The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

In the late 1500’s, Orlando, a young nobleman from an ancient British family, dedicates himself to literature. He encounters William Shakespeare and is appointed by Queen Elizabeth to be her companion. In London, he falls in love with a mysterious Russian beauty who soon abandons him. Devastated, he turns to poetry, but when one of his tragedies is ridiculed publicly by a London poet, Orlando retreats to his family’s magnificent estate and burns all of his poems except one, titled “The Oak Tree.”

When a strange guest arrives, introducing herself as the Archduchess Harriet Griselda of Roumania, Orlando becomes increasingly uncomfortable and decides to leave England. At his request, he is appointed as ambassador extraordinary to Constantinople and is next seen performing his official duties in that post. Life is generally tedious until he suddenly falls into a coma. After several days of suspended animation, Orlando awakes, having somehow been transformed into a woman.

Orlando joins a band of Thessalian gypsies, with whom she lives contentedly for some time. Finally, however, she is inspired by a vision of her ancestral home to return to England, where she finds herself in the eighteenth century and soon befriends such famous writers as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Much of Orlando’s time is engaged in meditation about fame, time, and the nature of literature. Soon, with the remarkably elusive lapsing of time that characterizes...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The genesis for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography came about in an hour. The author recalls wanting to create a historical work outlining all of her friends in a single work. The idea of writing a biography appealed to her. It follows the title character over four centuries, touching on the social, political, and literary tastes of each. Woolf is able to poke fun at the foibles of passing generations, reflect on time, and comment on the schism between men and women.

Orlando is introduced as a sixteen-year-old English lad during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, around 1586. He is a handsome youth, given to literary ambitions as a poet and dramatist, a love of nature, and a deep respect for queen and country. In short, he is a true English gentleman. Elizabeth notices his noble qualities, his youthful enthusiasm, and his gorgeous legs, thinking him the proper English courtier. He becomes her surrogate son, lover, and appointed treasurer and steward of Elizabeth’s court.

Orlando’s life takes a turn during the reign of the succeeding monarch, King James I. Although engaged, Orlando falls in love with Russian Princess Sasha. She breaks his heart, leaving him while he waits in vain to elope with her. (Orlando would never trust women again, though he always remembered Sasha over the centuries.) Disgraced at court, he returns to his ancestral home. While there, he falls into a week-long trance, the first of several. Upon awakening, he...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Orlando’s castle

Orlando’s castle. This site inspires Orlando’s creative struggle to become a poet. With its 365 rooms and 52 staircases, the castle extends over several acres. Hundreds of servants care for the castle and its grounds, which contain an oak tree that symbolizes the enduring presence of literature and inspires Orlando to write an ongoing poem titled “The Oak Tree.” Contrasting with the continual change in London, Orlando’s castle remains unchanged from the glorious days when it received Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century to its grandeur in the twentieth century.

Although the castle is fictional, it is based on Vita Sackville-West’s ancestral home Knole and her later home, Sissinghurst Castle. During the 1920’s, Great Britain’s laws of entail meant that Vita could not inherit the ancestral house she loved because she was a woman. In transforming Knole into Orlando’s house Woolf draws on Vita Sackville-West’s own book Knole and the Sackvilles (1922) and restores the house to her friend.


*London. As Great Britain’s capital and leading city evolves through Orlando’s long lifetime, it demonstrates an Einsteinian blend of time and space. Each century in London is represented by specific historical and literary events. Although the city is presented through actual sites, they are fictionalized in order to represent various historical periods. Virginia Woolf prefaces her introduction of Orlando into London society with this disclaimer:To give a truthful account of London society at that or indeed at any other time, is beyond the powers of the biographer or the historian. Only those who have little need of the truth, and no respect for it—the poets and the novelists—can be trusted to do it, for this is one of the cases where truth does not exist. Nothing exists. The whole thing is a miasma—a mirage.

Sixteenth century London is seen through Queen Elizabeth’s courtier tradition. Grand halls, elaborate furnishings, and elegant costumes suggest...

(The entire section is 848 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando has had a positive impact on women’s literature. As in her other eight novels, Woolf is concerned with creating a feminine perspective, employing female characters as the focal point of her work. Orlando appears to be an exception because the title character is male, but he is so androgynous that when the gender change takes place the character can easily be viewed as female. Woolf’s aim was to deny basic differences between male and female. (In 1993, English director Sally Potter released Orlando as a feminist feature film and cast actress Tilda Swinton to play the main character throughout the centuries.) She shows continuity with her other novels by revealing victory over time and death.

Orlando allows Woolf to give free rein to a host of women’s concerns. First, and foremost, through the creation of a physically desirable hero suddenly turned ravishing heroine, Woolf is able to reveal differing aspects of masculinity and femininity within one being. Women’s secondary status in society is closely examined, particularly after Orlando’s transformation. The privilege of enjoying certain male prerogatives is denied the same female character, as is the right to inherit her estate. Woolf’s feminist thesis is given sharper expression in the eighteenth century when Orlando sadly realizes that even the most liberal-thinking males consider women inferior. In one interesting passage, the feminine Orlando curses “himself” for once insisting that women remain demure, ornate, and exquisitely dressed.

Virginia Woolf is considered one of the most renowned English women of literature. Her literary accomplishments have almost always been admired. She is hailed as one of the first, and most influential, of the modernist writers. Her novels, once neglected, are now in print again, with effusive introductions by various editors. Her writings have been translated into more than fifty languages. Critical studies on Woolf abound, and her novels, short stories, essays, letters, diaries, and fragmented manuscripts have been carefully examined. In short, Woolf became one of the most discussed authors of the twentieth century. Orlando remains a dazzling, multifaceted, witty, and original piece of feminist writing.

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Woolf kept a diary spanning a time period of twenty-six years. In Orlando, Orlando is allowed to exist over four hundred years,...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Virginia Woolf dedicated this novel to her eccentric and charismatic friend, Vita Sackville-West, whose Sapphic tendencies intrigued Woolf...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Woolf's writing, there is a continuing concern with the Woman Question and issues surrounding women's subjugation and the need for women's...

(The entire section is 577 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1993, Sally Potter created a motion picture adaptation of Orlando, starring Quentin Crisp as Elizabeth I and Tilda Swinton as...

(The entire section is 753 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Apter, T. E. Virginia Woolf: A Study of Her Novles. New York: New York University Press, 1979. A broad overview of Woolf’s novels, focusing on the epistemological and psychological ramifications of her vision, sensibility, and symbolism. Orlando is examined in a short, separate chapter.

Booth, Alison. Greatness Engendered. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Presented from a feminist perspective, this study compares Woolf and George Eliot, specifically their depiction of women characters. The author originally had a more favorable opinion of Eliot as an activist and feminist, but reversed herself on closer...

(The entire section is 603 words.)