Study Guide

Orlando in Orlando

By Virginia Woolf


Orlando is many things: poet, patron of the arts, ambassador, man, woman, and temporary coma patient. But one thing Orlando is not is a character with a trajectory easy to map from one chapter to the next. We can tell from the beginning lines that finding a "character" for Orlando is going to be tricky:

He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. (1.1)

What's strange about this opening? First, wouldn't it make more sense, when launching into a biography, to give the name of the protagonist before using pronouns? And we can tell gender is going to be a huge deal because the phrase assures us that it isn't. Why specify that "there could be no doubt of his sex" unless there is or will be huge doubt about it at some point in the future?

And what about the Moor's head Orlando is happily slashing? This detail is tantalizing because it seems to tell us something about when our protagonist lives. "Moor" is an early modern term for people (often of Arab descent, often Muslim) of North Africa, who eventually came to occupy much of Spain from the 8th through the 11th centuries.

But really, "Moor" is unspecific as an ethnographic or historical term. While the term may call to mind Morocco (northern Africa) and Andalucía (southern Spain), "Moor" came to be used more generally (and pejoratively) to mean "dark-skinned" and/or "Muslim" during the Renaissance. So we don't know where in Africa Orlando's family might have encountered this "vast Pagan" (1.1). Plus, the fact that the text doesn't seem interested in revealing this information lets us know that Orlando might not be your typical biography.

What "Moor" brings to mind is Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. This reference is probably the most famous use of the word "Moor" in the English language. We already know that Orlando's situation in the novel will probably be situated in literary history. We're not dealing with facts, and Virginia Woolf isn't trying to disguise it.

The other thing we learn immediately is that Orlando comes from an aristocratic – and violent – lineage: "Orlando's fathers had ridden in fields of asphodel, and stony fields, and fields watered by strange rivers, and they had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders" (1.2). All of this warfare – fighting religious wars against the Muslims in Spain and northern Africa, and then on to the Crusades, and then participating the Hundred Years War – sets the reader up to believe that this character (and the novel as a whole) is going to be a novel in the heroic tradition.

In fact, our narrator tells us this fact outright:

Happy the mother who bears, happier still the biographer who records the life of such a one! Never need she vex herself, nor he invoke the help of novelist or poet. From deed to deed, from glory to glory, from office to office he must go, his scribe following after, till they reach what ever seat it may be that is the height of their desire. Orlando, to look at, was cut out precisely for some such career. (1.2)

Woolf is clearly playing with the chicken-or-the-egg problem of what a biographer does. Is the task of the writer to "follow after" reality, narrating events without "the help of novelist or poet"? Maybe that'd be the job of, say, a traditional biographer. Think about the biographies that you have come across about important historical figures. It seems unlikely that the biographer would begin by demanding that her subject "must" go "from deed to deed, from glory to glory," as the narrator requires of Orlando.

In other words, even while pretending that Orlando's life is being recorded after the fact (i.e., while the novel pretends to be a historical account), the language used to introduce Orlando is performative. These passages create an image of what a man "cut out precisely for some such career [of heroism]" would look like. He would slash at a Moor's head, he would have heroic ancestors, he would possess "red [cheeks] covered with peach down" (1.2). This is no historical record: this is precisely the type of rhapsody that the biographer dismisses.

The biographer's intent, to present an heroic image in keeping with Orlando's age, station, and heroic fate, upsets itself in the same paragraph: "Directly we glance at eyes and forehead, thus do we rhapsodise. Directly we glance at eyes and forehead, we have to admit a thousand disagreeables which it is the aim of every good biographer to ignore" (1.2). There's a circular logic at work in this passage. Orlando's forehead and eyes make the biographer stray dangerously close to poetry ("eyes like drenched violets" [1.2]), but of course, it is the biographer who presents us with these poetic features in the first place. This narrative is becoming an Escher painting: we can never trust which way is up or what comes first. Which does come first: the biographer's poetry or Orlando's appearance?

