The Passage of Time and Nothing Whatever:
A Close Reading
In an attempt to better understand one of my favourite sentences from Orlando, I’m going to perform a close reading. It’s among my favourite passages because I think it’s hilarious and it’s so clever that I can only try to recognize and stand back in awe of Virginia Woolf’s genius. It comes from the second chapter of Orlando:
'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 of time could be indicated in brackets) and nothing whatever happened.'
The sentence begins with Orlando watching as time passes in the context of trees changing colour with the shifting seasons and of the moon growing and shrinking as it moves through its monthly phase. Then Orlando is interrupted by Woolf’s writing voice as the biographer, who trusts that the reader can ‘probably’ imagine what will happen next but—just in case that ‘probably’ was too optimistic, just in case the reader isn’t familiar with trite descriptions of time passing—goes on to flesh out a description of passing time despite this established trust of the reader. Celestial bodies are moved about, plants and seasons are coloured, night and day trade places, meteorology is touched upon—and then a very vague hint at just how much time has passed is dropped with ‘two or three hundred years or so’. Two (or three) hundred years, or so. Give or take one hundred years, of course, during which time dust and cobwebs have accumulated and cued one old woman to take up her broom to counteract the effects of time passing. Things remain much the same despite the passing of so many hundreds of years—this is ultimately the message that the reader receives from the biographer, and it doesn’t take a lot of words to say, but biographer Woolf decided to use many words to outline this message because it’s ironic to spend time on a thing that has been recognized as not needing or being worthy of such time.
Toward the end of this aside, the biographer comes to ‘a conclusion which, one cannot help feeling, might have been reached more quickly …’ and ‘one’ is thrown into the picture. Is the biographer here inserting a projection of the reader’s thoughts and feelings and capabilities into the narration? ‘One’ is certainly the reader, and here Woolf is laying down commentary about long-winded, drawn-out, overdone descriptions of the passage of time: whenever one reads such a description, one might roll one’s eyes and think something along the lines of ‘get on with it’. By acknowledging this reaction to common and trite descriptions of time passing, Woolf places her biographer voice among the reading public and simultaneously comments on the relative quality of descriptive writing. In a way, Woolf is showing off how well she can satirize writing as an occupation and activity: she acknowledges that writing such a long description of time passing is cliché, but she does it anyway and touches on many conventional images of the passage of time in the process.
Woolf’s aside comes to a peak when the reader reaches the ‘conclusion which, one cannot help feeling, might have been reached more quickly by the simple statement that ‘Time passed’ (here the exact amount of time could be indicated in brackets) and nothing whatever happened’. Woolf makes the simple statement of what is by now obvious: time passed has indeed (both for Orlando and for the reader). She goes on to fill a pair of brackets with the suggestion that ‘the exact amount of time could be indicated’ within identical brackets and placement and ironically fails to actually clarify the amount of time that has passed for Orlando—perhaps this failure is due to boredom on the part of fiction biographer Woolf. In researching for an accurate and detailed biography—as in Jacob’s Room with the author’s statement that ‘it is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done’ (531 of the Wordsworth edition)—the biographer is bound to come across periods and details of the subject’s life that are monotonous and boring to both the biographer and reader, and in her meta-ironic fashion Woolf courteously cuts any specific description of the events of those two or three hundred years (or so) in favour of delightful vagueness and several suggestions of how the passage might have read if it had perhaps been written by someone less capable. The biographer does not attempt to ‘sum up’ Orlando’s experiences during this passing time, nor does she follow exactly what was said or done—instead, she follows hints and draws a conclusion of her own.
She is saving the reader time by stating that ‘Time passed… and nothing whatever happened’, but the preceding description of foliage changing colours, sun and moon trading places, weather patterns shifting, and so on, is ironically drawn-out. Woolf could have used this paragraph-long sentence to actually describe what Orlando was up to in these two (or three) hundred years, but instead she cheekily remarks on how tedious longevity might be, how conventional and expected some descriptors are in literature, and on her own narrative power. Over the course of this sentence and reading this sentence, time passes for the reader and nothing whatever happens. The plot is not advanced by this ponderous sentence, the reader learns no new specific information about Orlando, and nothing except perhaps the wonderful cleverness of the writer is revealed. Things certainly did happen for Orlando in that time that has passed, but apparently not significantly enough to warrant the biographer’s detailed attention—instead, the biographer breaks away from the task at hand to make an aside to the reader and literally pass some time.
In this characteristically long sentence, Woolf chooses to use many words where she could use a few, to be vague where she could be specific, to be humorous where she might have been serious. Despite the failure of this passage to advance the plot or reveal any new specific details or information, it does convey something of import to the reader: that Orlando’s sense of time relative to that of a human with a natural lifespan is skewed. Two or three hundred years can pass in Orlando’s lifetime and nothing whatever will happen, just as two or three months or years can pass in my lifetime and, similarly, nothing of note or interest will develop.
The fact that a period of ‘nothing whatever’ would last two or three hundred years in Orlando’s life rather than just two or three years brings some perspective to the reader’s understanding of Orlando as a character and person. The reader is familiar with ‘things [remaining] much as they are’, but not for ‘two or three hundred years’. Here lies the disconnect between Orlando and the rest of humanity: it is Orlando’s longevity that is unique and allows space for biographical asides such as this one. And, coincidentally, this aside from the biographer Woolf brings Orlando’s unique longevity into sharper focus precisely by skipping over a couple hundred years as if they were nothing more than a lazy weekend to Orlando—which, to be fair, they probably were.
Woolf worked out that writing a biography for a person who lived three to four hundred years might take ages and pages and so decided neatly to skip a great chunk of Orlando’s life to save herself having to write it and to save her reader having to read it. In doing so is she remarking on biography as a genre? With each layer of irony I peel back I find another: Woolf commenting on descriptive clichés in literature; Woolf abbreviating the ‘boring’ parts of the life of a character that she herself created and for whom she decided to write a biography; Woolf staying true to the ‘biographer’s task’ while simultaneously injecting her words with her trademark wit; Woolf making space for the biographer to be specific and descriptive and then filling that space with irony; Woolf commenting on her own failure to be precise about how much time has been edited away when the biographer writes ‘two or three hundred years or so’ and ‘here the exact amount of time could be indicated in brackets’; and so on. This is what I find most enchanting about Woolf: she is so frightfully clever in her works that just one sentence can drive me to talk on and on for ten minutes while I attempt to scratch the surface of understanding her literary genius, and whether she is being humorous or serious her grasp of the English language and of her own learned style is so impressive that she never fails to get her argument or jest across with flair.
Woolf, Virginia. “Chapter 3.” Night and Day & Jacob’s Room. Ed. Dorinda Guest. Ware: Wordsworth, 2012. 439. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. Selected Works of Virginia Woolf. Ware: Wordsworth, 2012. 440. Print.