(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)




The Nature of Things in Orlando


Floriane Reviron (Université de Bourgogne)



In her essay entitled "The New Biography," Virginia Woolf stated that the whole problem of biography was that it had to weld into a seamless whole truth, "something of granite-like solidity," and personality, "something of rainbow-like intangibility" (Essays 4 : 229). Presumably this is also what she had in mind when she decided to write Orlando or rather when the idea of this biography of her friend Vita Sackville-West presented itself to her. The problem was indeed that she meant to give a truthful account of some aspects of her friend’s life without laying too much stress upon the fabric of things—what she believed to be one of the Edwardian’s main flaws.[1] As she wrote in her diary, on the twenty-second of October 1927: "I am writing Orlando half in mock style very clear & plain, so that people will understand every word. But the balance between truth & fantasy must be careful" (Diary 3 : 162). The fact is that Orlando is a mixed production:[2] a number of critics have remarked upon its tendency to evolve from a fantastic account of Vita’s life to something much more serious, in fact from an initial joke to a "full-fledged theory of biography."[3]

The material things that Woolf deals with in Orlando seem to attest to this subtle change of mood and tone. The objects which were found at Knole (the Sackville-Wests’ ancestral estate) allow her to give a truthful


[1]. In "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," an essay written just before Orlando in 1924, Virginia Woolf distinguished between the Edwardian writers, i.e. Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy, and the Georgian writers, i.e. Forster, Lawrence, Strachey, Joyce and Eliot. According to her the first category of writers put too much emphasis on the outward look of things and were not interested in their characters from the inside, which is the reason why their books were "incomplete books" ( Essays I : 327).

[2]. As such, it corresponds to Virginia Woolf’s definition of biography in her essay entitled "The New Biography," in which she described the art of the biographer as a "queer amalgamation of dream and reality" (Essays IV : 235).

[3]. The phrase was used by Leon Edel in his extensive study about biography entitled Literary Biography and published in 1957, in which he asserted: "Orlando is in reality neither a literary joke nor entirely a novel. It is a fable—a fable for biographers, embodying those views of biography which had often been exchanged among the Bloomsbury Group. . ." (94).





account of Vita’s life. They seem to be mentioned only insofar as they anchor the biography in real life, but most often even these material things are referred to for their ability to trigger off powerful emotions. Such things may also be gestures or minor details but their significance is vital to an understanding of the relationship between words and "things." Basically there are two main modes of apprehending reality and of putting it into words: metaphor and metonymy are the two main linguistic modes of arrangement of the things surrounding us and we shall see that the wide use Woolf made of them in Orlando attests to a very fine understanding of the relationship between words and things.[1] Finally we shall see that Orlando in many ways adumbrates the theory she was to develop in her essay entitled "Craftsmanship" if only because words seem to fail Orlando when he comes to describe the things around him, but also because they seem to fail his biographer who is most probably a spokesman for Virginia Woolf herself.

What one can say about Orlando is that it is fraught with a jumble of things, of people, of ideas, which seems natural enough if one considers that it was meant to recount the life of someone whose life extends from about 1570 to 1928, who is composed of 2,052 selves, lives in a house with 365 bedrooms and changes sexes halfway through the book. This seems to correspond to Virginia Woolf’s initial aim which, so to speak, was to tumble everything pall-mall, to "embody all those innumerable little ideas & tiny stories which flash into my mind at all seasons. . ." (Diary 3 : 131).

As creative as Woolf may have been, she also based her description of Snowdown, Orlando’s home, on the actual home of the Sackville-Wests, relying not only on her own visits to this place but also on Vita’s history of Knole entitled Knole and the Sackvilles and published shortly before Orlando, in 1922. By describing in a fairly accurate manner the things that could be found in Knole, the various portraits in the galleries but also the


[1]. Roman Jakobson in his famous essay entitled "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" explains very well that "any linguistic sign involves two modes of arrangement. . ." i.e. combination and selection. Combination means that "any linguistic unit at one and the same time serves as a context for simpler units and/or finds its own context in a more complex linguistic unit. . . combination and contexture are two faces of the same operation." Similarly, selection and substitution are two faces of the same operation, a selection between alternatives implying the possibility of "substituting one for the other, equivalent in one respect and different in another." Jakobson goes on to demonstrate that the two polar figures of speech, metaphor and metonymy are based respectively on similarity and contiguity and that the two main types of aphasia are based either on a similarity disorder (the patient can only express himself by using metonymies) or on a contiguity disorder, which leads the patient to dissolve the grammatical ties in a sentence and to use one-word sentences which are mainly of a metaphoric nature (95-107).