Orlando's poetry-inducing face is also a symptom of Orlando's poetry-producing nature. Here is where we learn that Orlando will never be cut out for the type of Julius-Caesar-Napoleon-Bonaparte-conquering-hero that the biographer initially seems to establish. Because the conclusion of this second, paragraph leaves Orlando "[sitting] down at the table, and, with the half-conscious air of one doing what he does every day of his life at this hour, [taking] out a writing book labelled 'Aethelbert: A Tragedy in Five Acts,' and [dipping] an old stained goose quill in the ink" (1.2). Orlando is a writer. That mean's Orlando's "biographer" needs to find a way to describe – in writing – the creative experiences of writing.

Orlando is like painting a person in the act of painting: how can you use language to evoke the experience of using language? Orlando is a parody of biography, and not only because there are no four-hundred-year-old gender-switching tree lovers waiting to be discovered in this world. The joke at the heart of Orlando is Woolf's use of "biography" (which is all about narrating events in a person's life) to describe what is not eventful (i.e., sensory experience). Anyone who's ever suffered from writer's block knows that writing can be challenging. We can understand the biographer's frustration once she decides that Orlando has this fatal flaw, fluency with language.

Orlando and Biography

Biographies are generally written after the subject of the book has already made a name for herself. You don't read many biographies of people who haven't done anything. If you pick up Doris Kearns Goodwin's famous book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals, you're checking it out because you know that 1) Lincoln's awesome, and 2) Goodwin's offering to tell you how he got that way, how he showed the leadership that made him such a pivotal figure in American history. And then – there's Orlando, which pretends to be a biography about a person we have never heard of.

What's useful about framing this novel as "biography" is that it grounds Woolf's meditations on truth in literature. Biographies are supposed to be true, but Woolf is challenging us to question whether or not Orlando is a true story. Can you tell important truths in fiction? Can you narrate the truth of human life and experience through fiction? (By the way, check out "In a Nutshell" for more on Orlando's real life association with Woolf's friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West.)

Orlando starts out with the potential to mimic conventional biographies: our hero's from an aristocratic family, and has a heroic temperament, although happens to be unlucky in love. But Orlando's role as a traditional subject for biography keeps getting undercut: one of the great moments in his career arrives in Chapter 3, when he is made a duke and appointed Ambassador to Turkey. But instead of providing the exact dates of his public office or anything that you might expect to find in a traditional biography, our narrator reports that "the revolution which broke out during his period of office, and the fire which followed, have so damaged or destroyed all those papers from which any trustworthy record could be drawn, that what we can give is lamentably incomplete" (3.1).

What follows is a confused account of Orlando receiving the dukedom, narrated in part through letters from two (hilarious) English observers. At the point when the novel elevates Orlando to public office, what we get is a letter from Miss Penelope Hartopp to a friend in Tunbridge Wells and a diary from naval officer John Fenner Brigge. This is a way of reminding the reader that Orlando's life isn't being recorded just because he was a duke or an ambassador. Orlando's real life can be found in the "biography's" least eventful passages, in its meditations on social mores, human nature, and creativity.

The biographer's own asides testify to the importance of lack of event in recounting "real life":

But what can the biographer do when his subject has put him in the predicament into which Orlando has now put us (by sitting down and writing for a year)? Life, it has been agreed by everyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for novelist or biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking. Thought and life are as the poles asunder. Therefore–since sitting in a chair and thinking is precisely what Orlando is doing now–there is nothing for it but to recite the calendar, tell one's beads, blow one's nose, stir the fire, look out of the window, until she has done. (6.11)

In a sense, this conclusion, as we read Chapter 6 and watch Orlando write, is an answer to the first chapter's establishment of Orlando's heroic qualities. Think about it: the first few paragraphs of the novel suggest that Orlando is going to be your typical action-hero, a war-going, lover-having man-about-town. Woolf continually erodes such a characterization of Orlando by making him a writer, a poet, a patron of the arts, and, finally, a woman author in the 20th century. Orlando begins by writing abstractly, observing that "Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another" (1.3). By the end of the novel, however, "biography" has given way to a representation of Orlando's ecstatic experience as a creative person.

