by Virginia Woolf
First spotted in Chapter Two standing in Orlando’s grand hallway looking a little lost and very humble in the face of the fancy surroundings. His presence debunks Orlando’s image of poets as heavenly, magical people, while at the same time causing Orlando to realize for the first time how grand his own life is – hundreds of bedrooms, an army of servants…Orlando lives the good life. Despite their class differences, Greene turns out to be great company. He’s also a gifted storyteller, and he takes the literary gods of the day – Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and exposes them as girl-chasing drunkards who write simply in order to pay their bills. Greene eventually returns to his own more humble lodgings with a copy of Orlando’s literary efforts; he writes a scathing satire of Orlando and his whole way of life. When Orlando reads the satire, he becomes melancholy and depressed.
Fast forward a few centuries. Orlando bumps into Greene and the two have lunch. Greene is now one of the foremost literary critics of the Victorian era, and his assessment of Orlando’s latest literary work is highly complimentary. In fact, he gets Orlando’s work published.
The switcheroo doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise – after all, centuries have passed and both Orlando and Greene have changed quite a bit. For example, Orlando’s writing is actually good now. She later wins the awards to prove it. For his part, Greene has become more respectable. He’s been knighted. For all that they’ve changed, however, they also haven’t changed too significantly internally. Greene really is the same old grouch, soundly convinced that the high point in literature has passed and the current writers are only in it for the money.
We’re convinced the point of all this is a commentary on identity – we all change over time, whether over a year or a century. But like Greene and Orlando, we also stay the same over time, and we can never escape our past. You see, Orlando can still tell that for all his fine airs and good clothes, Nick Greene was not born into a high class of society.