What’s Up With the Ending?
The ending of this novel is another example of how hard Woolf works to frustrate our expectations of the novel. In a tale of an author who starts his or her magnum opus in the first chapter of the book (i.e., Orlando's "The Oak Tree"), you'd think that, once it was published in the sixth chapter, that would be the end of the book. How can you continue past the moment that the novel's protagonist has achieved her goal?
The publication of "The Oak Tree" is anticlimactic, happening almost accidentally when Orlando meets her old nemesis, Nick Greene (now Sir Nick), in the streets and he spots the poem in her breast pocket. We don't get any notice of the book's publication. It's only as Orlando considers burying it at the end that we find that it has gone into seven editions (6.83). And once it's been published, Orlando is troubled by it, pondering whether fame and fortune is the appropriate response to something as intensely personal as poetry (6.83).
The poem, "The Oak Tree," like the physical tree growing by her house, has been a touchstone for Orlando's inner growth. She has revised it as her own experiences have matured her internal reflections and as poetic tastes have shifted and changed. If her house is a monument to her lineage, "The Oak Tree" is the legacy of her own (and England's own) literary history. Once "The Oak Tree" has been taken from her through publicity and publication, Orlando is left with her own inner landscape:
For it is probable that when people talk aloud, the selves (of which there may be more than two thousand) are conscious of disseverment, and are trying to communicate, but when communication is established there is nothing more to be said. (6.76)
"The Oak Tree" is an exaggerated example of speaking aloud. The interesting thing about speaking aloud (or writing on the page) is that it imposes its own timeline. We follow Orlando's multiple selves throughout the novel because a novel can't compress into a single moment. However, when "there is nothing more to be said," all of those selves ("of which there may be more than two thousand") must remain compressed in the reflections of a single person. One's internal life has no real timeline, and so these final few paragraphs of Orlando represent an immense compression of all of Orlando's many selves, times, lovers, and histories. As we move into Orlando's inner experiences, time itself is getting bent out of shape. Woolf represents what happens inside an author once she no longer speaks aloud. While she may not be writing, Orlando is still seeking something.
This compression of time builds throughout the sixth chapter, but it really becomes apparent around the time when "she listened for the sound of gun-firing out at sea. No – only the wind blew. There was no war to-day. Drake had gone; Nelson had gone" (6.84). It is night one moment, blazing noon the next, and:
It was not necessary to faint now in order to look deep into the darkness where things shape themselves and to see in the pool of the mind now Shakespeare, now the girl in Russian trousers, now a toy boat on the Serpentine, and then the Atlantic itself, where it storms in great waves past Cape Horn. (6.85)
This rapid progression of images, from the literary to the romantic to the inspirational to what Orlando can't have seen leaves both the reader and Orlando destabilized. Without time to organize these final paragraphs, Orlando works to inspire in the reader the kind of ecstatic internal experience that Orlando herself is undergoing in the novel. What's left after the development and conclusion of "The Oak Tree" is what Orlando strives for, that wild goose that "always [...] flies out to sea and always [she flings] after it words like nets [...] which shrivel as [she's] seen nets shrivel drawn on decks with only sea-weed in them; and sometimes there's an inch of silver – six words – in the bottom of the net" (6.74).
What Orlando has been trying to capture with her drive to write is precisely this moment of inspiration: she, attempts to catch ecstatic moments for which there are no words. And the project of the novel Orlando begins to unify with the project of the writer, Orlando. This happens as Orlando welcomes the dead Queen and Shel back to the house that is her foundation.
These three terms, the Queen, Shel, and her house, have all been invested with significance by the text itself. In other words, they mean something to us because we have been taught that they mean something to Orlando: Orlando is drawing on her inner language to catch the wild goose of inspiration. We are caught up in this ecstatic moment because we have been drawn into to Orlando's inner landscape.
As time and narrative collapse, the clock strikes twelve, and the novel ends. There is truly nothing more to say, because we have seen the unification of Orlando as a novel and Orlando as a writer in this single climatic moment. Orlando and Orlando have been seeking the terms to convey to us inspiration, and beyond that timeless moment in which the wild goose is almost caught, there is nothing left on the page for the character, the novel, or the reader.