Orlando feels like a detour when taken in the context of Woolf’s other novels. Obviously the parody biography style, and the fact that Woolf began the book as a joke colored my reading of it. It’s also hard to ignore the transsexual nature of its protagonist. But the biggest thing I noticed in Orlando, something relatively separate from all that, but also (relatively speaking anyway) closer to the concerns of To the Lighthouse, is Orlando’s meditations upon the phenomenology of time. Filtered through the lens of pseudo-biographical language, the passages about time can look like straightforward parody, but they also serve the broader purpose of reflection upon the ways that a more mundane biographical voice works in all of our heads, striving for the kind of “unity” that Woolf, in her diaries, worries Orlando lacks. The parody-biographical voice allows Woolf to interrogate this concept in a more lighthearted, less anxiety-provoking way than Lily Briscoe’s similar deliberations towards the end of To the Lighthouse also pursue.
Time is discussed explicitly in Orlando in terms very directly reminiscent of To the Lighthouse and its central “Time Passes” section, which its judicious use of parentheses:
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.
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 (ch 2, emphasis added).
Orlando’s life functions in two time-registers at once, something akin to the distinction between secular and religious time in the church. On the one hand, Orlando’s life ranges over hundreds of years: he (and then she) live through several significant literary ages. Those ages are signaled by historical references to the reigning monarchs and popular literary figures, but also more subtle modulations in style – not nearly as pronounced or deliberate, as Lee notes, the modulations we find in Joyce’s “Oxen of the Sun” episode, but still, they are present. On the other hand, though, Orlando also leads a life that runs in ordinary human time – towards the end of the narrative it is announced that she is “now thirty-six, she scarcely looked a day older” (ch 6) and that she has a child, two things that (to state the obvious) a 300+ year old person would not be able to do. The first time-register is not claiming to be realistic, but the second is.
This dual register allows Woolf to explore the phenomenology of the passage of time in ordinary human beings, and the multifarious sense of self that exists alongside it: “…she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand” (ch. 6). This ultimately builds to a sense that the rhetoric of biography, though inevitable in the narration of our lives, is also a distorting and in some ways unreal presence: we slice things up into ages, eras, phases in our history, though the distinctness of these phases can be rendered absolutely irrelevant in a moment of compressed memory-laden feeling.
Seen from this perspective, Orlando’s change from male to female is just a species of a broader skepticism about the coherence of all sorts of divisions we place ourselves into in the pursuit of our sense of own identity – our own biography – in time, and in response to what Orlando’s narrator calls the “present” and “its terror, its nondescript character” (ch 6), one which must end, and end in a way such that we will not experience that end, and then it will have been as though our experience never was, at least for us. The project of “unity” runs into its ultimate roadblock: the world with which we would unify will, in time, cease to exist for us phenomenologically, even if intellectually, biographically, it continues to span time.