Week 8 reading response: Orlando

This assignment is due a week from Sunday, or March 26.

Write about satire. What is it? What is Woolf satirizing here? Hints: revisit Flaubert. Look up Vita Sackville-West, to whom the novel is dedicated. (If you want a really fun read and an intimate understanding of the VSW-VW relationship, have a look at her son Nigel Nicholson’s book Portrait of a Marriage.) Think about the art of biography with respect to the voice of Orlando‘s narrator; also think about writers as they are portrayed in the novel. Quote specific passages and how they succeed–or fail–as satire.

Week 8 reading response: Orlando

5 thoughts on “Week 8 reading response: Orlando

  1. Lola Jalbert says:

    Satire is defined by Google as “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.” To paraphrase, satire seems to be the highlighting of certain things in order to criticize a certain person or establishment. In Orlando, Woolf seems to be satirising the entire activity of writing. She portrays Orlando as overly romantic, volatile, and somewhat of a time waster in his pursuit of becoming a writer.
    Furthermore, her representations of other ‘successful’ writers in the novel are never flattering to the characters. She describes the writer Greene in the following way: “The head with its rounded forehead and beaked nose was fine, but the chin receded. The eyes were brilliant, but the lips hung loose and slobbered.” (59) She goes on to describe the writer as hating Shakespeare and being afraid of mice, as well as being a generally awful conversationalist.
    Vita Sackville-West, to whom the novel was dedicated, was a successful writer. She and Woolf also had an affair. Sackville-West was married but she and her husband had an open relationship. She is remembered by the world as bisexual, and this bisexuality seems to be reflected in Woolf’s portrayal of Orlando, who switches between genders as easily as a bisexual person would experience various sexual preferences.
    The narrator’s voice often seems to satirise the entire practice of writing a biography, often mocking the accuracy of dates, facts, and numbers that biographers enjoy.

    “Up to this point in telling the story of Orlando’s life, documents, both private and historical, have made it possible to fulfil the first duty of a biographer, which is to plod, without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth; unenticed by flowers; regardless of shade; on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and write finis on the tombstone above our heads.”

    Woolf successfully uses satire here. She describes her process as a ‘biographer’ of Orlando’s life to highlight the ridiculousness of the process of writing biographical novels entirely. The element that makes it successful is her inclusion of herself into the picture, which prevents her from merely mocking the process from afar. Based on Orlando, that is what satire is and does.


  2. Acacia says:

    Satire generally consists of taking something (a stereotype, an event, an establishment, a theme, etc.) to an “extreme” where the thing goes past reason and logic to showcase its own downfalls and/or absurdities.

    If I didn’t know anything about Woolf before reading the book, or were I quite a bit younger, I think I would have found myself putting down the book out of frustration before really getting anywhere with it. I’m still mildly annoyed with it, for it feels a bit heavy handed, satire or not.

    “…clumsiness is often mated with a love of solitude. Having stumbled over a chest, Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone.”

    There are moments that stand out, such as the quote above, for how mocking and amusing they are. The weirdness of the claim that clumsiness is linked to solitude is such an obvious critique of the large amounts of symbolism people like to tie to behavioral traits. I really did laugh at the idea that Orlando tripped over a chest and therefore “naturally loved…”etc. The narrator seems to resent, or perhaps tease, her subjects. In particular, I felt the way she described Orlando’s relationship to poetry with quite a bit of jest.


  3. Lindsay says:

    One of the main targets of Woolf’s satire in Orlando is the way that the past is reconstructed by historians and specifically biographers. She seems to want to tell us not to take history too seriously, by portraying characters (specifically Nick Grene) who definitely misses the major literary events of his own time because he is too obsessed with the glory of the past. Embedded in this is not only a critique and satire of the self-satisfied, overblown writer type, but also history concerned merely with “greatness”. Instead of this, through her use of irony, and above all through the playfulness and delight Woolf takes in presenting her character’s journey through history, Woolf shows us how history can be viewed as a living experience full of mishaps, accidents, how ‘great deeds’ (think of Orlando in Istanbul) can come out of strange and downright anti-social experiences (him wanting to leave his life in England thinking he has completely exhausted it). Woolf targets the self-aggrandizing whims of the English aristocracy at many stages in her novel, specifically in the kind of narrative of pride in King and Country that they espouse and use to puff up themselves. For instance, when the Dukedom is conferred upon Orlando, it is confirmed that it was to the service of the country and not in honour of his famous calves, which suggests and then overturns the idea that in fact aristocratic honour is simply a matter of personal preference or nepotism: “It is likely that it was his merits that won him his Dukedom, not his calves (90).”