As she reaches out to Shel, to the ghosts of her past, and to the ever-present Oak Tree, we see an effort to capture internal events as though they were more meaningful than any event on the historical record. Orlando's character development mirrors an extended argument Woolf is making. Using examples from literary history, Woolf seems to argue for the importance of imagination in representing real life. While Orlando may be primarily a social and literary critique, we believe that Woolf would find more real life (i.e., more poetic truth) in Orlando's fictional experiences than in a stack of ten more traditional, fact-laden biographies.

Orlando and Gender

This topic's a doozy – Orlando's freewheeling approach to gender is its biggest draw for contemporary audiences. There's a lot of commentary going on in this novel about gender and about relationships, so let's jump right in. (By the way, we'll just say here − for more on gender, writing, and society, check out the "Plot Analysis" sections of this guide.)

Interestingly, you can tell a lot about what's going on with Orlando's relationship to gender by plotting his (and her) love relationships. There's Sasha, who we've gone into at some length in her "Character Analysis" and the "Character Roles" section. Orlando's relationship with her is premised on their gender difference: Orlando's a guy, so Sasha must be a girl. And look how that relationship turned out. Clearly, this novel is suspicious of the stereotypical heterosexual relationship.

Then, there's the Archduchess, whom Orlando finds mysteriously attractive against his will. He's put off by her hare-like appearance, but he finds her so seductive that he actually flees England to avoid sleeping with her. We have a theory about what he finds so hot about the Archduchess: it's because she's secretly a man. (This is kind of like Viola in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.)

But even when the Archduchess is revealed to have been an Archduke, Orlando still doesn't take to him. Why? Because he's also not very intelligent, so there's not a great meeting of the minds there. The other problem is that he can only imagine love in heterosexual forms. He assumes that, if Orlando is a man, he (the Archduke) should be a woman. And if Orlando is a woman, then he (the Archduke) should reveal himself to be a man. He's kind of doing to Orlando what Orlando was doing to Sasha, insisting on a heterosexual model of love that Orlando doesn't seem to approve of.

The guy who first teaches Orlando the pleasures of being a woman is the Captain − even though we don't think they sleep together. The thing is, though, the Captain is gallant with Orlando. He puts her on a pedestal because she is a lady. And Orlando finds that she likes it, "For nothing is more heavenly […] than to resist and to yield, to yield and to resist" (4.3).

Orlando finds it pleasurable to explore her femininity − especially since she can change clothes to reassert her masculinity when she wants to. Having occupied both male and female bodies, she has no trouble resuming her masculine identity when the round of London social obligations starts to get old. And it's on one of these outings that she meets Nell the prostitute. When Orlando reveals that she is physically a woman and looking for strictly platonic company, Nell relaxes and introduces Orlando to her circle of friends.

These women demonstrate the first and last proof we get throughout the novel of the possibility of female friendship and its rewards. Our biographer tells us that accounts of other women by women are very rare in literature, given that the majority of famous authors up until this point have been men. In addition to moving into Orlando's inner landscape, we are also moving into previously unrecorded outer landscapes, the spaces that women occupy with one another.

