Narrator’ Role in “Orlando: A Biography” by Virginia Woolf Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 27th, 2020

A writer’s arsenal includes a great number of devices that help him or her to express own ideas. An author develops an intricate storyline and shows a reader what happens with a character under certain conditions – we see which actions a writer considers right, and which ones become an object of his or her reproach. With a couple of bright original metaphors, a writer helps a reader to understand a character’s emotions, to imagine setting with the minor details, and to feel the atmosphere of the moment.

In this dimension, the personality of a narrator can be also considered one of the devices that writers use in their works. In her Orlando: A Biography, Virginia Woolf assigns a significant part to the narrator who helps her to deliver her ideas to a reader. Her narrator, a generalized figure that has absorbed features and ideas of many men whom we could meet on the border of the XIXth and the XXth centuries, does not provide a reader with impartial description of a sequence of events, but tells the story from his own point of view.

Virginia Woolf has been recognized as a writer who has “called in question” the necessity of presenting a narrator as an objective and impartial deliverer of a story. Such approach, in Woolf’s opinion, creates gaps between an author, a character and a reader. Thus, the story is limited by informing a reader about a sequence of events that happened to characters. In this case, there is no place to evaluations, feeling and emotions, which are nevertheless not less important than events themselves. This idea of Virginia Woolf seems very reasonable: indeed, even in the real life, the events that happen to people mean little without emotions awakened by them. Besides, by its nature, narration itself is rarely objective: we may ask two people to retell the same story, and we will hear two absolutely different versions of the events.

In her works, Woolf experimented with the ways a reader sees the story. For example, when reading Jacob’s Room, a reader sees the events by the eyes of the characters (Benneth 91); the same can be said about Mrs. Dalloway. Analogically, the role of the narrator’s personality in Orlando: A Biography can be hardly overrated. Not surprisingly, this approach helped Woolf to make her work incredibly realistic, even despite its plot that contains fantastic elements, while many of her contemporary colleagues who limited their focus to creating intricate detailed plots nevertheless did not reach such effect of realism in their works.

Does the narrator seem invisible when we get familiarized with the course of Orlando’s life? We definitely cannot call his presence unnoticeable. With confidence and pleasure, the narrator takes a role of a conductor of the story. Not only does he present the sequence of events happening to Orlando to a reader, but he is given the significant authority: he interprets and analyzes, evaluates and expresses own opinion; finally, he sneers at characters in certain sense and talks about them with a tint of ironical condescension. He brings a reader’s attention to the details that he considers significant, digresses from describing the events in order to give additional explanation or share own considerations.

For her novel, Virginia Woolf “invites” a bright narrator who takes a significant role in familiarizing a reader with her ideas. Thus, when enumerating the characters of Woolf’s novel, we should not forget about the narrator as one more character who did not participate in the story, but nevertheless stays present in our full view during its course.

The author does not give us a notion about the name or occupation of the narrator. We cannot see who this person is and how he has got aware of the details of Orlando’s biography. As the narrator never states that he was acquainted with Orlando, or even saw him on his own, the way the protagonist’s story has reached him remains unknown for us. However, during the course of the story, we have an opportunity to get familiarized with the narrator’s evaluation of events and even can form a notion of his view-world.

The most expressive features of the narrator’s personality are, no doubt, strong perspicacity and incomparable sense of humor. He notices any minor detail about characters and instantly gives an interpretation to it. At the same time, his narration is full of irony: sometimes it is quite strong; in some cases, it is lenient. While Orlando becomes the witness of several epochs, the narrator does not “travel” with him in time: he exists in 1927 (Woolf 75). Thus, he has an opportunity to talk about all epochs “embraced” by Orlando’s biography quite haughtily: each of these epochs becomes an object of his irony.

One of the narrator’s missions in the story is introducing the personality of the protagonist. As Orlando is not a historical figure, the only way that we can get acquainted with him is the narrator’s words. Considering the role given to the narrator by the author, it is not unexpected that he does not simply describe the events that happen to Orlando. He follows every Orlando’s step and watches with interest how he evolves. A reader may feel that though the narrator is often ironic about Orlando, he nevertheless sympathizes with him and finds his biography worth consideration.

