Book Review: Orlando

“For it would seem– her case proved it– that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. ”

Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway ranks on my Top 10 list of books. Virginia Woolf makes every word count. Knowing how much I admire Woolf, I expected to love Orlando. I didn’t.

The problem became apparent immediately; I couldn’t get into it. After a couple paragraphs, my attention wandered; I either had to re-read the last three pages or put the book down. Still, I persevered, not wanting to leave the book unfinished. Some great books become most worthwhile in the final few pages, when all the threads come together.

In fact, that last two chapters, in which Orlando lives as a nineteenth- and twentieth-century woman, proved rather enjoyable. Many of the disparate references and themes wove in again for the fuller, overall message Woolf worked to achieve. The concept of gender roles and identity, particularly in Woolf’s time, and their exploration were intriguing, but the book’s classification as a novel didn’t quite sit well with me.

Tilda Swinton as the title character in the 1992 movie adaptation of Woolf's novel.

No one need justify that Orlando is a novel; however, it feels like a novel by default. It simply falls under no other category. For much of the narrative, I felt like a stranger tiptoeing down the hall to eavesdrop on murmured conversations, like a young girl peering through windows of an abandoned manor, observing Orlando’s life like some elaborately staged play. I would witness a scene, but never know the person behind it. Orlando best falls under the category of “character study,” but one never fully realized. By the end of the novel, I hardly felt closer to the character. Orlando was simply a blank wall upon which Woolf could project her final agenda.

Perhaps the largest issue I had with the novel was the lack of a clear and cohesive plot. Orlando changes sexes and lives for over three centuries without any explanation; Woolf even mentions the strangeness of the situation, but offers no context or reason. I found the two key elements of the narrative impossible to swallow. Even pure magic would have been better than nothing at all.

The plot never flows. Small vignettes occur, a romance here and there, but always too fleeting. Scenes of action are followed by a long reflections, causing the narrative to move at a snail’s pace. I found myself lost by the end of interior monologues. When action resumed, I could no longer remember where it had left off.

When I reached the ending, I was struck by the thematic similarity to A Room of One’s Own. Orlando would have fit in perfectly there, interspersed with other characters and scenarios in essay form (to be fair, Orlando predates A Room of One’s Own by a year). The fundamental concept of the novel is fascinating, provoking issues, including those gender roles and the role of writing in our lives, worth exploring and characters worth knowing, particularly in the context of our world today. Woolf’s choice of medium to convey the story, through, remains unconvincing.

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  1. […] a full review, read here. Expecting something more along the lines of Mrs. Dalloway, I was slightly disappointed. Woolf is a […]

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