(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 and of the thaw that followed. Most early commentators, however, placed the novel outside Woolf's main body of work, a judgment with which numerous critics have since disagreed, viewing Orlando as the fictional complement to her feminist essay A Room of One's Own and seeing in its themes and its rejection of literary conventions similarities with her more prominent works.

Arnold Bennett (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Orlando, in Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage, edited by Robin Majumdar and Allen McLaurin, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 232-34.

[An English novelist, short story writer, and essayist of the early twentieth century, Bennett is credited with bringing techniques of European Naturalism to the English novel. He is best known as the author of The Old Wives' Tale (1908) and the Clayhanger trilogy (1910-16), realistic novels depicting life in an English manufacturing town. In the following excerpt, which originally appeared in the Evening Standard in November 1928, Bennett unfavorably reviews Orlando.]

You cannot keep your end up at a London dinner-party in these weeks unless you have read Mrs Virginia Woolf's Orlando. For about a fortnight I succeeded in not reading it—partly from obstinacy and partly from a natural desire for altercation at table about what ought and ought not to be read. Then I saw that Hugh Walpole had described it as 'another masterpiece', and that Desmond MacCarthy had given it very high praise.

I have a great opinion of the literary opinions of these two critics. So I bought the book and read it. I now know exactly what I think of it, and I can predict the most formidable rumpuses at future parties.

It is a very odd volume. It has a preface, in which Mrs Woolf names the names of 53 people who have helped her with it. It has, too, an index. I admit some justification for the preface, but none for the index.


(The entire section is 659 words.)

Conrad Aiken (essay date 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Orlando, in Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage, edited by Robin Majumdar and Allen McLaurin, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 234-36.

[An American man of letters best known for his poetry, Aiken was deeply influenced by the psychological and literary theories of Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henri Bergson, among others, and is considered a master of literary stream of consciousness. In the following review, which was originally published in the Dial in February 1929, Aiken comments on form, tone, and theme in Orlando.]

That Mrs Woolf is a highly ingenious writer has been made glitteringly obvious for us in...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)

Elizabeth Bowen (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Prefaces: Orlando," in her Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood and Afterthoughts, Alfred A. Knopf, 1962, pp. 130-39.

[Bowen was an Anglo-Irish fiction writer and critic. Often compared with the fiction of Virginia Woolf her novels and short stories display a similar stylistic control and subtle insight in the portrayal of human relationships. Bowen is also noted for her series of supernatural stories set in London during World War II. In the following excerpt, which was originally published as the foreword to the Signet Classics edition of Orlando, she recalls her initial impressions of the novel upon its publication in 1928 and reconsiders it within the...

(The entire section is 2568 words.)

Ralph Samuelson (essay date 1961)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Virginia Woolf, Orlando, and the Feminist Spirit," in The Western Humanities Review, Vol. XV, No. 1, Winter, 1961, pp. 51-8.

[In the following excerpt, Samuelson discusses Woolf's "defiant feminist spirit" in Orlando.]

Orlando is virtually the only work of Virginia Woolf's in which critical questions about her "feminism" have not repeatedly arisen. Moreover, the problem of what "type" of literature it belongs to has been with us since its appearance in 1928. Its method is fantasy, of course; the work begins with Orlando, the hero, a young man during the late 1580s, but in the middle of it all, Orlando's sex magically changes, and the novel ends...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)

Howard German and Sharon Kaehele (essay date 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dialectic of Time in Orlando," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 1, October, 1962, pp. 35-41.

[In the following essay, German and Kaehele examine Woolf's presentation of "the dialectic of time" in Orlando.]

Signs of the twentieth century's preoccupation with time can be readily discerned in the frequency with which the modern novel develops a dialectic between the ephemeral and the enduring. Virginia Woolf's Orlando is an illustration, although a somewhat unconventional one, of this concern, for it examines "the two forces which alternately, and what is more confusing still, at the same moment, dominate our unfortunate numbskulls-brevity and...

(The entire section is 3980 words.)

Jean Guiguet (essay date 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Virginia Woolf and Her Works, translated by Jean Stewart, Hogarth Press, 1965, 488 p.

[In the following excerpt, Guiguet draws on Woolf's diary entries to examine her intentions in writing Orlando and to assess the significance of the novel to her literary development.]

