Study Guide

Orlando Time

By Virginia Woolf


All his senses were bent upon gazing along the cobbled pathway--gleaming in the light of the lantern--for Sasha's coming. Sometimes, in the darkness, he seemed to see her wrapped about with rain strokes. But the phantom vanished. Suddenly, with an awful and ominous voice, a voice full of horror and alarm which raised every hair of anguish in Orlando's soul, St Paul's struck the first stroke of midnight. Four times more it struck remorselessly. With the superstition of a lover, Orlando had made out that it was on the sixth stroke that she would come. But the sixth stroke echoed away, and the seventh came and the eighth, and to his apprehensive mind they seemed notes first heralding and then proclaiming death and disaster. When the twelfth struck he knew that his doom was sealed. It was useless for the rational part of him to reason; she might be late; she might be prevented; she might have missed her way. The passionate and feeling heart of Orlando knew the truth. Other clocks struck, jangling one after another. The whole world seemed to ring with the news of her deceit and his derision. (1.54)

This is the first time we see clocks striking, which turns out to be a fairly common motif in Orlando. Later in the novel it serves to anchor Orlando in the present moment. Here it seems to do the same as it anchors him in the feelings of despair and anguish.

Here he came then, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. He saw the beech trees turn golden and the young ferns unfurl; he saw the moon sickle and then circular; he saw--but probably the reader can imagine the passage which should follow and how every tree and plant in the neighbourhood is described first green, then golden; how moons rise and suns set; how spring follows winter and autumn summer; how night succeeds day and day night; how there is first a storm and then fine weather; how things remain much as they are for two or three hundred years or so, except for a little dust and a few cobwebs which one old woman can sweep up in half an hour; a conclusion which, one cannot help feeling, might have been reached more quickly by the simple statement that 'Time passed' (here the exact amount could be indicated in brackets) and nothing whatever happened. (2.35)

Here, as in other passages, nature is used to mark the passage of time, indicating that nature is constant while human beings are not. In the biographer’s opinion, although nature may show a relatively long passage of time, "time passed" may be sufficient to cover it if nothing of interest happened to the subject.

But Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation. But the biographer, whose interests are, as we have said, highly restricted, must confine himself to one simple statement: when a man has reached the age of thirty, as Orlando now had, time when he is thinking becomes inordinately long; time when he is doing becomes inordinately short. Thus Orlando gave his orders and did the business of his vast estates in a flash; but directly he was alone on the mound under the oak tree, the seconds began to round and fill until it seemed as if they would never fall. (2.36)

This passage is in keeping with the book’s message of time as a subjective force.

For some seconds the light went on becoming brighter and brighter, and she saw everything more and more clearly and the clock ticked louder and louder until there was a terrific explosion right in her ear. Orlando leapt as if she had been violently struck on the head. Ten times she was struck. In fact it was ten o'clock in the morning. It was the eleventh of October. It was 1928. It was the present moment. (6.55)

Orlando is recalled to the present moment by incredibly violent means. Like most of us, she usually spends time thinking about the past or the future and getting absorbed in her surroundings. Woolf uses stream of consciousness to take a simple action such as Orlando looking out a window to bring out a torrent of thoughts and musings about Orlando’s complex past.

No one need wonder that Orlando started, pressed her hand to her heart, and turned pale. For what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side and the future on another. (6.56)

The past and future both allow us to anchor ourselves when we must confront the alienation and isolation of the present moment.

The true length of a person's life, whatever the "Dictionary of National Biography" may say, is always a matter of dispute. For it is a difficult business--this time-keeping. (6.67)

This supports the idea that time is subjective. It’s the qualitative experience of time, Woolf argues, rather than the quantitative one, that matters. For example, a week spent in Hawaii with your best friends is quite a different experience than a week spent studying for the SAT.

Nothing could be seen whole or read from start to finish. What was seen begun--like two friends starting to meet each other across the street--was never seen ended. After twenty minutes the body and mind were like scraps of torn paper tumbling from a sack and, indeed, the process of motoring fast out of London so much resembles the chopping up small of identity which precedes unconsciousness and perhaps death itself that it is an open question in what sense Orlando can be said to have existed at the present moment. (10.69)

While driving quickly out of London, Orlando sees life like a rapid-fire camera capturing brief moments.

Braced and strung up by the present moment she was also strangely afraid, as if whenever the gulf of time gaped and let a second through some unknown danger might come with it. The tension was too relentless and too rigorous to be endured long without discomfort. She walked more briskly than she liked, as if her legs were moved for her, through the garden and out into the park. (6.82)

It is incredibly difficult for Orlando to remain in the present moment as she is constantly reminded of the past.

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