asleep for an entire week. He asks, "Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses" to get through the perils of daily life? Perhaps there are different types of death.

Orlando's two episodes of lengthy slumber are akin to death in that they serve as breaks between his former lives. These small deaths help Orlando start anew after heartbreak and great stress. Orlando recognizes this, and as she grows older, she purposefully chooses to enter a state of "death" to preserve her well-being.

In Chapter 5, she is besieged by "the spirit of the age" to take a husband, a thought so harrowing that she decides to "become nature's bride" and "lie at peace here with only the sky above [her]." Moments later, she meets Shel and tells him she is dead. Her body is not dead, of course, but her spirit is. Play-acting death allows her to regain her strength and her senses, and her life changes the moment she "comes to life" again. Woolf presents death not as something to be feared or the end of oneself, but rather a pause in the action. When life-ending death does occur, it is with the honor of one's ancestors and the pleasure of a life well lived.

Legacy and Fame

Family legacy is extremely important to Orlando. It influences his decisions, his behavior, and his outlook on life. For Orlando, a legacy is what his forefathers left behind on which he can establish his own name. The literal legacy they have left behind is all of Orlando's property, most notably the country manor he fights for 100 years to keep. The metaphorical legacy is built upon "killing and campaigning, that drinking and love-making, that spending and hunting and riding and eating," but Orlando doesn't see much to show for it. He decides he can do even better than his ancestors and really give the family name weight in history. To do that, he needs to become famous, and in Orlando's mind, the direct route to fame is through poetry.

Orlando's early years writing poetry don't go well, and his humiliation at the pen of Nick Greene spurs him to retire the idea that he needs to be upstage his forebearers. Orlando looks at his palatial home and realizes it is "vain and arrogant in the extreme to try to better that anonymous work of creation." He decides to work hand-in-hand with them and furnish the home they so lovingly established. Yet it isn't long before the siren song of poetry is heard again, and Orlando picks up his pen once more. This time it is to please himself, not the masses. "The Oak Tree" is eventually published in the 19th century to great acclaim and awards. Orlando is initially proud of her award, but quickly understands fame has nothing to do with poetry, which is meant to be a conversation wholly contained in the writer's mind. The existence of the poem and the meaning it has to the writer is more valuable than the brief spotlight of fame. Orlando's legacy will continue even if she is not famous: in her house, in her son, and in her poetry. She will always exist.

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