In a novel that's all about finding the right words for things, it's significant that the only character who gets to do the naming is our protagonist, Orlando. And it's also meaningful that he names his first real love, Sasha (a.k.a. the Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch), after a white Russian fox he had kept as a pet – "a creature soft as snow, but with teeth of steel, which bit him so savagely that his father had it killed" (1.35).
From the outset, it seems to us that this relationship is going to end in tears. The fox's lesson to the reader is that people like Sasha may start out in close, loving relationships with Orlando, but they're going to betray him eventually.
We don't know about you, but we find Sasha kind of hard to like. (And it's not just because she ditches Orlando in the middle of the Great Melt, sailing off to sea and leaving him to slip into a mysterious coma for seven days.) No, it's tough to get a handle on Sasha, and that's what we find so unsettling. Orlando's constantly generating metaphors for her – she's like a fox, a melon, an olive tree, an emerald, and so on. But who is she?
And then – we had an epiphany. That's the whole point of Sasha, that she's like a million lovely or at least interesting things, but Orlando has no idea who she is at the core. She's like a movie screen for Orlando: he can project a million seductive, delicious things onto her "whole person" (1.26), but he can't see through her at all. He can't even figure out if she's the niece or the daughter of the Russian ambassador. The more poetry Orlando offers about Sasha's beauty, the less solid her character becomes:
But Sasha was silent. When Orlando had done telling her that she was a fox, an olive tree, or a green hill-top, and had given her the whole history of his family [...] he would pause and ask her, Where was her own house? What was her father? Had she brothers? Why was she here alone with her uncle? Then, somehow, though she answered readily enough, an awkwardness would come between them. (1.39)
Where does this awkwardness between them come from? Well, we've seen from the start that Orlando considers himself a writer first and foremost. Coming a distant second is his identity as a lover. His love is largely formal: he writes sonnets to three ladies, Clorinda, Favilla, and Euphrosyne without any genuine interest in them.
And what Orlando feels for Sasha seems to be more intense than what he feels for these other ladies. But this love isn't different; Orlando still spends all of his time talking about her, but he's not that great at talking with her. And this is true from the first moment he sees her skating down the frozen Thames, before he's even figured out whether she's a boy or a girl. She's all surface for him, and not substance: "Images, metaphors of the most extreme and extravagant twined and twisted in [Orlando's] mind" (1.26).
Orlando is pretty freaked out by this inability to capture Sasha in language: he keeps flailing around for the right metaphor or comparison (she's like a pineapple, Orlando? Really?) that will describe her entirely, and he keeps missing his mark. And here's where we, the readers, get some interesting perspective on Orlando: is he unable to describe her because words are not enough? Or is it because Orlando (at least, in this stage of the novel) is not enough?
Orlando thinks that English is insufficient ("He wanted another landscape, and another tongue. English was too frank, too candid, too honeyed a speech for Sasha" [1.38]), but really, the fault seems to lie in his own understanding ("For in all she said, however open she seemed and voluptuous, there was something hidden; in all she did, however daring, there was something concealed" [1.38]). There's something he doesn't quite get about Sasha. Something that he maybe doesn't want to get about her, because it would destroy his own illusions. But this lack of understanding is also sabotaging his creative output. Orlando can't stop talking about how wonderful Sasha is, but the more he talks, the less he seems to produce.
In fact, this theme of language as a way of obscuring mutual understanding is thematized in Sasha's foreignness (as a Russian). She and Orlando carry out their conversation in French, a language foreign to both of them. This choice of language unites them as a pair even as it alienates them from the rest of the English court. So you'd think that this language would be a symbol of the intimacy of their relationship. But Woolf is never so obvious. Consider her arch parenthetical comment:
But at length the ice grew cold beneath them, which she disliked, so pulling him to his feet again, she talked so enchantingly, so wittily, so wisely (but unfortunately always in French, which notoriously loses its flavour in translation) that he forgot the frozen waters or night coming or the old woman or whatever it was, and would try to tell her–plunging and splashing among a thousand images which had gone as stale as the women who inspired them–what she was like. Snow, cream, marble, cherries, alabaster, golden wire? None of these. (1.38)
First of all we don't get to hear Sasha being witty and enchanting because we are reading the novel in English. So we're getting deliberately left out of the words that make Sasha appear so attractive to Orlando – her French appears to bewitch him, making him forget "the frozen waters or night coming."