various items which belonged to some of its inhabitants, Virginia truly aimed at restoring Knole to Vita who, being a woman, could not inherit it. And although she exaggerated some of its features in the most blatant way the result was truthful enough to move Vita to tears when she read the book.[1] Some things were used by Woolf as emblems of the splendour of Knole. Among these were the towel horse in the King’s bedroom, King James’ silver brush, China bowls, etc. To these, of course, could be added all the things Orlando buys in the 17th century and whose partial inventory in the book is inspired by the actual inventory of 1624. But as Orlando’s biographer would say: "Already—it is an effect lists have upon us—we are beginning to yawn. But if we stop, it is only that the catalogue is tedious not that it is finished" (75). It is indeed more interesting to focus on the things mentioned in the book not only for their intrinsic value as historical objects, but first and foremost for their capacity to spark off these unique and exceptional moments which Woolf referred to as "moments of being."

In A Sketch of the Past Virginia Woolf explains that most of our days are spent in moments of non-being, but sometimes, at rare moments, one receives a shock, a blow:

It is not. . . simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words; . . . behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we. . . are parts of the work of art. . . we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. (72)

Similarly in Orlando, a series of objects or of daily gestures can bring back to the present buried memories. What Proust called "les moments privilégiés" in Le Temps retrouvé is concerned with such objects which seem to be characterized by what Baudrillard calls "la fonction primordiale de vase. . . de l’imaginaire" (32). Elizabeth Shore emphasized the link between the Proustian "moment privilégié" and the Woolfian "moments of being," particularly when in Orlando a random physical sensation like the vision of an object suddenly evokes a vivid memory of some forgotten. The first such moment occurs relatively early in the narrative when Orlando, deceived by Sasha the Russian Princess retires to the solitude of his home. He is suddenly plunged in a trance from which he awakens with an


[1]. The letter of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf written on 11 October 1928 attests to her delight and her emotion when she read Orlando:  "For the moment, I can’t say anything except that I am completely dazzled, bewitched, enchanted, under a spell . . . ." In a postcriptum she adds: "You made me cry with you of passages about Knole, you wretch." (de Salvo, Leaska 304-306).





urgent desire to write, and as he dips his pen into the ink the face of Sasha emerges from nowhere: it is a blow to him and he plunges his quill so deep into the inkhorn that the ink spirts over the table, and at once another face rises before his mind’s eye. It is not surprising that the author should describe human nature as made of "clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite" in the same passage (55), for this closely echoes the passage in "The New Biography" in which Woolf contends that truth and personality seldom combine. In fact they do in such rare "moments of being." And it is not surprising either that the other face which eclipses Sasha’s should be that of Shakespeare, the poet "whose words are immortal." Virginia Woolf transposes here her own need to write in such moments.[1] Orlando thus starts writing feverishly "to win immortality" (57), as if such moments in their huge capacity to overwhelm and to dazzle her were a kind of catalist, enabling her to write.

Another such moment takes place when a distant view of St Paul’s cathedral suggests to Orlando the image of a "dome of smooth, white marble" which immediately turns into the large domed forehead of the man in Twitchett’s sitting-room (116). Significantly enough this recollection instantly leads Orlando to touch the manuscript of her poem hidden safe in her bosom. Once more the link between moment of being and writing is made clear.

But the moments of vision most pregnant with meaning are directly linked with material things. In 1928, Orlando is in a department store and each time the doors of the elevator open she catches a glimpse of something which immediately reminds her of past events of her life: 

Nothing is no longer one thing, she says, I take up a handbag and I think of an old bumboat woman frozen in the ice. Someone lights a pink candle and I see a girl in Russian trousers. When I step out of doors—as I do now. . . What is it that I taste? Little herbs. I hear goat bells. I see mountains. Turkey? India? Persia? Her eyes filled with tears. (210)

 At this moment Orlando’s feelings are similar to the "trance of horror" Woolf felt when as a child she realized, on seeing an apple tree at night in the garden, that a man she knew had killed himself (Moments of Being 71).


