Book Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

For Pride Month this year, I chose Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. After experiencing her phenomenal To the Lighthouse, I expected it to be a complex and critical novel that plays with our perceptions of time, space, gender and genre. While I was not disappointed in its complexities, I was pleasantly surprised by its humor. While I consider this novel to be one of the most important works of literature for reasons I will explain, some sections truly had me laughing out loud. Virginia Woolf was clearly having fun while writing this novel that she considered her holiday. As with my reading years ago of To the Lighthouse, I was often overwhelmed by so much richness, in subject matter and composition. Perhaps, the most important aspect involves the protagonist’s sudden and inexplicable sex change from male to female. Orlando manages his transition with grace and a profound truth. On seeing himself as a herself for the first time in the mirror, she remarks: “Different sex. Same person.”

Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf (and Snickers), Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Orlando is the fictional “biography” of a protagonist of the same name. For a work that plays with so many different conventions, Woolf is clearly having fun with the concept of biography. Often, the narrator feels compelled to apologize for the many times the reader is taken on a divergent course. The novel is satirical take on what we usually see as a biography. The biographer who narrates the story often intervenes and comments upon the historical accuracy and the sources which describe certain events in Orlando’s life. A clear tonal shift occurs in the narration and the biographer’s attitude towards Orlando when he/she changes gender. As a male, the narrator is distant, but once Orlando becomes a woman, she is approached with more love and compassion. Fortunately, Woolf’s masterful prose helps us in forming quite the impression of our hero/heroine. I sincerely doubt that there are many protagonists who come to life on the page in the way Orlando does.

“We have done our best to piece out a meagre summary from the charred fragments that remain; but often it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise, and even to make use of the imagination.”

We first meet him/her as a teenager during the Elizabethan period. Orlando suffers many of the trials of youth, such as getting his heart broken, being ridiculed by a poet, and getting pursued by a very persistent Archduchess. Eventually, he becomes a diplomat in Constantinople and one morning awakens to find that he has been transformed into a woman. She returns to England, where she has to settle some legal disputes because of her sex change and publishes a poem that she wrote for centuries. The biography ends in the present day of the 1920s when Orlando is approaching middle age.

Could Orlando be considered the first work of transgender fiction? There have certainly been many works that have used the idea of transition. Ovid’s Metamorphoses playfully explores shifting forms – especially human form, as humans turn into trees or animals, or the gods embody themselves in human form to pursue their love interests. The Arabian Nights is filled with both gender changing plots and cross-dressing. Of course, Shakespeare loved gender disguises – a girl who’s a boy who’s a boy who’s a girl; as women were not allowed on the London stage in Shakespeare’s day, every female role was cross-gender. Possibly, Woolf christened her character based upon the play As You Like It, where the heroine disguises herself as a man in order to teach the man she loves, Orlando, how to love in return. Woolf, however, has given us fiction’s first truly trans character, one that has romances with both male and female lovers alike.

This novel is one of the best works of satirical fiction I’ve read since Gulliver’s Travels. As a matter of fact, Jonathan Swift appears as a character, along with some other famous cameos. Orlando bends the norms of the genre of biography, just as much as it shifts conventions of gender and identify. Centuries pass for Orlando who only ages about twenty years. The true genius of this work is how Virginia Woolf juxtaposes time as it is measured by calendars with how it is actually experienced by people themselves. I found that so insightful, and it put me in mind of my own relationship with time. Some moments may pass slowly, but then I think about how much time has passed within the blink of an eye. As the biographer explains, “The true length of a person’s life, whatever the “Dictionary of National Biography” may say, is always a matter of dispute.”

“Such is the indomitable nature of the spirit of the age however, that it batters down anyone who tries to make a stand against it far more effectually than those who bend its own way.”

Orlando’s sudden change of gender had an interesting effect on me as a reader. As a male, I found his passion, his poetic nature, as well as his handling of heartbreak to be incredibly relatable. Other times, I found him to be annoying with his constant whining (perhaps some self-reflection there). As Orlando works to navigate life as a female, it was interesting to see her find her place in society. A perfect example of this lies in Orlando’s love of writing, particularly poetry. I got the impression that, as a youth, his poetry was probably not very good. However, as a powerful white male, even mediocrity is given a measure of respect. As a woman, Orlando struggles to be taken seriously. While this novel, much like Swift’s Gulliver, is set in an earlier time period, we can still find the problems of acceptance highly relatable today.

Virginia Woolf, Photo Credit: Mondadori Portfolio / Getty

In the end, all Orlando truly wanted was “a lover and a life.” Perhaps, that’s all any of us truly want. To have love and the freedom to live life on our own terms sounds absolutely fantastic. This is a classic definitely worth reading, particularly in these trying times where acceptance can often seem like a faraway dream. With generous grace and several profound truths, Virginia Woolf shows exactly why she is a pioneer of the postmodernist movement. Crafting a complex novel that mixes up history with fiction and humor, Orlando is a novel that remains one of the most important works ever created.

“To refuse and to yield, she murmured, how delightful; to pursue and to conquer, how august; to perceive and to reason, how sublime.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

  1. Hooray!!!!! Joel I’m so glad you’ve read this and loved it and love it’s importance and it’s humour, it’s just the best isn’t it and I agree laugh out loud funny!! Now, have you seen the film with Tilda Swinton as Orlando? If not I highly recommend because the’ve really captured it, especially with the ending which I’m not going to say any more about!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful response! I’m planning on reading Woolf in chronological order…but have only read The Voyage Out to date. I’ve always suspected that I need to be older to read her and truly appreciate her…maybe I need to keep putting book 2 on my cc spin list…
    Anyway, thatnks for the inspirational and aspirational post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: What I Read-Best of 2022 So Far – I Would Rather Be Reading

  4. I’ve enjoyed Woolf’s other works and collect beautiful quotations. Your review is so well-written, thoughtful, and intelligent–not so common to find these days in the blogosphere. Thank you for that. You’ve definitely influenced me put Orlando on my 2022 reading list.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s