Orlando Masterpieces of Women's Literature Orlando Analysis
by Virginia Woolf

Start Your Free Trial

Download Orlando Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Masterpieces of Women's Literature Orlando Analysis

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is really a literary hybrid, easy to read but difficult to define. The writer called it a mock-biography because it allowed her greater expression of comic fantasy and showcased her ornate style of writing. The novel, however, is more than a biography because it blends the genre with fantasy, fiction, poetry, and allegory. It can also be viewed as an satire, a feminist tract, or a pleasant comic examination of English literature through metaphor. Despite its lightness of tone, Woolf intended the novel as an examination of the creative process, sexual identity and inequality, and the experience of psychological time.

No analysis of Orlando is considered complete or definitive without an understanding of her complex relationship with fellow writer Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West. Woolf and Sackville-West, an acknowledged bisexual, were intimate friends and lovers. They first met at a dinner party in December, 1922, but the affair was slow in developing and did not flourish until the years between 1925 and 1929. Initially, the much older Woolf was shy and both repelled and fascinated by Sackville-West’s nature. For Sackville-West, it was one of numerous lesbian affairs carried out in the 1920’s, but for the married Woolf, it was her first. In fact, the affair became Woolf’s grand passion and the inspiration for her writings, particularly Orlando, which reached a creative peak during this same period.

Orlando is dedicated to Sackville-West, the title character patterned closely after her. Orlando’s long-lived history is modeled after her four-centuries-old aristocratic heritage. Woolf’s information came from Sackville-West’s own published book, Knole and the Sackvilles (1922), a biography of her grand country estate. The author used her lover’s Elizabethan ancestor, Lord Thomas Brockhurst, as her model for the young Orlando. The male character’s feelings, attitudes, and literary inclinations belong to Sackville-West, however, and intensify when the gender transformation takes place.

Throughout the novel, Orlando is depicted as a sexually ambiguous figure, as though the character possesses both feminine and masculine attributes. Both Sackville-West and Orlando, for example, exhibit public transvestism. Other paral-lels between them abound, including personal details, exquisite legs, love of nature and animals, and attachment to heritage and home. Even Orlando’s struggle to re-tain her ancestral estates, to be taken away, solely because she is a woman, can be found in Sackville-West’s similar, but unsuccessful, attempt to keep her property. The names and personalities of several of the book’s characters can also be found in her ancestry.

The connection goes further. In the original 1928 edition, the book has a series of illustrations featuring Orlando, posed by Sackville-West. Yet Woolf’s portrait is not always...

(The entire section is 671 words.)