Analysis: Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis
Christopher Booker is a scholar who wrote that every story falls into one of seven basic plot structures: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Shmoop explores which of these structures fits this story like Cinderella’s slipper.
Plot Type : The Quest
Queen Elizabeth takes an interest in Orlando
According to Booker's analysis of quest narratives, the "call" occurs because life has become oppressive or intolerable and the hero recognizes that only he can solve things through taking a journey. For Orlando, life becomes oppressive when he can't communicate his artistic inspirations, and he seems to feel a call to go on something like a journey.
Orlando is, by nature, a writer. He fills pages with "the half-conscious air of one doing what he does every day of his life" (1.2). The thing is, "Aethelbert: A Tragedy in Five Acts" is kept carefully stowed in Orlando's desk. He never shows his work to anyone. So, when Queen Elizabeth pulls him into public life, he is removed from his comfortable family legacy. Queen Elizabeth's patronage is the catalyst that sends Orlando on his quest to become a public writer.
Orlando comes up against Sasha and Nick Greene, and becomes a woman.
The quest is always fraught with perils, such as dragons, temptations, and journeys into the underworld. You've maybe heard of Scylla and Charybdis, a pair of sea monsters in Greek mythology that made navigation between Sicily and Italy nearly impossible, because if you went too far east or west of the strait they patrolled, you'd be killed? Orlando runs up against his own Scylla and Charybdis on his way to becoming a writer, and they are Sasha and Nick Greene.
We've talked about these two at length in the "Classic Plot Analysis," so we'll just say here that these two characters are the main, monstrous obstacles that prevent Orlando from gaining confidence in his writing the first time around. Still, the point of these perils is that passing through them makes you stronger. As a boy, Orlando was a mediocre writer, and Orlando owes Sasha and Nick a debt of gratitude for making him into a better writer.
As far as journeys to the underworld go, how about Orlando's two seven-day temporary comas? The first one transforms Orlando from a boy in love with Sasha to a tormented man dedicated to poetry. (For better or for worse, since this in turn sets him up for Nick Greene.) The second journey is more fruitful, since it changes him into a female. This is the catalyst needed for her subsequent success as a writer.
Arrival and Frustration
Orlando finds it difficult to be a female writer during the Victorian age.
Within sight of her goal, the hero on the quest always finds that the task is harder than it looks. The hero almost always makes it out OK, but we often witness many frustrations along the way.
For Orlando, the moment of arrival and frustration comes about in her confrontations with society once she returns to England in Chapter 4. By the end of Chapter 3, she's rediscovered her love of nature and she's started writing again, with great enthusiasm, using berry juice in the margins of "The Oak Tree." To continue her project of rebuilding herself, she returns and renovates her ancestral home.
With this comes renovation, once Lady Orlando reestablishes her ties with English upper-class society. What's more, she encounters the great poets of the 18th century, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Joseph Addison, and begins a series of witty exchanges with them. However (and here's where the frustration comes in), there's not a lot of substance to be had in these exchanges. It is, as our biographer comments, "a mirage" (4.55):
To make our meaning plain − Orlando would come home from one of these routs at three or four in the morning with cheeks like a Christmas tree and eyes like stars [… ]It was the same always. Nothing remained over the next day, yet the excitement of the moment was intense. (4.55)
Orlando's talking a lot, once again, but she's not saying much. She's enjoying speaking, but she's not remembering what she's said.
Amidst all of this insubstantial society banter are her exchanges with poet Alexander Pope, whose company she finds congenial and whose genius she acknowledges. Pope still oppresses her as a writer. She reflects:
A woman knows very well that, though a wit sends her his poems, praises her judgment, solicits her criticism, and drinks her tea, this by no means signifies that he respects her opinions, admires her understanding, or will refuse, though the rapier is denied him, to run her through the body with his pen. (4.86)
Pope does not respect Orlando as a fellow creator. He seeks her company for her patronage and for her emotional support. Orlando must recognize that London society is 1) hollow, and 2) sustains the male/female gender norms that make it difficult for a woman to write confidently in this period. Both of these realizations are seriously frustrating.
Orlando must make some compromises in order to write during the Victorian age, so she marries Shel.
You know that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the old man at the bridge who asks three questions before allowing the Knights of King Arthur to pass? The final ordeal stage of a quest narrative is like that: you're at the end of your quest, and there's just one last thing to get through before you triumph.
Orlando's final ordeal is her confrontation with the Victorian age. Until then, the biographer claims, Orlando has been able to coast along in her own private world. But the Victorian age is looking at her female body and finding her behavior wanting. She can no longer get by on her looks, name, and money. She has to find a way to speak to a public used to women acting conservatively while still maintaining her nonconformist voice.
Her compromise to the demands of the Victorian age is to marry. But here again Orlando is unconventional because she marries Shel, who's every bit as unconventional as Orlando herself is. And their marriage is equal. However, by participating in the social form of marriage, Orlando has defined herself as a woman in such a way that she can still bend the boundaries of what being a woman means. The marriage is like the price Orlando pays to propriety so that she can still writing and living as she always has.
Orlando becomes a published author.
By the end of the novel, Orlando has gone from a 16th century nobleman to a 20th upper-class woman author. She has articulated a new voice for herself, one that captures her reflections on Beauty, Truth, and Nature in a way that the public can understand. Her quest has taken her from her ancestral home in England to Constantinople to Italy and back to her home again. Orlando has become, at long last, a recognized author. Of course, the quest of Orlando the novel does not end once the journey of Orlando the character comes to a conclusion. There is still a journey inward to be made, into the recesses of Orlando's inner thoughts. For more on the formal experimentation of the final pages, check out "What's Up With the Ending?"