[1]. In "A Sketch of the Past" Virginia Woolf explains very clearly the need to write, triggered by moments of being: "The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words" (Moments of Being 72). Similarly here, Orlando recovers from the shock he has received when Sasha’s face appeared to him by writing about it.





 Likewise, as long as Orlando’s consciousness is confined exclusively to the present moment, sensory perceptions flood her mind with an almost painful immediacy which hinders her from setting them in some kind of mental perspective. Not until she is able to obtain a certain measure of detachment from the present moment and from the thing itself, can she begin to order and evaluate her perceptions. 

Unsettling though they are, these moments of being are necessary for the multitudinous selves to coalesce. They oblige Orlando to put every event of her life in a historical perspective, to equate the sound of a "lift bumping on the ground" with that of a "pot broken against a river bank" and to understand that the stream of omnibuses in the London streets is the modern equivalent of the "ice blocks which had pitched and tossed. . . on the Thames" (210). These moments endow her with the ability to acknowledge all her different and past selves as parts of her real self.

In "Phases of Fiction" Woolf commented upon Proust’s art in the following terms:

The product of civilization which he describes, is so porous, so pliable, so perfectly receptive that we realize him only as an envelope, thin but elastic, which stretches wider and wider and serves not to enforce a view but to enclose a world. . . . The commonest object, such as the telephone, loses its simplicity, its solidity, and becomes a part of life and transparent. The commonest actions, such as going up an elevator or eating cake, instead of being discharged automatically, rake up in their progress a whole series of thoughts, sensations, ideas, memories which were apparently sleeping on the walls of the mind. (Essays 2 : 83)

We shall see that in Orlando too, some objects and things become transparent, either because they are extensions of the world to which they belong or because their status of things is transcended into that of symbols.[1]

Writing about modernism, David Lodge notes "a general tendency to develop. . . from a metonymic (realistic) to a metaphoric (symbolist or


[1]. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory a symbol is "an object, animate or inanimate, which represents or 'stands' for something else. As Coleridge put it, a symbol 'is characterized by a translucence of the special in the individual.' A symbol differs from an allegorical sign in that it has a real existence, whereas an allegorical sign is arbitrary." (Cuddon 939-942). Or in Mircea Eliade’s words: "Les images, les symboles, les mythes, ne sont pas des créations irresponsables de la psyché ; ils répondent à une nécessité et remplissent une fonction : mettre à nu les plus secrètes modalités de l’être" (13-14). Symbols differ from signs in that they presuppose the homogeneity of signifier and signified. What matters in a symbol is not so much its significance, rather it is its interpretation.





mythopoeic) representation of existence" (177).[1] Virginia Woolf’s Orlando exemplifies this tendency very clearly and a whole series of things in the first part of the text are clearly mentioned for their metonymic qualities whereas others towards the end are unmistakably alluded to for their symbolic impact. In other words Orlando is representative of modernism in that it evolves from a metonymic description of "things," i.e. a realistic mode of apprehension, to a metaphorical or symbolic one.

The novel opens on the meaningful image of Orlando "slicing at the head of a Moor" (11), directly linking him to his ancestors and allowing the biographer to introduce the theme of death on the very first page of what is supposed to be a hymn to life. The skull is meant to remind Orlando of the vanity of existence, fame and glory, and at the same time it underlines the pervasive nature of literature, not only because it introduces Shakespearian overtones in the text but also because compared to the achievements of his ancestors, which are "dust and ashes," the poet’s words are immortal (55).

The skull is not the only part of the body used in a metonymic way. The brain is also a synecdoche not only of Orlando’s whole body, but of his belongings in general and of Snowdown in particular. In the same way as Orlando roams about the galleries of his home he is seen "mounting up the spiral stairway into his brain, which was a roomy one" (13). Later on after the change of sex, Orlando, now a woman, explores the crypt where her ancestors lie with a taper or a lantern and is also tempted to explore the hidden and dark recesses of her mind by reading Thomas Browne: "Slowly there had opened within her something intricate and many-chambered, which one must take a torch to explore, in prose not in verse. . ." (124).