    And, behind all of this playful irony and satire at work in the narrative structure of her book, Woolf reminds us that history is recalled and reconstructed for specific occasions and specific people, and cannot be seen outside of this process of contemporary remembering. We know this because the inspiration for her book was in fact her friend and contemporary Vita Sackville-West and her familial history and familiar estate. Personal references to Vita S-W and her family run throughout the novel, not least in the photographs, the last of which (stated as a picture of Orlando) is actually of her.

    When, for instance, Woolf puts a sentence such as this in the mouth of Nick Grene – “Their own age, he said, was marked by precious conceits and wild experiments – neither of which the Greeks would have tolerated for a moment (62).” – she is fully aware that the 16th Century gave birth to English as a mature modern language and that the poets Nick Grene derides, including Shakespeare and Marlow, are still considered today to be among the foremost poets in the language. This age also included the publication of the King James bible, surely a huge event in the establishment of modern English, and the dictionary of Ben Jonson (also derided by Nick Grene.) Woolf must also have had in mind the contemporary upheavals of her own time and the way in which the contemporary experiments in fiction, some of which she published with her Hogarth press, were not considered as serious “literature” in some quarters as they were undoing the traditions of the past. When Grene says, “A great age, forsooth – the Elizabethan a great age! (63)”, Woolf is lampooning the short-sightedness of critics in her own age, or the fallibility of critical judgement in general.

    Woolf’s novel presents us with a masterful vision of satire as essential to deflating human opinions. The playfulness and wit of her narrative shows us how intelligence can be humble, or everyday, or ridiculous, or aware of it’s own foibles, by showing us how her characters are often on the wrong side of history when they take themselves too seriously.


  4. Wilma says:

    Satire, in my understanding, is a mockery or humorous criticism of a thing or idea achieved by operating within it and stretching its logic out far far beyond its limits so that it becomes absurd and illogical.

    In Orlando, Woolf seems to be satirizing a range of things – poetry, poets, lots of literary methods and features, and Orlando himself of course. Orlando here is based on Vita Sackville-West, a friend of Woolf’s. Which surprised me to find out as, well, the narrator’s view of Orlando also seemed to pretty strongly infavourable.

    In that sense, it made me think about how biographers view the subjects of their writing. In general, personally, I tend to stray away from reading biography if it is not auto-biographical: another’s view on a person that they often have nothing in common with (other than them both being writers perhaps) doesn’t usually particularly interest me. Orlando returns me to the Wood’s discussion of the free-indirect narration and how an author may sound/be unreliable or very knowledgeable on their subjects – how words can float in a space between the two people and their personality.

    In general, Orlando was sort of like reading fanfiction of some strange, obscure novel or film I’d never read/seen – Why should I care? Having also no strong pre-established feelings about Virginia Woolf or her relationships, I felt as if there was a lot of subject matter I needed to be “In-on” to understand. Paul said in class that this book is often seen as a long love letter from VW to VSW, but it felt more like one of those inside jokes you repeat in front of people that aren’t in on it just so that they KNOW that there is something they aren’t in on.

    Beside that, I cannot deny that the satire in it is quite successful – even in long, beautiful passages of almost philosophical nature, Woolf is poking fun at something, although it is not always clear what. She even manages to slip social commentary in the satiric circlejerk with passages like this one:
    “On the fourth it rained, and as he could not keep a lady in the wet, nor was altogether averse to company, he invited her in and asked her opinion whether a suit of armour, which belonged to an ancestor of his, was the work of Jacobi or of Topp. He inclined to Topp. She held another opinion – it matters very little which.”

    Here, we see that although we do find out the lady’s (Archduchess Harriet’s) opinion of the armour, it is treated as if it is not important. It’s a small piece of commentary on female characters and their (lack of) importance in literature.


  5. Joel says:

    In Orlando, Woolf is not only satirizing poets, literary methods, characters and situations, she also satirizes the reader and his logical mental models. Woolf’s exposure of opposites couldn’t be done with such grace if the satirical note was missing. It helps build up the characteristics of a novel where everything goes, from sex change to time traveling and beyond… to eternity?

    Although we didn’t get through the whole novel [yet], Woolf’s treatment of time exposes the possibilities in the novel and how it means to break our logical binary way of thinking. This is what I mean wit satirizing the reader, we are engulf in a beautiful and intelligent mockery of ourselves and our binding mentality. Woolf basically throws at us a novel meant to be a biography of a sex-changing aristocrat that travels in time. How could this be done without the satirical tone to it? With it she’s forcing us to stretch our logic and embrace the possibilities of the unknown, the fictional, the “unreal”.

    Although I’m only halfway through the book, the passage where Orlando and Greene meet for the first time and discuss poetry really shows Woolf’s daringness: “No, he concluded, the great age of literature is past; the great age of literature was the Greek. In such ages men cherished a divine ambition which he might call La Gloire (he pronounced it Glawr, so that Orlando did not at first catch his meaning).” 62.

    I dare to ask, who is Woolf not satirizing here? It ranges from the characters present all the way to basic human condition.


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