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Orlando

Virginia Woolf

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

What is the relationship between fact and imagination in Orlando?

Orlando is, in many ways, a parody of books which claim to be fact. Such books, most notably Victorian biographies, would have the reader believe that fact and imagination are two entirely separate things, almost, as Woolf later implies, masculine and feminine. But in this fantastic history, Woolf blurs the line between fact and imagination. As the novel progresses, the events become more internal; thoughts begin to supplant actions as the most important parts of the chapters. By the end, it is impossible to determine fact from imagination, and Woolf implies that this is the 'Truth': there is no distinction.

Fact, as Woolf shows, is an utterly subjective quality. What is unable to be proven by letters and documents may certainly still be fact. And what seems to be completely objective, like the dates of birth and death, is entirely arbitrary. Orlando lives through the lives of his ancestors, in the ways and the home that they built; he does not exist in a reality separated from them. Woolf makes the point that even if all one does is "think and love," her existence may still be worthy of a biography. Not everyone leads mostly external lives (especially Victorian women who were so limited in external actions). Indeed, by blurring the line between fact and imagination in Orlando, Woolf questions the patriarchal idea that actions are more important than thoughts.

How does the concept of time function in the novel?

Orlando spans a period of almost four-hundred years (1588–1928). In that time, the main character ages only thirty-six years. Time, clearly, is not a convention which Woolf takes for granted. That is because she sees the arbitrariness of defining a life by dates, as her father and other Victorian biographers did in the Dictionary of National Biography. A life, to Woolf, is not only limited to a small sphere of reality; it is touched by all the ages that have come before it. In the novel, Woolf suggests that one's experiences build upon each other and shape each other. Thus, there are some days which are so important that they deserve almost an entire chapter in the novel, and there are other times when nothing much happens and whole decades can be glossed over.

Time functions in the novel merely as a backdrop to the personal growth of Orlando. The reader sees dates occasionally, understands that Kings have changed, and gathers that society changes with the times. Yet, the what is most significant is Orlando's maturation in relation to these events and times. From each century, she learns something important which helps her build to the final realization at the end of the novel. In chapter six, when the present is literally beating Orlando over the head, she is at first fearful of the uncertainty. What does it mean to live in the present, to be responsible for what comes next? But ultimately, Orlando embraces the presence; she realizes that time is not an externality, it is whatever she makes of it.

Why is the spirit of the nineteenth century so "antipathetic" to Orlando?

When Orlando reaches the nineteenth century, and sees the clouds moving across London, she is a woman. Thus, she is very limited in her actions and freedom according to the social standards of the time. She finds that all of her property is held in court; it cannot legally belong to her since it is uncertain whether a woman can inherit the property. Orlando must also wear restrictive skirts and petticoats so voluminous, she is unable to do many of the activities she once loved. The Victorian era is 'antipathetic' not only to Orlando, but to any woman who desires to exceed the boundaries of the gender roles laid before her.

Furthermore, Orlando finds the 'spirit' of Victorian morality suffocating and oppressive. In previous centuries, she had been happy to find lovers and have affairs as she chose, but in the nineteenth century, the pressure to conform is heavy. Though Orlando feels she can act just fine on her own, she feels an involuntary tingle on her finger, the finger which is supposed to wear a wedding ring. It seems that everyone has found themselves a life-long partner. While Orlando is happy when she does find love, she resents feeling as if her existence is unimportant unless she becomes a wife.

Suggested Essay Topics

What different types of literature does Woolf parody in Orlando? How does her writing style change to fit each age?

What does the novel say about English values? What does Orlando learn about herself while she is in Turkey?

How, according to Woolf, do men and women experience the world differently? Are these differences the result of biology or social practice?

Describe the scene in which Orlando changes sex from a male to a female. Explain why Woolf chooses such specific imagery (and the characters of Purity, Chastity, and Modesty) to describe the sex change.

Discuss the idea of writing in the novel. Are certain styles of literature held to be better or worse than other kinds? What does the novel have to say about the fame of writers?

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Typo

by inkmage93, November 02, 2012

At the end of the summary, "pais" should be "pays."

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