Slowly, we've been seeing the erosion of the strong man/woman relationship that starts out with Orlando and Sasha. We've seen Orlando's distaste for the Archduke and her fondness for both the Captain and Nell. Indeed, the novel spells out that Orlando flows between both genders and finds pleasure with both men and women:

She had, it seems, no difficulty in sustaining the different parts, for her sex changed far more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can conceive; nor can there be any doubt that she reaped a twofold harvest by this device; the pleasures of life were increased and its experiences multiplied. For the probity of breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally. (4.92)

So, there's pleasure to be had with both genders, but we have yet to see another great love like the one that animated Orlando's relationship with Sasha. We see the culmination of this free-thinking attitude towards gender and sex once we hit Orlando's relationship with Shel in Chapter 5. Sure, it is technically a heterosexual relationship. But it's definitely not a traditional relationship, in the way that Orlando's relationship with Sasha was. Both Orlando and Shel are really androgynous, and so they can each play whatever roles they like. What Woolf seems to be advocating here is the importance of real human connection over the trappings of gender. Sure, Orlando and Shel's marriage has the appearance of social respectability, but that's less important than their genuine love for one another.

By the way, Orlando and Shel have a baby. It's mentioned in passing in Chapter 6, paragraph 92, after which we never hear of this son again. Why include him at all? Because this is another example of Orlando going along with the social expectations of her day. By raising Orlando's reproduction only to drop it again immediately as a topic, Woolf may also be underlining that Orlando's got a material body under all of her role playing: bearing a child is the ultimate proof that you're physically a woman. Her gender is more complex than her biological body, but her body is female, and that does mean that she is subject to certain restrictions that she can't change simply by putting on a set of men's britches.

Orlando and the Elizabethan Age

The first woman to love Orlando in this novel is none other than Queen Elizabeth (1533 - 1603). This isn't the youthful Queen in the movie Elizabeth– this is the older Queen of Elizabeth: The Golden Age or Shakespeare in Love: "[Orlando] was to be the son of her old age; the limb of her infirmity; the oak tree on which she leant her degradation" (1.15).

Why Queen Elizabeth? One reason makes sense when we think about the fact that Orlando is a writer: the Renaissance was a time when English letters themselves were young. English as a language for writing (as a opposed to Latin) gained momentum in the Renaissance, and many of the people we consider to be the greatest poets in English were lucky enough to flourish under Queen Elizabeth's patronage. Orlando is young and naive in an age when English poetry was young and naive. Let's take a look at the passage describing this period:

The age was the Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets; nor their climate; nor their vegetables even. Everything was different. The weather itself, the heat and cold of summer and winter, was, we may believe, of another temper altogether [...] The rain fell vehemently, or not at all. The sun blazed or there was darkness. translating this to the spiritual regions as their wont is, the poets sang beautifully how roses fade or petals fall [...] The withered intricacies and ambiguities of our more gradual and doubtful age were unknown to them. Violence was all. The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. (1.17)

To start with the obvious, the narrator's being fairly hilarious here: their vegetables were totally the same. A potato is a potato is a potato. So was the weather: how different can rain really be between the 16th century and the 20th century in the same small island nation that is England? What the narrator's getting at here, with this coy "we may believe" stuff, is that the way reality is represented in text was "of another temper altogether." Of course "ambiguities" were known to the Elizabethans; human nature doesn't really change all that much. But literary style does change, and it is in the disjuncture between any possible lived experience and the high-flying literature of the day that Woolf finds her ironic tone.

The earlier references the narrator makes to Orlando's allegorical writing (see 1.3) suggests that Orlando is part of this trend towards strong juxtapositions ("The rain fell vehemently, or not at all") and abstract language ("there was never a word said as he himself would have said it, but all was turned with a fluency and sweetness which, considering his age [...] were remarkable enough" [1.3]). One thing that occurred to us is that the Queen and Orlando are yet another contrast. She's old, he's young; she's experienced, he's naive; she supports art, he makes it. Their relationship is like an embodiment of the uncompromising poetry of the age.

This section on the Elizabethan age levels a formal criticism at the poets of the day. According to Orlando, Elizabethan poets treated all topics using the same rhymes, the same words, and the same styles. Orlando writes poetry to different women, but you can't tell court lady from serving maid based on his lines. Sure, there are the ladies Euphrosyne, Favilla, and Clorinda, but what about the Dianas and Delias? His subjects shift and change, but Orlando's writing does not. (Check out Sasha's "Character Analysis" for more on Orlando's problems with writing from experience.)