Second, we've got this idea of lost in translation. Maybe we'd miss something essential in their conversations if we had to read them in English. But – there's always the threat that Sasha and Orlando are becoming lost in translation themselves. It's true that neither speaks the other's language, and it's also metaphorically true that they just don't seem to understand one another fully.
We're told that Sasha does talk, though we don't see much of her dialogue. What she's saying seems to be all surface, much like her character: it excites Orlando to tell "try to tell her [...] what she was like." Why would Sasha need to be told what she's like? Shouldn't she, of all people, know? This suggests that 1) Orlando's too caught up in his own poetry to listen to Sasha, and 2) that Sasha's talk is not very revealing.
In other words, the language that Orlando and Sasha speak with one another isn't about communication. In fact, it's the reverse: Orlando's endless efforts to describe Sasha to herself and Sasha's empty wit match one another's essential qualities. Given that the two speak to one another in metaphor and lies, it is only natural that it is too much truth that kills their relationship.
When Orlando catches Sasha with another guy aboard her ship, he freaks out. Sasha uses her considerable linguistic powers to persuade Orlando into thinking that what he saw wasn't true. But it was, and the lying doesn't work. What's really fascinating about this, though, is what it does to Orlando's interpretation of Sasha's language:
Yet when they were going down the ship's side, lovingly again, Sasha paused with her hand on the ladder, and called back to this tawny wide–cheeked monster a volley of Russian greetings, jests, or endearments, not a word of which Orlando could understand. But there was something in her tone (it might be the fault of the Russian consonants) that reminded Orlando of a scene some nights since, when he had come upon her in secret gnawing a candle–end in a corner, which she had picked from the floor. True, it was pink; it was gilt; and it was from the King's table; but it was tallow, and she gnawed it. Was there not, he thought, handing her on to the ice, something rank in her, something coarse flavoured, something peasant born? (1.43)
(Tallow, by the way, is a specially rendered kind of beef or lamb fat.) So, Orlando's still shut out of what Sasha is saying, but he's starting to get a sense of what she's actually like. He doesn't get the full meaning of Sasha's words, but he's getting the substance. And Orlando doesn't like what he hears. There is "something rank in her, something coarse flavoured, something peasant born" that never got to him before, but that he can't ignore now.
And maybe Sasha is never entirely redeemed: we see her briefly, in Chapter 6, still faithless but grown overweight and lethargic (6.60-2). But Sasha does receive a measure of understanding from Orlando after his miraculous transformation into a female:
Now, the obscurity, which divides the sexes and lets linger innumerable impurities in its gloom, was removed, and if there is anything in what the poet says about truth and beauty, this affection gained in beauty what it lost in falsity. At last, she cried, she knew Sasha as she was, and in the ardour of this discovery, and in the pursuit of all those treasures which were now revealed, she was so rapt and enchanted that it was as if a cannon ball had exploded at her ear when a man's voice said, "Permit me, Madam," a man's hand raised her to her feet; and the fingers of a man with a three-masted sailing ship tattooed on the middle finger pointed to the horizon. (4.11)
Once Orlando becomes a woman, it is as though she and the absent Sasha come to understand the same language. Though Sasha may still speak only French and Russian, now that they share genders, they are unified beyond language. The character of Sasha allows Woolf to explore the limits of genuine intimacy across genders and languages. This exploration is carried over in Orlando's subsequent relationship with Shel. (See the "Character Roles" for more on Sasha and Shel.)