Virginia Woolf achieved literary fame as an innovator in literary form, and her novels reflect various experiments and unique effects of the type associated with the early twentieth century aesthetic movement called Modernism. Orlando (subtitled A Biography) is of particular interest because of its fusion of autobiographical elements, technical innovation, fantasy, satire, and preoccupation with the Western literary tradition. All these ingredients are interwoven to create an apparently central theme of mutability or change, a traditional theme developed extensively in Renaissance England by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) and in the ancient world by Lucretius (c. 98-55 b.c.e.).
The two most conspicuous manifestations of such change appear in the dizzying time shifts that occur in Orlando’s long life and in the protagonist’s unexpected and unexplained change from male to female. These shifts and shuffles serve principally to maintain a focus on an underlying theme informing the entire novel: the anxiety of the literary artist.
When Orlando, as a boy, hikes to the great oak on his family’s estate, he already has defined himself as a poet. From the oak, he is able to see incredible distances across England, and it is this tree that symbolizes nature, inspiration, and durability in time, for the oak both changes and remains the same, just as Orlando’s poem “The Oak Tree,” on which he/she works for three centuries, develops and remains. Throughout the bewildering chronological developments of the novel, the constant, abiding tree awaits Orlando’s maturation and return—and the perfection of her art. At the end of the novel, Orlando brings her poem, now published and famous, back to the ancient oak. She is rejoined there by her husband, thus completing two different thematic circles of separation and reunion.
Woolf’s novel deliberately incorporates many literary influences. Because it is a novel about writing, Woolf often echoes authors—especially great innovators—from earlier periods of English literature, notably Laurence Sterne, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift. Although Woolf’s works often focus on the artist’s creative anxieties and imagination, as in her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando is a fantastic tour de force exploring the artist’s power to manipulate multiple dimensions of a work.
Another aspect of Orlando is that it naturally reflects Woolf’s own experience. As the daughter of distinguished writer Sir Leslie Stephen and as a member of the Bloomsbury Group of writers and other artists, Woolf was deeply involved in writing and criticism throughout her life. Her relationship with Vita Sackville-West, to whom Orlando is dedicated, is also reflected in the sexual ambivalence of Orlando, of Shelmerdine, and of the Archduchess Harriet. Many passages also reveal the hypersensitivity of the novel’s protagonist, thus suggesting Woolf’s own unfortunate psychological instability that ultimately led to her suicide in 1941. Perhaps it is the fantastic artistry of this novel that provides enough distance between author and protagonist to make it possible for Woolf to come to terms with her own genius in her own time.