Thinking Questions for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: Kalimat, 15/04/2019

1.Some of the most obvious questions Orlando raises are about gender. What do you think Woolf is saying about gender: the relationship between men and women, between male-ness and female-ness? Are there specific places in the book that make you think this?

Does Woolf ever seem to contradict herself on this subject?

2. Woolf also says, both implicitly and explicitly, that to a certain extent, every human being contains both male-ness and female-ness within themself. What do you think about this? How does it apply in the book, to the character of Orlando? How about any other characters?

3. Identity is another important gender-related topic. Woolf says specifically that Orlando as a man and Orlando as a woman are — confusing though it may seem — definitely the same person. Woolf also shows both people who have known Orlando, and Orlando’s dogs and other animals, agreeing that the female Orlando is the same person as the male.

Yet Woolf also talks about differences between the female and male versions of Orlando, which become more striking as Orlando spends more time as a woman. Is this a contradiction? What do you think?

4. Woolf was an English writer, and Orlando defines himself/herself, among other things, as an “English” person. Orlando experiences very deep connections to their family tree; the lands and house that they inherited; and their native language.

Such definitions have to be set against an “other,” and indeed various “other” cultures and peoples appear throughout the book — starting with the very first scene, where young Orlando is “slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters”: a grisly ‘souvenir’ brought back by one of his warlike ancestors from, possibly, the Crusades. “Other” places and peoples continue to appear, from the Russian princess and her court, to Orlando’s stint in Ottoman Constantinople; Orlando’s liaison with “Rosina Pepita”; Orlando’s time living among “gipsies” in Turkey; and the stories told by Marmaduke about his adventures with African women. (Perhaps we could even include the Archduchess Harriet of Roumania.)

What do you think of Woolf’s handling of “other” cultures, races, and religions? What purpose do you think they serve (or, possibly, fail to serve) in the book?

5. What do you think of Orlando‘s treatment of love?

6. How about its treatment of marriage?

7. What do you think of the treatment of class — i.e., wealth and nobility, as opposed to the non-noble and the poor — in the book?

8. Woolf spends a tremendous amount of time talking about clothing. She seems particularly interested in the differences between what a person can do dressed in “men’s” clothing (in Orlando’s England, this meant trousers, practical shoes, and possibly a sword or gun) and “women’s” clothing (this meant long, multi-layered skirts, delicate shoes, and no weapon). She even seems to suggest the confining dresses and corsets of the 19th century were designed, in part, to convince women that they were weak and helpless creatures, which would in turn make them agree with the societal idea that, for their own safety, they needed to get married.

Woolf herself lived at a time when English women were starting to press for the opportunity to do things like vote, attend university, hold meaningful jobs, and receive respect from men for their writing and scholarship. Folded up somewhere in this was also a press for the ability to wear simpler and shorter dresses, wear trousers if desired, and ride bicycles.

What do you make of Woolf’s — and Orlando’s — interest in the practical and symbolic differences between men’s and women’s clothing?

9. What do you think of Woolf’s treatment of physical beauty in the book? How about youth as opposed to age? (Consider, perhaps, the characters of Orlando, Queen Elizabeth, Sasha, and Nick Green.)

10. Woolf spends a lot of time talking about “the spirit of the age” in the context of Orlando’s experience in the 19th century. What exactly does she mean by this?

11. Why, precisely, does Orlando marry Shelmerdine? What effects does the marriage have on Orlando’s life?