One of the most important themes in Orlando is the connection between fact and imagination. In Woolf's review of Harold Nicholson's Some People, she opened with this analogy: "if we think of truth as something of granite-like solidity and of personality as something of rainbow-like intangibility and reflect that the aim of biography is to weld these two into one seamless whole, we shall admit that the problem is a stiff one and that we need not wonder if biographers, for the most part failed to solve it." The metaphor of granite and rainbow emerges again in her own novel when she discusses Nature "who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case."
Woolf suggests that there is no realm of imagination separated from a realm of fact; "rainbow and granite" are stuffed into one case. Everything (internal and external, fact and imagination) are linked together by our memory, and we will grow to "understand" when we realize that neither memory nor history can be easily ordered and divided. Fact is a subjective quality, and the 'truth' emerges when we realize the interconnectedness and relativity of everything and everyone around us. It is such a unity of experience, not a triumph of "fact" that emerges victorious over time.
The determination of difference between the genders is a main theme in Orlando. Are men and women really different? If so, why? Orlando's sex change is a very important scene for determining the answers to these questions. As Orlando wakes up a woman, she looks at her body in a full-length mirror and composedly walks to her bath. She is not at all disconcerted by her change in gender because she feels no different than she did before. At first, she acts no differently, either. When she lives in the gypsy camp in the hills of Turkey, away from society and civilization, Orlando's sexuality seems to play no role in her life at all. But when she travels on board the English ship, in women's clothes, she immediately begins to feel the difference. The skirts that she is wearing, and the way that people react to her make her feel and act different. What Woolf is suggesting here is that gender roles are not biological, but societal. Gender is a concept imposed on people who live in society. When Orlando goes out into the night, a woman dressed as a man, she finds herself taking on traditional male mannerisms. The point is that when society allows the freedom of gender neutrality, people will be more free as individuals to act according to their nature and personality.
As Orlando is introduced to each new age and each new situation, he changes himself to fit the rules of those around him. In the sixteenth century, he wears fine clothes and serves as a courtier to his Queen; in the seventeenth century, he learns the Turkish language and adapts himself to exotic customs; in the eighteenth century, he figures out how to fit in with London society; and in the nineteenth century, he dons petticoats and finds a husband. Orlando knows he must change with each new adventure in order to survive and become accepted in the new age.
But such conformity becomes oppressive to Orlando. She grows tired of changing herself to fit those around her. Ultimately, when she reaches maturity in the twentieth century, she resists conforming, choosing instead to exist in her own internal world. She realizes that though she has matured, as people do, she has always been the same person all along. This theme of 'conforming to society' plays an important role in the novel. As Orlando grows to be an independent mind, she rejects the idea of conformity, choosing to remain however she chooses to be.
More main ideas from Orlando
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