Orlando and the Victorian Age

Obviously this novel has it in for the Victorians. "Unflattering" would be a kindly way of describing its discussion of the period. But we have to bear in mind that Woolf is writing in 1928; she is closer historically to the Victorian era than we are now, and her literary innovations are a kind of direct rebellion against what she perceives to be the pomposity and prudishness of Victorian writing.

Let's talk specifically about how the Victorian age changes Orlando's character. The spirit of the 19th century is "antipathetic to [Orlando] in the extreme" (5.22). (Check out Chapter 5, paragraph 21 for evidence of this.) Orlando, who has lived as both genders, cross-dressed, and carried on sexual relationships with both genders, feels unnaturally restricted by the Victorian requirement that all women of a certain age be married.

Orlando attempts to avoid this demand on her freedom, but she finds that the lack of a wedding ring makes her hand tingle disagreeably. Even more damaging is what being unmarried does to her poetry: without the protection from social comment that a husband would provide, she feels compelled to write the tamest poetry she's ever written. This doesn't work for her: if she needs to get a husband so that she can write as she pleases, well, so be it.

She manages to undermine even this concession to the Victorian age, marriage, by finding a husband who complements her nature, Shel. This gives rise to a hilarious suspicion on Orlando's part:

Indeed, she had in mind, now that she was at last able to collect her thoughts, the effect that her behaviour would have had upon the spirit of the age. She was extremely anxious to be informed whether the steps she had taken in the matter of getting engaged to Shelmerdine and marrying him met with its approval. She was certainly feeling more herself. Her finger had not tingled once, or nothing to count, since that night on the moor. Yet, she could not deny that she had her doubts. She was married, true; but if one's husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? If one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts. (6.4)

In other words, does it still count as marriage if your husband's not around most of the time? If you genuinely love him? If you love other people even though you are married? (There are parallels to Vita Sackville-West, here – check out "In a Nutshell" for more on her relationship with Woolf.) However, what Woolf is perhaps critiquing most of all about Victorian social formations is their extreme abstraction – the imposition of the forms of morality over the same old customs seems to be the most outrageous thing about the period. What's going on is a resurgence of abstraction between language and practice – the hypocrisy of which makes Orlando uneasy.

As long as Orlando is married, an open marriage or a love match seems to be of secondary concern. It's the fact of marriage, rather than its substance, that the Victorians appear to care about. After all, Orlando is able to write poetry again as soon as that wedding ring is on her finger, even though Shel has sailed off to sea and she remains just as alone as she was before. (For more on this, see Shel's "Character Analysis.")

Orlando and Writing

The story of Orlando's analysis of literary history could also be the personal progress of Orlando, from youthful, inexperienced writing to mature language. While there is little consistent development of Orlando's character (which makes this "Character Analysis" more than usually abstract), her trajectory as a writer does progress at least sort of linearly. Orlando starts out, first of all, as a man. The biographer is somewhat sardonic when she describes his writing desk, within which are fifty drawers: "in fact there was scarcely a single drawer that lacked the name of some mythological personage at a crisis in his career" (1.10). Orlando doesn't exactly have a lot of lived experience at this point, so his writing is abstract and formal. This prompts the biographer to say that "nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy" (1.6), or in other words, are opposed to one another.

But for all of Orlando's airy, arty poetry, he still remains tethered to the oak tree of literary endeavor. The "summer transiency" (1.6) of life overlays the earthy, rooted permanence of language. Orlando's heart is floating, and he ties it to his oak tree, where it is rooted. Orlando's imagination flits and shifts, but once his ideas and images rendered into words, they are caught and made to last.

