Virginia Woolf's Orlando: Summary & Analysis

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore 'Orlando', a novel by Virginia Woolf. We'll look at the context, plot, themes, and significance of the work, as well as Woolf's life.

Virginia Woolf

Few writers are as illustrative and defining of their time as Virginia Woolf. Using her distinct style of narration and poetic language, Woolf produced some of the most influential novels of the first half of the twentieth century.

Woolf was born in 1882 into a family that offered her access to a good education and allowed her to come into contact with some of the most important thinkers of her time. Woolf started to write at a young age and became a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of prominent writers and thinkers. She married in 1912 and published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. Woolf continued publishing novels, as well as a large amount of short stories and non-fiction works.

In addition to her innovative art, Woolf was also known for her struggles with depression and her relationships with some of the most important intellectuals of her time. Many critics have attempted to understand Woolf's work through her life experience.

One particularly important encounter was her love affair with Vita Sackville-West. In fact, the encounter so impacted Woolf that it inspired her to write the semi-autobiographical Orlando about her experience. The novel is one of her most accessible works and remains one of her most popular writings. Despite her literary success, Woolf battled debilitating panic attacks and mental illness throughout her life, and in 1941 committed suicide, leaving behind nine novels and dozens of essays and short stories.

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  • 0:00 Virginia Woolf
  • 1:37 Context
  • 2:53 Plot Summary of ''Orlando''
  • 4:37 Analysis
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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As the 19th century ended and the 20th century began, some of the most traditional beliefs about reality and how it is perceived were challenged by both science and philosophy. Theories such as Darwinism and Freudianism, for example, forced people to reexamine how they imagined reality. These changes, combined with a faster-paced lifestyle and the experience of witnessing World War I, meant that many intellectuals and artists abandoned conventional notions. They believed that it was necessary to create art that reflected the complicated reality of the world in which they lived. This resulted in the movement that came to be known as modernism, which is defined in its use of innovative and often abstract art.

Of all the modernist writers, Woolf was one of the most successful in producing narration that demonstrated the ideals and values of modernism. Woolf is famous for her innovative use of stream-of-conscious narration, which involves entering in and out of the minds of various characters and depicting complicated, often subconscious thoughts as they actually happen rather than in logical order. This style of writing allowed Woolf to depict reality as fragmented in a way that is fluid and influenced many writers who came after her.

Plot Summary of Orlando

Orlando was first published in 1928. The novel begins in the 1600s and follows the experiences of Orlando, a young man who desires to be a poet. Although Orlando lives for over 300 years, he only ages 36 years throughout the novel.

Early in the text, Orlando is seen by Queen Elizabeth, who sends for him years later. The two soon become lovers, but the queen becomes angry with him after he pursues another woman, resulting in him leaving the royal court. Things soon change for the better for Orlando, who meets and falls in love with a beautiful princess named Sasha. This relationship also ends, however, and Orlando is left convinced he must put his energy toward his writing. When Nicholas Greene, a poet that Orlando respects, harshly criticizes his work, Orlando burns all of his poems except for a long poem titled The Oak Tree.

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