It is therefore not surprising that the house should look so "humane" (73). A form of empathy unites Orlando and her house throughout the novel, to reach its climax towards the end of it. Back from London, Vita immediately feels the need to wander in her house: 

As soon would she come home and leave her grand-mother without a kiss as come back and leave the house unvisited. She fancied that the rooms


[1]. In his study of modernism, Lodge draws on Jakobson’s theory that the main trends in literature can be divided into two different categories, depending on whether they are metonymic or metaphorical. He successively studies James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and draws the conclusion that the modernist texts tend to be metaphorical as opposed to realistic literature which partakes of a metonymic method. In Jakobson’s words: "Following the path of contiguous relationships, the realist author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synecdochic details" (158).





brightened as she came in; stirred, opened their eyes as if they had been dozing in her absence. She fancied, too, that, hundreds and thousands of times as she had seen them, they never looked the same twice, as if so long a life as theirs had stored in them a myriad moods which changed with winter and summer, bright weather and dark, and her own fortunes and the people’s characters who visited them. Polite, they always were to strangers, but a little wary; with her, they were entirely open and at their ease. . . . She knew what age each part of them was and its little secrets—a hidden drawer, a concealed cupboard, or some deficiency perhaps, such as a part made up, or added later. (217-218)

The numerous pathetic fallacies of this passage corroborate Baudrillard’s idea that in a house, the furniture and objects personify the human relationships and have a soul of their own: "Anthropomorphiques, ces dieux lares que sont les objets se font, incarnant dans l’espace les liens affectifs et la permanence du groupe, doucement immortels. . ." (20).

Clothes play the same role in that they are a metonymy of the human body (a blue jacket being a ship captain). However they essentially serve the subversive purpose of the book by drawing attention to one of the most important themes of Orlando, the concept of androgyny. Makiko Minow-Pinkney explains the link between androgyny and the necessary use of metonymy : "Androgyny in Orlando is not a resolution of oppositions, but the throwing of both sexes into a metonymic confusion of gender" (122). Drawing on Jacques Lacan’s assertion that what is expressed in metonymy is "the power to bypass the obstacles of social pressure," she adds:

The oppressed truth in Orlando is the very notion of androgyny itself. Specially ‘unthinkable,’ it cannot be treated in Woolf’s usual metaphorical manner; it verges too much on the comically ribald to allow an earnest attempt to embody it in poetic symbol. It can only be expressed metonymically by ‘a change about from one sex to another’; a man or woman slides into a woman or man. (122)

This change of sex is indeed rather a matter of contiguity than of similarity: Orlando turns into someone of the opposite sex although we shall see that the other Orlando she becomes (i.e. the feminine Orlando) is not much different from her previous self. Clothes being a synecdoche of human beings it is not surprising that the change of sex should go together with a change of clothes. In fact it is essentially the latter which make Orlando aware of her new gender. The weight of the crinoline which drags her down during the Victorian period is the expression of the yoke of convention. "It is clothes that wear us and not we them. . . we may make them the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our





tongues to their liking" says the biographer of Orlando (132). And, indeed, the clothes Orlando wears as a woman do alter her behaviour at first. Yet, and the two assertions seem paradoxical, the narrator also declares that the identity of Orlando as a woman is the same as that of Orlando as a man, nevertheless maintaining that "the difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity." The dilemma is solved only by admitting that "different though the sexes are, they intermix" (132). This explains why Orlando is never happier than when she can freely choose her clothes, regardless of social or historical pressures. Only in this way can she happily give expression to both her feminine and her masculine sides:

She had, it seems no difficulty in sustaining the different parts, for her sex changed far more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can conceive; nor can there be any doubt that she reaped a twofold harvest by this device; the pleasures of life were increased and its experiences multiplied. (153)

Orlando chooses the set of clothes which best suits her mood and as she is a mixture of the masculine and of the feminine, she naturally relishes wearing clothes "of ambiguous gender" (153).