At the same time, despite a substantial portion of the narrator’s irony is addressed to Orlando, there are two objects that have deserved his particular attention: poetry and women. For the narrator, passion to poetry is the most ridiculous feature of Orlando’s personality. He tells us about Orlando’s thoughts, sufferings and adventures with a certain bit of enthusiasm and compassion; however, when it is talked about the protagonist’s love to literature, the humorous talent of the narrator “bestows” a reader with numerous hilarious remarks:

To put it in a nutshell … he was a noble man afflicted with a love of literature… It was the fatal nature of this disease to substitute a phantom for reality. (Woolf 71)

But even the worse “crime” than reading is for the narrator Orlando’s attempts in writing. The way Orlando works hard at his pieces of writing, how he describes reality around him with pompous expressions receive pejorative evaluation.

For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing. (Woolf 71)

Another object that has received numerous remarks from the narrator is a woman. As a rule, narrators are considered to be males unless a writer highlights the opposite. In case of Orlando: A Biography, the narrator’s masculinity is more than an assumption, and this conclusion can be made on the basis of the narrator’s ideas about women.

Virginia Woolf has made the narrator a generalized character of a man, her contemporary, whose ideas about women were very popular with many males. A woman cannot kill a human; moreover, she can hardly kill a wasp. That is why female’s biographies do not deserve attention.

“Love, the poet has said, is woman’s whole existence”, says the narrator (Woolf 256), and he is convinced that love is the only issue that can be in the focus of a woman’s interest. A narrator notices every trick of insidious women:

Yet she might drop all the handkerchiefs in her wardrobe (of which she had many scores) upon the ice and Orlando never stooped to pick them up. (Woolf 41)

At the same time, the narrator leaves beyond his focus noble features that women may have:

She was much under the influence of the Priests too, and stinted her underlinen in order to give to the poor. She took it on her to reform Orlando of his sins, which sickened him, so that he drew back from the marriage, and did not much regret it when she died soon after of the small-pox. (Woolf 31)

Even from this small quotation we can conclude that Clorinda, this “sweet-mannered gentle lady” (Woolf 31), is an outstanding self-sacrificing person and deserves becoming a protagonist of a separate novel. However, for Orlando – and, analogically, for the narrator – she is nothing more than an object that is able to “sicken” them: while other ladies are too insidious, this one is just boring, and there is really no reason to regret about her death.

Analogically, a woman’s ability to write is also not in the narrator’s favor. Orlando, a woman writing a piece of literature, does not fit his notion about females, and he expects to see her soon writing a little note, “as long as she writes little notes nobody objects to a woman writing either” (Woolf 256). From the narrator’s remarks, we understand that, in his opinion, a woman cannot be either intelligent or even kind. All that a woman has is the passion within, and the only thing that she is able to do is to “hunt” for an object of her passion.

It is impossible not to notice how the narrator’s attitude toward the protagonist changes when “he” turns into “her”. He shows less understanding and less compassion; in the beginning, he still sees a man in Orlando-woman; however, gradually, he discovers more and more “purely female” features in her personality and behavior.

Thus, in her Orlando: A Biography, Virginia Woolf has broken the dominating stereotype about the role of a narrator in a work of literature. Instead of making her narrator a device that delivers the facts to a reader, she introduces a generalized figure who narrates with interest and gives a reader an opportunity to get familiarized with his own thoughts. The story of Orlando is told by a man with his own world-view and attitude towards different matters: life, love, poetry, relations, fame.

A reader is able to imagine the narrator’s personality whose key features are sharp irony and ability to make detailed observations. Having chosen this approach, Woolf makes her story very realistic. At the same time, she gives a reader an opportunity to see that it is inadmissible to put a sign of equality between her and the narrator. Besides, she reaches a significant effect: having got familiarized with the narrator’s ideas, a reader nevertheless hardly joins him in his judgments. Instead, probably, all of us feel the intent to join the ideas of Virginia Woolf herself, a humane, understanding woman and an intelligent, talented writer.


Benneth, Joan. Virginia Woolf: Her Are as a Novelist. Oxford: Alden Press, 1975. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

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