This tree thing also works as an allusion to Orlando's potential namesake, the romantic hero of As You Like It, who ties verses to his beloved Rosalind to the trees when they are separated in the forests: "O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books,/ And in their barks my thoughts I'll character [...] Run, run, Orlando, carve on every tree" (As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 2, lines 5-6, 9). This works as a joke on that whole "nature and letters" antipathy bit we referred to above. In Orlando's poem, "The Oak Tree," and in As You Like It, nature is combined with letters. Nature and letters should not be opposed; the development of English literature is the unification of literature with nature.

To get back to Orlando, he starts out with lots of illusions, and he doesn't get to keep them. The guy who robs Orlando of his illusions is Mr. Nick Greene, a minor poet and major critic who can take down a poet's reputation with a few short words. His dismissals of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Browne, Donne, and Ben Jonson are all sharply, sardonically, and memorably expressed. Nick Greene reappears at the end of the book, even goes so far as to publish Orlando's "Oak Tree," but his own work can only be critical and never productive. He gains worldly success, but that "Glawr" (gloire, i.e., glory) that he's seeking belongs to precisely the Shakespeares and Ben Jonsons of the world.

Orlando's brush with Greene, while perhaps cruel (and his second great disappointment in love, after Sasha), drives Orlando to self-reflection. Our protagonist begins to steer clear of the metaphor. He ponders, "If literature is not the Bride and Bedfellow of Truth, what is she? Confound it all [...], why say Bedfellow when one's already said Bride? Why not simply say what one means and leave it?" (2.39). The problem with this is that what you mean often changes from one moment to the next. What follows is Orlando's development as a writer and a long process of revision, as he (and then she) refines her metaphors and revises her language.

Orlando goes through a series of revisions and adjustments. First he visits Turkey and learns to love nature again, and then returns to England and encounters the great wits of the 18th century and the terrible repression of the 19th. During this time Orlando's character is also undergoing a process of revision. First a duke, then a gypsy; first a man, then a woman. In the middle of the novel, the biographer/narrator appears to be revising who Orlando is.

We are reminded once again that Orlando is not only a character in a novel, but she is also the material of the novel. Orlando produces the character of Orlando, while Orlando the character prolongs Orlando the novel. If this seems confusing to you, you're not alone. We're dealing with some intense material here.

It is with the (successful) publication of "The Oak Tree" that we begin to delve further and further into Orlando's private languages. We've talked, in Sasha and Shel's "Character Analyses" about the function of private (spoken) versus public (written) language. Once "The Oak Tree" has left "a bare place in [Orlando's] breast where she had been used to carry it" (6.36), Orlando is left to reflect on whatever she likes. And it is with these reflections that we are finally admitted into her private languages with Shel (check out what "Rattigan Glumphoboo" (6.36). The novel goes from Orlando (and his work) as all style and no substance to Orlando as all substance and no style.

What we are left with is this private vocabulary invented by Orlando herself, in which she takes ordinary things and invests them with new meanings. Language itself changes at this point in the book. Consider the scene when she catches a glimpse of a toy boat on the Serpentine, which sends Orlando into ecstasies. What matters about this toy boat is simply that it matters to Orlando. As the novel tells us, "She did not care in the least what nonsense it might make, or what dislocation it might inflict on the narrative" (6. 40). First, talk about self-conscious: the "dislocation" the novel mentions is its own. In other words, Orlando doesn't care that her life is becoming difficult to narrate.

Second, Orlando no longer cares about sense or nonsense. We're not talking about personal development or writerly activity any longer. What is left after the poem has been published is the event of reflection, something so personal that it should be beyond artistic representation. Yet, it is with this striving for what is impossible to represent that the novel Orlando ends, as Orlando reaches for the always-elusive wild goose of inspiration. As Orlando loses herself in intellectual ecstasy, the novel must end – we have reached the peak of Orlando's personal experience, and to retreat from her ecstasy or to return to a more conventional narrative would be to ruin all the work that Woolf has put in to get us here, across 400 years of English literature and history.