On December 20, 1927, two and a half months after she has started on Orlando, the first half of which has already been drafted, Virginia Woolf writes in the Diary:

How extraordinarily unwilled by me but potent in its own right, by the way, Orlando was! as if it shoved everything aside to come into existence. Yet I see looking back just...

(The entire section is 7224 words.)

N. C. Thakur (essay date 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: The Symbolism of Virginia Woolf, Oxford University Press, London, 1965, 171 p.

[In the following excerpt, Thakur analyzes symbolism in Orlando.]

Talking about Orlando, David Daiches says [in The Novel and the Modern World], 'It would be a weary task to disentangle the profoundly symbolic from the deliberately irresponsible …', and, I would add, the historically true. Yet it is a fascinating study to see how from the available factual material Virginia Woolf has created a delightful novel, though, like Defoe and Fielding who name their novels 'The Life, Adventures and Pyracies of..', and 'The History of…', she calls it 'A Biography'.


(The entire section is 5303 words.)

James Naremore (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: The World without a Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel, Yale University Press, 1973, 259 p.

[In the following excerpt, Naremore discusses Wool's attempt in Orlando to devise a new type of biography that evokes personality through a combination of fact and fiction.]

In the interval between the demanding tasks of To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Virginia Woolf was occupied with Orlando, a mock biography inspired partly by her romantic friendship with Vita Sackville-West. The emphasis on fantasy allowed free rein to her naturally ornate, erotic style, and provided good material for sketches of vast, generalized landscapes. Perhaps more...

(The entire section is 8557 words.)

Hermione Lee (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: The Novels of Virginia Woolf Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1977, 237 p.

[In the following excerpt, Lee discusses Woolf's use of the life and writings of Vita Sackville-West as inspiration for Orlando.]

Orlando has a different quality from all Virginia Woolf's other novels, though it is interestingly comparable to many of them, particularly to Jacob's Room and Between the Acts. The difference in quality is suggested by its subtitle, 'A Biography': it is an attempt to represent the character of a real person. Though To the Lighthouse was also, in a sense, biographical, it was not written for the characters who are evoked in the...

(The entire section is 6941 words.)

Harold Skulsky (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Virginia Woolf's Orlando: Metamorphosis as the Quest for Freedom," in his Metamorphosis: The Mind in Exile, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981, pp. 195-222.

[In the following excerpt, Skulsky examines Orlando's transformation from male to female.]

(The entire section is 11630 words.)

Susan M. Squier (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tradition and Revision in Woolf's Orlando: Defoe and 'The Jessamy Brides'," in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2,1986, pp. 167-77.

[In the following excerpt, Squier analyzes Orlando as Woolf's challenge to the tradition of realistic novels initiated by Daniel Defoe.]

On March 14, 1927 Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary the symptoms of an "extremely mysterious process … the conception last night between 12 & one of a new book."

I sketched the possibilities which an unattractive woman, penniless, alone, might yet bring into being… It struck me, vaguely, that I might write a...

(The entire section is 3431 words.)

Pamela L. Caughie (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Virginia Woolf's Double Discourse," in Discontented Discourses: Feminism/Textual Intervention/Psychoanalysis, edited by Marleen S. Barr and Richard Feldstein, University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 41-53.

[In the following essay, Caughie challenges feminist readings of Orlando.]

Written by a feminist (Virginia Woolf), for a bisexual (Vita Sackville-West), about an androgyne (Orlando), the novel Orlando would seem to be the quintessential feminist text. And that, indeed, is what it is in danger of becoming, just as Woolf is in danger of becoming the acclaimed Mother of Us All. In promoting Virginia Woolf's Orlando as a feminist work, feminist...

(The entire section is 4859 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bell, Quentin. "June 1925-December 1928." In his Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Vol. II, pp. 109-40. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Covers the period during which Woolf conceived of, wrote, and published Orlando.

Pippett, Aileen. The Moth and the Star: A Biography of Virginia Woolf Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1955, 368 p.

Includes an account of the writing of Orlando and initial response to the novel.


Alexander, Jean. "Orlando." In her The Venture of Form in the Novels of Virginia Woolf, pp. 127-46. Port Washington, N.Y.:...

(The entire section is 1202 words.)