Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

The protagonist of the novel is a man named Orlando, and the story covers a time period of three hundred years (1588-1928). Despite this large time span, Orlando only ages to a mere thirty-six years old while also undergoing a gender change from a man to a woman. In the beginning of the novel, Orlando pretends to cut off the heads of Moors just like the men in his family have always done, for he is too young to fight yet still loves to experience adventuresome situations. On one particular occasion, Orlando ventures out into the woods in order to write poetry; however, he falls alseep and wakes up to the incredibly loud sound of trumpets. He realizes that the sounding of the trumpets is to signal that Queen Elizabeth has arrived. Orlando immediately leaves the woods to return home so that he can properly prepare himself for her presence. When he finally meets her, the Queen is very much impressed by him. Two years after their initial meeting, she summons for him to become a part of her highly prestigious court. Orlando experiences the positions of a steward, treasurer, and even becomes romantically involved with the Queen, thus allowing him to have a great degree of social status. Nonetheless, Orlando still chooses to spend some time with people considered to be of a lower class and even engages with a number of younger women. He eventually becomes bored of this newly acquired lifestyle and thus returns back to the court under King James I due to the fact that Queen Elizabeth has died. The novel incorporates the events of the Great Frost in which a carnival extravangza exists on the frozen river. It is here that Orlando meets the Russian priness named Sasha; they plan to run away together, but their plans fall through when the ice eventually breaks, thereby causing the ships to leave. Later on in the novel, King Charles II decides to send Orlando to Constantinople to serve as an ambassador. One night, Orlando brings a woman into his room and falls deeply into a trance; after seven days, he awakes from the trance transformed as a woman. Orlando cannot decide which gender is more suitable to her desires and experiences a number of relationships with various men. She eventually marries a ship captain named Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. Towards the end of the novel, Orlando goes to London for her writing and is unexpectedly struck ten times on the head by a very bright light. She has been struck by the present and is thirty-six years old. The novel ends with a scene involving the return of the previously dead Queen Elizabeth in addition to the arrival of her husband.

Discussion Questions:

1). Because this novel endures a time span of three hundred years, there is a transition from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth century. Orlando experiences the gender change into a woman during the beginning of the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century was a time in history when women were more widely recognized and able to aquire more freedoms, so what do you think is Woolf's purpose in having Orlando undergo a gender change? Does Orlando seem to be too deeply affected by this change? Why or why not? How do you think that you would react?

2). This novel also focuses on social statuses and the importance of conforming to society as it changes. What is the importance of a social status, and do you think that these rankings are as emphasized today as they were back then? Why or why not?


Justin B. 11-12 said...

Well, looks like I will have to be the trailblazer, I got your back Kristen :)

2) In the world a person's social status is very important. It can impact what kind of job they have, where they live, what kind of car they drive, what school they go to, who they associate with, etc. etc. In today's world social status plays a lesser role then it did hundreds of years ago but it is still very much alive as something people notice and take into account about a person. For example, in today's world social status plays a much reduced role in who a person will marry. You cannot say it is gone completely because, at least as far as I know, celebrities never marry someone who is not also a celebrity (for better or for worse). So in that case the celebrities are taking into account the social status of the person that they will be marrying.
Also, look at the college situation in the United States. Most of the people who go to well known schools like MIT, Harvard, Yale, etc. are children of either an alumni of that school or has parents that are wealthy. Social status of the applicant plays a fairly large role in determining who will attend these schools (even though they will never admit it themselves). There are plenty of people smart enough to go to these schools however, it is only the rich or well-connected enough that actually end up attending (for the most part), another example of social status at work in today's world.
These are only a few examples of the role that a person's social status plays in today's world. It may be diminished when compared to the world of yesteryear but it is still there, looming over the lives of everyone, and it will never go away.

1) It is difficult for me to figure out why Woolf had Orlando undergo a gender change without actually reading the book but I will forge on nonetheless. It is obvious that there is a supernatural element to Orlando (he ages extremely slowly) so his change of gender might be some higher power letting Orlando experience both "halves" of humanity so as to gain a greater understanding of what it means to be a human. You say in your summary that he is not sure which gender best suits the desires of some women so maybe being a women allows him to see this other side that has caused him to think this way. Anyway, just my two cents, take it as you may.
Having not read the book, I find I am unable to come up with a decent answer for to what degree is Orlando affected by this change. As for how I would react, well I would probably freak out. There would be a bunch of stuff that I would not know how to do and social norms that I'm sure I would have no idea about how they pertain to a women vs. a man. I do think that it would be interesting though to find out how women experience the world everyday.

Kristen R. 11-12 said...

Justin, I agree with with your comments. I agree that social status is not quite as stressed as it was in the past, but that it still very much so exists and dictates how many people live their lives. I think that you made a valid point when you talked about the celebrities; social status is virtually the basis on which they conduct their lives. You also made a good point when you talked about the importance of alumni in the world of colleges. Additionally, in regards to the gender change, like you said, Woolf uses the gender change to allow Orlando to determine if a substantial difference really does exist between men and women. Woolf is trying to portray that it is rather the demands that society places on those two roles that ultimately shape a man versus a woman.