Orlando Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Woolf chose to write Orlando as a fictional biography rather than simply as a novel. Why do you think the author chose to write the story in this way? How does this formal choice influence the reader's experience of the story?

    By writing Orlando as a fictional biography, Woolf challenges the factuality of biographies as a whole, especially those that stray into fiction or do not attempt to give a complete picture of the subject. At many points in the summary, the biographer notes that little is known about Orlando's life during a period because he/she spent most time alone or records were lost. The biographer acknowledges the fact that those particular parts of the story have been fleshed out with imaginations of Orlando's experiences, which is humorously meta-fictional because, in fact, the entire story of Orlando's life is fictional.

    Near the end of the book, a strange section commences in which different personas existing within Orlando talk to one another. This is an important section for understanding Woolf's critical view of biography. The fictional biographer writes, "For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand" (273). With this quote, Woolf warns biographers and readers of biographies about the danger of creating or giving credence to an incomplete depiction of a person. People are shaped by a multitude of traits, beliefs, and experiences, so no one can truly be an expert on anyone else, especially when time and space are limited.

  2. 2

    Analyze Woolf's use of time in Orlando. What effect do the author's choices regarding time have on the story's elements, such as plot and theme?

    By stretching the time frame of Orlando's life, Woolf allows the reader to compare facets of English society as it progressed from the 16th to 20th century. Perhaps most importantly, Woolf shows the treatment of women throughout these centuries. When Orlando is a young boy, he has more agency and privilege than when he returns to England as an adult woman. This is because women's rights and capabilities were extremely limited through the 19th century. By ending the story with a depiction of Orlando as an aging woman in the early 20th century, when Woolf lived and when the story was published, Woolf made it the case that contemporary readers could connect Orlando's treatment as a woman in the 18th and 19th centuries to women's place in society in the 20th century.

  3. 3

    Analyze Orlando's week-long trances. How are the two trances similar or different? Why does Woolf include them? What do their descriptions tell us about the transformations Orlando's mind goes through?

    Orlando's trances parallel each other in their duration and physical manifestation but differ greatly in their effects. Orlando falls into the first trance when he retreats to his home after Sasha scorns him. He remains in the trance for exactly seven days, rising on the morning of the seventh day as if nothing happened. The trance seems to have had little effect on him except for the erasure of his memories of his time with Sasha; the biographer writes, "Though he was perfectly rational and seemed graver and more sedate in his ways than before, he appeared to have an imperfect recollection of his past life. He would listen when people spoke of the great frost or the carnival, but he never gave any sign, except by passing his hand across his brown as if to wipe away some cloud, of having witnessed it himself...It was observed that if Russia was mentioned or Princesses or ships, he would fall into a gloom of an uneasy kind" (60). The psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud were popularized during Woolf's lifetime, and she seems to reference his theory of repression with this narrative choice. As with Freud's patients experiencing repression, there are signs that Orlando has not completely forgotten the trauma he experienced, such as his gloomy mood when certain phrases are mentioned; however, his mind will not let him consciously recall the painful events.

    In contrast, Orlando's second trance has a physical effect. He enters the trance in Turkey as a man and wakes up as a woman, though it is not specified exactly what changes make him into a woman. It seems that the changes are more physical than mental, whereas Orlando's first trance affected him solely mentally. However, Orlando's transition from male to female was something that would have potentially been considered pathological at the time Woolf wrote the book, paralleling the pathological nature of Orlando's repression after the first trance. The fact that the trances parallel each other in length serves not only to draw a connection between the two moments in the narrative, but also to create an allusion to religion and to underscore the importance of the theme of time in the novel.

  4. 4

    How do Orlando's beliefs about fame evolve throughout the novel? What is Orlando's final conclusion about fame?

    Orlando ponders the merits and detriments of fame throughout the novel. As a young man, Orlando wants to be famous for his writing. After being scorned publicly by Sasha and Nicholas Greene, he turns inward with his writing, deciding that he would not write for fame but rather for personal fulfillment; he attempts to make his mark on the world by decorating his home and throwing lavish parties. 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 and realizes that, when she is at parties, she thinks that everything is beautiful and everyone is witty and interesting, but when she returns home after, 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. Orlando's final conclusion about fame is a negative one. She becomes famous due to Nicholas Greene changing his mind about her writing, largely because he is now nostalgic for the style of her writing, which reflects the era they both grew up in. However, she scoffs at her own fame, fortune, and prizes, seeming to feel as if they don't reflect anything of importance about her or her writing.

  5. 5

    What is the thematic role of clothing in Orlando? How does clothing interact with notions of gender throughout the story?

    In Orlando, Virginia Woolf notes that, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us" (166). Woolf uses Orlando's experiences as a woman after living as a man to highlight the injustices and small oppressions of life as a woman in England, and she uses clothing as an important symbol to that end. It is clear how clothing changes "the world's view of us" from Orlando's experiences on the boat back to England—the crew treats her as if she were a modest, delicate, respected guest. However, it is interesting to note that Woolf also calls attention to how clothes "change our view of the world," meaning wearing female clothes actually makes Orlando feel and act more female. This idea acknowledges that societal norms concerning gender are not simple matters: they create a feedback loop that shapes an individual's psychology and worldview.