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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Virginia Woolf

(Full name Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf) The following entry presents criticism of Woolf's novel Orlando: A Biography (1928). For discussion of Woolf's complete career, see TCLC, Volumes 1 and 5; for discussion of her novel Mrs. Dalloway, see TCLC, Volume 20; for discussion of her essays, see TCLC, Volume 43.

One of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century, Woolf is best known for her technical innovations in the novel, most notably her development of stream-of-consciousness narrative in such works as Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927). Her novel Orlando comprises the fantasy biography of an English nobleman who survives numerous adventures, undergoes a mysterious sex change, and lives more than three centuries. A high-spirited, satirical consideration of nearly four centuries of English literary and social history, Orlando is also a tribute to Vita Sackville-West, an aristocrat and author who served as the model for Woolf's protagonist.

Plot and Major Characters

Subtitled "A Biography," Orlando traces its aristocratic hero through more than three centuries, opening in the Elizabethan era when the eponymous protagonist is sixteen years old. In the novel, decades unaccountably and swiftly pass as Orlando pursues his literary aspirations, is awarded a peerage, engages in a love affair with a Russian princess, and is named ambassador to Constantinople. After falling into a trance during a siege of that city in the seventeenth century, Orlando revives, transformed physically into a woman, although otherwise unaltered. Fleeing to England, Orlando engages in a legal battle to regain the property she had held as a man. In the eighteenth century she becomes acquainted with such prominent literary figures as Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope. She marries in the nineteenth century and subsequently struggles to reconcile her desire to write with Victorian notions of feminine duty. The novel concludes in 1928 as Orlando publishes the poem she has been revising for more than three centuries, is reunited with her husband, and achieves a unifying vision of life.

Major Themes

Several themes in Orlando reflect concerns that pervade Woolf's works, including marriage and the equality of the sexes, the difference between chronological time and a person's age as determined by wisdom and experience, and the enigma of individual personality. The novel was inspired in part by Woolf's desire to "revolutionize" biographical writing—a genre in which her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, had achieved considerable success during the Victorian era—and in part by Woolf's romantic liaison with Vita Sackville-West. Drawing a portrait of Sackville-West through a combination of fact and imagination, Orlando parodies Victorian biography, particularly in its mockery of documentary evidence. The androgynous character of Orlando—particularly the fact that Orlando's essential character is not altered though he changes from male to female—is seen to demonstrate Woolf's belief that each individual has both male and female characteristics and that intellectually men and women are indistinguishable. Similarly, Woolf's unconventional presentation of time allows an examination of the character of Orlando in the context of English social history. In rendering each historical period Woolf adopted a narrative style to reflect the predominant literary and social conventions of the times, and in each, humor is largely achieved through exaggeration and ironic contrast.

Critical Reception

Woolf noted that writing Orlando provided her with a light-hearted "writer's holiday" after completing To the Lighthouse, and the novel impressed many early readers and critics as little more than an entertainment written to amuse Woolf's family and friends. Nevertheless, initial assessments of Orlando were generally favorable, noting in particular the fine descriptive writing in such passages as the depiction of the Great Frost of 1604...

(The entire section is 59,988 words.)