Therefore the objects, whether they be pieces of furniture or clothes are an extension or a mirror of the spirit of their owner and also of the age and this is particularly striking in the part which deals with Victorianism. At the beginning of chapter V, the biographer sums up the changes England goes through under Queen Victoria’s reign. Queen Victoria is not alluded to until Orlando discovers a "garish erection. . . where the statue of Queen Victoria now stands !" (160). And so the Queen’s body is both absent and present thanks to the metonymic allusion to the phallus, which is also a metaphor of the patriarchal authority which characterized the Victorian Age:

The sunbeam seemed to call forth, or to light up, a pyramid, hecatomb, or trophy. . . —a conglomeration at any rate of the most heterogeneous and ill-assorted objects, piled higgledy-piggledy in a vast mound where the statue of Queen Victoria now stands! Draped about a vast cross of fretted and floriated gold were widow’s weeds and bridal veils; hooked on to other excrescences were crystal palaces, bassinettes, military helmets, memorial wreaths, trousers, whiskers, wedding cakes, cannons, Christmas trees, telescopes, extinct monsters, globes, maps, elephants. . . . (160)

This jumble of things is particularly emblematic of the shift from metonymy to metaphor. Taken separately each of these things is a metonymy or a synecdoche but read together they have a metaphorical





meant to glorify the Empire.

Some metaphors pervade the whole book but it is most strikingly the end of Orlando which abounds in metaphors and symbols. According to Makiko Minow-Pinkney "this increasing inclination towards metaphor" goes together with "a diminishing of the fantastic" (143). What is of particular interest is not the fact that Woolf uses one symbol or another; it is rather the fact that she uses either mythological symbols in a very personal manner or that she creates very potent symbols out of ordinary objects. For instance, the tree has always symbolized the link between the sky and the earth, heaven and hell. Sacred trees can be found in most treatises of mystic literature: they represent the centre of the world as is obviously the case of the oaktree in Orlando.[1] It is also a link between the eponymous hero and his ancestors. According to Sandra Gilbert it is traditionally associated with English kings,[2] a fact emblematized by its "crowning" a little mound (Orlando 14) and in one of the most hyperbolic passages of the text the extraordinariness of the tree is emphasized : "It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine" (Orlando 14). A little later the oak tree is described as "the earth’s spine" (15). That is probably what Woolf meant when she said that she wanted to "give things their caricature value" (Diary 3 : 203). But "The Oak Tree" is also the title of the poem Orlando attempts to write, inspired by Vita Sackville-West’s poem entitled "The Land" and, as such, it is an extremely personal symbol of literary creation. "The Oak Tree" claims its right to live and is therefore also a metonymic extension of Orlando’s body and mind.

It is certainly in the last chapter of Orlando that the most potent metaphors can be found. Makiko Minow-Pinkney explains that it is symptomatic of Woolf’s "conforming to the canons of the serious side of her literary project. What began as a fantastic joke ends up foreshadowing her next book: ‘something abstract poetic next time. . . Orlando leading to The Waves’" (143). Let us rather say that the lift, the car and the plane are not only metaphors of modern technologies but also a sign that Woolf is definitely on the side of modernist writing as opposed to realist writing.

Both the lift and the car are symptoms of modernism in that they give a fragmented vision of reality and this fragmentation challenges both our


[1]. Mircea Eliade gives a very interesting explanation of the symbolism of the tree as the centre of the world and as a link between the earth and the sky. (55)

[2]. In her Penguin edition of Orlando, Sandra Gilbert explains that "Vita often wrote under an oak in Knole park, on a high mound known as the Mast Head. . . . The oaktree. . . suggests the value of roots, family and Englishness" (235).





conception of time and that of space. The discontinuity of time and the fragmentation of reality and of the self are interrelated in Orlando. This tight network of images is dizzying for the reader just as modern technologies are for Orlando. About her experience in the lift she says : 

The very fabric of life now. . . is magic. . . . I rise through the air; I listen to voices in America; I see men flying—but how it’s done, I can’t even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns. (207)

The use of the lift and of the car, both very material things, corresponds to the definition of a new symbolic function, as it is perceived by Michel Foucault:

Il y a une fonction symbolique dans le langage, mais depuis le désastre de Babel, il ne faut plus la chercher—à de rares expressions près—dans les mots eux-mêmes mais bien dans l’existence du langage, dans son rapport total à la totalité du monde, dans l’entrecroisement de son espace avec les lieux, et les figures du cosmos. (52) 

Indeed it is because it reintroduces the notion of magic that the lift is not just a means to go from one floor to another. It is metaphorically speaking an opening onto unknown worlds, it offers the possibility to explore the world vertically but also horizontally.

