Virginia Woolf's main points in Orlando are that sex and gender are not the backbone of identity, and that gender is totally fluid and therefore sex discrimination and sexist ideas are groundless.

Woolf doesn't spend much time debating the causes of Orlando's changing sex, but she does mention theories and possibilities throughout the book so it becomes a recurring theme.

  • (as she boards the boat back to England) "It is a strange fact, but a true one that up to this moment she had scarcely given her sex a thought. Perhaps the Turkish trousers, which she had hitherto worn had done something to distract her thoughts; and the gipsy women, except in one or two important particulars, differ very little from the gipsy men." (page 153)
    This is the first strong speculation on the cause of Orlando's gender transformation; here Woolf introduces the possibility that Orlando's gender, or at least awareness of gender, is influenced by clothes and surrounding culture.
  • (as the Archduchess reveals himself to be an Archduke) "A plague on women," said Orlando to herself, going to the cupboard to fetch a glass of wine, "they never leave one a moment's peace. A more ferreting, inquisiting, busybodying set of people don't exist. It was to escape this Maypole that I left England, and now" - here she turned to present the Archduchess with the salver, and behold - in her place stood a tall gentleman in black. A heap of clothes lay in the fender. She was alone with a man. Recalled thus suddenly to a consciousness of her sex, which she had completely forgotten, and of his, which was now remote enough to be equally upsetting, Orlando felt seized with faintness. (page 178)
    The moment that Orlando feels secure in categorizing and describing an entire gender, gender shifts and everything is again topsy-turvy. The Archduchess was supposed to present the shining example for all Orlando's bad impressions of women, and then turned out to be a man. Perhaps Orlando's trust in gender as a stable identity causes change - the universe says, "ha! you thought it was stable - watch THIS!"
  • (while Orlando drives along through the English countryside and we mull over gender identity) "The change of clothes had, some philosophers will say, much to do with it. Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us." (page 187)
    Woolf is considering the possibility that the main cause of gender differences lie in our clothes and what they do to us and what others assume about us because of them. But while accepting that as partly true, she rejects it as a cause of Orlando's changes, saying:
  • "The difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity. Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman's dress and of a woman's sex." (page 188)
    This implies some premeditation on Orlando's part, which is also hinted at when the change takes place. Woolf says, "Orlando showed no such signs of perturbation. All her actions were deliberate in the extreme, and might indeed have been thought to show tokes of premeditation." (page 139.) Maybe Orlando changed sex on purpose, in a mystical personal sex-change operation of sorts. But even then, it is not so simple, and Orlando is still not just a mono-gendered woman; Woolf muses:
  • "Perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual - openness indeed was the soul of her nature - something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed.... In every human being a vacillation from one sex to another takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above. Of the complications and confusions which thus result everyone has had experience...." (page 189)
    This seems to be Woolf's conclusion: that Orlando's sex-change was premeditated or at least caused by inner changes; that it was not simply a change from male to female, but that this was the face of the change while underneath Orlando is in constant genderchange; and that this represents a core truth about the nature of gender, that most people experience "a vacillation from one sex to another" at different rates and with different levels of intensity, and it is the "openness [at] the soul of her nature" which results in the physical changes here.
    This theory is supported by the fact that Woolf portrays Orlando as a very effeminate, Romantic, nontraditional man when he is a man, and a genderchanging, feminist, bisexual, nontraditional woman when she is a woman, and often unsure of possessing any gender at all. "Orlando" is not a simple story of a man who changes into a woman, but a story of a person with many gender switches and a strong identity over which gender and sex are merely decorations.

    How many times does Orlando's sex change? .... What should we call Orlando? .... What is Orlando's gender identity? .... Sexism and Sexuality in Orlando