Orlando Study Guide

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando stands as one of those works of literature that could not be fully appreciated in its time because it appears to have been written specifically for a future zeitgeist. Issues explored in the novel on the subject of gender and identity were, at the time of publication, essentially not up for debate. For the overwhelming majority of the reading public, men were men and women were women and never would the twain meet. Even more to the point: why would anyone want them to?

Flash forward nearly a century and gender is one of the hottest trends in popular discourse. One of the conventions by which a novel is determined to be a truly great work is that it directly addresses traditions and conventions of the time that appear beyond dispute. Orlando interrogates established certainties about gender, and as part of that interrogation Woolf also address conventional wisdom of the time related to women’s rights, male dominance, and the interplay of the two notions.

Indeed, one of the highlights of this narrative about a seemingly eternal human, who transforms over the course of centuries from a man into a woman, is her surprising realization that, once she has become female, her previously high opinions of men has undergone a drastic transformation.

Woolf also foreshadows the 21st century adoptions of irony as the preferred currency of emotional exchange and postmodern fragmentation as the ideal means for delivering her message to her audience in Orlando. To be sure, Orlando is one of the author’s more accessible novels, but the clarity of language is delivered through the prism of various different conventions of literary genres.