A major theme in the novel is the idea that fulfillment is almost impossible to achieve. Time and time again, Orlando tries to find meaning in life and happiness by trying to immerse himself in various activities. He finds soon enough that the pleasures of literature, women, and good company last only for a short period of time; after the initial thrill disappears, what is left behind is an emptiness that is harder to fill than before. In this way, the novel presents Orlando’s continuous quest for happiness and pleasure.
The novel presents Orlando’s journey and process of maturity. Orlando changes from male to female, travels from country to country, and has interests that change all the time; what remains the same, however, are his values. No matter the place where he finds himself, Orlando values the same things constantly. For him, poetry, wealth, and feelings are important even though the society in which he lives in considers them to be worthless.
Woolf focuses on gender as a main issue in the novel. Orlando doesn’t have a fixed gender and shifts from male to female. Orlando notices how it is harder to be a female than to be a male because of the limitations imposed on females. But being a male is not perfect either because males, as Orlando describes them, are driven by the desire to climb the social ladder and are not able to openly show their emotions. The way the narrator describes the differences between the two genders is a realistic one, and she doesn’t favor a gender to the detriment of the other.
Language is an important theme early in Orlando, as it serves to distinguish between different cultures and social classes. The fact that Orlando speaks French, unlike the other young men of the English court, allows him to become romantically involved with Sasha. However, they are still separated by the linguistic boundary of both communicating in a language that is not their mother tongue, and when Sasha speaks to a man in Russian it makes Orlando curious and jealous. Not only are people separated by foreign language, but upper- and lower-class English people speak different dialects that serve to mark and separate them socially. Writing style is also influenced by this, and Nicholas Greene makes fun of Orlando's high-class language by calling his poetry "wordy and bombastic in the extreme" (84).
Over the course of the novel, Orlando ponders over the merits and demerits of fame. As a young man, he desires fame greatly: he wants to make a mark on the world through his writing, and later through his decoration of his large family home. However, after being scorned publicly by Sasha and Nicholas Greene, he turns inward, deciding that he will not write for fame but rather for personal fulfillment. He states, "Bad, good, or indifferent, I'll write, from this day forward, to please myself" (90.) Eventually, Orlando becomes famous herself. By that time it does not seem to matter much to her, and she reflects negatively, "Fame!...A poet - a charlatan; both every morning as regularly as the post comes in. To dine, to meet; to meet, to dine; fame - fame!" (276.)
Orlando's views of fame are also affected by the famous people she meets. Upon returning to England as a woman, Orlando enters high-class society, which she finds both titillating and boring. When she is at parties, she thinks that everything is beautiful and everyone is witty and interesting, but when she returns home afterwards, she realizes that she can't remember anything of note. Even when Orlando takes home Alexander Pope, the great author, she is intrigued and attracted to him when the carriage is in the dark, but when it is in the light she sees that he is as common and grotesque as any other person. She chides herself for getting caught up in vanity and celebrity, and she breaks off her friendship with him when she realizes that, for all his genius writing, he does not truly respect women.
Writing and Poetry
Writing, especially writing poetry, is Orlando's life passion. When the reader meets Orlando as a boy of sixteen, he is said to already be a prolific writer; he especially likes to write about nature, though he finds it hard to write about nature when actually looking at it. Orlando's writing style changes throughout his/her lifetime and is influenced by the trends of society and the people with whom s/he interacts. For example, the biographer notes that Orlando got better at writing witty, natural dialogue after spending time with Pope, Addison, and Swift. Of the shifts in Orlando's writing, the biographer writes, "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" (208). This quote demonstrates that Woolf believes writing is inextricably tied to one's personality and experiences.
While Orlando feels ashamed of her writing for a long period due to Nicholas Greene's scorn, she is eventually lauded as a great author and wins The Burdett Coutts' Memorial Prize for the poem she spent her whole life on, "The Oak Tree." Nicholas Greene seems to like "The Oak Tree" for its emulation of styles of past authors Orlando read and spent time with; his character serves to show that people, especially literary critics, will always nostalgically idolize writing of the past.
One might think that at the time Orlando was published, the most disruptive, anachronistic aspect of the novel would be the title character's bending of gender and societal norms, or perhaps Woolf's critiques of high society and the literary world. However, the focus of Cleveland B. Chase's New York Times review of Orlando in October of 1928 focuses on Woolf's depiction of time. He writes, "Not that she has abandoned the 'stream of consciousness' method which she used with such conspicuous success in her previous novels, but with it she has combined what, for lack of a better term, we might describe as an application to writing of the Einstein theory of relativity. In this new work she is largely preoccupied with the "time" element in character and human relationships, and with a statement of the exact complexion of that intangible moment, a combination of past and future, of objective reality and subjective consciousness, which we refer to as the present" (Mrs. Woolf Explores the "Time" Element).
While the reviewer opines that this choice "left the book perhaps more confused than was strictly necessary," Woolf explores the concept of time in a quite purposeful way throughout the novel. She tells us that some hours in Orlando's life flash by while others contain decades, simply because of the events or intellectual work done within the period of time. Orlando ages slowly, transforms into a woman at middle age and experiences a rebirth of sorts as a result, and continues to age even more slowly so that, after over 400 years, she remains a thriving, healthy adult woman. Woolf's choice to span such a vast period of English history allows the reader to compare not only the experiences of men and women in England but also the effect of different eras on the freedom and agency of women.
Orlando Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Orlando is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.