The last symbol of modern technology in the novel is the aeroplane, and it is probably the most achieved one. It is the only means to represent the totalizing of experience without which Orlando’s different selves cannot coalesce. If the experiences in the lift and in the car are profoundly unsettling, the arrival of the plane, on the contrary, brings ecstasy and a sense of unity because Orlando’s senses are equally stirred:

The cold breeze of the present brushed her face with its little breath of fear. She looked anxiously into the sky. It was dark with clouds now. The wind roared in her ears. But in the roar of the wind she heard the roar of an aeroplane coming nearer and nearer. (227)

Space is unified again: the aeroplane is a link between the sky and the earth but also a link between the sky and the sea, a link afforded here by Shelmerdine himself who is supposed to be a sea captain, and time itself coalesces. In Gillian Beer’s words: 

The time of the fiction and the time of the hand concluding the writing of the fiction coincide. The book ends: ‘And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight.’ (147-148)





The sense of unity achieved here is reinforced by the association of two orders of things, i.e. the material or technological order of things and the natural order of things, thanks to the image of the wild goose which takes flight as soon as the plane lands, like its ghostly spirit. According to David Lodge, Virginia Woolf’s metaphorical mode "aspired to the condition of lyrical poetry" (177). Indeed the last image of Orlando is imbued with a lyrical quality, and the intertwining of different symbols like the pearls and the goose attests to the evocatory power of the Woolfian metaphor.

Numerous critics have attempted to define what exactly the wild goose stands for. It is indeed a wild goose chase, similar in many respects to Orlando’s attempt to express the true meaning of things, an attempt which also mirrors Virginia Woolf’s struggle with words throughout her work. And it is most probably the metaphoric mode that suited Woolf best in her attempt to find a new mode of writing.[1]

Right from the beginnning Orlando is shown as a precocious young writer, keen on writing poetry and drama. He is fluent, so the narrator tells us, but suddenly stops writing, searching for inspiration:

He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. (13)

Very clearly then, it seems impossible for words to translate the true nature of things for reality escapes the writer. The same vexing experience is repeated later on, when Orlando meets Sasha, the Russian princess he falls in love with. The only way for him to understand her, is to look to his imagination or to compare her with things he already knows. Indeed a mere description of the clothes she wears or of the way she looks fails to express the power of the feelings she awakens in Orlando. As he attempts to define Sasha, metaphors seem to be the only means of conveying an idea of what she is like.

But these details were obscured by the extraordinary seductiveness which issued from the whole person. Images, metaphors of the most extreme


[1]. Frédéric Regard in "Clapham Junction 1910 (éthique et esthétique de 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown')" explains the shift from metonymy to metaphor in Woolf’s writing in an illuminating manner. According to him "contrairement aux idées reçues, l’écart métaphorique. . . permet au romancier de se rapprocher non seulement de son character, mais également de son lecteur, conférant à l’ambition éthique de cette esthétique une dimension et une direction inattendues" (49).





and extravagant twined and twisted in his mind. He called her a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree, an emerald, and a fox in the snow all in the space of three seconds; he did not know whether he had heard her, tasted her, seen her or all three together. (26)

And the biographer adds that these were things he had tasted when he was younger and that the simpler the images chosen, the better they conveyed the impression Sasha made on Orlando. But although Orlando appeals to all his senses and to various existing things, the comparison is stale and does not manage to solve the enigma of Sasha’s personality.

What was she like. Snow, cream, marble, cherries, alabaster, golden wire? None of these. She was like a fox, or an olive tree; like the waves of the sea, when you look down upon them from a height; like an emerald; like the sun on a green hill which is yet clouded—like nothing he had seen or known in England. Ransack the language as he might, words failed him. He wanted another language, and another tongue. (32)

What are we to understand? That neither a single word nor the accumulation of words nor the most complex sentence or syntax can account for someone’s personality. There is always "something hidden, something concealed" (32). Therefore although he speaks perfect French and is not impeded by a language barrier, Orlando cannot find the appropriate words to speak to Sasha of his own emotions and he cannot find a single word to praise her either. How then is the writer to express what life is? Images and metaphors seem to be the only means available: are they not precisely the device used by Woolf when she wants to make us understand what personality is? And so Orlando uses them lavishly when he tries to write about such abstract notions as love, life and literature, but he is well aware that even metaphors are only a roundabout way to express what these things are. As Pamela Transue points out:

