Tools of Characterization
When settling upon the name "Orlando" for her protagonist, Virginia Woolf may have been inspired by the character in As You Like It by Shakespeare and/or the epic Italian love poems "Orlando Innamorato" and "Orlando Furioso." In As You Like It, Orlando is a young, somewhat clueless nobleman who receives lessons in love from a beautiful noblewoman named Rosalind…who’s disguised as a man (OK, never mind). Although Orlando’s gender doesn’t change, the rest of As You Like It sports plenty of gender-bending that helps expose "man" and "woman" as socially defined categories.
In "Orlando Innamorato" and its continuation "Orlando Furioso," the hero is an Italian knight named – you guessed it – Orlando. In the first epic poem, he falls in love (that’s what the "innamorato" means) with a pagan princess named Angelica. In the sequel, Orlando’s love for Angelica actually drives him mad (that’s what the "furioso" part means). In the background to all this loving are duels, wars, and battles. Virginia Woolf’s version of Orlando could well have taken a similar direction – when we first meet Orlando he’s intent on going to war and swinging around a big sword. A few pages later, Princess Sasha is driving him a little crazy. Well, Woolf alters the story so it becomes immersed in the questions of life and literature.
"She had been a gloomy boy, in love with death, as boys are; and then she had been amorous and florid; and then she had been sprightly and satirical; and sometimes she had tried prose and sometimes she had tried drama. Yet through all these changes she had remained, she reflected, fundamentally the same. She had the same brooding meditative temper, the same love of animals and nature, the same passion for the country and the seasons" (5.14). Having a "biographer" write the whole story really is quite beneficial since (s)he just tells you about the character all the time.
Thoughts and Opinions
Thoughts and opinions are very relevant in this dialogue-scarce book. Nick Greene’s thoughts and opinions, for example, establish him in a vaguely ridiculous and comedic light, while also highlighting his class difference from Orlando. In contrast, Orlando’s thoughts and opinions actually show us the "brooding, meditative nature" that the biographer assures us is one of Orlando’s chief qualities.
Speech and Dialogue
There’s not a whole lot of dialogue in Orlando, but speech is a significant tool to characterize the class circumstances of at least two minor characters: Nick Greene and the Widow Bartholomew. We’ll start with Nick Greene, who has a bad French accent. Convinced that writers should write for the sake of the divine "Gloire" (meaning "glory" in French), Greene mispronounces the word so it comes out like "Glawr." This indicates Greene’s lack of education and experience in high society. The Widow Bartholomew speaks with a cockney accent, indicating her working class background. Orlando, of course, speaks with no discernible speech pattern, which makes perfect sense given his/her position in society.