Both Orlando and his biographer are deeply engaged in the attempt to understand the relationship between fact and truth. The biographer, in order to capture the truth about Orlando, must move beyond the mere facts to metaphor, and Orlando, as a literary artist, must determine how ‘free’ metaphor can be if it is to remain true to the reality it is meant to evoke. (124)

Orlando understands that metaphors and images are the best means available to come to grasp with the "things" surrounding him and also that this means is not perfect:

So he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue. . . . Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand





Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like the flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. ‘Upon my word,’ he said, . . . ‘I don’t see that one’s more true than another. Both are utterly false.’ And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is. (70)

It is the instability of things which makes it so difficult for the writer to grasp their meaning and to convey it to his readers. According to Woolf in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs Brown":

The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognizes, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. (Essays 1 : 331)

It is precisely because of this instability that Orlando is unable to write his poem, because he is bewildered by "the multitude of things which call for an explanation and imprint their message without leaving any hint as to their meaning" (125). Because the mind is a phantasmagoria, a "meeting-place of dissemblables" we must shape our words till they are the "thinnest integument for our thoughts" (123). An example of the confusion which can arise from an indiscriminate use of words is Orlando’s experience among the gypsies. In Turkey, where "everything, in fact, was something else" (101), Orlando is confronted by yet another problem with words. The word meaning "beautiful" does not exist and she is reduced to using an equivalent, the nearest equivalent possible according to the narrator. Speaking of the sky she says "how good to eat" (100). It is because she has made the mistake of thinking that one word is as good as another that she is ridiculed and finally rejected by the gypsies. One sensation may be equivalent to another but the words referring to them are not interchangeable. It is also because there are not enough words to describe the multiplicity of things or sensations that langage is inadequate. This flaw is illustrated in the conversations between Orlando and Marmaduke:

And so they would go on talking or rather understanding, which has become the main art of speech in an age when words are growing daily so scanty in comparison with ideas that ‘the biscuits ran out’ has to stand for kissing a negress in the dark when one has just read Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy for the tenth time. (179)

In a humorous way the narrator points out one of the most crucial facts concerning language: that the signifier does not correspond to just one signified, that one word may mean one thing but evoke a thousand other things, a point which Virginia Woolf was to develop in her essay about words entitled "Craftsmanship" first delivered as a speech on the





BBC in 1937. This "suggestive power of words" is exemplified by the evocation of what the name "Orlando" means: "For if you see a ship in full sail coming with the sun on it proudly sweeping across the Mediterranean from the South Seas, one says at once, Orlando" (174). In a seemingly absurd manner, i.e. by leaving a blank on the page, the biographer who is at a loss to transcribe the lovers’ conversation, nevertheless foreshadows Woolf’s denunciation of the fact that our modern spirit "can almost dispense with language": [1]

Really it would profit little to write down what they said, for they knew each other so well that they could say anything, which is tantamount to saying nothing or saying such stupid, prosy things as how to cook an omelette, or where to buy the best boots in London, things which have no lustre taken from their setting, yet are positively of amazing beauty within it. (175)

Virginia Woolf was convinced that words were not « useful »[2] and in Orlando she derides the cypher language Orlando and Marmaduke adopt with a utilitarian end in view:

Here she dropped into a cypher language which they had invented between them so that a whole spiritual state might be conveyed in a word or two without the telegraph clerk being any the wiser, and added the words ‘Rattigan Glumphoboo’, which summed it up precisely. (196)

In an age which represses the non-utilitarian and the non-productive (in Makiko Minow-Pinkney’s words) Virginia Woolf claims that it is useless things which matter most and that language does not exist purely for the sake of the signified but for the ecstasy and beauty it can create.

 Works cited:

 Baudrillard, Jean. Le Système des objets : la consommation des signes. Paris: Gallimard, 1968.


[1]. "For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down. For which reasons we leave a blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion" (Orlando 175-176).

[2]. In "Craftsmanship" Woolf demonstrates that if "useful words" (like those you find in a railway carriage: "Do not lean out of the window") were all a writer had at his/her disposal, then the book he/she writes would be reduced to a series of signs (like "a hollow O on top of the figure five" to say that "Oliver Smith went to college and took a third in the year 1892.") Woolf stresses the fact that the power of suggestion of words "is one of the most mysterious properties of words" (Essays II : 247).





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(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)